Central Elementary School in City Heights on Oct. 24, 2022.
Central Elementary School in City Heights on Oct. 24, 2022. San Diego Unified plans to build employee housing on this site when the campus is relocated adjacent to Wilson Middle School. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Read more stories in our What We Learned This Year series here.

California’s housing crisis dominates all policy conversations in the state, and in the past year school districts joined the conversations. 

Local school districts, four-year universities and community colleges are increasingly asking themselves if they can be part of the solution, either by building more dorms, providing affordable housing for their workforce or developing housing for students, schools are now confronting one of the biggest obstacles facing their students, families and employees.

San Diego Unified earmarked $206 million to build affordable employee housing on district-owned land as part of its recently passed $3.2 billion bond. Chula Vista passed a bond measure in 2020 that allocated $65 million to building affordable housing for Chula Vista Elementary School District employees. Virtually every community college in San Diego has received funds or begun working on plans to build affordable employee or student housing. San Diego State University is building market rate apartments near its recently constructed Snapdragon Stadium. And in response to a crushing rental market near its campus, UC San Diego is working to build new dorm complexes that include affordable options, with a goal of adding 10,000 beds by 2035.  

Much of this push is in response to the specific needs of educational institutions. Students at community colleges and public four-year universities are facing acute housing shortages that make it difficult to live and study in the region.  

San Diego Unified has pitched its potential affordable housing projects as a way to attract, and retain, workers who may be priced out of San Diego’s housing market. 

San Diego Unified board member Cody Petterson acknowledges that housing on campuses is just one part of a larger puzzle, after all the region needs to build nearly 110,000 units by 2029 to satisfy the region’s need for housing. And despite a slight increase from last year, so far, production is way behind where it needs to be. Even the most frenzied efforts by schools would only make a dent in that topline number. 

“The lion’s share of this burden is going to have to be borne by the private sector,” Petterson said. “But I think part of the story is that each jurisdiction is recognizing that they have to do their part, specifically in regards to what they have impact over.”  

Still, given the urgency of the need and the intrinsic connection between housing stability, chronic absenteeism and student performance, Petterson wants San Diego Unified to expand their goal to create affordable housing for students and families as well. 

“I think we start with teacher housing, but I think in the long term, a district that is focused on just what happens within the classroom or on a campus is really not doing its job,” Petterson said. 

Dana Cuff, founder of cityLAB, a center in UCLA’s architecture and urban design department that works for equitable urban growth with a primary focus on affordable housing, thinks that evolution is inevitable. CityLAB has long studied the possibility of creating housing on local education agency campuses, and even authored legislation to clear some of the roadblocks to doing so. 

Recent legislation authored by the organization allowed housing development on land owned by any local education agency. It mandated that 50 percent of that housing be affordable, but required that housing to be reserved for schools’ workforce. 

“I think the first step is we’re figuring out how to (solve) the problem of getting affordable housing built. Probably the second step would be to open that housing to families,” Cuff said. “I hope some districts test that idea so that that is demonstrated to be a good solution.” 

Carlos Cortez, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, is even more ambitious than Petterson. He believes the district can build as many as 10,000 units on its 10 campuses throughout the region by partnering with local, state, federal and private funding sources. 

“How many other entities in San Diego have 10 prime properties? And that’s just on our campuses, we also own other properties,” Cortez said. “We’re sitting on oil, basically, and we’re just waiting for folks to bring the wells.” 

And SDCCD isn’t alone. A 2021 study found that every county in California has land owned by a local education agency where housing could be developed. In total, that land equals about five times the size of Manhattan. Cuff’s organization, cityLAB produced that report alongside UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities + Schools and the Terner Center for Housing Innovation.   

“It’s a huge task trying to repair the housing market in California, and this will play a part,” Cuff said. “This is not going to solve the housing crisis, but it’s more than a dent. And it’s more than a dent for some very important populations in the state, it would be a significant contribution to them,” she said, referring to low-income individuals and the education workforce. 

Cuff also cautioned against local education agencies viewing housing built on campuses as a way to generate profit. She said it’s a tempting prospect because the state underfunds public educational institutions from K-12 districts to community colleges. 

“But we shouldn’t expect housing to underwrite education.” 

Jakob McWhinney

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter.

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