UC Berkeley needs more housing solutions, not illusions

It is very difficult to avoid the unkind conclusion that UC Berkeley does not care very much about serving a basic student need — providing most of its students, as many colleges do, with affordable housing. This is not only a very important economic issue; students deserve a social environment that will enrich their lives by maximizing their opportunities to interact with one another. According to a recently released housing task force report, UC Berkeley offers the lowest number of beds to students out of the nine UC schools. Only 22 percent of undergraduate students and 9 percent of graduate students enjoy campus housing. In contrast, the systemwide average is 38.1 percent for undergraduates and 19.6 percent for graduate students.

Berkeley is the nation’s most expensive college town. Just a one bedroom apartment exceeds $2,500 a month. For some students, the situation is so desperate that they either crowd together in very small apartments, live illegally in boats on the bay, sleep in their cars or endure long and difficult commutes to the Berkeley campus.

Even though the governor and state Legislature have allocated $25 million to the nine UC campuses to increase enrollment of in-state students by 10,000 students, UC Berkeley has made it clear that providing more student housing is not on UC Berkeley’s agenda. As Assistant Vice Chancellor Dan Mogulof remarked in 2015, “UC Berkeley has no plans to build student housing.” The pact with the state and the UC system was made with the devil. About $14 million, which is 56 percent of the $25 million, comes from phasing out both UC and state aid for low-income students from outside the state!

UC Berkeley has claimed that its responsibility is mainly to provide not housing but a quality education for its students. What the campus does not appreciate is that by assuring adequate, convenient, affordable housing to the majority of its students, it builds community, and accordingly, that should be part of the campus’s educational mission. At Stanford, for example, 97 percent of undergraduates live in on-campus housing.

Despite the assistant vice chancellor’s remarks about housing, UC Berkeley is replacing the community facility, Stiles Hall on Bancroft Way, in order to construct about 770 beds for students. This sounds like a shift in priorities. But that’s really an illusion. The campus claims that it has entered a public-private partnership with business. But as the newspaper The Daily Californian explains, it is really another name for privatization. The campus provides the property and the private sector develops, operates and manages the facility according to its own agenda.

For a private corporation, that agenda is maximizing profit. Typically, students pay higher rents than a university-operated facility would charge. And because the housing is built on campus property, tenants lack the same rights provided by the city of Berkeley that other tenants have. Not least, because the housing is on campus property, students are not protected by the state’s Board of Equalization, which provides strong protection against unjust evictions from private housing. In short, it is a bad deal for students.

About the developer of this new facility — always watch out for nice-sounding names. This company, the American Campus Communities, is the nation’s largest developer, owner and manager of student housing communities in the nation. If you would like to buy some shares in the company, it is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Based on questionnaires given to staff, a particular concern of employees is that they do not receive adequate training and guidance to help them relate to the resident students in these private facilities.

There have been some recent developments at the campus that need to be watched very closely. For the first time in a long while, UC officials have been complaining about the abysmal housing situation for UC Berkeley students. Its housing task force is considering nine locations for constructing student housing. Among the options for building student housing is People’s Park, which is owned by the campus. Many decades ago, the UC regents proposed building a soccer field in the park, but students opposed it.

With regard to People’s Park and other available spaces for student housing, it is likely that students will soon have additional reasons to protest. The campus is already claiming that it lack the funds to build and manage more housing. It is UC Berkeley’s excuse for favoring the so called public-private partnership model for housing students. Also, the campus has supported several expensive projects other than housing, including a swimming pool and a hotel. But as the new mayor Jesse Arreguin complained, these facilities are unnecessary, and they would waste resources that should instead be invested in student housing.

The bottom line is that there is considerable pressure on UC Berkeley to make sure that it avoids competing with the private sector. Keep in mind that the majority of the UC Board of Regents is made up of rich white men. And many of its members are themselves investors who feel committed to protecting the investments of developers and the financial and banking industry. They worry that the competition from the public sector makes it more difficult to maximize profit or to even survive.

Take, for example, the recent decision by investors to sell Harold Way, which was intended as an 18-story residential building with 302 apartments. Generally speaking, developers in Berkeley have been planning to increase housing units in the city by about 2,500. That’s an ambitious goal, which risks overbuilding. As a result, the banks have become skittish as the market for high-priced apartments seems to be shrinking. So it has become a serious question about whether Harold Way or any other private housing venture could be made profitable if the market goes south. From the perspective of the business community, it would be especially unpatriotic now for the campus to compete with the private sector.

