In the face of housing insecurity, students look to city for change

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Ethan Epstein/File

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Anthony Hakim has never experienced the type of homelessness that pushes people to the streets. He said he has never done his homework in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk, as he observed one student doing upon arrival at UC Berkeley. He had observed homelessness from the outside his whole life, but he had never felt as though it applied to him.

In fact, when Hakim was in high school, he spent his days on the streets of Los Angeles talking to homeless individuals and fighting to destigmatize homelessness.

“It was an effort to delegitimize the idea that homeless people are lazy,” Hakim said. “And as I moved along in my education, the issue of homelessness became more prevalent.”

When Hakim transferred to UC Berkeley, he was housing insecure himself, but he did not realize it until much later.

In his first year at UC Berkeley, Hakim — now a recent graduate who works with the Rent Stabilization Board — lived at his friend’s apartment without being on the lease. If Hakim had been on the lease, the cost of rent for the apartment would have soared to an unaffordable amount for both him and his friend.

During this time, Hakim said he was vulnerable, relying on nothing but his friend’s kindness.

“For other people, the story’s different. And I don’t think people really recognize that. I don’t think enough realize that housing insecurity of that sort also falls into the umbrella of homelessness,” Hakim said. “I was in a position that if (my friend) wanted to kick me out, he could.”

Since arriving at UC Berkeley, Hakim has continued to devote time and energy to addressing homelessness, particularly the issue of student housing insecurity — and now, he has begun to engage with the issue from a city perspective.

Through his internship with the city’s Rent Stabilization Board, Hakim is currently compiling a research paper on student housing insecurity. He said that while the the campus has not yet released data on the number of homeless students at UC Berkeley, he estimates that 1 to 10 percent of the student population is homeless.

“When you’re at the rent board, (homelessness) is the issue that we’re all trying to prevent,” Hakim said. “We’re trying to provide our tenants and our constituency with safe and affordable housing.”

Turning to the city

In fall 2017, total UC Berkeley enrollment — undergraduate and graduate — reached nearly 42,000 students, according to statistics provided by the campus Office of Planning and Analysis.

UC Berkeley students make up about a quarter of the total city population, said Berkeley City College history professor emeritus and former chair of social sciences Charles Wollenberg — a fact that makes student housing not only a campus issue but a city one as well. Wollenberg has studied and researched California social history, publishing “Berkeley: A City in History” through the University of California Press in 2008.

“The extent to which the university doesn’t provide housing for students — it takes what is already a very tight, expensive housing market and makes it even worse,” Wollenberg said. “So the city has a huge interest in trying to promote student housing.”

Many students like Hakim have thus turned to local politics in an effort to combat student housing insecurity. At the North Berkeley Senior Center on Feb. 7, a building typically dominated by nonstudents and policy referrals was transformed into a center of student activism.

On this one night, youthful energy and anger were palpable. In the Berkeley Planning Commission meeting room, bold signs and confident voices made clear the source of the activists’ anger: a lack of affordable housing for UC Berkeley students.

“The student housing crisis is out of control and gets worse every year,” said former ASUC external affairs vice president Rigel Robinson at the meeting. “But what is in control is how we respond.”

“More Student Housing Now” — words written across posters and agenda items, often followed by an exclamation point or two — was the expression of the evening. This begged the question of how Berkeley City Council and its various commissions would turn this wish for increased housing development into reality.

The answer to this question lies in the More Student Housing Now resolution, which was adopted by the council and referred to the city’s Planning Commission on Jan. 23. It is multipronged and focuses on increasing housing on Southside, the student-dominated area adjacent to campus.

Specific proposals within the resolution include the construction of at least two high-rise student housing complexes, converting vacant commercial space into housing and adding 20 feet of height to buildings on Southside.

Discussion of the resolution at the Feb. 7 Planning Commission meeting marked a concerted effort among students from all walks of campus life — ASUC senators and Berkeley Student Cooperative leaders, undergraduate and graduate students — to promote housing development within the realm of local politics.

Among these attendees, there was a strong desire for action and a sense of optimism surrounding the city’s ability to enact such change.

“This is merely creating policy that makes development for student housing around campus possible,” said campus senior and former ASUC senator Connor Hughes. “It’s in the city’s best interest to provide for the community that lives here — and students are part of that community.”

Ben Fong, who graduated with a Master of Business Administration from the Haas School of Business last year and has been a commissioner on the city’s Planning Commission since 2016, said he sees student lobbying and input as key components of city policy.

Fong pointed to the February Planning Commission meeting as an example of the power of student voices in impacting policy decisions. The meeting ended with the commission voting to assess and prioritize the various components of the More Student Housing Now resolution.

“When you’re about to take a vote and you hear someone say, ‘I had to live homeless because of these issues,’ or ‘I had to break the rules of my lease because housing is too expensive here,’ that really sticks with you and that puts a human face on a lot of these issues,” Fong said. “I just don’t want students to undervalue how important it is to come and say how (housing insecurity) is affecting them.”

Past city initiatives: The Southside Plan

The More Student Housing Now resolution is not the first time students have engaged with city politics to promote housing development.

