Student Housing Subcommittee can focus the city’s attention to solving student housing affordability crisis

Ameena Golding/Staff

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Rent day is coming, a day we all dread. Do I need to skip a meal or work an extra shift instead of studying to make sure I have enough money to pay the rent? Maybe we can squeeze in another roommate in the living room. Despite the rental woes many of us face, progress is being made. With a new City Council now controlled by the pro-student progressive faction, bold action is being tackled to address the issues students face.

As Mayor Jesse Arreguin’s appointee to the city’s Housing Advisory Commission I have created the Student Housing Subcommittee to put a focus on housing issues specific to students. Our subcommittee is comprised of three members, two of whom are students who have researched and advocated for student housing to both City and University administrators. By holding our meetings in student-centric locations, we are able to bring students to the table that historically has been controlled by corporate developers and other non-student interests.

Students know that, despite the claims of libertarians and corporate front-groups, a deregulated market will not solve our housing crisis. This is because the current situation stems from the intersection of affordability and supply, not the latter alone. The vast majority of students cannot afford the market rates of the new luxury apartments that market-rate developers build (and the select few who can afford it do not need much help).

By letting for-profit developers build more housing per acre without reasonable regulations, we will give them obscene and unfair profits without making a dent in the affordability crisis. That’s why we must condition allowing higher density on increasing affordability requirements so that we have have a housing market which works for student-tenants, not developers who profit off of poverty.

Rezoning efforts, such as up-zoning and reducing parking, should focus on areas near campus since the daily commute for students and other campus affiliates is usually a short walk. It is imperative that we increase the density of campus-adjacent areas, in order to expand the supply of housing and keep students from having to move to nonstudent neighborhoods far from campus.

Instead of a focus on luxury housing, students — like the city overall — need a serious investment in funding below-market-rate housing. We’ve seen how wildly successful this can be through the Berkeley Student Cooperative, or BSC. But the length of the BSC waitlist exemplifies the tragically low amount of below-market-rate housing compared to student demand, many of whom are of low income.

Last year, the Berkeley City Council passed Measure U1, raising $3.4 million in funds that can be used for new affordable housing, such as projects like the BSC. Though we must acknowledge that this measure will not not solve the housing affordability crisis on its own, students, who represent over 30% of the City’s population, must also push to receive our proportionate share of funding for local affordable housing. Students have been unjustly deprived of their fair share in the past by inaccessibility to information and even purposeful, malicious misleading and shaming by corporate front groups and their spokespeople. Our demands for fair distribution of funds from the city are long overdue.

We should not, however, rely solely on the investment of the City of Berkeley in our goals of affordable student housing; the city’s efforts must be equaled by the campus’s. UC Berkeley has not built sufficient housing, (to the detriment of both students and the surrounding communities who are displaced), often wrongly claiming it had no obligation to do so. And even when it has built traditional dormitories, these dorms have overwhelmingly been too expensive, either at market-rate or even above market-rate. In addition, the campus’s decision to exclusively use for-profit university private partnerships — over the repeated objections of student housing leaders and even direct votes of the entire student body — contradicts their newfound recognition of their responsibility to provide adequate student housing and risks further worsening the unaffordability crisis through even higher rents to sustain corporate profits.

That’s why the Student Housing Subcommittee will also focus on pressuring UC Berkeley administrators to change the student affordable housing policies within its control. For example, revenue bonds could be used to build university-owned housing, which would then be leased to the Berkeley Student Cooperative to provide significantly below-market-rate housing (a solution unanimously endorsed by the ASUC). The subcommittee will also be exploring alternative sites to build student housing, as the sites currently being considered were not based on any amount of student input. With People’s Park and the Oxford Tract both facing serious opposition from students and non-students, it’s important that popular sites for building housing — such as existing parking lots and garages — be considered so that we can avoid delays and permanent setbacks in building student housing and solve this worsening affordability crisis as soon as possible.

We have a City Council and Mayor who respect the UC Berkeley student body and our needs and are committed to staging students and non-students as equals instead of trying to pit us against each other. While student and non-student needs in the city of Berkeley are unquestionably similar, we must recognize the unique slant of student housing issues and its previous negligence. The Student Housing Subcommittee is a first step in facilitating this recognition. 

Matthew Lewis is the creator and Acting Chair of the City of Berkeley’s Housing Advisory Commission’s student housing housing subcommittee; the founder and former chair of the Housing Commission of the Associated Student of the University of California (ASUC); and the founding Basic Needs Officer for the University of California Student Association (UCSA). Opinions expressed above are his own and not necessarily those of the aforementioned organizations.