There’s no doubt that UC Berkeley has an affordable housing problem. A university wide survey found that approximately 10 percent of undergraduate students experience housing insecurity during their time at UC Berkeley. This means that more than 3,000 students are sleeping in cars and libraries, crashing on couches or worse. It’s alarming that students at the No. 1 public university in the world, like many Bay Area residents, have to worry about finding shelter.
Chancellor Carol Christ has reaffirmed her commitment to alleviating the housing crisis time and time again. In some regards, she has followed through on her promises; already, we have seen Blackwell Hall open its doors to 752 lucky freshmen. In the coming years, we will see the rapid development of 7,000 student bed spaces as the university relinquishes its available real estate to a large, for-profit “master developer.” For students who are able to pay $1,800 a month for a shared residence hall room, the development of new housing is great news and will likely make housing easier to find.
But to most students who are middle- and low-income, development alone is not enough. Too often, the importance of affordability is left out of conversations about the housing crisis. This is especially true among university administrators. As one of two students sitting on the chancellor’s Housing Task Force, I had access to the discussions among Chancellor Christ and UC Berkeley real estate administrators. I have asked how they plan to house low-income students given the high cost of their development plan, and I have received no clear answers.
The consequences of not providing affordable housing to students are dire, and we are already feeling the impacts. In the 2016 Housing Survey, a student is quoted as saying, “I commute two hours every day to get to campus, riding my bike and BART for a total of > $100/month, on top of my outrageous rent. I just couldn’t afford an apartment closer to campus. And I still have to live with a stranger in a tiny, loud apartment.” Experiences such as this are common among undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students. If the university does not meet the demand for affordable housing, it will not be able to attract a student body with the diversity of background and experience that it prides itself on.
Currently, the Berkeley Student Cooperative, or BSC, is the only affordable housing available to students. The BSC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that houses more than 1,300 students in 20 properties near campus at the range of $460 to $880 depending on the living accommodations, which include cooked meals and an open pantry of healthy food, as well as study spaces, job opportunities and an inclusive community. Since 1933, the BSC has been democratically run by students for students, ensuring that rates will always reflect the student budget.
Low-income students make up approximately half of the BSC’s population, and we intend to increase that number to at least 75 percent over the next few years. With housing prices and tuition on the rise, many of these students would have to drop out of UC Berkeley without this affordable housing option. The BSC is stepping in to fulfill our public education promise, and the demand for its services will only continue to grow. University administrators need to recognize the impact of the BSC and should actively work to support us.
In the past, UC Berkeley has collaborated with the Berkeley Student Cooperative by providing long-term leases. This allows the university to provide more affordable housing to its students without having to do any additional work or spend any additional money. Cloyne Court Hotel is on a 10-year lease to the BSC by the university for $1 per year. In return, the BSC commits to maintaining and improving the property and housing students. Fenwick Weaver’s Village is also under university ground lease to the Berkeley Student Cooperative. The BSC developed the land into apartment complexes for more than 350 low-income students. The lease for Fenwick Weaver’s Village will soon be up for renewal. So, the BSC and UC Berkeley have a history of working together, and this needs to continue. This history should not be forgotten but should be used as a template for the future of student housing. UC Berkeley does not have to hand everything over to profit-driven private developers as it currently plans to. To do so would be an enormous detriment to the livelihood of its student body.
The affordable housing problem in Berkeley is severe, but it has a clear solution. By working with and supporting the Berkeley Student Cooperative, the university can ensure that low-income and marginalized students have access to higher education.