The Southside Plan, an initiative first proposed within the council chambers in 1997, was only adopted in 2011, after 14 years of discussion and revision. Like the More Student Housing Now resolution, the plan was primarily aimed at creating more affordable housing on Southside.

The adopted plan, however, was a compromise, according to Councilmember Kriss Worthington; it failed to accomplish all that he had hoped for. Worthington said he was disappointed when Tom Bates, Berkeley’s mayor at the time, removed phrases that referred to student housing as a top priority, essentially watering it down.

And just as with More Student Housing Now, student mobilization was at the heart of the Southside Plan’s traction, with support from numerous campus coalitions.

“After all that work and 400 students participated, we lost,” Worthington said. “We got some good language in the Southside Plan, but not enough.”

Seven years after the council’s approval of the Southside Plan, students are raising the same concerns about lack of student housing availability with a renewed sense of urgency, as evidenced by the student involvement at February’s Planning Commission meeting this year.

The fall 2017 semester also marked the first time the campus undergraduate population exceeded 30,000 students. Since 2013, total student enrollment has steadily increased by about 1,000 students per year.

“I don’t want to rehash the ancient battles (surrounding the Southside Plan) because those debates happened in a very different time with a drastically lower number of students,” Worthington said. “I think we have to address the new number of students and accommodate reality.”

City and campus cooperation

Students and city officials have also been at the forefront of discussions about student housing that merge city and campus perspectives.

The nature of this collaboration is particularly evident in the debate surrounding the Oxford Tract, a site just blocks from campus that is currently home to agricultural research facilities, greenhouses and and the Student Organic Garden. The tract provides educational and research opportunities for students in the campus College of Natural Resources.

In January 2017, the campus’s housing task force identified the Oxford Tract as a potential site for housing development — a suggestion that has sparked discussion about how to create more campus housing that does not come at a cost to education.

On April 2, Councilmember Kate Harrison held a town hall meeting in which panelists from both the city and the campus engaged in discussion about the proposed development on the Oxford Tract. Two students — Hughes and then-senior Grace Treffinger, who recently graduated from UC Berkeley — were included as panelists.

Treffinger has been an outspoken advocate for retention of the Oxford Tract facilities, but she has also expressed a commitment to student housing development. She is a member of the Oxford Tract Organizing Coalition, which released a report in February outlining potential ways to accommodate housing development on the tract while retaining the integrity of its educational and research facilities.

“My hopes are just that there’s a deeper conversation and a raised awareness about the potential for this development,” Treffinger said at an Oxford Tract Organizing Coalition meeting in March.

In 2005, the campus released its 2020 Long Range Development Plan, or LRDP, in which it stated its intention to provide 2,600 additional beds for students by the year 2020. The LRDP also states the campus’s goal of providing two years of housing for incoming freshmen and one year for incoming transfer students.

A new campus housing project on Dana Street will provide about 770 beds for students beginning in fall 2018, and Chancellor Carol Christ has openly stated her commitment to alleviating the housing shortage.

But the campus has yet to turn its stated goals into reality. Incoming freshmen are not even guaranteed one year of campus housing. As of January 2017, the campus provided fewer than 9,000 beds for students, according to a Housing Master Plan Task Force report released that month.

Campus junior Robbie Li, who is an intern at the city’s Rent Stabilization Board along with Hakim, said placing all of the responsibility to create student housing on the campus is an ineffective means of alleviating the housing crisis.

“The blame game is a zero-sum game. We’re not going to get anywhere,” Li said. “So I’d rather us focus on the things we can do, because there are problems and we really have to address them.”

A grassroots strategy

For his part, to address the issue of student housing insecurity, Li has turned to grassroots activism and storytelling. Through his city internship, Li was at the forefront of the creation of a documentary on student homelessness in Berkeley, titled “Invisible Students: Homeless at UC Berkeley.”

The film features then-campus senior Taversia Borrelli, a formerly homeless student. Li first met Borrelli at the end of the fall semester while conducting interviews for the documentary. At the time, Borelli was homeless and on the verge of dropping out of school because of unpaid loans and financial strain.

“A small voice inside me says this can’t happen,” Li said. “I can’t let a fellow student just fall out.”

Like Hakim, Li took the initiative to effect change. He emailed campus administrators to advocate on behalf of Borrelli and share her experiences with housing insecurity and her stories of instability.

Ultimately, Borrelli received campus housing at University Village in Albany for the spring semester.

“It’s not that the administrators themselves are willing to let students go. It’s just through huge bureaucracies, people get dehumanized. They become a number,” Li said. “I just really wanted to use that connection to show them that we can do something here. And they did.”

Hakim said he sees the documentary as a “really strong step in the right direction” but only one among the many steps that must be taken in order to eradicate student homelessness.

As city interns and through their projects, Hakim and Li have focused on raising awareness about the prevalence of student housing insecurity at UC Berkeley — a grassroots strategy that campus senior and Student Advocate-elect Sophie Bandarkar said she sees as a way to destigmatize the issue.

“Our work can only go so far. The first thing for anyone to do if they’re interested in an issue is to learn about it,” Hakim said. “Get involved. Do what you can.”

Danielle Kaye is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @danielledkaye.