This is the second story in a series covering tenure, housing and affordability for faculty and staff at the Claremont Colleges.
The Claremont housing market has changed since Pomona College economics professor Michael Kuehlwein and his family bought their permanent home in the 1990s. In just the past decade alone, Kuehlwein explained, the median home price in Claremont has exploded.
“We bought our house 25 years ago for about $200,000. Now it’s worth close to a million,” he said. “Housing prices have gone up a lot, so I’m very glad we bought it when we did.”
“It seems to go up every week,” Brad Johnson, Claremont’s community development director, said regarding the median sale price.
In the U.S., it’s usually cheaper to buy a home than to rent. But the situation is flipped for the majority of California counties, including Los Angeles County, which is the fifth least affordable large county in the country.
The skyrocketing housing market is not just a Claremont-centric problem, however. It’s a nationwide one, coupled with a rising inflation rate that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kuehlwein said.
“The housing market is all about supply and demand,” Kuehlwein said. “The supply of housing is fixed and can’t grow very easily. Claremont is no exception.”
“We’ve got an ocean on one side and mountains on the other,” he added. “As incomes rise and demand increases, that’s going to push housing prices up. For a while during the pandemic, stimulus payments raised American incomes, and overall dissatisfaction from time spent at home might have affected the demand for new housing.”
While the rising home prices may not affect some tenured professors like Kuehlwein, he explained that junior faculty will be forced to pay the price of housing inflation.
“It’s almost impossible to buy here, or to imagine living here because it’s just so out of reach,” Kuehlwein said. “The [Claremont] Colleges certainly help out by providing lower interest rates, so that junior faculty do not have to put as much for down payments. All of that helps, but I’m not sure that their efforts have been able to keep up with housing price inflation to make sure that living in Claremont is an option for all faculty.”
One non-tenured Pomona professor said in a TSL survey that the cost of living near Claremont “limits [their] ability to engage with the campus community.” Adding that they’d like to live closer than their current commute, which depending on traffic can range from 45 to 75 minutes, the cost of living nearby severely limits where they can live.
Even with a below market rent, the professor added that their “salary is significantly below the cut-off for what is considered ‘low income’ in LA County ($66,250 for one person in 2021, $75,700 for a family of two, etc.) despite teaching full-time at Pomona.”
Without a substantial raise, the professor said, “that gap will only increase for 2022, especially given the high inflation.”
Pomona currently offers housing rental programs, but according to its website, incoming tenure track faculty are given priority. Faculty must complete a Request for Housing form in accordance with the Real Property Office that manages all Pomona real estate assets by April to receive housing for the following academic year.
Pomona faculty remain eligible for housing rental programs for a maximum of 6 years, according to the Faculty Rental program website, in order to “benefit new incoming faculty.”
In addition, the college offers home loans to tenure-track faculty, with a $555,000 maximum, but only for properties within a 5-mile radius of Alexander Hall, Pomona’s administrative building.
Pomona is not the only college to offer housing assistance. The Claremont Colleges Services spokesperson Laura Muna-Landa said there are multiple cross-campus measures to support faculty.
“Several [7C] institutions provide housing subsidies as part of hiring packages for a tenure track or tenured faculty,” Muna-Landa said in an email. “Some institutions own properties designated for faculty and staff rentals and may offer rentals at a discounted rate for a certain period. Other institutions may also offer loan programs to assist faculty in purchasing a home in Claremont.”
Some faculty, such as Pomona’s Fernando Lozano, who currently heads the college’s Faculty Executive Committee and whose research focuses on labor economics, are not satisfied with the administrations’ housing programs.
He said that the current programs are “insufficient.” But he has “engaged with the administration and they have been a very willing partner,” he said.
A Pomona faculty subcommittee has been formed to tackle discussions around the current level of affordable housing.
Lozano pointed to the shortage of housing in Claremont as a cause for the price increases. He cited the “extremely harsh not-in-my-backyard policies and Prop 13,” the residential property tax cap policy passed by referendum in 1978, as the cause of the issue.
In the greater context of the college, Lozano said, faculty housing benefits “make sense in two ways.”
“One, [the colleges] can use the program to recruit faculty, as the program is more generous than those offered at the other Claremont Colleges, USC or UCLA,” Lozano said. “The second is that there are a lot of benefits from faculty living together. My best friends are all from the faculty, but not because we are on the faculty. We’re friends because our kids went to the same school — our kids played on the same AYSO team.”
Lozano said that faculty housing programs can be financially difficult for the college to justify, because they “[could] put that money in the stock market that will return 12 percent, instead of a loan that will return two and a half percent.”
He also pointed out that the real problem is faced by the staff members. Lozano said “some of them have long commutes, and with the opportunity cost of commuting,” they can face real financial disadvantages.
Pomona Dean of the College Robert Gaines said via email that “in my three years in the Dean’s office, no one has approached me [with difficulties securing housing]. Our Real Property office is a great source of support to our faculty.”
Even after being in Claremont since the late 1980s, one full professor at Pomona said achieving home ownership has long been a cause of concern for many faculty members.
“Because [housing accessibility] has always been a problem, the current more senior faculty certainly struggled with it in our early years here” they said. “If we solved it, it often took several years of saving and we usually started in a ‘too small’ house that was frighteningly expensive.”
The professor said that because high housing prices were long since established in Claremont, senior professors who had made it work have come to expect that younger professors can also just make it work.
However, the professor believes “any current senior people who think that now are kidding ourselves. Things are much, much [more] expensive now – the ratio of house price to salary is much higher than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago – and the old solution practices haven’t worked for years.”
A tenured Scripps professor said that “faculty housing used to be more subsidized for Scripps faculty and, in recent years, the rent went up a fair bit to be closer to market rent, but salaries have not really kept up. Housing costs are about 40 percent of my monthly budget,” adding that “many faculty cannot afford to live in Claremont. “
Because housing in Claremont is expensive, some faculty members have chosen to live in less-expensive but farther away areas. Others, however, have opted to live out of town simply out of preference.
However, commute times and gas prices have still played a role in how faculty interact on campus, at least for one non-tenure Pitzer professor, who said the cost of gas for his 50 minute commute plays a factor in his participation with on-campus events.
As to what steps the city of Claremont has been taking to address the high cost of living, Johnson said it will come down to the next eight-year planning period.
The California Department of Housing and Community Development has already embarked on a heavier scrutinizing process with the latest rounds of housing elements, adding that the recent housing market has prompted the state to take the affordable housing shortage more seriously than it has in the last fifty years of drafting development plans.
As part of these efforts, Claremont’s city council revised its inclusionary housing ordinance last fall to require an expansion in the amount of affordable housing units each private developer must build into their projects. Accessory dwelling units are also increasing in popularity, according to Johson. While in previous years permit requests for ADU permits have been in the single digits, as of late, Johnson said they’ve received upwards of 30 applications a year.
While some professors have called for an overhaul of the colleges’ housing assistance programs to increase support for young and upcoming faculty members, one added that if improvements don’t come soon, the colleges could “lose good people if the Board of Trustees does not find a way to increase the home loan amount available to young faculty.”