How the university and the city are trying to solve Berkeley’s housing crisis

Nancy Skinner 2016 CA Senate Lake Merritt Oakland
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The affordable housing crisis is not an unfamiliar struggle in Berkeley. Students have been vocal about their experiences with homelessness, overcrowded spaces and outrageous rents for subpar living spaces.

While UC Berkeley is not the only reason for the city’s tight housing market, it needs to be a part of its solution. For years, Berkeley has ranked as one of the most expensive college towns in the nation; the need for housing is high, but the supply is low.

Housing insecurity is not unique to Berkeley. The Bay Area has the third highest level of income inequality in the nation, according to Mercury News. Students cannot compete with household incomes of full-time workers in the 95th percentile who make over 11 times more than the 20th percentile.

UC Berkeley has housing for 22 percent of undergraduates and 9 percent of graduate students — vastly lower than the UC average of 38.1 percent for undergraduates and 19.6 percent for graduate students. Logically, but easier said than done, the university should be working toward more on-campus housing.

Between a lack of housing from the university and a lack of units in the surrounding community, vacancy rates have been low. Oftentimes, students find themselves living in “temporary housing” or makeshift homes because of limited campus resources.

Unaffordable housing likely stems from housing scarcity. While it’s counterproductive to scapegoat the university and the city, it’s important that finding solutions to this housing crisis is a priority for both.

“It’s going to take both of us to solve the crisis,” said Amir Wright, a Housing Advisory commissioner. “The university will have to build the housing and the city has to get out of the university’s way to build the housing. It takes a two-prong approach.”

Students flooded Berkeley’s Planning Commission on Feb. 7, 2018, speaking in favor of the More Student Housing Now resolution, which would increase housing density and the heights of housing projects in the campus area.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said most ideas in the resolution have been sent to the Planning Commission in the past. These are ideas that the former City Council voted on, but came to a standstill in the commission.

Last year, the Planning Commission scheduled 21 meetings and canceled eight. In 2016, out of the 22 scheduled meetings, 11 were canceled. City Council can pass resolutions, but without the Planning Commission’s actions, those resolutions don’t go any further. The commission meets twice a month — more than most commissions — because of its heavy workload of high-priority items. Canceling so many of their meetings while students struggle is neglectful.

In 2015, the campus had not been planning to build more student housing, according to a campus spokesperson. But today, most campus officials seem committed to making housing a high priority: Chancellor Christ has described the issue as “urgent” and “desperate,” and a new residence hall set to house more than 770 students is on track to open in August 2018.

Many students wish that university officials would mirror their urgency to prioritize housing. “They are well-intentioned. Verbally, they are on board. But with action, they are not acting with urgency,” said Helen Veazey, the assistant chair of the ASUC Housing Commission.

It is concerning that such a basic physiological need is out of reach for so many students. Students go to great lengths to be able to study at UC Berkeley but, when plagued with unaffordable, inaccessible housing, great impediments are placed between them and the education they have worked so hard for. Ultimately, the housing crisis should not be what is keeping devoted students from higher education.

The solution might be the city finding more affordable housing. Maybe it’s the university acting with more urgency. And, perhaps, the solution could be found if the Planning Commission stopped canceling its meetings.

Contact Ella Smith at [email protected].