On May 7, Imperial Valley College (IVC) held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its newly constructed off-campus neighborhood of “tiny homes” -- so-called because of their 170-square-foot floorplan -- dedicated to students experiencing housing insecurity. Christened “Lotus Living, Rise Above, Resilient Community,” the innovative housing project was made possible through the support of the statewide Homekey grant.

“Homekey is the first effort of its kind in the nation and is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect the most vulnerable people in our state,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom in a September 2020 press release. The grant provided $600 million to create housing options across the state to quickly help individuals at risk for homelessness who were impacted by the pandemic.

IVC applied to the grant in partnership with the City of El Centro, becoming one of the first Homekey recipients with a $2.6 million award.

“We began the grant application in June 2020, during the thick of COVID, not knowing what the future would hold for us,” recalled Adriana Nava, community services director for the City of El Centro, who worked closely with the college to write and manage the grant. According to Nava, the goal was to expend the funding by December 2020, an “incredible feat” for a project of this magnitude.

What was once a vacant city parcel at 12th Street and Bradshaw Avenue became a beautiful neighborhood of 26 tiny homes. Construction completed at the end of February with a ribbon-cutting ceremony held on Friday, May 7. As details are finalized, IVC is providing temporary housing in trailers at Desert Trails RV Park until students can officially move in by mid-summer or early fall.

“Those who have seen the units in person have expressed that they are very charming,” said Elizabeth Espinoza, IVC’s interim communications and governmental relations officer. “The village is taking shape and is quaint, endearing and cozy.

”The new housing project arises at a critical moment: A recent campus survey revealed that nearly 210 IVC students identified as being homeless or at risk for homelessness. Priority for the new community is given to former foster youth, where one in four experience homelessness within four years of leaving the system, according to the National Youth Institute.

“Our institution validated the experiences of our resilient students, who were more likely to face inequities in basic needs and academic success as historically underrepresented students of color and systemically, disproportionately impacted students,” said Espinoza. 

These single-occupancy homes contain a kitchen, desk, patio and mini-washer and dryer and are conveniently located less than 5 miles away from campus, making it easy for residents to ride their bikes or take public transit to school. Each month, students pay about $200 in rent and will participate in 10 hours of community service on the property.

 Amid the turmoil of the pandemic, this affordable housing community has become a lifesaver for aspiring college graduates.

“I was blessed to be given this opportunity,” said IVC student Cierra Gibbs. “I can say it is an enormous relief to have somewhere safe to sleep at night and a place to live in.”

In addition to the Homekey grant, the city also received $458,000 in Imperial County Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP) funds to help with construction and $524,000 for two years of operating costs from Enterprise. The Imperial Valley Continuum of Care Council also helped cover installing the 26 tiny homes. Meanwhile, utilities including the Imperial Irrigation District, Spectrum/Time Warner Cable and AT&T helped expedite work to comply with grant deadlines.

Moving forward, the IVC Foundation will oversee property maintenance and improvements at the site for the next 55 years. In addition to offering water, electricity, and garbage service, the foundation will host workshops with local business leaders on job hunting, professional attire, and career success. Fun, community-building events are also in store, including picnics on the green and movie nights under the stars. It’s a welcoming, inclusive environment to help students build sound futures.

“My struggles do not define me but help build me,” says the grateful Gibbs, who found a firm foundation to learn with a safe place to live. “I couldn't have done it without the staff at Imperial Valley College who support me. I am beyond thankful for all the blessings I've received through the student housing program.”