Pilot program tackles college student housing insecurity

students outside on Park Blocks

Portland State is part of a new pilot program called Affordable Rents for College Students (ARCS), which provides college students in the Portland metro area who are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity with rental assistance. 

Housing insecurity is a big problem for college students in Oregon. According to a 2019 study by the Hope Center, 20% of Oregon community college students had experienced homelessness in the previous year, and a survey by PSU’s Homelessness and Research & Action Collaborative found that 16% of PSU students had experienced homelessness in the previous 12 months. An even larger percentage of students experience difficulty affording safe and stable housing, also known as house insecurity. Homelessness and housing insecurity disproportionately affects already marginalized students, including Black, Indigenous and students of color as well as members of the LGBTQ community. 

“We want people to know how big of an issue this is locally,” says Ryan Sturley, development manager at the nonprofit administering the pilot, College Housing Northwest. “I think people have this preconceived notion of who a college student is—that everyone struggles in college and eats ramen noodles all the time-—but the reality is very different.”

When students don’t know how they’re going to pay rent, it makes it difficult to concentrate on school.

“Housing insecurity, homelessness, basic needs insecurity has a real impact on students’ ability to succeed in college,” says Sturley. “A lot of students don't even attend college or can't attend college because they can't find housing.”

The ARCS program is based on a successful program in Tacoma and is a collaboration between Portland State University, Portland Community College, Mt. Hood Community College, New Avenues for Youth and College Housing Northwest.

The program, which began in July 2020, significantly reduces housing costs for participating students. A 50% rental subsidy is applied to College Housing Northwest’s already below market rental rates so students pay around $500-$525 a month for their housing. The program also removes additional barriers to housing by waiving security deposits and application fees and by providing free WiFi and reduced utility costs. 

Currently 18 students are enrolled in the program, including four PSU students. Because the pilot program has a limited number of slots, students are identified as candidates for the program by staff members at their college or university.  

For instance, at PSU, the Dean of Student Life Office refers students to the ARCS program as a part of a larger effort to reduce housing insecurity. 

“We offer students a continuum of housing stabilization services,” says Mike Walsh, PSU’s Dean of Student Life. “These include emergency housing, temporary housing and the ARCS program for stable housing.”  

Amr, a senior film production major at PSU, lost his job when the pandemic hit in March and was referred to the ARCS program. 

“I didn’t have any other resources. It was very difficult to focus on anything,” he says in a promotional video for the program. “When I got approved for this program, I was super happy...I feel safe, and that’s the most important thing anybody needs to feel. The ARCS program literally saved my life.”

In a survey at the beginning of the ARCS program, 40% of participating students said they would not have been able to attend college if they had not received housing help through ARCS. Stable housing also helps students already attending college persist in their studies. The program in Tacoma found that students who received housing assistance graduated at twice the rate of the general community college population and had higher GPAs. 

The ARCS pilot phase will last through March 2021 with funding from College Housing Northwest. College Housing Northwest and its partners are soliciting funding from private donors and philanthropic organizations with hopes of extending the pilot and eventually expanding the number of students served by the program. 

“Ideally, we would grow it to put a dent in the number of students experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity locally,” says Sturley.