Where have all the dorm rooms gone?

March 4, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
In San Francisco, only one in 10 college students lives in campus housing. It is not by choice, but because the city has a chronic student housing problem.

There are roughly 82,000 full-time students attending San Francisco's colleges and universities. However, only 8,800 beds are available to them. That means one in 10 lives in university housing. The rest of them live at home or stuffed together in apartments or houses.

Karan Suri is a developer who works for Menlo Capital Group. While renting one of his properties, he noticed students were desperately trying to get in.

"They show up to campus, they pay their $40,000 per year, but they have no housing solutions whatsoever," said Suri.

There is one simple reason why these colleges and universities lack housing -- it is too expensive to build in San Francisco. Only rarely do these colleges find a good deal. In 1980, UC Hastings College of the Law purchased the McAllister Tower from the federal government for just $1 million. It has 252 units. Still, not enough for all its law students.

California College of the Arts is also short of housing.

"All of our housing is in Oakland at the moment because we just can't figure out how to get housing in San Francisco," said David Meckel with California College of the Arts.

They have two campuses, one in Oakland, the other in San Francisco. There are 1,600 students and only 250 rooms, again all in Oakland. A shuttle takes students to San Francisco and back.

The college claims they are losing out on potential students.

"And they think, 'Well, should I go to California College of the Arts where it's impossible to find housing in San Francisco or I go to Pratt and I live in Brooklyn and it's hip and they give me a place to live?'" said Meckel.

These schools would like city government to address this crisis. But the Mayor's Office of Housing says its first priority is to develop more affordable housing for low-income families, not students. And right now it can't even do that.

"Given the current lack of resources just toward the affordable housing issue, I can't say it wouldn't necessarily be a priority," said Craig Adelman with the Mayor's Office of Housing.

Students don't qualify for affordable housing. So again, they find themselves crammed together.

There is one hurdle the city removed just three months ago.

"These institutions to develop student housing are exempt from inclusionary requirements," said Adelman.

Which means if colleges build student housing, they don't have to set aside 15 to 20 percent of their units for affordable housing -- something that is required of all developers.

But again, who has the money to build? Only one institution, the very costly Academy of Art University has been able to buy some buildings. But at a hearing, the San Francisco Planning Department accused that university of converting buildings into classrooms or student housing without the proper permits.

Private developers, on the other hand, are coming up with some innovative ideas. Vanguard Properties is marketing very small 300-square foot condos called Cubix SF to parents of college students. They are located in San Francisco's South of Market District and are ideal for students. The cost is less than $200,000.

Menlo Capital Group is actively looking to develop partnerships with these institutions.

"Where the institution says, 'OK, I'm going to tie hands with this real estate developer and we're going to find an asset together and I'm going to put all my students in there," said Suri. "That will help take away a lot of the uncertainty that the developer has."

These colleges and universities say the city needs to be more of an active partner.

"For the health of San Francisco and the Bay Area economy, you want to make sure you get the students to come here, go to school here, to stay here after they graduate, and to partner with their friends and start companies," said Adelman. "And we have all the parts to do that except for the housing."


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