As is true every fall, UC Berkeley students are returning to classes and are hoping to live near campus. What they are discovering (or already know) is that in the last several years, rents have skyrocketed in the city of Berkeley. The campus has expanded enrollment without a commensurate increase in the number of units provided by the university. While the campus is slated to open a new, privately developed residence hall with about 770 beds in fall 2018 and is researching housing potential at nine other nearby sites, the number of planned new units nevertheless falls short of the number needed to house all its students.
The city of Berkeley has been home to its UC for almost 150 years, and the campus’s existence has influenced the city since its establishment. Why now is there a housing crisis for students?
Though there are a myriad of answers, the most significant is Berkeley’s desirability, an intersection of convenience and comfort. Three BART stops are located here, supplemented by a reasonably good bus service. Berkeley’s location and amenities attract millennials who have landed high-paying jobs in the greater Bay Area and can afford to rent units in new housing, but students are often priced out of them.
Some observers point to a supposed dry spell in new construction for the past 25 years to blame for our housing crisis. The number of units recently completed, under construction, or recently permitted continue to steadily increase, however. Berkeley’s zoning board approved 353 units in mixed-use buildings of at least four stories in 2014, 476 in 2015 and 509 in 2016. In the last month, there have been an additional 19 projects with an approximate total of 1,200 units that have come before the board, or are slated to do so in the near future.
Despite these attempts to alleviate high rents, prices continues to rise at an alarming rate. Developers of market-rate housing use these higher rents so that their projects “pencil out,” making the probability of more affordable rents unlikely, at least in the near-term.
Even with city ordinances regulating the amount renting tenants can be charged for their housing, it is difficult to know exactly how rent control has impacted the available housing supply. Tenants who live in units under strict rent control pay below-market-rate rents. Though the occasional roommate can benefit from a rent-stabilized unit, countless other tenants cannot avail this privilege. As these units are removed from the market through owner-move in evictions, Berkeley’s supply of about 19,500 rent-controlled units continues to dwindle. Furthermore, tenants in rent-controlled units who graduate campus may not move out, even if their rising income allows them to, making the search for current students even more competitive.
In other cases rent-controlled units are withdrawn to make way for new construction, as was the case with a former 18-unit apartment building at 2631 Durant Ave., which was demolished to make way for new market-rate housing. After the enactment of the Costa-Hawkins Act in 1995, landlords of rent-controlled units can also reset the units to market rates once the last original tenant vacate. Over time, this has contributed to a dramatic increase in median rents in Berkeley. A pending bill in the state legislature, AB 1506, seeks to repeal Costa-Hawkins, but will not be heard in committee until next year. Even so, rent control is an anti-displacement tool, not a complete solution.
There are additional explanations for the lack of affordable student housing. In some instances, rental property owners purposely leave units vacant. Owners may wish to convert their rental units to ownership units or sell their properties to other owners that would like to undertake these conversions. Such conversion is easier if there are no tenants in the building.
Then what can be done now, for the benefit of current students who are desperate to find housing that they can afford? Ultimately, it is the campus that should address the lack of affordable housing near campus. They should look towards other institutions; Columbia University offers its students guaranteed housing for all four years amidst a tough housing market. UC Berkeley has made attempts to follow in these footsteps by master-leasing privately built apartment buildings to accommodate for the dearth in campus-built student housing. But because these buildings were not constructed as residence halls, they do not have the amenities that the standard residence hall buildings provide to students. Only time will tell if this new strategy will be worth pursuing in years to come.
In the meantime, we suggest the following strategy for students – lobby the campus and advocate for more housing. We urge students to be involved in a critical discussion about the issue of housing affordability and will do whatever we can to support their engagement on this topic. Together, we can work toward a Berkeley that we can all call home.
Igor Tregub and Marian Wolfe are, respectively, the chair and vice chair of Berkeley’s Housing Advisory Commission. Opinions are their own and not necessarily those of the commission.