An innovative partnership aims to reduce the number of insecurely housed students, giving them a better chance of reaching their academic goals.

High on the hill above Whittier, Rio Hondo College’s academic buildings are framed by playing fields, a pool and tennis courts, all overlooking the park-like setting below. But that beauty comes at a cost. Over its 50-year history, the college has seen the surrounding Los Angeles area become one of the most expensive rental markets in the country. And those high housing costs have in turn led to a 48% increase over the last decade in the population that is either homeless or insecurely housed.

"A severe lack of affordable housing carries over to college students as well," explains Rio Hondo President Teresa Dreyfuss. “We mirror the city of Los Angeles, and our students are not exempt from the issues around them. In 2021, we had 346 students who needed transitional housing.”  That’s far more than the 88 students who needed housing just two years ago, before the pandemic hit the community hard and wrecked havoc on employment, particularly in the service and hospitality industries. 

Housing insecurity is a growing problem across California. The Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges has prioritized the development of student-centered basic needs infrastructure that includes a focus on student housing. The State of California is taking steps to ease the problem too, with a one-time $2 billion investment in student housing, of which 50% ($1 billion) over three years will be dedicated to increasing the stock of affordable student housing at California’s community colleges.

Traditionally, Rio Hondo has met the needs of its unhoused students by helping them apply for housing vouchers good for rental units or hotel rooms. The federal government subsidizes these rehousing vouchers, obtained through a third party agency such as Jovenes Inc. Center, the Salvation Army, or Volunteers of America. 

At the same time Rio Hondo grappled with a four-fold increase in unhoused students, neighboring Whittier College, a private four-year institution less than five miles away, watched the number of its students in residence drop once classes transitioned online. Now, a new partnership agreement between the schools promises to alleviate some of Rio Hondo’s need, offering unhoused students space in the residence halls at Whittier. Whittier will accept the third party voucher for the students it is able to accommodate. The partnership is set to continue until June 2026.

Rio Hondo and Whittier have a long history of collaboration, says Rio Hondo Board Vice President Vicky Santana. “Many of our students transfer to Whittier, and we jointly prepare students in social work and education.” 

“Housing is a basic, critical need that we all have, and we’ve found that when students have a stable, secure place to live, they do better in school,” Santana continues. “Before, unhoused students often bounced around between relatives and friends, but the pandemic took away that option as people hunkered down and were reluctant to have others come in and out of their homes.”  Compounding the problem for students is that they typically lack credit, so it’s difficult to get a lease even if they do have some means. 

“I would like to thank Whittier College for making this partnership possible,” President Dreyfuss said.  Removing the anxiety and insecurity of their housing situation “means our students are able to focus on completing their educational goals.” 

Rio Hondo’s Board of Trustees has recently affirmed its ‘passionate support’ for social justice and equity, and the school takes that pledge very seriously. 

“As a college, we have always done whatever we can to provide the basics that support our students,” Santana said.