Napa Valley College ponders on-campus housing

This parcel of land south of Imola Avenue near Napa Valley College may be developed by the college for student and faculty housing. NVC's board of trustees on Thursday received the results of a study that indicated demand for housing on campus for roughly 300 students and faculty members.

If Napa Valley College builds it, many students and faculty members will come.

That was the conclusion of a newly released study that could guide the two-year school’s leap into on-campus housing, a long-discussed project that could become a lifeline to students, professors and staff increasingly squeezed by Napa County’s high rents and minuscule vacancy rate.

Student demand for housing on NVC’s main campus on Highway 221 is great enough to fill at least 300 beds in a mix of dormitory and apartment units, according to the report by The Scion Group of Irvine, which also laid out a potential fast-track path to break ground on housing in early 2021 and take in the first occupants for the fall semester of 2022.

NVC officials have pondered various proposals for more than a decade, including a “campus village” that would blend housing with shops on the largely vacant northwest corner of the main campus on Highway 221.

Although barely a quarter of U.S. community colleges – including 11 in California – have on-premises dorms or apartments, the search for housing has increasingly gained the attention of NVC directors concerned that unstable living arrangements will crimp the recruitment of students and instructors. College officials in 2017 estimated a third of the student body was “housing insecure,” meaning they had no fixed address and were forced to frequently couch-surf or otherwise move from place to place.

“You hear sad stories of housing insecurity that exist among community college students in California,” Scion’s project executive Ann Volz told NVC’s board of trustees Thursday evening. “It’s becoming a growing crisis within our state.”

Among 679 NVC students who responded to Scion’s survey, 53 percent of single people and 73 percent of married people said they would consider staying in housing at the Napa campus. Forty-one percent of the 314 part-timers in the survey added the ability to live on campus would encourage them to take a full-time course load.

The report added that 41 percent of surveyed faculty and staff “would consider,” and another 41 percent “might consider,” staying in on-campus housing.

Volz said the survey results were based on a slate of sample rents that varied by the size and type of dwellings, ranging from $750 a month for each student in a two-person dorm room up to $2,200 for a three-bedroom faculty apartment.

By comparison, monthly apartment rents averaged $1,722 for one bedroom and $2,142 for two bedrooms in a survey of more than 35 rental complexes from Napa to as far as Sonoma, Vallejo and Fairfield, according to the study.

Weighing construction costs against the need for affordable housing may be the most crucial balancing act in planning a project on the NVC grounds, suggested trustee Rafael Rios after seeing the proposed rents.

“We’re looking not only at availability but also at affordability,” he told Volz of Scion. “Is this more affordable, or is it pretty equal to the market?”

Volz, in response, said on-campus rents would cover utilities and furniture and pointed to the savings on transportation for those living next to their studies.

Scion officials offered a schedule of steps to lead NVC toward a decision in the coming months, starting with a financial analysis workshop at the college April 22 and an open forum on May 8.

If the school can start negotiating with a would-be developer by August, a building agreement could be completed by the start of 2021 to have housing ready about 20 months later, said Volz. However, some board members urged caution about setting too aggressive a schedule.

“I have a little discomfort moving forward with a developer who hasn’t seen this feasibility study yet,” said trustee Jeff Dodd. “It seems like putting the cart before the horse.”

No price estimate on a housing development was given on Thursday. In 2017, NVC cited an architect’s preliminary estimate of $70 million for a complex with space for 314 residents over three floors.

The discussion in Napa played out two days after NVC’s Sonoma County peer, Santa Rosa Junior College, approved $42 million for a five-story housing complex with room for 360 students, by far the largest such residential project in that school’s history.

College trustees and leaders in Santa Rosa described affordable on-campus housing as a necessity to halt an enrollment decline that accelerated after the 2017 North Bay wildfires eliminated 5 percent of the city’s housing stock, the Press Democrat reported. A Scion survey conducted after the fires revealed 7 percent of SRJC students planned to leave the college and another 30 percent were thinking of departing.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.