While most students at Cal Poly ate food at a dining table and slept in a warm bed under a roof in San Luis Obispo, Savannah Bosley spent the first two weeks of the fall quarter living out of her car.
Bosley, a computer science sophomore at Cal Poly, said she couldn’t find a place to live off campus, so she made a makeshift bed in the back of her Toyota Prius and tried to make the tiny space as comfortable as possible.
She didn’t always feel safe sleeping in her car, so some nights she would couch surf at a friend’s house.
“I have not had a peaceful night’s rest in two weeks now,” Bosley said.
Students have found it challenging to find housing in San Luis Obispo for the first school year since the COVID-19 pandemic began where a majority of classes are being held in person. Three weeks into the fall quarter, students still post and comment in a housing Facebook group for Cal Poly students searching for housing, which has more than 21,300 members.
This fall, more students than ever reached out to Cal Poly’s Basic Needs Task Force for help with finding housing, according to Joy Pederson, the dean of students and co-chair of the task force.
“I’ve been here 18 years and we’ve always struggled, but for some reason, it is more difficult this year,” Pederson said.
Among California public universities, Cal Poly is not alone in its student housing shortage. UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego have taken to housing students in nearby hotels until they find a place to live off campus.
It’s unclear what has contributed to the current student housing shortage in San Luis Obispo.
The Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo did not return several phone calls or emails from Mustang News. Formally known as HASLO, the authority “assists the city with addressing housing needs for low- and medium-income households,” according to the city website.
Pederson said she suspects people from outside the Central Coast have moved to San Luis Obispo to work remotely, contributing to the city’s overall housing shortage. She did not provide any data to support the theory.
Pederson said she has heard from students who cannot find housing in San Luis Obispo, others who cannot afford housing and a combination of the two.
For students who can find housing but cannot afford it, the Cal Poly Cares Emergency Fund assists students with financial challenges such as providing them a security deposit or first month’s rent, Pederson said.
The university has opened applications to the fund and the program has been awarding grants during the fall quarter. So far this quarter, 42 students have received Cal Poly Cares grants, with the average grant amount of $905.10, according to university spokesperson Matt Lazier.
For students who cannot find housing, Cal Poly has an Emergency Housing Program, although Pederson said the threshold to qualify is higher due to limited resources. There are a total of eight beds available for students who are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
According to Lazier, as of Oct. 4, Cal Poly Housing had a waiting list of 29 students and an estimated 20 spaces open in shared room setups for female students.
Associated Students Incorporated (ASI) President Tess Loarie said those programs require students who have exhausted all of their financial aid, which includes taking on loans before they apply.
”This model of aid that we’re offering is not a model of aid that every student wants to tap into and that’s why students are sleeping in their cars,” Loarie said.
When it comes to assisting students with basic needs, Loarie said she always returns to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
“College students have so much stress and so many different areas of their lives happening, that [school] isn’t even the bottom of the pyramid,” Loarie said. “How do you expect somebody who doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from to worry about studying for a midterm?”
A turn of luck but more needs to be done
While living out of her car, Bosley didn’t have a refrigerator or pantry space, so every morning, she woke up at 7 a.m. to buy food for the day. She said that was the hardest part of living out of her Prius.
Because Cal Poly does not offer a public kitchen or space to cook on campus, Bosley was often relying on friends in the area to cook warm dinners in the evening.
“It wasn’t terrible for me because I have friends in the area, but the kids who had classes online for two years and then come to Cal Poly don’t know anyone in person,” Bosley said. “I feel a little bad for that situation because what do you do?”
Once she got to campus, Bosley would spend all day there — from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — working remotely and attending her classes.
She also said that Cal Poly could be doing more to help unhoused students.
“I just feel like a lot of students fall in the crack — there’s not a lot of economic diversity,” Bosley said. “I am out here working 30 hours a week and still, even when there are rooms available, they are out of my price budget.”
In Connecticut and out of options
Biological sciences junior Simone Goetsch is still at home with her family in Guilford, Connecticut, because she could not find affordable housing in San Luis Obispo leading up to the start of the quarter.
Goetsch had taken the previous two quarters off for personal reasons, so signing up for an entirely virtual course load for the fall was the only option in order for her to stay enrolled at Cal Poly.
“I definitely wanted to keep doing school but because I cannot do it in person, I decided to do it online,” Goetsch said. “It is kind of just a last resort feeling — to stay in school, I had to keep doing online.”
Goetsch said she was eager to go back to in-person classes. Now she feels like she is missing out on an in-person fall quarter.
She is currently looking for housing for the winter quarter but said even that feels out of reach.
“I feel like I am at the point where I am not going to find a place to live,” Goetsch said. “It’s definitely tricky, because there’s really only so much out there and so many people in the same boat as us looking for the same thing.”
Grasping at straws on Facebook
Since September, at least 15 Cal Poly students posted in the Cal Poly housing Facebook group, informing members that they were still seeking housing. It is unclear if or how many of them found housing, but computer science senior Limas Nursalim found some luck through the online group.
Nursalim began looking for housing in San Luis Obispo in April. Since then, he applied to more than 20 rental properties and spent over $200 in application fees to property management companies.
“I think I probably applied for every house that I’ve seen in the market,” Nursalim said.
As an international student, Nursalim didn’t have a co-signer or a credit score — another barrier that kept him from attaining housing for the school year.
When he tried to explain this to property managers, Nursalim said that most places “ghosted” him.
“It was a really tedious process,” Nursalim said. “I kind of lost track of myself.”
A week before classes began, Nursalim was still without housing. He posted to the Cal Poly housing Facebook group in earnest, saying he was still searching for housing.
He said he received several offers and moved into a place off-campus four days before classes began.
Nursalim said he felt relieved to find a place, especially after property management companies never got back to him after he submitted applications and paid application fees.
After spending two weeks unhoused, Bosley also found a place through the same Facebook group with a “band of misfits also looking for housing,” she said.
Although the rent was a little higher than what she was hoping for, Bosley said she was just happy to finally have a place of her own.
She moved into a home on Oct. 1.
“I’m just excited to have some peace and my own space,” Bosley said.