Affordable housing crisis creates another barrier for Maine college students

·7 min read

Aug. 28—The first thing Gabriella Santa Cruz did after deciding to enroll at Southern Maine Community College was to find out whether she could live in student housing on campus.

That was in early August. And by then, student housing on the community college's South Portland campus was full. It had been for months. And the waitlist was over 100 students long.

So Santa Cruz, like countless other college students in southern Maine, was thrust into a hyper competitive rental market that has few, if any, affordable apartments to offer. She and some other students joined together to rent a place 30 minutes away, although she'll have to take on a full-time job to pay the rent.

As the start of the school year nears, Maine college and university students are scrambling to find affordable housing reasonably close to their campuses. And it's not easy.

Few Maine schools have space to accommodate all, or even most, of their students on campus. That's especially true now because the housing market has boosted demand for dorm space. And Maine's community colleges are seeing an overall 12 percent increase in enrollment this year because of the state's free tuition program.

Off-campus rentals, especially in the Portland area, are few and far between and those that do exist are typically far too expensive for students, who are more likely to be unemployed or have low salaries and credit scores.

Both SMCC and Central Maine Community College had such long waitlists for student housing that they are resorting to housing some students in nearby hotels. And still they can't accommodate everyone.

Students attending the University of Southern Maine in Portland are renting homes as far from campus as Sebago, 45 minutes from the city, to take advantage of off-season vacancies.

One SMCC student said she plans to commute to school from her boyfriend's house in New Hampshire, two hours each way, because she can't afford to rent in the area.

A graduate student at Northeastern's Roux Institute sent more than a hundred Facebook messages, texts and emails in search of a room to rent for under $1,000 per month before desperately taking a more creative approach — biking around the city asking people on the street if they knew of any vacancies, and leaving post-it notes with her name, number and a request for housing on doors and in mailboxes.

Santa Cruz is originally from Massachusetts but wanted to leave home to experience something new and get out of her home state. She was drawn to SMCC in South Portland because of Maine's free college scholarship, which covers tuition and fees for full-time community college students who graduated from high school or passed an equivalency exam between 2020 and 2023. The program kicks in after other state and federal grants have been applied.

Following the suggestion of the college's residential life staff, Santa Cruz posted on the school's digital bulletin board that she was looking for a roommate. She was flooded with responses from people looking for somewhere and someone to live with. Ultimately, Santa Cruz and two fellow first-years found a three-bedroom apartment to rent for $2,850 per month in Saco, about 30 minutes from SMCC's campus.

She said she's excited to have her own apartment with friends, but she's worried about the cost, which will be $950 per person plus utilities.

"I'm a little scared because of how expensive it is," she said. "I know you're supposed to make three times your rent, but I've never made that much in my life."

To make ends meet, Santa Cruz plans to work 40 hours a week for $18 per hour at the job she just landed as a hostess at a Portland restaurant. That's in addition to taking a full course load at SMCC, which is required for her to retain the free-college scholarship.

Santa Cruz has been working since she was 14, she said, answering phones at a hospital and giving cello lessons, among other things. "But that was just coffee and gas money," she said. "There wasn't that much at stake, but this is different."

The cost of both student housing and apartment rentals has gone up in recent years.

Over the past 10 years, the average cost of room and board across the country at two-year public colleges has risen by 27 percent, at four-year public universities 35 percent and at private, nonprofit colleges by 33 percent.

At SMCC, on-campus housing ranges from $6,600 to $7,400 per school year, or around $733 to $822 per month. At nearby University of Southern Maine, student housing costs $5,678 to $8,776 per school year and at University of Maine Orono $6,018 to $8,998 per school year.

Meanwhile, the cost of rentals in the broader housing market has skyrocketed in Maine and around the country, especially since the beginning of the pandemic. The country's median asking rent in July was 14 percent higher than it was a year prior, according to real estate firm Redfin.

In Portland, the cost of renting a one-bedroom has risen 12 percent since this time last year, according to Rent.com, an apartment search engine owned by Redfin. The average cost of renting a one-bedroom in the city is now $1,850 and 74 percent of all apartments in the city cost more than $2,101, also according to Rent.com. Rentals in nearby towns and cities are similarly pricey.

Whether living on campus or off, students are struggling to pay.

Around half of students attending two- and four-year schools during the 2019-20 school year were housing insecure, according to a study conducted by the Hope Center at Temple University that surveyed 195,000 students nationwide. That means at best they couldn't pay their utilities or rent, and at worst they faced eviction, moved three or more times during the school year or had to leave their residence because of unsafe living conditions.

According to the same study, 14 percent of two- and four-year students surveyed experienced homelessness during the 12 months prior to the survey and 34 percent were food insecure in the 30 days before the survey was fielded in the fall of 2020.

Insecurity was more common for most minority groups compared to their white counterparts, and for LGBTQ and first-generation college students, the study said.

Along with the price of tuition and the loss of financial aid, the cost of rent and other living expenses is one of the top reasons that students drop out of community college, according to a 2020 University of Florida study. And while earning a degree from community college is associated with higher earnings and other socioeconomic and health benefits, those who do not finish their degrees are generally not able to gain the benefits connected with going to college, according to the study.

Dominic Beeler was one of the 525 SMCC students to secure on-campus housing on the South Portland or Brunswick campuses for the upcoming semester. His tuition is covered by state and federal grants. But he is taking out loans to pay for housing.

Beeler, 21, is originally from Lewiston. He left his home during his junior year of high school and has flitted in and out of homelessness since. Student housing provides him with a safe and comfortable place with internet access where he can focus on school. But, he said, if he can't find housing in future semesters he might need to drop out.

Colby College Education professor Adam Howard called the tuition and fees required to attend college the "sticker price" and the cost of tuition and fees plus housing, food and everything else the "real cost."

"You can't just go to college," Howard said. "You have to live, to buy food and pay for gas and parking and, if you have children, childcare."

At Maine community colleges, in-state tuition is $2,880 and out-of-state is $5,760. But room and board range from $5,400 to $10,938 depending on the school and the accommodations.

"The number of obstacles and financial obligations that go along with attending college is just extraordinary," said Howard.

With rising rents and housing costs amid other inflationary pressures, Howard said he's concerned that at some point soon community colleges will become inaccessible for low-income students.

"We need to completely restructure how we think about financial aid if we're interested in college being for all people," he said. "Not just for middle, upper middle class and wealthy people."

Staff Writer Claire Law contributed to this story.