Sharing Berkeley’s housing burden

Bits of Berkeley

I live in a house with 140 people, and nobody flushes the toilet.

This is neither a product of laziness nor of subpar plumbing. It is a conscious effort to help combat California’s drought through collective action. Given that a single flush can use up to seven gallons of water, as a band of 140, we have the power to make an impact.

My house is a co-op: one of the 20 houses and apartments under the Berkeley Student Cooperative. The BSC is a nonprofit cooperative whose mission is to provide low-cost housing, “thereby providing an educational opportunity for students who might not otherwise be able to afford a university education.” It succeeds because of the cooperation of its membership: Each of its 1,250 residents owes between 0.5 and five hours of “workshift” per week, a system that divides chores equally to avoid outsourcing labor that would increase the price of rent.

By practicing collective action on a larger scale, the BSC has fought to alleviate housing insecurity for college students since its founding during the Great Depression. But its role has only grown more important in recent years, as the demand for housing in the Bay Area escalates and rents around campus continue to rise.

Central to its design is the understanding that in order to receive a quality education, students must have access to affordable housing. This is especially relevant at UC Berkeley, which measures its value by accessibility. UC Berkeley’s former chancellor Robert Birgeneau once said the UC’s “educational excellence is accessible and affordable,” a quality that makes Berkeley a uniquely “vital and diverse intellectual community.”

But this is not the reality. Students at UC Berkeley face a brutally expensive housing market, which presents an obvious contradiction: UC Berkeley cannot claim to provide access to excellent education as long as it considers quality of life and quality of education separately.

This contradiction is particularly poignant for students who already suffer from homelessness and housing insecurity. While UC Berkeley values students from all socioeconomic backgrounds in principle, it treats its enrolled student body homogeneously. This blatantly ignores the reality of financially burdened students, for whom Berkeley’s high rents create an unlivable environment. The programs intended to assist these students lack the resources to meet the sum of their needs. And by failing to address this inadequacy, the campus perpetuates a stigma — it implies that there shouldn’t be a problem in the first place and harms low-income students by forcing them to find their own solutions and deal with the shame that comes with that pursuit.

By enlisting a community to share the burden of Berkeley’s unaffordable housing, the BSC provides both access and support: a true opportunity to participate in UC Berkeley’s world-class education and a mutual investment in that access.

But not everybody is driven to the co-ops by housing displacement. In 2012, the BSC’s membership census revealed that the undergraduate room-and-board houses consisted of mostly upper-class white students: a demographic for whom educational accessibility poses relatively little threat. With only 1,250 bed spaces, the social benefits of living in the BSC can eclipse the relevance of its mission for the students who need it most. This seems to be a problem of word of mouth — the students joining the co-ops typically hear about them from their friends, creating an inherently selective recruitment process. The BSC recognizes this problem — its current strategic plan aims to increase the low-income student population by five percent annually for the next three years.

As the BSC makes this necessary shift, one thing it should maintain is its character. Saying “I live in a co-op” is not the same as saying “I struggle with housing insecurity.” At its founding, the BSC implemented member education programs that were intended to eliminate prejudice from its residencies. And still today, many students join to feel at home: there are six theme houses, and in the fall, there will be a seventh. Every house has a distinct culture: Students who live in Lothlorien call themselves Elves, in Casa Zimbabwe you are a Czar, in Stebbins a Lizard and in Kingman a Toad. These cultures allow students to feel a part of something that they sustain together as they divide house labor equally — creating a sense of shared responsibility that allows students to speak and be heard. By offering more than low-cost housing, the BSC maintains a space for constructive discussion, alleviating the stigma that still pervades the UC Berkeley community as a whole.

It is not unusual for UC Berkeley students to support causes that aren’t explicitly their own. In the fall of 2014, a number of graduating seniors occupied Wheeler Hall in protest of the pending tuition hikes. The same semester, the Black Lives Matter protests knew many nonblack allies. The students who participate in this activism do so out of personal investment: out of principle or pride, or the hopeful belief that everybody’s education should be valued equally. In order for the campus to make any true progress, it must enlist the collective action of the institution and its student body. The co-ops provide a model for this action from which the campus should build.

Alastair Boone and Libby Rainey write the Thursday column on bits and pieces of the UC Berkeley experience. Contact Alastair at [email protected].

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