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Supporting Students’ Housing Security in Oregon

April 3, 2023

  • pam headshot

    Pam Blumenthal

    • College Housing Northwest

        • Director of the Affordable Rents for College Students Program

Eric Tompkins started his higher education journey at the age of 29, enrolling at Portland State University to pursue a communications degree. Eric, a first-generation college student, recalls the crushing stress of being housing insecure as a student.

“While attending college full-time I could only work a part-time job and the price of rent in Portland made it impossible for me to rent a place of my own, so I had to rent rooms in other people’s apartments and houses,” he said. “Sometimes I could temporarily stay with a friend or a family member, but moving every few months made it difficult for me to focus on my schoolwork and my health.”

In early 2022, Eric was forced out of his housing situation and wound up spending long hours doing his homework at the mall or in the library, often sleeping in his car at night.

The same destabilizing forces that have sent housing prices soaring across the country are quietly threatening one of Portland’s most valuable assets—our college students.

From the summer of 2021 to the following year, rent prices in the U.S. spiked by a staggering 6.3%, the highest year-over-year increase in more than three decades. Those impacts are easy to observe in Portland, where higher costs for everyday necessities from groceries to gas combine with accelerating local housing prices to create a perfect storm of financial vulnerability.

"While attending college full-time I could only work a part-time job and the price of rent in Portland made it impossible for me to rent a place of my own, so I had to rent rooms in other people’s apartments and houses."

psu logo

Eric Tompkins

Student at Portland State University

College students aren’t insulated from those economic pressures. We talk about homelessness a lot as a community, but most people don’t consider how the affordable housing crisis impacts Oregon’s aspiring college graduates. They are particularly vulnerable to rising rent prices as they embark on one of the most important journeys of their lives.

In light of those challenges, College Housing Northwest (CHNW) hopes to open those pathways to achievement for more local students. Founded by a group of Portland State University students half a century ago, CHNW is a nonprofit organization with a long history of creating affordable student housing in Portland — a lifeline for our community that’s needed now more than ever.

CHNW offers low barriers to access and supportive services to keep students plugged into stable, below-market housing, removing significant hurdles that might normally stand in the way. Our supportive housing options require no first- and last-month deposits and no guarantors while providing student employment opportunities and eviction prevention services.

As home prices shot up over the last three years, driven by frenzied home buyers flooding into livable cities like Portland and record-low interest rates, so too did local rent prices. With a dearth of affordable housing options, many local college students struggle to find a safe, stable place to sleep, compounding existing college stresses like grades and tuition. In a 2021 survey of Portland Community College Students, more than half of respondents said that they faced housing insecurity in the previous year and 19% said they had experienced homelessness during the same period.

housing insecurity graphic

Aspiring Portland-area graduates like Eric aren’t outliers—they’re just normal college students facing difficult circumstances, often without much visibility. Because housing security among students isn’t often discussed, the challenges facing this vulnerable group aren’t well understood, but the stakes are high.

Last fall, Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission observed a decline in enrollment among many of the state’s public universities and colleges. The commission attributes the dip in enrollment to a 3.6% decline in Oregon community college enrollment—a worrying trend that could snowball if not addressed.

Between 2019 and 2021, Portland State University saw an 11% decline in enrollment, a phenomenon underpinned by those same declining community college enrollment numbers. To grapple with such an alarming higher education downtrend, Oregonians need to take a long look at the forces that pull students away from earning a degree, including housing insecurity.

Access to higher education is essential for many young people hoping to realize their dreams. Ensuring that students from systemically marginalized communities are afforded an equal shot at graduating from college is a matter of equity, both nationally and here in Portland. It’s no coincidence that these students are disproportionately impacted by basic needs insecurity, scrambling for stable access to essentials like food and safe housing, all while trying to meet the rigorous demands of a college education.

As an organization, CHNW is now focused on growing our roster of properties to house more students, with a special emphasis on the community college students who are so vital to our state’s education ecosystem. With funding from public and private grants and donations, we’ve obtained three new buildings in the last two years and now have over 600 owned-and-operated apartments across Portland, considerably expanding our impact. The next step of that work is creating new partnerships with local colleges, universities, and nonprofits, forging mutually beneficial relationships that we can sustain well into the future.

homelessness graphic

Beyond growing our physical footprint, CHNW has also expanded the scope of the affordable housing assistance we provide. In 2020, we launched ARCS, the “Affordable Rents for College Students” program. Through ARCs, we can offer Portland students subsidized rent, covering between 50% and 100% of their housing payments while offering wraparound support.

After being connected with ARCS through a Portland State University counselor, Eric found the process of securing housing simple and supportive. “The people that I worked with made me feel like they cared about me,” he said.

With his housing needs addressed, Eric says he quickly experienced a pronounced positive impact on his health and his coursework. Now, his degree requirements are finished and he’s on track to graduate in June.

“I appreciate ARCS because without their help I would’ve had to continue moving around from place to place and sleeping in my car,” Eric said. “After I got housing through ARCS my grades improved, I was able to graduate without skipping a term, and emotionally I felt better because I had housing security for at least a year.”

Through the ARCS program, we have been able to support more than 100 local students with subsidized rent to date. We currently have 57 ARCS students housed in our properties and plan to expand our rent relief program to support a wider swath of housing-insecure students in the Portland community.

To realize those goals, we are eager to collaborate with other organizations that share our mission to expand affordable housing access, shape policy solutions at the local level, and ultimately support more local students like Eric on the path to realizing their dreams.