Campus must do more to reduce living costs for students

Alvaro Azcarraga/Staff

We have noted with great interest the recent focus of The Daily Californian on housing supply, demand and affordability problems faced by students.

As members of the Housing Advisory Commission, we are acutely aware of housing affordability problems in the city of Berkeley. Most of the policy issues discussed by commissioners address government funding programs, policies affecting new housing development, and modifying and developing city ordinances that affect housing. The HAC also holds public hearings on issues tangential to the student community, such as code violations in housing occupied by students.

At present, there is a division of responsibility between the campus’s housing policies and city programs. The campus is not subject to the same rules that govern privately owned housing in the city of Berkeley.

The university creates housing impacts through expanding student enrollment and UC employment at the university. In fact, UC employment accounts for roughly 23 percent of Berkeley jobs. Aside from some faculty housing assistance, housing is not provided by the university for these workers, who live in private housing in Berkeley and adjacent communities. In light of the affordability crisis compounded by increased enrollment figures while keeping the housing supply relatively steady since 2012 (when Maximo Martinez Commons opened), the campus must do its part, voluntarily, to expand its supply of housing that would be affordable to students. The campus must also be thoughtful about mitigating any impacts of the new housing — e.g. increased traffic, construction noise, etc.

Another source of housing demand stems from employed millennials who are attracted to Berkeley for its BART access and many other outstanding amenities in our community and our environs. This is all good news for rental property owners, but what does this mean for students? When demand increases, rents rise, affecting those with lower incomes the most — many students, particularly those who rely on incomes below the area median. A recent study of the rental housing market reveals that the average market rent in 2010 was $1,765 and in 2014, the average rent was $2,171. While the 2010 rent was not affordable to tenants earning below $70,600, the 2014 average rent requires an income of almost $87,000 — well out of the reach of most students.

The city’s efforts to provide affordable housing addresses only part of the need. It takes a lot of money to build new housing and subsidize rents so that they are affordable. Furthermore, most students live together as roommates; they do not constitute a household per definitions established by the public funders, such as the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department. For this reason, students who live together on a temporary basis do not qualify for city subsidy programs.

Rent control is a policy that has the potential to help students. Because rents can be increased to market rate upon tenant turnover, rent control as a policy only helps renters who have occupied the same unit over the course of at least several years and does less to help new students who are just moving into the area.

Nevertheless, the quarterly median rents released by the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board show that, in part because rent-controlled housing stock tends to be older — structures built after 1980 are exempt from rent control — and have fewer amenities than newer housing, the average rent of rent-controlled housing tends to be lower than the comparable average rent of newer housing, even when accounting for tenant turnover. For this reason, it is important for students to support policies to mitigate the impacts of the demolition of rent-controlled units.

Though, in the past, not much new rental housing was constructed, this has changed in the last 15 years. For example, since 2010, over 1,650 rental units have been built, and almost 1,800 additional units are in the planning stages. But the majority of this new market rate housing is priced at levels that exceed what many students can afford to pay resulting in more students living in units — for example, four roommates occupying a two-bedroom apartment.

Though there is more that the city of Berkeley policies can accomplish on this front, however limited it is by declining federal and statewide funding for affordable housing production, we also need to continue to remind the university about its responsibility to provide more housing for students — and employees as well.  We urge students to be involved in this critical discussion, so that we can collectively work toward a Berkeley that we can all call home.

Marian Wolfe is a commissioner and former chair of the Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission. Igor Tregub is the vice chair of the Housing Advisory Commission.

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