According to a recent National Low Income Housing Coalition study, Arizona ranked among the five worst states for affordable housing. In Maricopa County, eviction rates continue to rise significantly, and Metro Phoenix is facing one of the worst housing shortages in its history (Arizona Housing Department). Between 2020 and 2021, Phoenicians experienced the third-largest rent increase for a major city in the US. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 44% of renters in Phoenix were cost-burdened (City of Phoenix, 2020). Cost-burdened renters spend 30% or more of their income on housing costs and struggle to make rent while being forced to make tradeoffs among essentials such as utility bills, groceries, healthcare, transportation, and childcare.
Although the housing crisis has made housing unfathomable for millions of Americans, the housing crisis is felt acutely by community college students. In 2020, 52% of all community college students reported experiencing housing insecurity, where housing often costs more than tuition. Housing insecurity includes unaffordable housing, poor housing quality, crowding, and frequent moves.
Increasingly, higher education institutions acknowledge that students can only achieve academic success or personal well-being once their basic needs are met. To address these challenges, the Department of Education awarded more than $30 million across 38 grants to colleges and universities. "We cannot be complacent with a higher education system that leaves so many college students from diverse and underserved backgrounds without the supports and resources they need to succeed in school and, ultimately, graduate," said US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. Phoenix College, the only college in Arizona to be awarded one of these grants, received $929,617 in funding to support basic needs for postsecondary students, which will focus on housing.
Roberto Villegas-Gold, Counseling Department Chair, led the grant effort with support from other members of the counseling department to demonstrate the need for housing funds. "When Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) were released in 2020, we applied for and were awarded funds to establish the Single Stop program. We hired Kaylin Shady, Social Worker, to connect students to federal and state benefits that support basic needs," said Villegas-Gold. Yet, housing remains a huge concern. "We sought out this grant because we had a novel idea about how to support our students who are unhoused or experiencing homelessness," he said.
With HEERF funds, the Counseling Department dispersed over $100,000 of emergency funding to students in danger of losing their housing. With the Department of Education grant, Phoenix College will dedicate $500,000 to support students directly––paying rent, covering costs like utilities, and providing intensive career development to help students find work that pays them at a higher rate than when they entered the program. "We have all the resources available to help the students with the relationships we already have with career services and some of our community partners," Villegas-Gold said. "All we needed was the support to connect students to housing and bring on someone with a specific housing focus to build relationships with landlords and apartment complexes in our area." The three-year grant funds a housing coordinator position.
Dr. Kimberly Britt, Phoenix College President, said, "When students do not have the basic support and resources they need to survive, it can make it impossible for them to thrive in their academic pursuits. This grant will help our students by providing them with an essential foundation for success. Partnered with the resources we already provide to assist with food insecurity, this grant will help ensure more of our students are able to focus on their studies and not where they will sleep tonight or where they will find their next meal."
Villegas-Gold expects this housing assistance to provide long-term support and stability for PC students, not just over the three-year funding cycle. By reducing student reliance on financial aid for basic needs, students will have less student loan debt when they graduate.
The program's long-term impact is two-fold: promote college graduation and degree attainment, and eliminate the return to homelessness. Homelessness and education are intimately linked. Without a degree, students are more likely to struggle financially and be stuck in a cycle of economic disempowerment. Housing stability requires that people have access to jobs that pay a living wage, which means that a college degree is one of the essential components for long-term success in housing stability.