Nevertheless, committing UC Berkeley to building and operating student housing is not a hopeless goal.  Well-organized students can exert considerable leverage. But they must first understand the extent of the campus’s participation in contributing to the exorbitant rents that many are paying. In other words, UC Berkeley has not been simply passive. It has deliberately avoided building and operating additional housing so that it can protect the very high rents in the private market. The students, then, have a principled basis for demanding that the campus cease participating in their exploitation and impoverishment. They should publicize both locally and nationally UC Berkeley’s abysmal insensitivity to the housing crisis. This is a battle that should be taken on.

Harry Brill obtained his doctorate at UC Berkeley and is an alumni. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.

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  • DragonflyBeach

    While I agree that the campus doesn’t do its part to build housing, whining about privatization of housing is ridiculous. Students cram in 1-bedrooms because of local governments restrictions, which is making housing development as difficult as possible. Even if UC Berkeley did provide a bunch of socialized, public housing for students, Berkeley hasn’t done its part to build housing relative to demand populations. Or as you call it, “overbuilding”, which is ridiculous, Berkeley is covered in single-family homes and is by no means even close to overbuilding.

    Also, simpletons need to stop being scared of the word “privatization”, and unless you live in government housing, you benefit from it. In Europe, both transit and housing has mixed private/public expenditures. If UC Berkeley can get private companies to build housing with socialization keeping it down from market-rate, it’s a benefit not a negative. UC’s dont have all the money in the world to fund dense housing you’d probably be against anyways.

    Also Harold Way will be profitable, I highly doubt the market is going south any time soon, and if it is, it’s a brief cool-off period. Could’ve probably been more comfortably profitable if it wasn’t constantly delayed through review and land use fees, and bogged down with lawsuits from anti-housing activists.

    And the little comment about “white males” running the board is pretty funny coming from likely white, wealthy property owners in the hills, in their private housing, who actively block and obstruct development, under the guise of being progressive–when in reality their property values benefit from the housing crisis pushing students out. Berkeley under-builds housing, it’s got a supply designed for the 1960’s, not 2017, and that’s why students are live 5 in a 1-bedroom apartment.

    Build more housing to bring down housing costs, stop forcing poor people to compete with the rich.

  • dpaul

    Any housing crisis is in some way a government created problem and Berkeley’s is no different. Asking government for a solution to a government caused problem is insane but this is California.

  • jim hoch

    Merced has inexpensive housing if that is your decision criteria. Davis is less expensive as well.

  • lspanker

    It has deliberately avoided building and operating additional housing so that it can protect the very high rents in the private market.

    That may be very well true, but why the need to take a dig at “rich white men”?

    • jim hoch

      Because it would not do to blame the problem on too many people and too few houses. It has to be a conspiracy.

  • diogenes

    Thank you Harry Brill and Daily Cal. Several points need emphasis and expansion: UC Berkeley very significantly under-provides student housing — 43% under the system average — to the severe detriment of students. Brill does not mention that UC Berkeley has been drastically increasing enrollment for years, making this problem drastically worse. Instead, UC Berkeley dumps the housing needs it creates onto the City of Berkeley, making Berkeley’s already dire housing crisis significantly worse.

    This provides an “opportunity” for predatory absentee investors to pillage on and plague all residents of Berkeley, including students, and their extractive method of business, which pumps the rents they extort out of Berkeley to their Wall Street investors, also damages Berkeley’s economy because that money vanishes — it never circulates here. Blackrock, the owner of the recently re-named Library Gardens, the student rent-serf tenement that recently killed six students, sucks on the order of $7 million every year out of Berkeley; Blackrock is the largest absentee landlord in America, owning over 160,000 people’s homes. This is the kind of interest that is responsible for nearly all the “develoment” that is wrecking Berkeley.

    As Mr. Brill points out, the members of the Board of Regents and the upper echelons of UC Berkeley adminstration are people whose wealth gives them a natural affinity with predatory absentee investors — that’s their class, in a word. Obviously their policy colludes with this predatory scheme and plainly they have a gross conflict of interest which is drastically harming students at UC Berkeley and severely damaging Berkeley.

    One matter Mr. Brill does not mention is the City of Berkeley’s collaboration with this predatory destruction. Berkeley’s new, self-described “progressive” City Council and mayor need to TOTALLY REVERSE this policy. It is time for the City of Berkeley to RESIST this destruction by every means. And it is time for students to wake up and understand who is wrecking their chances of a decent education, and why.