Housing crisis accentuates Berkeley’s historical town, gown relationship

Allen Zeng/Staff

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As part of the disability rights movement in the 1960s, UC Berkeley students worked to reshape campus and city architecture, impacting community members in the city as much as students on campus. Today, the city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley still harbor a strong “town and gown” relationship. Especially as the housing crisis intensifies, students and city politicians alike strive to create a productive relationship to solve problems in the community.

The politics of the campus and city have always been closely intertwined, and students constitute about one-third of the population of the city of Berkeley, according to Varsha Sarveshwar, ASUC external affairs vice president. She added that originally, the city was incorporated later on and was built around the campus.

“Berkeley campus and the city of Berkeley have a shared birth,” said Soli Alpert, campus senior and Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board commissioner. “They are twins … I think it is impossible to conceptualize Berkeley without Cal because there wouldn’t be a Berkeley without Cal.”

The campus has been a focal point for a number of political movements, according to Alpert. In addition to the disability rights movement in the ’60s, he also cited UC Berkeley’s divestment from companies that did business with the South African government during apartheid.

Though the relationship between “town and gown” has been strained, according to Sarveshwar, the impact that the city and campus have on each other is overall positive, having a “profound impact” on the city and the larger East Bay area as well.

Alpert said it is important for students to be engaged in the city and not just the campus. He emphasized student involvement in city politics, noting that it is important for students to understand the connection between the city and campus.

Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson said in an email that he feels the student voice is stronger than ever at City Hall. Many appointees on city commissions are students, he said, and students help fight for new housing, homelessness services and sustainable solutions for climate change.

“The campus and city benefit from each other and depend on each other,” Robinson said in an email. “Just as the campus pulls so much economic activity into the city, the city needs the campus’ support for emergency services to ensure the safety of our growing student population.”

Housing is a contentious issue that entwines the city and campus. The city is currently suing the campus over an alleged inadequate analysis of the impacts of increased student enrollment on city services. UC Berkeley currently pays about $2 million annually to the city of Berkeley for the impact that students have on the city, according to Sarveshwar.

Alpert said he hopes that the lawsuit will invite more discourse between the city and the campus.

Alpert added that the campus is allegedly a “gentrifying force on the city.” He added that some landlords demand higher rates on sites close to campus and thinks the city needs to build more affordable housing near campus.

“Many members of the city are upset … because they feel that when the campus enrolls more students, what ends up happening is that students live further and further away from campus, they don’t just live in Southside,” Sarveshwar said.

According to Sarveshwar, UC Berkeley needs to be more responsible when it comes to housing since the growing number of students can increase the pressure on city services and leads to more foot traffic.

“When the quality of life increases for everyone who lives in the city of Berkeley, the students benefit,” Sarveshwar said. “We are big advocates for the campus and the city to have a productive relationship.”

Contact Nina Narahari at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ninanarahari_dc.