Is there enough infrastructure at university?
When students decide to attend Cal Poly Humboldt, they likely see themselves living in the forest among the state's largest redwood trees, high enough on a hill that they can see Humboldt Bay and the ocean in the distance. They probably don't picture studying from a motel or a floating barge.
But that could be the reality for hundreds of returning students next academic year as the university prepares for an influx of enrollees drawn by its recent transformation from Humboldt State to Northern California's first polytechnic university. When the university revealed Feb. 4 that incoming first-years would have priority for all oncampus housing — likely locking out returning students — the move sparked protests, a petition, and the founding of a new organization, Cal Poly Homeless, to fight the change.
In response to the backlash, Cal Poly Humboldt partially walked back its plans, saying it will now find on-campus beds for about half of the estimated 1,000 returning students who were set to be displaced from the 5,700-student campus. But the uproar illustrates how central student housing has become to just about any major higher education initiative in California, where skyrocketing housing prices have students living in cars and state lawmakers have set aside more than $2 billion over the next few years to build new dorms and on-campus apartments.
The university became a polytechnic campus last year, receiving more than $450 million in state funds to add new STEM courses with a focus on environmental sustainability and to build the infrastructure to support them. Enrollment is expected to grow by 50% in the next three years and double by 2029. Already, the university has received more than 19,000 applications for fall 2023, nearly twice as many as for fall 2022.
The state funds will help pay for the new off-campus Craftsman Mall housing complex, projected to open to about 1,000 residents in fall 2025. New oncampus housing, along with a parking structure, will house another 600 to 700 students — but that won't open until summer 2027, the university says.
“I think our transition has been really fast, and we're starting to see the effects of not planning properly for the influx of additional interest,” said Juan Giovanni Guerrero, the president of the university's student government.
Cal Poly Humboldt currently has enough on-campus housing for a little more than one-third of its students — more than some campuses in the Cal State system, where many students
commute. A 2018 study found nearly one in five of the university's students had experienced homelessness, twice the Cal State system average.
The university says it has been “looking into many creative solutions” to bridge the gap until new housing is built, and has signed contracts with three local hotels — the Comfort Inn, Motel 6 and Super 8 — about three miles from campus to provide a total of 350 beds. Administrators also said they are considering housing students in “floating apartments or studios.”
Eureka City Manager Miles Slattery confirmed that the city has been discussing logistics for parking a barge in Humboldt Bay, and identified it as the Bibby Renaissance, which can house as many as 650 guests and crew members. The “floating hotel” is often used to shelter workers in remote locations. An online virtual tour shows spartan bedrooms, a gym and a roof terrace.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, housing students in hotels became a temporary solution to overcrowding and housing insecurity, including at a number of University of California campuses. Cal Poly Humboldt has housed more than 100 upperclassmen at the Comfort Inn since 2022.
But Cal Poly Humboldt students have said the hotel plan compromises their safety because it puts them in close contact with homeless people in the local community who may be mentally ill, doesn't guarantee access for disabled students and places students of color and LGBTQ students in areas where they're likely to experience bigotry.
Last week, hundreds of Cal Poly Humboldt students and community members gathered in the campus quad to hear hours of testimony from students affected by the change. Students set up tents and cardboard boxes to symbolize the housing options they are facing.
“The school made this decision without talking to any students. They just decided, `Hey, we're gonna send all of the students to motels,' and so we want to make sure that we are the ones involved in this decision,” said Annabel Crescibene, a sophomore involved with Cal Poly Homeless. The new organization has set up an Instagram account and plans to create a podcast for students to share their housing woes.
Sydnie Berglund, a sophomore at Cal Poly Humboldt, works as a front desk agent at the Hampton Inn, which is next to the Motel 6 that will be used to house students this fall. She said that she always feels unsafe outside of the hotel because of the large number of homeless people who live there and throughout the small town of Arcata.
“This is not an adequate place to house students ever, unless they are going to address the homelessness issue,” said Berglund. “Not that they as people are the problem, but how they don't have resources and what they have to resort to to survive, that is the problem.”