Housing crisis necessitates student action

Reality speaks louder than words. And you don’t need to read academic studies or hear from experts to know firsthand of the unprecedented housing crisis facing our Berkeley community — of which UC Berkeley students comprise between 20 and 25 percent by population.

As vice chair of the Housing Advisory Commission, I’ve seen it firsthand in the ever-diminishing amounts of funding available for the city of Berkeley to disburse from its Housing Trust Fund, which is the primary source of funding used to pre-develop and build new units and refurbish existing units of affordable housing. Affordable housing is broadly defined as available housing that can be rented at less than 30 percent of a household’s combined income that is 80 percent of the median income of the surrounding geographic area (in Berkeley’s case, the Oakland Metropolitan Area), as measured by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Campus must do more to be a part of the solution to our unprecedented housing crisis. To be sure, the University of California’s presence in Berkeley is an incredible and unique asset that our city is very proud of. But with all of the immense benefits provided by the university, some serious impacts are created as well — not the least of which are the expanding number of student enrollees and UC employment — without proportionate  increases in housing. UC employment current accounts for just less than 25 percent of Berkeley jobs. But with the exception of limited faculty housing assistance, housing is not provided by the university for its employees, who resort to living in private housing in Berkeley — if they can afford the staggering average rate of homeownership that, over the last few years, has crept to be just under $1 million — or the surrounding communities.

Students face an even more dire shortage of housing, particularly housing that they can actually afford. Though limited efforts are finally being made by the university to acquire land immediately surrounding the Berkeley campus with plans to eventually develop student housing on it, the housing supply provided by the campus has remained relatively stagnant since 2012 (when Maximo Martinez Commons opened).

The results of the growing population have been alarming. A recent study of the rental housing market shows that the average market rent in 2010 was $1,765 a month but in 2014, the average rent was $2,171 a month. The 2010 rent was not affordable to tenants earning less that $70,600, and the 2014 average rent requires an income of almost $87,000 — well out of the reach of most students. This dire situation has only worsened since then. An even more recent study, released earlier this year, shows that median rents in Berkeley have skyrocketed by 60 percent over the last three years, prompted by a combination of the aforementioned jobs-housing imbalance and a continuing influx of well-paid workers — mostly in the technology sector — into Berkeley as a result of being unable to find suitable housing in San Francisco or on the Peninsula, even if they can afford it.

But the city of Berkeley is not blameless for the promulgation of our housing crisis either. Fortunately, there are some strategies being utilized or explored to right this ship of unaffordability or prevent matters from becoming even worse.

Though weakened by state law, rent control has the potential to help students and remains Berkeley’s most effective strategy to combat displacement of lower-income students, families and senior citizens. The market rent on an average rent-controlled unit, as of the latest quarterly survey released by the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, increased by about 10 percent between the first quarter of 2015 and 2016. This is still far less than the rent increases being served up on tenants who live in units not covered under rent control. To provide additional protections for tenants in rent-controlled units against attempts by a small portion of unscrupulous landlords to illegally evict them, I am working with Councilmember Jesse Arreguin and the Berkeley Tenants Union on a Tenant Protection Ordinance, which was unanimously referred to city staff by our City Council.

In November, after you register to vote in Berkeley, I also urge you to vote yes on Measure AA, which will protect families with school-age children from owner move-in eviction in the middle of the school year, vote yes on Measure U1, a modest increase in the business license tax imposed on large landlords that promises to generate between $2.98 million and $3.45 million per year into our Housing Trust Fund, and vote no on Measure DD — a competing measure put on by a handful of large landlords that would generate less than half of that amount. Above all, I urge students to be involved in this critical dialogue so we can collectively work toward a Berkeley that we can all call home.

Igor Tregub is the vice chair of the Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission.

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