Several teachers and administrators have denounced a “racist” flyer that ties several inaccuracies regarding an upcoming affordable housing project to leaders at Bakersfield College.
Some Bakersfield residents received the flyer, which nobody has claimed responsibility for, the weekend before the midterm election.
Titled the “Sonya Christian Projects,” in reference to current Kern Community College District Chancellor Sonya Christian, the flyer depicts a screen-grabbed photo of a defunct housing structure from the now-demolished Atlanta Housing Projects.
“Bakersfield College is building LOW INCOME HOUSING next to your home,” the flyer reads. “220 beds for low income residents (not student dorms) ... This project is supported by your KCCD Board Area 3 Trustee Nan Gomez-Heitzeberg. Good luck changing her mind.”
Below that it raises several points in a provided list, asking the reader how they feel about issues such as noise, crime and an overflow of parking.
“Students are low-income residents,” said Chris Cruz-Boone, a communications professor at the college.
Cruz-Boone, who is a member of Bakersfield College Social Justice Institute, said she was outraged by the flyer’s racial undertones.
She found out about it Sunday night, Nov. 5, after her great-aunt, who lives near the college, received one from a volunteer canvassing door-to-door.
“She called me and said, 'Hey, this man dropped off this flyer that said that BC is doing this really awful thing,’” Cruz-Boone recounted. “She sends me a picture and ... to say I was upset is an understatement.”
Cruz-Boone continued to say that several staff members who live near the college posted on social media similar encounters, including a photo of the flyer in their posts. So far, no one seems worried that the new housing will cause any of the issues imbued by the flyer.
“I have no idea who created the flyer — no one has taken credit for it,” Cruz-Boone said. “But on the Sunday before the election to spread these kinds of lies is pretty terrible, not only because it's misinformation to the public and it’s dirty politics, but it’s using students as a prop to try and triumph over an election instead of having a conversation with the community.”
Kern Community College District trustee Gomez-Heitzeberg ran to keep her seat on the board; she was challenged by John Antonaros. The results of the election are pending, and were close as of the Kern County Elections Division's count released Friday afternoon.
Administrators at Bakersfield College called the flyer inaccurate and said it misrepresents the project. They said no one has approached them with concerns, be it with the flyer or the housing. Rather, they're curious what the facility will actually include.
“We don’t know who they are and I wish they would talk more so we can educate them on the program,” Dean of Students Nicky Damaina said. “It doesn’t affect the work that we’re doing, which is to help our students with affordable housing,”
College leaders were excited in July, when state officials nodded their approval for Bakersfield College and 25 other California schools to receive a chunk of $1.4 billion in grant money to bolster housing services for campuses in need. The grant will fund the planning and construction entirely.
“This is the first time we’ve had housing in a very long time on campus,” Damaina said. “With every new project, no matter where, you’re always going to have the naysayers, and so it's how you take the information. That's your belief but that's not the truth.”
In their bid, the school requested a maximum $60.2 million to build an affordable housing dormitory at 4021 Mount Vernon Ave., which is currently an underused, sloping lot next to Memorial Stadium. At the time the Kern Community College District unanimously approved the application, it seemed like a no-brainer to apply for free funds.
“Sixty million dollars is a lot of money just to even bring in jobs to (Kern County) — that’s a lot of money,” Cruz-Boone said. “And it’ll be spent on something that so clearly meets the basic human needs of our students. It’s a great triumph no matter how you spin it.”
The college administration believes this facility will fill a desperate need for its student body, which historically has struggled for housing stability. In a 2019 study, BC researchers found that 58 percent of its students were "housing insecure."
“The housing insecurity in our community is a hundred times worse 20 years later,” Cruz-Boone said. “It used to be one of the most affordable places to live and that's not true anymore.”
Bakersfield College, the largest of three colleges in the Kern Community College District, comprises a panorama of students that reflects the social inequities of the region.
“The definition of homeless in Kern County is literally living on the street,” Damaina said. “Majority of our students are housing insecure because they do have a roof over their heads but they're couch surfing or in motels, or living in their car. And that in Kern County isn't considered homeless. And that’s been a big issue in the county, in my perspective.”
The student body is the benchmark for a community campus: a wide range of people who can't afford the time or money required by a four-year university; they are first-generation college students, daytime farmworkers, retirees, veterans and high schoolers looking to get a head start.
Demographically, they are majority-Hispanic, many of whom come from poor backgrounds and rely on financial aid to cover the already menial $1,500 in-state tuition. In the same 2019 study, Randall Rowles, the associate vice chancellor of construction and facilities planning, said they could use upward of 350 rooms.
“For students without credit or generational wealth, there’s not a way to get a safe place to live and go to this community college,” Cruz-Boone said.
Campus officials could not guarantee what the facility will include, but they did give some of their ideas. Unlike a regular dormitory, they want the all-electric hall to be open year-round, fit 150 to 200 beds and include some "generic spaces" for things like tutoring, a pantry, group study and “social adulting classes.”
“There’s a lot of different ideas floating around until we actually get the space,” Damaina said. “And with the new staff that comes on board, we can then develop it.”
The building will also be powered entirely by electricity, since administrators hope to rig it to their forthcoming solar grid, which will be located on the southern neck of campus.
Each room will be apartment-style, to include a shower, kitchen and study space. Campus officials could not confirm a price per bed. While the college does have a student code of conduct that will extend to the dorm, they plan to treat the rules of living there like any lease agreement one should expect around town.
They do expect, as per a requirement by the state, students will need to meet a minimum income requirement to qualify, but nothing is certain yet, according to Rowles. They’re also waiting to hear back on who is allowed, such as those with pets or kids.
“We think we have a general idea of what it’ll roughly be, but we won’t know until we get the final document that will specify those things,” he said.
“Our goal going forward is to keep it as low as possible,” Damaina added.
When asked about the flyer’s allegations, about whether the housing would precede crime and noise complaints, Damaina did not see the connection.
“You can review our annual safety Clery (an act that requires colleges and universities to report crime data) — we don’t have those types of situations here as you would in certain other areas,” Damaina said. “We know that our sound ordinance ends at 10 p.m. so if we do have any extracurricular activities we meet that deadline every time, even with the fireworks and stuff like that — we’re good neighbors.”
Damaina added there would be dedicated parking on campus available to every resident of the building. And in contrast to the flyer, a new residence hall would prompt the college to hire more security guards around campus. Additionally, they'll have a housing director, a resident adviser on each floor and front desk staff. He added that students have been especially vocal about wanting this.
“I don’t envision it to be as drastic as they're sharing with it,” Damaina said. “I actually envision it to be more secure because we will have a campus that is monitored throughout the night.”
The project still awaits approval from the California State Architect, who has to sign off on it before any checks can be cashed. In their original guidelines, state officials told colleges to be "shovel-ready" by winter 2023, which is the timeline BC continues to run on. They expect the project won’t be approved until spring 2023, and hope to begin by that fall.
“The state criteria is still being developed so we don't know what exactly that entails yet,” Rowles said. “We’re still waiting for the guidelines and the grant agreement from the state chancellor’s office. We’re thinking every bit of 18 months to two years to finish the project.”