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Better Together

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On this week's cover, you'll find an expansive story that spills more than 4,500 words trying to explain Humboldt County's housing shortage and what it means. It's the product of months of work by dozens of people and, frankly, nothing we could have taken on ourselves.

The story was put together by students in Marcy Burstiner's investigative reporting class at Humboldt State University. Every year, Burstiner has her students take a deep, deep, semester-long dive into a topic of interest on the North Coast as a hands-on project thorough which they learn investigative reporting skills. We at the Journal offer some editing guidance and a vehicle for getting the fruits of their labor out to the community.

It's a great example of the kind of campus-community collaboration that enriches everyone involved.

As you'll see in this week's story, conversations about the campus-community divide can often turn transactional. Residents complain that a lack of campus housing spills into the larger market, making rentals expensive and hard to come by. If there weren't all these students running around — or if they'd just stay on campus — we'd have affordable rentals, the thinking goes, and maybe even less homelessness. The problem with that thinking is it lacks context and nuance, as a more stringent campus-community divide would also mean fewer graduates setting down roots, less entrepreneurship and a less skilled workforce, not to mention a far less vibrant and diverse community. In short, we all need each other and Humboldt County is better off when both HSU and its students thrive.

Virtually anyone who has faced the task of finding an affordable place to live in Humboldt County in recent years can attest to the fact that it's arduous work. Add in other challenges — a fixed income, mental illness, disability or addiction — and it can be downright impossible. Even a beloved pet can prove a deal breaker.

As this week's story illustrates, this is a complex problem with reverberating impacts. The high demand for relatively few rental units means landlords can — and do — charge more. It means those fortunate enough to find rental housing are less likely to ask for repairs or the basic maintenance needed to keep a place inhabitable, much less file official complaints, leaving many people — students and non-students, alike — paying too much of their monthly incomes to live in squalor. It's a situation that pushes people out of Humboldt County, people like Saung Pio Lee, who you'll read was content working here as a caregiver (we have a shortage of those, by the way) before the housing crunch pushed him to find much cheaper rent in Utah.

But the situation is far from hopeless. On campus, students are organizing, working to form a tenant's union and a program that would set housing standards and educate renters, property managers and owners. If successful, these efforts will no doubt trickle off campus, giving renters more power while raising the bar for rentals throughout the county.

These efforts won't, however, add more rental units to Humboldt County's property tax rolls, which is ultimately the only road out of this housing shortage that doesn't include a population exodus. And we as a larger community are going to have to come to grips with the fact that developing more housing is going to require some compromise — residents and elected officials recognizing that we may all have to swallow some neighborhood impacts in order to ensure that everyone has an affordable place to call home.

As you read through this week's cover story, think about the students who wrote it and how their hard work is contributing to your knowledge and understanding of this community. Who knows, one of them may be this paper's next reporter. Or editor.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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