UC Berkeley needs more housing solutions, not illusions

It is very difficult to avoid the unkind conclusion that UC Berkeley does not care very much about serving a basic student need — providing most of its students, as many colleges do, with affordable housing. This is not only a very important economic issue; students deserve a social environment that will enrich their lives by maximizing their opportunities to interact with one another. According to a recently released housing task force report, UC Berkeley offers the lowest number of beds to students out of the nine UC schools. Only 22 percent of undergraduate students and 9 percent of graduate students enjoy campus housing. In contrast, the systemwide average is 38.1 percent for undergraduates and 19.6 percent for graduate students.

Berkeley is the nation’s most expensive college town. Just a one bedroom apartment exceeds $2,500 a month. For some students, the situation is so desperate that they either crowd together in very small apartments, live illegally in boats on the bay, sleep in their cars or endure long and difficult commutes to the Berkeley campus.

Even though the governor and state Legislature have allocated $25 million to the nine UC campuses to increase enrollment of in-state students by 10,000 students, UC Berkeley has made it clear that providing more student housing is not on UC Berkeley’s agenda. As Assistant Vice Chancellor Dan Mogulof remarked in 2015, “UC Berkeley has no plans to build student housing.” The pact with the state and the UC system was made with the devil. About $14 million, which is 56 percent of the $25 million, comes from phasing out both UC and state aid for low-income students from outside the state!

UC Berkeley has claimed that its responsibility is mainly to provide not housing but a quality education for its students. What the campus does not appreciate is that by assuring adequate, convenient, affordable housing to the majority of its students, it builds community, and accordingly, that should be part of the campus’s educational mission. At Stanford, for example, 97 percent of undergraduates live in on-campus housing.

Despite the assistant vice chancellor’s remarks about housing, UC Berkeley is replacing the community facility, Stiles Hall on Bancroft Way, in order to construct about 770 beds for students. This sounds like a shift in priorities. But that’s really an illusion. The campus claims that it has entered a public-private partnership with business. But as the newspaper The Daily Californian explains, it is really another name for privatization. The campus provides the property and the private sector develops, operates and manages the facility according to its own agenda.

For a private corporation, that agenda is maximizing profit. Typically, students pay higher rents than a university-operated facility would charge. And because the housing is built on campus property, tenants lack the same rights provided by the city of Berkeley that other tenants have. Not least, because the housing is on campus property, students are not protected by the state’s Board of Equalization, which provides strong protection against unjust evictions from private housing. In short, it is a bad deal for students.

About the developer of this new facility — always watch out for nice-sounding names. This company, the American Campus Communities, is the nation’s largest developer, owner and manager of student housing communities in the nation. If you would like to buy some shares in the company, it is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Based on questionnaires given to staff, a particular concern of employees is that they do not receive adequate training and guidance to help them relate to the resident students in these private facilities.

There have been some recent developments at the campus that need to be watched very closely. For the first time in a long while, UC officials have been complaining about the abysmal housing situation for UC Berkeley students. Its housing task force is considering nine locations for constructing student housing. Among the options for building student housing is People’s Park, which is owned by the campus. Many decades ago, the UC regents proposed building a soccer field in the park, but students opposed it.

With regard to People’s Park and other available spaces for student housing, it is likely that students will soon have additional reasons to protest. The campus is already claiming that it lack the funds to build and manage more housing. It is UC Berkeley’s excuse for favoring the so called public-private partnership model for housing students. Also, the campus has supported several expensive projects other than housing, including a swimming pool and a hotel. But as the new mayor Jesse Arreguin complained, these facilities are unnecessary, and they would waste resources that should instead be invested in student housing.

The bottom line is that there is considerable pressure on UC Berkeley to make sure that it avoids competing with the private sector. Keep in mind that the majority of the UC Board of Regents is made up of rich white men. And many of its members are themselves investors who feel committed to protecting the investments of developers and the financial and banking industry. They worry that the competition from the public sector makes it more difficult to maximize profit or to even survive.

Take, for example, the recent decision by investors to sell Harold Way, which was intended as an 18-story residential building with 302 apartments. Generally speaking, developers in Berkeley have been planning to increase housing units in the city by about 2,500. That’s an ambitious goal, which risks overbuilding. As a result, the banks have become skittish as the market for high-priced apartments seems to be shrinking. So it has become a serious question about whether Harold Way or any other private housing venture could be made profitable if the market goes south. From the perspective of the business community, it would be especially unpatriotic now for the campus to compete with the private sector.

Nevertheless, committing UC Berkeley to building and operating student housing is not a hopeless goal.  Well-organized students can exert considerable leverage. But they must first understand the extent of the campus’s participation in contributing to the exorbitant rents that many are paying. In other words, UC Berkeley has not been simply passive. It has deliberately avoided building and operating additional housing so that it can protect the very high rents in the private market. The students, then, have a principled basis for demanding that the campus cease participating in their exploitation and impoverishment. They should publicize both locally and nationally UC Berkeley’s abysmal insensitivity to the housing crisis. This is a battle that should be taken on.

Harry Brill obtained his doctorate at UC Berkeley and is an alumni. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.