A brief history of campus-supplied student housing — and lack thereof

Blueprint of Unit 2 dorms
Annika Constantino/Staff

The phrase “student housing,” has become an oxymoron at UC Berkeley, on par with Mark Twain’s famous characterization of the phrase “an honest politician.” The number of students is greater than the number of available campus housing and the housing that is available in Berkeley is often too expensive for many students, rendering the phrase depressing and illuminatingly contradictory.

Unfortunately for us, however, lack of housing is not an element of Twain’s fiction, but a very real long-standing issue for students who live on campus and the community of those who don’t. It’s been this way for the entirety of my time at UC Berkeley, and since long before my graduating class of 2019 even applied. The conversation around housing has historically been one of playing catch-up to contemporaneous demands for space and patching up crises — the theme of shortage continues today.

A perennial problem

On Charter Day, March 23, 1868, Berkeley didn’t offer student housing since California state codes prohibited the existence of dormitories on college campuses. As campus historian Verne Stadtman put it in in his book “The Centennial Record of The University of California,” “Dormitories were suspected by mid-nineteenth century educators and moralists of being incubators of student disorder.”

The first instance of housing constructed with the intention of accommodating students was approved by the UC Regents in 1874, at which point the school built the adorably assonant, Kepler Cottages. The eight new cottages, located not far from where the Faculty Club currently resides, could house a whopping ten students each and were leased out to campus clubs. To meet the growing demands for housing, students organized to live in fraternities, sororities and “residential clubs,” which owned and operated student boarding houses and were not affiliated with Greek organizations.

And until the all-boys residence Bowles Hall was donated in 1929 by Mrs. Mary Bowles, in memory of her late husband, the only other student housing on campus was the creatively monikered “College Hall.” Berkeley digital archives described it as “a private dormitory experiment for women” which began in 1909 and was spearheaded by the dean of women. The experimental aspect of the construction alluded to the ongoing distrust of the dormitory system. College Hall, located at the northwest corner of Hearst and La Loma Avenues, may be considered a precursor for Stern Hall.

“Dormitories were suspected by mid-nineteenth century educators and moralists of being incubators of student disorder.”—Verne Stadtman

Following the addition of Bowles Hall, in a donation somewhat out of character for the Standard Oil baron, John D. Rockefeller gifted the school a building without his name in the immediate title, International House. In 1933, as a response to the Great Depression, when students were economically pressured out of private housing, and the campus could not provide for displaced students, the Berkeley Student Cooperative was independently founded. It would be incorporated as a nonprofit, affiliated but not beholden to the campus a year later in 1934. In 1942, Sigmund Stern subsequently gifted the school Stern Hall, an all-women residence. The trend emerges: the majority of student housing within that period was built as a result of gifts, rather than campus initiative.

Following the end of World War II, the GI Bill sent a generation of veterans to college. Half of the college population in 1947 were veterans. After they had all settled in suburbs post-graduation, they had children. These kids, the baby boomers, grew up to be the first generation of kids to be pressured by their parents to go to college. And when the demand for college enrollment increased, so did the demand for places for students to live. UC Berkeley responded from 1960-64 with, in their words, three “high-rise residence halls,” as the word “dormitory” still carried its earlier negative connotation of “incubator of student disorder.” These halls became “the Units.”

The Clark Kerr Campus buildings, adopted by the school after the California School for the Deaf and Blind moved to Fremont, stands out from the high-rise design of the Units with their Stanford-esque red-tiled roofs and winding hallways. The residence hall was opened in 1983. According to a report titled “Freshman Admissions at Berkeley” commissioned by the academic senate in 1989, UC Berkeley applicants increased by 37.5 percent between 1981 and 1984, resulting in a subsequent increase in undergraduate admit rate. By 1984, there were almost twice as many students admitted to UC Berkeley than there had been a decade before. Again, students were hard-pressed for housing. In response, Foothill, with its odd ski resort aesthetic for aspiring computer scientists, engineers and chemists, was constructed around the refurbished Stern Hall from 1990-91. Student apartments have also been built, including the Martinez Commons. The Commons opened in August 2012, dedicated to adored and admired UC Berkeley staffer Max Martinez after his tragic death in 2003.

 And when the demand for college enrollment increased, so did the demand for places for students to live.

This past year, as part of Chancellor Christ’s announce housing efforts “to double the number of beds we offer our students in the next 10 years,” the newest addition to the high-rise Units system, Blackwell Commons, was opened in August 2018. This is part of an eight-site project to keep housing options broad for students.

Close to home

In essence, UC Berkeley’s problem with housing students isn’t anything new. In fact, the phenomenon of demand exceeding supply in campus housing has a perennial historical precedent. The fight for student housing has existed since dorms were “incubators of student disorder,” but it’s a fight that needs to continue. Not only is a safe, stable and affordable living environment necessary — students, after all, need room to live, concentrate and just be students — but the culture created by dorm living can be a defining marker of the undergraduate experience.

For me, the first month of school was a long, awkward parade of ice breakers and small talk so forced the pressure could crack a glacier. That is until I discovered the singular constant commonality I had with my peers: we all lived here.

…the culture created by dorm living can be a defining marker of the undergraduate experience.

Suddenly, I had something to talk about with anyone I encountered, and that’s the weird, silent, bureaucratic power of housing. It, like the other great catalysts of shared experiences — war and the line at the DMV — creates a commonality between strangers, a foundation of commiseration upon which student communities thrive. Entire new avenues of conversation opened for me. I was able to meet people and make new friends as we griped about how old the oldest Unit 3 building is, or how loud the screams for the long lost Hugo bounce around the courtyard in Unit 1. Or maybe I’d meet someone puzzled by Foothill (where I lived). I’d talk about the mysterious Northside to Southsiders who didn’t yet know that Hearst Avenue existed. Or maybe we’d all band together in harmony to the tune of “don’t complain if you live in the country club, yes, we mean Clark Kerr.”

I made some of my best friends and memories within the bland decor of the dorms. It is unfortunate that the current state of housing at UC Berkeley has barred students from entry to the experience of living on campus due to the shortage of space and ludicrously high and above market-rate prices.

From this consideration of Berkeley’s residence halls comes a conclusion about the stakes of the housing problem in Berkeley. There is the obvious: students need guaranteed affordable housing, but there is also the less obvious student housing brings us together. It creates a culture that new members of the Berkeley community can quickly become apart of. To pedantically borrow a line from whaling enthusiast Herman Melville, it unifies us, federating students along uneven bunk frames, under always flickering fluorescent lights and inside seemingly soggy bathroom stalls.

I made some of my best friends and memories within the bland decor of the dorms.

While literary allusions, historical insights and levity may make the irony of this situation a little more palatable, I think it is sobering to consider the worst case scenario the housing situation has left fellow students in. Students who have found themselves without a home and are made invisible by the campus sadly become rendered out of sight and out of mind by the institution that could not house them.

As an issue which constantly hits close to home for so many students, the student housing conundrum is one I hope the school resolves sooner rather than later. While the benefits of living independently among your peers may be priceless, people are only going to keep paying upwards of $14,500 to live in a tiny triple for so long.

Contact AJ Newcomb at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ajnewcombDC.