Let’s face it. Berkeley has a housing problem. The More Student Housing Now movement was born out of this desperate need for more housing. This resolution, among other things, expands the car-free overlay area on Southside, adds 20 feet in height to existing student housing and creates a pilot density bonus program for the Telegraph Avenue Commercial District. Berkeley City Council unanimously adopted the resolution in January. The benefits of the More Student Housing Now Resolution reach both students and the broader Berkeley community. Students have been priced out of the Southside area and the campus neighborhoods. This forces them to compete in other low-income neighborhoods in the city because there isn’t enough housing to meet the demand.
The More Student Housing Now Resolution will allow more students to live closer to campus and will reduce pressure for gentrification in South and West Berkeley. As a resident of an area close to campus, I, along with many of my peers, support more urban density right next to campus between Bancroft Way and Dwight Way, which will ease student access to extracurricular activities and campus events. Furthermore, students living closer to campus will result in environmental benefits, as it allows students to walk or bike to the university. Mayor Jesse Arreguín has already budgeted approximately $45,000 toward an environmental review of the More Student Housing Now Resolution in order to fund the resolution on the grounds that it eliminates the need for students to drive to school.
Because of Berkeley’s zoning policies that restrict buildings to four stories in the Telegraph area, students are forced farther and farther away from campus. Although I requested that Berkeley’s Planning Commission, which is responsible for recommending zoning ordinance amendments and modifications to the city’s General Plan, place student housing on its agenda in February, we need to do more. The City Council has voted multiple times to support us — however, it is legally prohibited from removing zoning restrictions preventing more housing without a Planning Commission vote first. So, there’s a desperate need to convince the Planning Commission to take prompt action. Zoning restrictions have had a pattern in the U.S. of keeping people of different races and lower incomes out, and we have a responsibility to ensure that the same narrative does not affect our students who wish to live in the campus area.
As a student, I am honored to serve on the city Housing Advisory Commission, which has researched possible revenue streams to fund homeless and low-income student housing through the university. This year, the state Legislature adopted SB 1227, which will create affordable student housing. While this bill is extremely important, we cannot expect it to fund housing for all students. Therefore, housing primarily designed for middle-class students should be funded through other revenue streams. This would allow for the limited government funds to help low-income students. Market-rate housing in the campus area must be allowed by the city to provide much of the needed middle-class housing. Since 2009, the city of Berkeley has required that new housing projects include affordable units or pay an in-lieu fee. These affordable units benefit middle-class and low-income students alike, because it allows for them to share bedrooms with two or three others.
In spite of limited university resources and state decline of higher education funds, we need to pursue every available option to use university-owned land as a path to add an abundance of beds. For example, there have been conversations around adding University Avenue and Oxford Street to the possible opportunity sites, which would be an excellent step in showing responsiveness to students and the community.
As a member of the class of 2020, I want to see many of these improvements before I graduate. To truly make a difference, the Berkeley Planning Commission needs to vote to change the laws around zoning regulations this year and expedite the environmental review for more comprehensive housing solutions, such as the More Student Housing Now Resolution. Student organizations and individual students have the collective power to make this happen, and we need to act immediately in order to secure more student housing now.
Amir Wright is an ASUC senator for the Governance and Internal Affairs Committee and serves on the Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission.