‘It was whatever you could find’: Reflecting on Berkeley’s original student housing 150 years later

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The yearly scramble for students to find affordable housing in Berkeley can be traced to more than a century ago, as the student housing crisis has existed since the campus was founded in 1868.

UC Berkeley did not provide its students with housing when it was first founded, according to The Centennial Record of the University of California. It wasn’t until nearly a century later, in the 1960s, that the campus built large-scale student housing.

“The Regents and former presidents believed that the only responsibility that the university had was an academic one and that it was better for the students to live in the community,” said former supervisor of housing Ruth Donnelly in a 1966 interview with former Institute of Governmental Studies editor Harriet Nathan.

In the early 1870s when UC Berkeley had just been established, the city of Berkeley had not yet been developed. Most students lived in apartments in Oakland or San Francisco and commuted to campus, or lived at home, according to Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, or BAHA, president Steven Finacom. Those who did live near campus lived in privately owned and operated buildings, such as fraternities, sororities and student boarding houses. The student co-ops were founded in the early 1930s as a way to live affordably during the Great Depression, Finacom added.

Carrie Olson, BAHA corporate secretary, recalled that when her parents attended UC Berkeley in the 1940s, there were very few housing options.

“It was whatever you could find,” Olson said. “My dad lived in an unfinished basement with a bunch of guys.”

With funding from a private gift, UC Berkeley built and operated Bowles Hall, the first student dorm, in 1929. At the time, Bowles Hall was an all-male dorm. Stern Hall, an all-female dorm, was built in the early 1940s. These dorms, however, only housed a small portion of students, with most students still living in private housing, Olson said.

The units, which were the first instance of large-scale student housing in Berkeley, were built in the 1960s, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore. For the first time in UC Berkeley’s history, a large number of students lived in campus-run housing.

Despite these increases in student housing, the campus still struggles to accommodate students, an issue that is exacerbated by competition from other Berkeley residents and industries searching for housing, according to Finacom.

In addition to this competition, the university has continued to increase student enrollment, admitting “more students than there are beds for them to sleep in,” Finacom said. Enrollment has increased by nearly 20,000 students since the 1960s, and the available student housing has not been able to meet this new demand.

“The university still has the responsibility to provide for students,” Olson said. “Whether you can be somewhere safe and secure and affordable is a huge factor in deciding to stay in college.”

Contact Madeleine Gregory at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @mgregory_dc.