Temporary housing, constant stress

Construction site for the new Bancroft Residence Hall
Maya Elbaz/Staff

As I opened the results of my housing application, I figured the stress of the past few months would finally be over. The nightmare of college applications could finally fade away, and I could breathe easily knowing where I would be living during my first year of college. But my sigh of relief was quickly cut short as the words “temporary housing” stared back at me from my computer screen.

Based on what I could gather from my housing contract, I had been placed in a lounge converted into a quad because UC Berkeley had more incoming students than housing available. Some time between the start of the academic year and Dec. 16, I would be moved into permanent housing. When that time came, I would have no choice but to pack up all my things and, within 72 hours, move to wherever the campus decided to place me.

Little did I know that the anxiety and confusion I was experiencing in that moment would only continue to grow during my first semester as a freshman.

After nearly four months, living in a constant state of limbo has been nothing short of a migraine. Communication with UC Berkeley Housing has been spotty, if not nonexistent, and paying the same housing rate as someone in a double — despite being in a quad — has been a serious financial burden.

I have amazing roommates, but my res hall room hasn’t been the haven I need to go to in order to decompress after a long day of school. Instead, my room has been a constant reminder of the campus’s lack of resources and the unsympathetic bureaucracy it subjects its students to. And after speaking to other students placed in temporary housing, I’ve found that I am not alone in my frustrations.

Esther Yom, a freshman placed in Unit 1 housing, described how she felt like she’s been “left in the dark” by the housing office because of its poor communication.

“Instead, my room has been a constant reminder of the campus’s lack of resources and the unsympathetic bureaucracy it subjects its students to.”

When I spoke to Renee Levin, another freshman in Unit 1, about her experience in temporary housing, she responded without hesitation, saying that it’s been an “overwhelmingly negative experience.”

Not only does Levin feel similarly frustrated with the housing office for inconsistent emails and seeing her roommates be moved from one temporary housing location to another, but she also described feeling “not really welcome” by her peers and “hostility from (her) RA” because she and her roommates were perceived as “disrupting floor life.”

The housing office has just recently informed students such as Yom, Levin and myself who have not been moved to permanent housing that we will probably have to stay in our temporary assignments through the spring semester if we choose to continue to live in on-campus housing.

Because of the stress this situation has already caused them, however, both Yom and Levin have now made plans to move to off-campus housing. Canceling their housing contracts will cost them $300, but the benefits of being able to live on their own terms outweigh the fees.

Yom, Levin and myself are only three examples of the larger UC Berkeley housing crisis. According to an email from Ellen Topp, the campus’s director of Student Affairs Communications, 170 incoming students in total were placed in temporary housing. Eighty-seven of those currently remain within converted lounge spaces with only the vaguest promise of being moved into permanent housing.

On an even broader scale, UC Berkeley houses the lowest percentage of students compared to other campuses in the UC system. A report drafted by the housing task force formed by then-interim executive vice chancellor and provost and current chancellor Carol Christ found that UC Berkeley only houses approximately 22 percent of undergraduates and 9 percent of graduate students in comparison to the systemwide average — 38.1 percent for undergraduates and 19.6 percent for graduate students — “despite the fact that (UC) Berkeley has one of the tightest housing markets of any of the UC locations.”

The campus’s lack of ability to provide housing has serious ramifications on its student population. Not surprisingly, the same task force found in a survey conducted in 2017 that 10 percent of undergraduate, graduate students and postdoctoral students self-reported experiencing homelessness at some point since arriving at Berkeley.

So what gives? Why can’t such an elite academic institution, with an operating budget of $2.5 billion (at least in 2016), guarantee even such a basic need for its students?

“UC Berkeley faces unique housing challenges other schools do not, specifically a densely populated urban environment and nearby protected lands, leaving limited available space to build,” Topp explained in an email.

“Why can’t such an elite academic institution, with an operating budget of $2.5 billion (at least in 2016), guarantee even such a basic need for its students?”

The devastating trends of skyrocketing property values, steep rents and gentrification playing out in the Berkeley community and the greater Bay Area have also led to a shortage of affordable housing available to UC Berkeley students.

According to Topp’s email, the chancellor has publicly committed to addressing these issues, promising to double the number of housing units for campus students. The aforementioned Housing Task Force has identified 10 different possible locations for building additional housing, and the campus is currently working on projects such as the Bancroft Residence Hall, which plans to house approximately 775 students in fall 2018. The campus has also submitted funding requests to UCOP “to hire a “Basic Needs Manager, provide emergency housing residence halls, housing security services and homeless student resolution,” said Topp’s email.

These actions seem like promising steps in the right direction, but until they become implemented into concrete solutions (literally), it’s hard to tell in the present whether they will be able to seriously alleviate students’ concerns about housings.

UC Berkeley’s proposed remedies to the housing crisis, while they will hopefully benefit students, could easily put people who are already vulnerable to housing insecurity — people in the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, undocumented, low-income and first-generation individuals — at further risk. The building of college properties often increases the pace of gentrification for local residents, so as UC Berkeley attempts to solve its own housing problem, it will be inadvertently exacerbating the much larger crisis that surrounds it.

While physically erecting more buildings will technically make more housing available, making housing affordable and accessible to those that need it most is a whole other ballgame. What students and surrounding Berkeley residents need and deserve is a comprehensive approach from the campus that addresses the structural problems that continue to push marginalized people out of their homes. Quick fixes such as temporary housing might alleviate immediate concerns, but they aren’t the solutions we need for lasting change — it’s right there in the name.

Contact Anna Tseselsky at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Anna_Tseselsky.