Legislators, local activists work to alleviate student housing crisis

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The Bay Area is experiencing a housing crisis caused by a shortage of affordable housing, and UC Berkeley students are not unscathed. California legislators and local activists, however, are working to increase low-cost housing for students, and resources are available on the UC Berkeley campus to aid people struggling with housing insecurity.

According to the January 2017 Housing Master Plan Task Force Report, a web survey sent to undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students to gauge housing needs, UC Berkeley has the lowest ratio of beds per student of any campus in the UC system.

SB 1227, a bill introduced by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, was made into law in 2018, incentivizing developers to build more affordable student housing by providing a “density bonus” for lower-income units. This year, Skinner announced the Housing Crisis Act of 2019, a bill that aims to speed up the creation of new housing in California.

“There is a growing number of students that are homeless,” Skinner said. “They are either living in cars or they’re couch surfing; they just don’t have any kind of … I wouldn’t even call it permanent — just stable housing. And why? Because it’s too expensive. Our housing is just too costly. So we have to do better.”

The housing report states that 10 percent of all respondents said they experienced homelessness at some point during their time at UC Berkeley. The majority of these respondents experienced homelessness within a range of one week to one month. Half of them indicated that it took them longer than a month to find stable housing.

The UC Berkeley Basic Needs Center, which opened Monday, provides resources and support to students who may experience basic needs insecurity, such as problems with food or shelter. Kiyoko Thomas, the center’s manager of case management and operations, said students who are likely not to seek help on their own may be more likely to self-refer now that a physical center is open.

“It’s really needs-based, so instead of working backwards and identifying resources, we want to always think about the needs of the student,” Thomas said. “So (it’s) an assessment to figure out not just what their housing needs are, but we also want to be thinking about mental health, financial overview, whether there are needs related to food or anything else — so a big-picture, holistic approach.”

Thomas said the Basic Needs Center has access to emergency funds that can place a student in temporary housing such as a residence hall room for up to 30 days. She said the center also partners with the Student Advocate’s Office, which has an emergency housing fund to provide rental assistance or short-term emergency housing.

Skinner said she is pleased that UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ is recognizing students’ concerns and supporting the university’s commitment to providing more housing. She said the city also needs to contribute to the solution by relaxing zoning rules and allowing for second-unit and duplex production to quickly produce housing for students.

“Right now, the cost of housing is the largest expense that college students face, and it’s higher than tuition, it’s higher than books and food, and it’s just crazy,” Skinner said.

According to the report, undergraduate students in campus housing spend nearly $300 a month more than students living off-campus. One low-cost housing option is the Berkeley Student Cooperative.

Christian Sanders has lived in the African American Theme House co-op, also known as Afro House, during his first semester at UC Berkeley as a junior spring transfer. He said living in co-op housing is financially beneficial because rent can be paid in full for the entire semester, precluding the worry of monthly expenses.

Overall, Sanders said he has enjoyed living in this system of housing because it helped him find a supportive community.

“I believed that it would be (a) good way for me to build community and meet other students, and I was right. My housemates are all really great people and the perfect support system, which is very much needed being a transfer student here at Berkeley,” Sanders said in an email.

ASUC External Affairs Vice President Nuha Khalfay said in an email there are plans in place to remedy the student housing crisis at UC Berkeley, such as More Student Housing Now, a resolution that aims to adjust zoning laws on Southside to produce denser development.

“Steps such as these attempt to address both the supply deficit of and ever-increasing demand for affordable housing,” Khalfay said in the email. “Regarding effectiveness, these pieces of legislations value depends on how stringently they are implemented, and need to work in tandem for maximum effectiveness.”

The university is planning to build on nine sites for student housing, including People’s Park, the Upper Hearst Parking Structure, University Village in Albany, the Smyth-Fernwald parcel, Richmond Field Station and a site at Oxford Street and Bancroft Way.

State Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, said UC Berkeley is fortunate to have a chancellor who is dedicated to resolving student housing issues.

“Many Cal students are homeless; it’s an appalling moral issue. Everyone deserves a home,” Wicks said. “Rental assistance funds, legal defense funds and anti-gouging legislation are important, but mainly, we have to build more houses around Cal.”

Contact Vanessa Arredondo at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @V_anana.