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University must build public residence hall Downtown

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FEBRUARY 23, 2016

UC Berkeley students are suffering from a housing crisis. UC Berkeley has the highest housing costs for a public university in the nation. About 38,000 students attend UC Berkeley, but the only body providing truly affordable housing for students — the nonprofit Berkeley Student Cooperative — can only provide about 1300 beds. UC Berkeley’s unofficial position has been long-standing: It’s not concerned with where students live. It provides the education, and students provide their own housing. As a result, UC Berkeley provides the smallest percentage of on-campus housing to undergraduates (and one of the smallest for graduate students) of all the UC campuses. This indifference to students’ need for safe, affordable housing near campus has been one of the greatest contributors to the student housing crisis.

We were hopeful when the University of California announced that it intended to build 14,000 new beds across the UC system over the next five years in order to accommodate the coming influx of 10,000 new students. Although not sufficient, this would appear to mark an important first step toward alleviating Berkeley’s student housing crisis. When we looked at the numbers for the Berkeley campus, however, we became very concerned. Despite plans to increase enrollment by at least 1,500 new students at UC Berkeley over the next few years, the campus only has plans to create 725 net new beds over the next five years; by contrast, the campus is increasing enrollment by 750 students next year alone.

Furthermore, the university plans to build this project — and future projects — as a P3, or public-private partnership. As a P3, such a residence hall would be on university land but operated by a private company, a situation known as privatization. As a result, students would simultaneously lack the protections of local laws — such as rent control and eviction protections — while also paying more for rent to a private company.

The University of California claims that it needs to build residence halls as public-private partnerships because it can’t afford to put additional debt on its balance sheets. But when the University of California Student Association asked the university if it was interested in lobbying for money to build housing — which would have allowed the university to keep debt off of its balance sheets — the university said “no.” Furthermore, according to the University of California itself, universities that build adequate student housing actually improve their credit scores, in turn reducing interest rates.

Under the city of Berkeley’s Downtown Area Plan, the University of California is allowed to build two 120-foot buildings in Downtown Berkeley. While one of the two buildings is already underway, the university has the opportunity to build the second high-rise as a university-owned student housing complex. Doing so could help alleviate the student housing crisis.

Unfortunately, the university has expressed interest in using its one remaining high-rise location to build a privately run hotel at University Avenue and Oxford Street instead of using this site to build hundreds of new student beds. This would be a grave mistake. The campus area — including Downtown — is already saturated with hotels, including a proposed 16-story hotel just a couple of blocks away from the university proposal, a development unacknowledged by UC Berkeley’s request for qualifications and proposals. A private hotel on university land would be another ill-conceived project that relies on overly optimistic revenue projections that could worsen the university’s financial health.

In using its land to support a private hotel, the university would be acting like a private land developer. But the university is not — and should not act like — a private land developer. It is a public university; it needs to be focusing on the needs of its students (which will incidentally improve its credit ratings). While building a hotel could indirectly benefit students by raising revenue for the university, it would be at the cost of directly benefiting students by fighting the housing crisis. The university must use its remaining Downtown high-rise to build affordable, university or nonprofit student housing.

Students are suffering from a deeply worsening housing crisis, and the campus’s plans to build fewer new beds than the number of new students it will enroll will worsen the housing crisis. Furthermore, plans to give new residence halls, such as Stiles Hall, to private companies will exacerbate students’ already absurdly high rents. Neither of these can be allowed to happen.

Fortunately, the university has the means to easily mitigate the crisis. It can build affordable units through a high-rise residence hall Downtown. It can fight rising rents and protect students from unjust evictions by owning and operating student housing. Such public projects are an opportunity to provide affordable, inclusionary housing for marginalized groups such as queer and trans* students, underrepresented minorities and undocumented students — all of whom suffer from a lack of inclusionary housing at UC Berkeley. It can fund these projects by working with the UCSA to lobby for housing funds. If the university still feels the need to partner with private organizations, then it should be working with nonprofits such as the Berkeley Student Cooperative, and not private developers, to ensure that new units will actually be affordable. The university must work in good faith with the ASUC to ensure that students have access to a sufficient supply of inclusionary, safe and affordable housing units near campus.

Matthew Lewis is the ASUC director of local affairs and chair of the ASUC Student Housing Committee. Chris Yamas is the ASUC housing affairs manager and committee chair pro tem. Boomer Vicente is an ASUC senator and member of the committee. Aamna Abassi and Fernando Salazar are members of the ASUC Student Real Estate Board and members of the committee. Tyler Barnum is the chair of the ASUC Graduate Assembly Housing Affairs Working Group and a member of the committee. Tim Blair is the vice president of external affairs for the Berkeley Student Cooperative and a member of the committee. Irving Salas-Barrios is the vice president of external affairs for the Interfraternity Council and a member of the committee. Daniel Rivas is a board member of the Village Residents Association and a member of the committee. Jesse Arreguin is a Berkeley City Council member and member of the committee. Stefan Elgstrand is the secretary of the Berkeley Tenants Union and a member of the committee. Efe Atli, Courtney Brousseau, Harshil Bansal and Jonathan Recinos are members of the committee. Contact the Opinion Desk at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter at @dailycalopinion.

FEBRUARY 23, 2016