An illustrated rendering of a modern dorm complex with a grassy quad.
The Peralta Community College District has initial plans to build a dorm on its Alameda campus in the coming years. Credit: Peralta Community Colleges/JK Architecture

The Peralta Community College District is moving closer to building its first-ever student housing, asking the state for $52 million for a dorm in Alameda.

The grant would cover about half the cost of the 306-bed project, where students would pay below-market rents for single or double rooms and have access to support services. 

The proposal has been met with mixed reactions, with student organizers saying it would barely make a dent in addressing their urgent and varied housing needs. Some faculty members and trustees have meanwhile questioned the decision to pursue the pricey project while existing campus infrastructure deteriorates and the district struggles to cover other costs.

The 2021 state law SB 169 set aside $2 billion over three years for student housing at public colleges. Peralta, which already received an initial $440,000 from the state for planning purposes, is hoping to get a large chunk of the last round of funds to build its dorm.

“If we don’t throw our hat in the ring it will all be on Peralta itself,” Vice Chancellor Atheria Smith told the district’s board of trustees on June 27, shortly before it voted overwhelmingly to approve submitting the application. 

Volz Company, a real estate consulting firm hired to work on the proposal, aimed for “lowest cost per student housed” to have the best chance at winning state funds, said Ann Volz, president of the company. The Alameda location was chosen because it’s on district-owned land and is close to being ready for construction.

Students are couch-surfing and living in cars

Jon Sullivan, who’s transferring from Laney College to UC Berkeley this fall, lives in a truck in West Oakland and said they know several other students who also live in vehicles, couch-surf, or share small rooms with multiple other people. 

“It’s just really hard to even figure out WiFi and where to study or get homework done—sometimes you’re writing a paper on your phone,” said Sullivan. 

Sullivan is a member of the Laney chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign, a national organization focused on systemic poverty. The local group has long advocated for better housing options for students and came up with a list of demands for the district’s project. The organizers were dismayed to see their ideas largely left out of the plan submitted by the district to the state. 

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Sullivan said. “But there’s going to be a need for more solutions beyond that initial proposal. We need more housing, period.” 

The campaign has pushed for the creation of a student-led advisory board that would provide input on other ways to house people enrolled at Laney and other campuses. Among their ideas so far are a student cooperative housing program like UC Berkeley’s, and housing large enough for the many students raising families, living with partners, or taking care of relatives. 

“If you don’t have a safe place to live, you’re not going to be successful,” said Katrina Santos, Laney’s basic needs coordinator. 

A recent state law required all California community colleges to create such a position, helping students access food stamps, parenting services, and other support. Housing questions come up constantly, said Santos, who’s done her best to connect students with rental assistance or match them up with roommates who already have housing.

“But what we’re seeing is there just aren’t a lot of options in the East Bay,” she said. 

At the proposed dorm, renting a single room would cost $1,000 a month, and renting a bed in a double would be $850.

How will Peralta fund its $42 million portion?

At the June trustees meeting, a faculty representative said that building a dormitory would be a major undertaking for the cash-strapped district.

“There are concerns about entering into the real estate game even as we’re unable to maintain our current facilities and infrastructure,” said Matthew Goldstein, vice president of the Academic Senate, noting that the board had just passed an “austerity budget.”

Faculty members support affordable housing for students, he said, but funding a housing project is “tangentially related to our fundamental mission” of education. He, along with Trustee Louis Quindlen—the only board member to vote against submitting the application—tried to urge the district against using General Fund dollars, which are used for core purposes like faculty and staff salaries, for construction.

District Chancellor Jannett Jackson said Peralta’s portion of the cost could be covered by 2024 bond measure or other sources.

Some trustees argued with the idea that student housing is distinct from Peralta’s general mission.

“We’re not talking just a bed, but an accoutrement of support that is no question going to enhance the success rate, enhance the education, of the students coming through the Peralta colleges,” said Trustee Bill Withrow. “This is an opportunity for this board to show we truly understand and believe in the success of the student body.”

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.