Homelessness, food insecurity: It’s time for UC Berkeley to acknowledge student rights

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UC Berkeley students have a lot to look forward to as they start preparing for the new school year, ranging from rigorous coursework to professional job opportunities. Students are, however, also faced with two major basic-needs issues: the housing affordability crisis and food insecurity.

Almost every student at UC Berkeley is cognizant of the housing crisis. We receive flyers about when to start apartment hunting, and we regularly hear horror stories regarding the struggle of finding housing. Most importantly, students experience immense difficulty finding affordable housing and can be subjected to homelessness. As such knowledge is a common conjecture within the student population at UC Berkeley, dedicated officials researched the student homelessness crisis. 

A working group from the UC Berkeley Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, the Division of Student Affairs, the Office of Planning and Analysis and the Graduate Division put together the Housing Master Plan Task Force January 2017 report, which has some shocking results. The report explains how 10 percent of all respondents have experienced homelessness as a student at UC Berkeley, with most respondents experiencing homelessness for one week or up to one month. Half of the respondents indicated that it took more than one month to find their current housing. An even higher proportion of respondents with children considered leaving the institution. The housing crisis is a two-pronged issue, as it is a housing shortage as well as an affordability crisis. Not only is there a lack of accommodations to serve the student body at UC Berkeley, which is ever-increasing, but the options available are simply unaffordable, as the average monthly housing, food and utility costs students pay can be over $1,000.

Food insecurity, similar to the housing shortage, is also just as commonly understood by UC Berkeley students. According to a report by the UC Global Food Initiative, 44 percent of undergraduates and 26 percent of graduate students are food insecure, meaning that they experience reduced food intake or disrupted eating patterns as a result of a lack of money. This means that across the UC system, we have a significant percentage of basic needs that aren’t being met. The Oxford Tract, an agricultural research facility on Northside, has attempted to mitigate food insecurity issues by donating to the UC Berkeley Food Pantry, where students can access affordable produce. The Oxford Tract is located across Koshland Hall on Oxford Street and is home to a variety of agriculture-based research projects that are conducted by UC Berkeley members. Despite the resources it provides for students, the Oxford Tract was unfortunately confirmed to be developed for student housing in the near future.

Student homelessness is a serious issue and so is food insecurity. It is easy to pit these two issues against each other without seeing the other side. The nuance of it all, however, is that housing and food security are essentially two sides of the same coin, as the inequity of one implies the inequity of the other. And these issues are rampant on many college campuses. A 2015 study done by the California State University system suggests that nine percent of the CSU system’s 460,000 students are homeless, while 21 percent of them lack consistent food sources. Furthermore, a 2016 study done by the Los Angeles Community College District found that 63 percent of students have experienced food insecurity, while 19 percent have experienced homelessness within a year of the time the questionnaire was administered. This study shows that when the majority of a student’s financial resources are going toward housing, fewer of those resources are going toward food.

UC Berkeley does not seem to understand that the problems regarding housing insecurity are twofold. There is not only a physical lack of housing, but there are also high market-rate rents that are unaffordable to students. By developing student residence halls at market-rate prices, UC Berkeley is not mitigating homelessness because students still won’t be able to afford these housing options. Market-rate would mean over a thousand dollars for housing, which is by no means affordable. The housing crisis can’t be a justification for developing on agricultural spaces that give students access to affordable fresh produce, however. Therefore, UC Berkeley has, in a way, pit housing insecurity against food insecurity. This ultimately makes students choose between one or the other, instead of having the right to both. UC Berkeley seems to be making both the student housing shortage and student food insecurity worse by building unaffordable housing on land, in the case of the Oxford Tract, that provides sustenance for students.

 Does this make UC Berkeley the antagonist in this story? Well, it doesn’t have to. The point I am trying to make is that there is a fundamental misdirection in how the campus seems to be approaching this housing crisis. UC Berkeley must be creative and bold in its solutions, rather than exacerbate food insecurity as collateral in trying to solve the housing crisis. Why not invest resources in building another student cooperative with an urban garden attached? Or invest in an affordable housing unit amid an urban farm? That way, students in these developments will be able to live at an affordable rate, have access to nutritional produce and get the chance to learn how to grow produce themselves. For a school that asks its students to think of out-of-the-box solutions to world issues, it is a bit ironic that UC Berkeley has yet to do that itself, and it is time that students demanded more.

 

Kajol Gupta is a senior at UC Berkeley majoring in conservation and resource studies and gender and women’s studies.