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Kaiser Permanente donates $1 million to revive Santa Rosa Junior College housing complex

A $1 million grant from a prominent Northern California health care company has revived an ambitious student housing project at Santa Rosa Junior College that was in danger of being scaled back after construction costs soared over budget.

Kaiser Permanente this week announced the grant to help SRJC pay for the affordable housing complex, including apartments and dorm-style residence halls for about 350 students at the Santa Rosa campus.

With the cash injection, the $46.5 million development now can stay on its original timeline, and construction can start before the end of the year, said Pedro Avila, SRJC vice president of student services.

The five-story development, slated for the corner of Elliot Avenue and Armory Drive next to Highway 101, is under final review by the California Division of the State Architects. It’s scheduled to be available for students in fall 2022.

“The timing of (the grant) was just amazing,” Avila said. “It really helped save the project.”

The nearly 3-acre residence hall will feature a mix of single- and double-occupancy rooms, partial suites and four-bedroom apartments. Students will have access to common areas such as kitchens, lounges and patios. The cheapest units will be $950 a month, Avila said.

But some of those amenities, and the size of the complex, were being reconsidered when the project was confronted with escalating construction costs — a persistent reality for most developments throughout the fire-torn region.

Frank Chong, president of the college, said the price for materials, including steel and red brick to match the existing campus buildings, was the biggest factor in the expanded final budget, which was roughly $4.5 million more than projected.

That didn’t sit well with Santa Rosa resident Alena Wall, a regional community health manager for Kaiser, who had been interested in the project and its pitch to provide affordable housing for students struggling to afford the area’s high cost of living.

Earlier this year, Wall encouraged college officials to apply for the $1 million Kaiser grant program, which funds initiatives designed to improve community health, said J Mullineaux, executive director of the SRJC Foundation. The project grant was approved by Kaiser’s national board of directors.

Tom Hanenburg, interim president of Kaiser Permanente Northern California, said in a prepared statement that supporting student housing was a way to give back to the nearly 1,000 SRJC students who lost their homes or were affected by the 2017 North Bay firestorm.

“We are supporting the health of these communities by investing in long-term infrastructure, affordable housing and services that will help them rebuild, recover and move on with their lives,” Hanenburg said.

At-risk students who are disabled, homeless or rising out of foster care, for example, will be prioritized when the residence hall begins accepting applications. Mullineaux said various fundraising efforts are underway to create an endowment that could completely subsidize rents for some students, and help offset rent increases due to inflation.

The development was first proposed two years ago following a 2018 survey, which found that 7% of SRJC students reported they planned to leave the college after the 2017 fires, and 30% said they were considering leaving. Cost of living here was the biggest factor in every decision.

Student housing also could help the college’s budget challenges and declining enrollment, which has dropped by more than 20% over the last nine years.

A previous estimate indicated the housing will provide $3 million in revenue by 2031, and grow to more than $71 million by 2061.

SRJC previously offered dorms, but not at this scale, Chong said. As of 2015, about 28% of community colleges nationwide offered housing.

Much of the construction will take place while the campus remains empty because of the pandemic and most classes are held online until the end of the 2020-21 school year. It will also dovetail with several other projects, including the Luther Burbank Auditorium renovation, a new science, technology, engineering and math building and various athletic facility upgrades, funded through a $410 million Measure H bond offering approved by local voters in 2014.

“I’m excited beyond words,” Chong said. “With the Measure H projects … people will be coming back to an extreme makeover of a 100-year-old campus.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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