Student housing security long overdue

Bits of Berkeley

Libby Rainey_online

Berkeley’s winter break is a safe haven for many students: a brief respite from the stress of schoolwork and a time to be with family. But for those who don’t have a place to return to, the holidays can feel ominous. This is especially true for those living in campus residence halls, which close for the duration of break. When the residence halls shut their doors, some students are left with nowhere to go.

“(They) expect you to go home and be with parents, let them feed you and house you, but that wasn’t the case for me,” said junior Kelly Archer on having to leave campus housing during her freshman year.

Archer spent most of her break couch-surfing and was back in Berkeley the first moment housing opened up again. There aren’t firm numbers, but Archer, a financially independent student, said she is certain many others have found themselves in a similar position.

When the Berkeley community talks about its homeless population, conversations often circle around People’s Park. But housing insecurity at UC Berkeley is often far less overt. Students who are attempting to balance costs and stay afloat in classes can find themselves unable to provide their own housing and food. This lack of basic needs makes being a successful student a Herculean effort.

Students commit to the campus with the expectation that they will be able to take advantage of the education that they are offered. In hand, the campus must exert its full effort to ensure that they are able to participate in campus and classroom life. Combatting housing insecurity head-on is integral to this mission.

Campus senior Anthony Abril, the financial aid director for the student advocate’s office, launched a pilot program over winter break to offer housing to those who would otherwise find themselves temporarily homeless when the dorms closed. With no formal mechanisms for identifying students who may have needed a safe space to live, Abril sent out emails and flyers to get the word out.

Abril’s program, funded by the campus’s Financial Aid office, was able to offer three students housing over the break. This number is small but significant — it means that three students were able to make it through the holidays without worrying about where to sleep each night. But Abril said the small number also indicates that there were others who still had to struggle to make it through the break without housing.

The need for this program points to a crucial weakness in our campus support system: It often assumes students have their basic needs met. Winter break housing is only one part of a much larger problem. Not all students can afford Berkeley’s cost of living, especially as prices in the Bay Area soar.

For the 2014-15 school year, UC Berkeley’s in-state undergraduate tuition and fees were $12,972, while the average cost of living was $17,087. Ruben Canedo, a coordinator for the campus Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence, says the discussion on affordability at the university has focused too much on tuition while ignoring a consistently hefty price tag: living.

“What does housing security mean? We haven’t defined that,” Canedo said. “If I’m living in a one-bedroom apartment that has no living room with five people, and the day that the landlord finds out, we are all going to get kicked out, do we consider that housing security? Some would say yes. Some would say hell no.”

Housing security at UC Berkeley must not be defined by the worst-case scenario. Simply having a place to sleep is not enough to constitute a safe and habitable living environment — a necessity for a healthy academic life.

UC Student Association President Kevin Sabo recently conducted an informal survey on this issue. Of the 300 or so individuals that responded, some reported living in cramped or subpar conditions, and many disclosed extreme financial instability.

One student wrote, “My first worry is tuition. Then, second is food. Third is housing. I don’t have time to worry about my classes.”

Improving this student’s quality of life and addressing the basic needs of countless others require greater analysis of the issue of housing instability in the first place. Much of this work comes down to numbers. UC Berkeley’s cost of attendance survey will be released this March, and its questions will determine future financial aid packages, according to Abril. The Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence also sent out a survey on housing insecurity Friday.

While these questionnaires are a good start, UC Berkeley can’t even begin to know the extent of student struggles or how to fix them if it doesn’t have more substantial data. The California State University system released a yearlong study last week that found that up to 12 percent of its 460,000 students may struggle with “housing displacement.” The University of California should pursue a similar endeavor to find out just what problems plague UC students, and what will be necessary to combat them.

Next fall, a committee including the Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence and the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office will convene to address this issue and its many facets. The group’s first stated goal is deepening “understanding of the need.”

This understanding must involve every student’s active concern and attention. Only this scrutiny will allow the campus to build an inclusive and equitable campus for everyone.

Libby Rainey and Alastair Boone writes the Thursday column on bits and pieces of the UC Berkeley experience. Contact Libby at [email protected].