As UC Santa Barbara’s winter quarter reaches the halfway mark, students are finding themselves in the hunt for housing. They enter a housing market characterized by rising rent prices, limited unit availability and intense competition.
Since its inauguration as a University of California in the 1940s, UCSB has struggled to maintain enough housing for its growing student population. Like many other Universities of California (UCs), enrollment sizes have continuously increased since the school’s founding. In the period since the 2014-15 school year alone, UCSB saw student enrollment increase by more than 3,000. The current student population sits at over 26,000 students as of the fall quarter of the 2023-2024 school year.
Dorms like San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Anacapa and Santa Cruz were constructed to keep up with increased demand. However, unlike other large land-grant universities like UC Santa Cruz and UC San Diego, which have sought to increase the amount of on-campus housing, UCSB allowed private development interests to take the lead, creating what is now Isla Vista.
The scramble for housing has intensified, and more students are compelled to search for housing off-campus.
“There’s just not enough housing, and the timeline is really difficult. And also it’s inaccessible to find a lot of places,” Matthew Mucha, the SBCC Relations chair of the Isla Vista Tenants Union, said.
In the past few decades, UCSB’s housing availability has grown stagnant while the number of students has only grown, with San Joaquin, completed in 2017, being the most recent construction project.
According to Richard Flacks, a retired sociology professor from UCSB and director of the Sustainable University Now (S.U.N.) coalition, there are consequences in trying to maximize room space.
“As more people try to inhabit existing space, they’re saving some money by doubling and tripling up where they are. But that leads to the stress of overcrowding.”
For many students, this often arduous search can become an enormous source of stress.
"I think that, negatively, it was very stressful. Definitely, like, I feel like the process is a lot to adjust to, like coming from knowing nothing about it," Jemma Tolley, a first-year biology major said.
Reviews are often left by renters in Isla Vista on websites such as Yelp, Google Reviews, Facebook and Reddit. Of the total number of reviews analyzed, 1207 (50.4%) were considered “negative” or a complaint. Notable words of the most frequent complaints were “Management”, “Rent”, “Deposit” and “Fix.”
The ratio of negative reviews to positive reviews appears to peak during July — typically when leases end — at about 1.7 negative reviews for every positive review.
The rent costs of units have continued to increase as demand for off-campus housing has surged. From 2015 to 2021, the cost of renting a 2-bedroom apartment increased by approximately 34%.
Both the prices students have had to pay over the last decade and the relative cost of housing in Isla Vista compared to some of the surrounding areas of Santa Barbara have increased. According to the City of Santa Barbara, the highest median price for 2-bedroom units of any housing type in 2022 in the Santa Barbara area was $5,750 for Isla Vista. The next closest locality was Montecito, where the median rental price of 2-bedroom units was $5,300.
One possible reason for increased housing prices is the cost of land according to Flacks.
“With housing built on university land, it’s much cheaper to build, because the cost of the land is not part of the cost of the housing. Whereas private developed land is much more expensive for housing developers to build.”
In addition to students and faculty, other long-term residents also call Isla Vista their home. The issues of increased rents and the lack of housing affect the entire community. Earlier this year, the new owner of CBC & the Sweeps evicted all their tenants in the middle of their leases, driving many to conduct unexpected housing searches.
Also, many students often have little to no real-world experience with legal contracts.
“A lot of students just don't know how to read a lease at all. They will read through it and think they know what's legal and what's not.” Mucha said.
This lack of experience also often adds to the burden felt by students of having to attempt to educate themselves on an often confusing topic.
“I was honestly clueless. Nobody ever told me about how to lease or anything. So my group of me and my friends had to do a lot of research on what was going on. I feel like we were not prepared,” Tolley said.
The school has long been aware of the perennial housing crisis and has previously taken steps in an attempt to alleviate the problem. In fact, over a decade ago, the school developed a plan that, if executed on time, would have provided significant housing relief for the community.
In 2010, UCSB released its Long Range Development Plan (LRDP), with stated goals aimed at providing up to 5,000 additional student beds by 2025 and providing housing for an additional 1,600 faculty and staff.
As of the publication of this piece, nearly fourteen years after the original plans were made public, the university has encountered setbacks in realizing its vision, particularly evident in previous delays in constructing faculty housing through the Ocean Road project. Through the construction of San Joaquin and Sierra Madre villages, the university has built housing for 1,500 of the promised 5,000 student beds under the LRDP.
To provide the previously promised housing solution on time, UCSB turned to outside sources for solutions, most notably through the conceptualization of Munger Hall — partially funded by the late billionaire Charlie Munger.
Munger Hall was initially envisioned as an 11-story, 4,536 bed, mostly windowless dorm spanning over 1.68 million square feet which would have made it the largest dormitory in United States History. However, faced with significant backlash from the community, these plans were quietly scrapped in August 2023 in favor of a call for a more traditional housing solution on two separate sites that would provide up to 3,500 additional beds.
“A committee consisting of faculty members, housing and dining staff, and administrators reviewed proposals and selected two architectural firms. Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM) of Los Angeles, in association with Mithun of Seattle, have been chosen to design housing on the campus sites identified in the LRDP. The new residences will include dining facilities and common area amenities and will address pedestrian/vehicular circulation,” the university spokesperson Kiki Reyes said.
The expected completion date of these new projects is now Fall 2027 with the hope that these new dormitories will be a step towards easing the housing crisis for the UCSB community as a whole.
Flacks encouraged current UCSB students to stay active and vocal about the current and future state of housing.
“This is a direct interest of students in their daily life, the housing question, and I would hope that students would be really engaged in learning about it and not just thinking it's an individual problem for them individually, but a problem they all share. And that can be changed by their actions.”