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SRJC awaits financing as it plans ambitious student housing facility

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Housing Help SRJC's housing project is aimed at easing the rental strain on students.
  • Housing Help SRJC's housing project is aimed at easing the rental strain on students.

True to Dorm SRJC's proposed housing facility is just a $43 million bond away from completion.

Santa Rosa Junior College's plans for its first new student housing project since the 1990s, a five-story, 378-bed complex on its Santa Rosa campus, aims to transform into an around-the-clock school.

The as-yet unnamed $42 million complex is slated to open in fall 2022 and the college plans to hold community forums next month with students and community at large. That's the word from Kate Jolley, interim vice president of finance and administrative services at SRJC. The school says it's addressing housing insecurity for its students head-on. To date, the school has not secured financing for the project, but claims they will complete it by 2022.

SRJC expects to issue 40-year bonds for the project, says Jolley, but hasn't done so yet—the debt structure for the student housing plan has yet to be finalized. An initial public offering for the tax-exempt bonds is anticipated for November 2020, she says.

"In 2015, I noticed more students had a hard time finding housing," says Dr. Frank Chong, president of SRJC. " Rents were going up. I heard from students who said they could not afford to attend the JC because of housing costs."

Chong went to the school's board of trustees in 2016 to pitch a housing plan that became even more urgent with the 2017 wildfires. Pedro Avila, vice president of student services, says many students withdrew from classes because of housing scarcity and rising rents exacerbated by the fires. A spring 2018 survey conducted by the Scion Group bears out Avila's concerns: 30 percent of respondents had considered withdrawing from SRJC because of the cost of housing or housing insecurity.

More than 100 students out of nearly 1,800 surveyed said they planned to leave the school for those reasons. More than half expressed interest in living in SRJC housing.

The plans are ambitious and costly. The school plans to demolish the Foundation and Public Relations building, some temporary and portable buildings and the Button Building, which houses the school's human resources department. The new housing footprint will also eat up some parking spaces. Demolition is scheduled for next spring at the corner of Elliot Avenue and Armory Drive off of Highway 101. The school says it will add parking spaces to accommodate those lost to the new housing facility.

School officials say early on the student housing has the potential to generate $110,000 in revenue per year. Fifteen years after its construction, the facility is expected to generate approximately $1 million per year.

"Annual revenue could grow from there, depending on the needs of the project and successful occupancy rates," says Jolley. Revenue from the project will support the student housing itself and the SRJC district—the Santa Rosa campus, the Petaluma campus and Shone Farm.

The school has come up with a plan for projected rents that they will use, in part, to pay off the private contractor that's building the proposed facility. Jolley says rents will start at $843 per bed per month in a double room, up to $1,012 for a single room. A room in a four-bedroom apartment will rent for $1,209. The proposed rates include furnished rooms and utilities. While the proposed rents aren't especially low for students on a budget—they're far cheaper than those on the open market. The average one-bedroom rental in Santa Rosa comes in at around $1,950, according to online data at RENTcafe and other online real-estate sources.

SRJC will consider giving priority to veterans, low-income students and students coming out of foster care, and, says Avila, will find the funding to house them, too. "We are going to create an endowment under the SRJC Foundation. We will identify potential donors. The donated funds will be used to subsidize rent for low-income students."

The student-housing workgroup is scheduled to meet throughout this fall to establish criteria for living in this proposed student housing. The workgroup will also determine which students will have priority spots. Families are not part of the equation: Individuals who live in student housing must be SRJC students; units will not be available to families.

Jolley says the SRJC is considering 10-month and 12-month leases and stresses housing insecurity as the driver: "We have a lot of students who are homeless or in a risky living situation," she says.

Students have already raised a few red flags. The rent is trending toward unaffordable for some. Others havehave concerns that local residents might scheme to take advantage of the rents that are low relative to the area's whopping cost-of-living. "I get a lot of questions from potential students coming from far away who have trouble finding housing," says Martha Torres, a student ambassador at the school. "But if the rent gets more expensive, it might be too much."

For Anna Kidd, also a SRJC student and student ambassador, a major looming issue is that the school will need to vet full-time students.

"A number of students attend full-time for the first few weeks but then drop half their units," she explains. "Often they're working two to three jobs in order to afford rent, on top of school. They also can't afford the full load unless they have the necessary support and income to attend full-time."

SRJC's student housing workgroup selected the Scion Group in spring 2018 as a housing advisor for the project. Scion assisted SRJC with a student housing feasibility study and provided guidance in selecting a developer.

Scion also recommended SRJC use a public-private partnership financing model, which involves collaborating with a development firm to build and manage the student housing on SRJC District–owned land. Later, SRJC selected Servitas, a Dallas-based developer, through a request for proposal process. The student housing workgroup led that process.

Avila says Servitas will manage the student housing operations and it will have minimal impact on SRJC's resources. He adds that the junior college chose Servitas because they met SRJC's three goals: affordability, sustainability and utilizing local labor at prevailing wages.

Servitas is the public-private partner for student housing for another California junior college, Orange Coast College (OCC) in Costa Mesa. "Their experience with that project will benefit SRJC's student housing," says Avila. For one, they'll be using light-gauge steel instead of wood in the construction of the building.

The proposal is a hit with David Guhin, Santa Rosa assistant city manager. He anticipates a smooth build-out. Most of the permitting will take place through the state, he says, and won't have to go through the Sonoma County or Santa Rosa permitting wringer.

"We are excited about this project as it aligns with our overall housing goals," says Guhin, who pledged to assist with community engagement and interactions with city services.

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