By Kimberly Wear
Cal Poly Humboldt has backpedaled a bit on plans to restrict continuing students from living on campus after an announcement earlier this month — right before the housing application period was set to open — caught many by surprise, prompting an outcry from parents and students.
But even with around 600 of the 2,100 beds on university grounds now being set aside for upperclassmen — both continuing students and transfers — a shortfall remains between the number of beds and expected demand, potentially displacing hundreds at the same time the Arcata rental market has tightened with no new options slated to come online until 2025.
Just how many slots will be available for continuing students is still unclear and appears to be largely in the hands of their incoming classmates, with CPH spokesperson Grant Scott-Goforth saying in an email to the Journal that on-campus housing will still be prioritized for freshmen and transfer students and “other student residents will be accommodated as available.”
The university cited “unprecedented growth” in the wake of its recently acquired status as Cal Poly Humboldt in unveiling plans Feb. 6 to limit residence halls to freshmen and transfers, while offering those currently enrolled and some transfer students 350 spaces in three Valley West motels for the upcoming school year, with “additional options pending” to accommodate the anticipated 1,000 returning students who will seek university housing.
Other ideas being floated include bringing a barge into Humboldt Bay with apartments and studios on board, which Scott-Goforth said, “is one of many possibilities the university has been exploring.” But the idea is “very preliminary at this point and the university does not have further details to share.”
“As in many areas of California, there are simply not enough housing options available either on campus or in the community,” he said. “The university has been looking into many creative solutions to provide additional high-quality and affordable housing for students. This includes the three hotels in Arcata, which serve to temporarily expand the available housing stock near campus.”
According to Scott-Goforth, the university negotiated a “special rate of $100 per night per room at each hotel.” Doing the math, the Journal penciled out to be about $4.75 million for the next school year.
The “bridge housing” will be offered for $6,624 for two semesters, compared to the on-campus rate that ranges from around $7,088 to $14,500, depending on whether it’s a double or single room and meal plans options.
“The daily rate is subsidized for students as they only pay $27 per bed in a double room and $33 for a small selection of single rooms,” he said.
Two days after the housing policy was announced, hundreds of students gathered on the university quad to decry what they see as a move by the university to prioritize tuition dollars and enrollment numbers over their well-being, while expressing concerns the decision will land some of them on the streets.
Those frustrations continued to bubble over during a Feb. 10 Associated Students meeting as Stephen St. Onge, CPH’s executive director of Auxiliary Operations, gave an update on the housing situation, including the news that some on-campus slots will be offered to returning students in response to the backlash. But he acknowledged it will not be enough to “fill the need” and specific numbers would not be known until mid-April.
“The voices, the comments and the conversations are really appreciated,” he said. “Keep letting us know your thoughts. We really do appreciate that.”
But many students who spoke during the presentation said a lack of transparency and communication was at the very heart of the uncertain housing situation many of them now face.
“I’d say the problem is a dialogue has never been established between the administration and students,” one of them told St. Onge. “That’s why we are here.”
Several also questioned St. Onge about the timing of the policy change and what they see as a lack of foresight by the administration. One student said they found out about the situation on social media, and a residence assistant wanted to know why the university waited “until spring semester to drop this bomb on us,” noting students in their hall were “freaking out.”
St. Onge acknowledged the confusion and said the university started developing plans as freshmen applications continued to rise — a CPH news release in November touted early numbers showed first-time undergraduate applications for the 2023-2024 school year had increased by 86 percent — but it took time to lock down contracts with the hotels, which were only finalized that week.
While “bridge housing,” as the university describes the hotel stays, has always been part of the plan for absorbing the expected influx of students during the campus’ transition into the state’s third polytechnic university, “it’s happening a little faster than we predicted,” he said.
Others raised concerns about their personal information being placed in the hands of a motel chain, specifically Motel 6, which in 2019 settled a $12 million lawsuit with the state of Washington for providing guest information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement without warrants, according to media reports.
St. Onge assured students the university would be taking over operations at the three sites, with residence assistants and campus staff on the premises, and overseeing the private information of any students staying in the hotels.
“It’s just like on-campus housing,” he said. “It’s controlled by us.”
Another development, St. Onge said, is students will be able to receive a prorated refund if they end their housing contract with the university early to move into off-campus housing and there are additional plans in the works that include remodeling at the hotels to make kitchen space available to students and providing shuttle service outside of the hours that buses operate. Additional efforts are underway, too, for those needing mobility accommodations, he said.
“A lot of this is a work in progress,” St. Onge said.
Parents have also registered their frustrations, apparently inundating administrators with phone calls and emails in search of answers, including one who started an online petition calling for a more equitable system.
