What’s Worse than Finals? The Lack of Housing

When it comes to housing its students, UC Berkeley is anything but the University of California’s crown jewel.


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UC Berkeley student Taylor Harvey has slept in the on-campus library behind her and others during her college career.

Photo by Lori Eanes

During her first winter break, Taylor Harvey found herself couch surfing inside UC Berkeley libraries. With her mother homeless and the dorms shuttered, the co-founder of Berkeley’s Homeless Student Union would hide in bathrooms before closing time until it was just her, the books, and complete darkness.

“It was scary every time,” said Harvey, a senior, who this year will have a say in shaping how the university finally confronts its chronic housing crisis as the student government’s Housing Commission’s chair.

When it comes to housing its students, UC Berkeley is anything but the University of California’s crown jewel. The school offers the fewest beds at the highest prices. And with enrollment growth far outpacing new dormitory construction over the last decade, students are helping fuel the city’s overheated rental market and pushing out longtime residents.

As a new crop of freshman arrived in August to find themselves sleeping in converted floor lounges and lounging in laundry rooms, recently appointed Chancellor Carol Christ is making housing one of her top priorities. After completing construction of just one dormitory in the past decade, the university wants to nearly double the number of student beds to just under 15,900.

To get the ball rolling, Christ is convening a committee of students (including Harvey), administrators, and city officials to evaluate at least 10 university-owned sites identified by a task force for student housing development.

The school has one big advantage when it comes to building housing. It’s exempt from Berkeley’s often Byzantine land-use oversight. But the obstacles are still imposing.

With annual campus debt payments of about $100 million, any dorm would have to be financed by a private development firm, an arrangement students fear will further drive up costs on a campus where a double room costs more than $16,000 per year.

Also, in Berkeley, there’s fierce competition for every acre of land. Some student leaders, including Harvey, have already come out against building at People’s Park and at a 1.5-acre agricultural research and student gardening tract along Oxford Street and Hearst Avenue that could yield up to 3,000 dormitory beds. Harvey said the university should focus more on building on parking lots rather than research stations that help serve local food pantries.

UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof acknowledged that nearly all the sites have “some baggage” and that “it’s going to require engagement and conversation to determine how and if we proceed on those sites.”

A university attempt to develop a similar agricultural plot in Albany led to a student occupation.

“No one is complacent, and no one is underestimating the challenges,” Mogulof said. “But we can’t use the fact that it will be difficult as an excuse to back down.”

Battles over student housing are nothing new in Berkeley. In 1999, students camped outside then Chancellor Robert Berdahl’s home demanding more housing construction, which came on line in the middle of the following decade. But since 2007, the university has added more than 5,000 students, but built only one dorm supplying about 400 beds. Another dorm with 770 beds is scheduled to open next year.

With little new construction, the university has resorted primarily to leasing out private apartments and squeezing students into smaller spaces. Over the last four years, more than 600 beds have been created by turning some double-occupancy rooms into triples and floor lounges into quads. Still, UC Berkeley’s 8,700 beds are enough to house just 22 percent of undergraduates and 9 percent of graduate students—roughly half what the average UC campus provides.

That leaves freshman facing a rite of passage in their spring semester more stressful than Finals Week—trying to find an apartment for the following year.

“I sent out like 20 [rental] applications,” said Molly Kraus, a sophomore who’s sharing a one-bedroom in Berkeley. “I didn’t know what my apartment looked like before I signed the lease. I was so desperate for housing.”

With housing becoming scarcer and more expensive, census data shows that more 18-to-24 year olds are moving into the western and southern reaches of Berkeley, often taking the place of departing long-term renters.

“For many years, you saw North Berkeley housing being subdivided for students,” said Karen Chapple, a professor of regional planning who heads UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project. “Now, it’s much more common for students to spread to South and West Berkeley. You can directly link that to the decline of the African-American population, in particular.”

The campus housing battles flared in August 2016 when the administration christened a new aquatic center on a Bancroft Way parking lot that the university had previously identified for housing and announced plans to build a hotel on a parcel at Oxford Street and University Avenue that students wanted reserved for dorms.

“We were screaming, ‘We need housing!’” said Matthew Lewis, last year’s ASUC’s Housing Commission chair. ‘“You haven’t built housing for years, and you want to build a hotel there?’”

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Stephen Sutton acknowledged “some validity” to the perception that the previous administration wasn’t prioritizing housing. But he, along with student and city leaders, insist that is changing under Christ, who shelved the hotel project and put the parcel in play for housing development.

“She’s saying not only do you not have to protest, I want to work with you,” Councilmember Kriss Worthington said. “I think that is a very different approach.”

Mayor Jesse Arreguin and Worthington, who are open to some housing development at the agricultural tract, have pushed efforts to allow privately constructed apartment buildings between the campus and Dwight Way, but it’s ultimately up to the university to get back to building student housing.

The site that seems to have the most support is the parking lot and tennis courts complex between Channing Way and Durant Avenue, which could house up to 400 beds. Other potential sites include a parking lot at Hearst and La Loma Avenue that could house 100 apartments and a parcel at Bancroft and Oxford that could supply up to 120 apartments.

The advisory board is expected to produce a draft by the end of the year penciling out projects. Harvey expects plenty of pitched battles that will reveal just how determined Christ is to get housing built. “I think she’s trying to be careful and diplomatic, but I don’t think that’s possible when it comes to housing,” Harvey said. “If she doesn’t take any concrete action in her first year, that’s a bad sign.”

 

This report appears in the September edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

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