Housing is the linchpin upon which debt at Sonoma State University turns.

It accounts for the largest slice, 56 percent — $125 million — of the university's $223 million debt.

Last year, SSU's housing program generated $18.4 million in revenue. Of that, $8 million went toward the university's $10.4 million debt service.

By comparison, SSU's parking program, which brought in $1.8 million, contributed $628,173 to debt service last year.

Since 2000, SSU has built apartments to accommodate 2,249 more students. And that housing paved the way to most of SSU's other debt-financed projects.

"We're not in Berkeley, in Chico, in Westwood, and as much as I love Rohnert Park, it's not exactly a robust collegiate environment," said SSU's chief financial officer, Larry Furukawa-Schlereth.

"The students are clamoring to have places to do stuff, to hang out," he said.

To meet that demand, SSU in 2004 opened a $15 million recreation center. Now, construction has started on a $60.5 million student center set to open in 2013.

Each was an element in SSU President Ruben Armi?na's long-articulated goal of turning SSU into an elite public liberal arts university.

Student elections approved new fees to finance both projects.

Housing program revenues also help pay the Green Music Center's $15.6 million debt and will cover part of the new student center's cost.

Some faculty critics believe the university has become too reliant on the housing program to pay SSU's debt service.

Since 2000, the share of housing revenue that has gone to pay off debt each year has grown from 15 percent to 44 percent. That will rise again starting in 2013, as the housing program assumes its share of the student center's cost.

If state budget cuts limit or push down enrollment — CSU projects it will remain flat next year — that could crimp SSU's revenue stream.

In that case, a potential avenue would be to raise housing fees, said John Curry, a former chief financial officer at UCLA.

"There's an enormous pressure on housing process to potentially pay for more than housing, per se," he said.

"If the fees generated by the new student center don't cover operating costs, and if the performing arts center doesn't, then it's pressure on housing again, and then the question becomes, how much financial pressure is that going to place on students," he said.

That would alter the campus for the worse, faculty critics said.

"One of our concerns is that they'll gouge the students who are there, which means we'll get a different kind of student — those who can pay the higher fees — and we'll be a more homogenized campus," said political science professor Andy Merrifield, who is chairman of the California Faculty Association.

Students living on campus say fees are high enough as they are.

"I already don't have the money I need to find for it," said Jennifer Johnstone, a sophomore who pays about half her annual housing fee of about $5,750, with the rest coming from financial aid.

There is still room in some areas to raise some fees, Furukawa-Schlereth said.

"Parking you could go higher, certain aspects of housing I think you could go higher. The student center I don't think you'd want to go too much higher," he said.

The university has about $23 million in reserves — built from student fee revenues — that could be used to cover debt service "if something bad happens," he said.

As happened in the last two years, some housing could also be closed to lower operating costs.

And housing could be "repurposed," as it has been in the past two years, for use as conference-related housing and short-term rentals, he said.

"You'd work at it on a number of different avenues," he said. "But the raising of the fees, you want to be careful there."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.