UC Berkeley students win 1st place in affordable housing contest

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A team of UC Berkeley students won first place in this year’s Low-Income Housing Challenge — a contest hosted by Bank of America Merrill Lynch — for its affordable housing complex proposal that could potentially be built in Oakland.

Six campus graduate students in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Real Estate program competed against several other west coast universities, ultimately tying with California Polytechnic State University. The campus team, CalBUILD, partnered with Berkeley-based affordable housing developer Resources for Community Development to create a business proposal for new and sustainable housing for lower income families.

CalBUILD proposed a plan for the construction of Heartwood Commons —  a 145-unit development located in the Wood Street Zoning District of West Oakland. According to the proposal, the units consist of both rental and for-sale housing for large families and those in the “creative class,” such as local artists.

“The continued demand for affordable housing in the U.S. reinforces the importance of attracting talent and building future leaders in the industry, while raising awareness for the growing need for affordable housing,” said Ari Beliak, Bank of America Vice President of Community Development and Banking, in an email. “The Bank of America Merrill Lynch Low Income Housing Challenge introduces university students to the affordable housing industry and provides the opportunity to connect with leaders in the field.”

Beliak added that many professionals within the field in Northern California have participated in the challenge “in some capacity —  as a participant, juror, developer sponsor, mentor or consultant.” Winners are also able to meet with important leaders in the affordable housing profession.

Competitors are judged on criteria such as project design, financial feasibility, community impact and support and the “X Factor” – where students creatively include niche communities with needs that are not being met. For the UC Berkeley team, accommodating the “creative class” became its innovative goal.

The students were required to plan the financial and legal logistics of the Heartwood Commons on their own, deciding on factors such as which development organization to partner with and where the housing complex would be built.

“They learned a lot about how to work together as a team of interdisciplinary students,” said Carol Galante, team advisor and faculty director of Terner Center for Housing Innovation — a campus collaboration that works to provide affordable housing for low-income families. “They each bring something to the team, which is something needed in a community project.”

Galante became an adviser to the CalBUILD team this year, but had been a juror for the challenge 25 years ago while working at Bridge Housing. She said the UC Berkeley team was very independent and creative with its proposals and reached out to advisors for advice only.

The campus typically assembles a team for the challenge each year and has won 15 times since 1992.

“Cal has always been a dominant force in this,” said Brad Wiblin, senior vice president of Bridge Housing and former winner.

Wiblin, who competed in the challenge during the contest’s formative years, added that the competition was difficult because of the compressed time frame placed on students in creating proposals.

“The amount of work they put in is extraordinary,” Wiblin said. “All of us were skipping class.”

Along with Wiblin’s own proposal, many past winning projects have gone on to be built by Bridge Housing and other Bay Area housing developers and still exist to this day.

For those who might consider joining the challenge in future years, Wiblin said competitions like this provide positive educational experiences by applying classroom concepts to real-life situations.

Contact Vera Esail at [email protected].