“If Cal Poly Humboldt does not have the facilities to properly house their student body, they should not increase enrollment and should work with the CSU to address this crisis properly,” the petition states. “We demand that further actions be taken to make the access to student housing fair for all students, and that parents be included in problem solving options so that our students are not left struggling when they should be studying.”
The petition’s creator Johanna Smith, a parent of a CPH freshman and a professor at California State University at San Bernadino, told EdSource she was “not OK” with the idea of her son staying in a hotel rather than on campus, an option she had thought would be available during his entire tenure at the university.
“Part of the reason we accepted Humboldt as an option was they guaranteed us on-campus housing — they said so during orientation,” Smith told EdSource. “It’s too late for our students to transfer.”
She also questioned whether Cal Poly Humboldt was taking on more students than it can house in response to the California State University system’s recent decision to decrease funding for campuses that don’t meet enrollment targets starting in 2024, as reported in a recent story by CalMatters.
Asked if that is playing a role in the current situation, Scott-Goforth noted CPH has been below its student body goal for a number of years and the “anticipated increase in enrollment is the culmination of a years-long effort to increase enrollment and additional interest and demand due to the polytechnic designation.”
With just under 6,000 registered this fall, Cal Poly Humboldt had 119 more students than the previous year, he added, marking the first time since 2015 that a fall semester had a larger student body than the previous one.
Those numbers are predicted to double by 2028.
A lack of local student housing is, of course, not a new problem.
Back in 2015-2016, when enrollment hit a peak of 8,500 students, a demand analysis commissioned by the university found the campus’ “housing portfolio” was undersized and aged, and the surrounding Arcata housing market was so constrained that some students were unable to find housing and resorting to sleeping in their cars or camping in the woods.
President Tom Jackson Jr. also acknowledged the issue amid the celebration of the campus officially becoming Cal Poly Humboldt in January of 2022, saying “our biggest challenge still remains housing — student housing and community housing.”
In the meantime, additional university-managed housing is in the works, with some of the $433 million that CPH received in one-time state funds for the polytechnic transition going toward those projects. These include construction of two brand-new housing complexes (one off Sunset Court across the street from the current student health center and another off Laurel Drive), as well as the addition of two multi-story parking garages.
The university is also set to break ground this month on an off-campus housing project at the former Craftsman Mall site located about a mile off campus, which is slated to accommodate 964 students, according to CPH, with an estimated move-in date of fall of 2025.
Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer said city and university officials meet regularly to review the campus’ master plans “to meet the polytechnic goals,” with much of those discussions currently focused on the Craftsman Mall site.
“This development, once built, should accommodate several years of university growth,” she said, noting the campus is also completing designs for a new engineering and technology building on campus that will include at least 250 beds.
She said the university is also looking at sites outside of Arcata to provide additional housing, both in the short-term — like the barge idea — and the long term.
Diemer notes the city’s rental market demographic has changed dramatically in recent years, especially as options for working from home increased amid the pandemic, which “opened our region to a host of new residents.”
According to the city’s figures, Arcata’s population has grown by more than 1,000 residents over the last eight years, even as enrollment has dipped by more than 2,500 students.
“If the university adds 500 additional students in the fall of 2023, their overall population will still be over 2,000 below their peak (in 2015-2016),” Diemer said. “However, the housing that was available during the peak years has been rented by a non-student population, which is straining the rental market now as the university begins to grow again.”
As for the university’s hotel leases, Diemer said the city stands to lose nearly $400,000 in transient occupancy tax (TOT) revenue if the three sites were taken over for the whole year, but has the potential to recoup around $100,000 of that since the current plan is for the hotels to return to normal operations after the regular school term ends.
“The university’s overall economic contribution to Arcata is of course larger than any other single factor but the direct TOT loss will be felt and we will continue to work with Cal Poly to find ways to balance that direct loss,” she said.
Overall, she said, the city is “deeply engaged in planning for future housing,” which includes the potential of modifying zoning to increase residential density “in several areas of Arcata, such as downtown and the gateway areas” currently under consideration, and the Arcata City Council is also looking at a rental inspection program as “a more proactive approach in improving the rental housing stock in Arcata.”
Meanwhile, it seems a dearth of campus-run housing is likely to be an issue for at least the next two years, with the bridge program continuing as a stop-gap measure until the doors of other projects are opened up.
“Housing has long been a challenge in this area, for students and community members,” Scott-Goforth said in an email to the Journal when the initial announcement first came out. “The off-campus residences being offered this next year are more than the university has ever offered, even when it was at its all-time enrollment high in 2016. So the university is working hard to try and expand housing. The hotel property leases are a temporary solution while new campus housing is built.”
Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the digital editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 323, or

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