UC must cease its role in Berkeley’s gentrification

CITY AFFAIRS: The UC should not demolish affordable, rent-controlled apartments to expand student housing

Illustration of a wrecking ball labeled "UC" destroying 1921 Walnut St. in Berkeley, CA
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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When it comes to housing, the UC system is between a rock and a hard place. But its dilemma cannot excuse its failures.

On Aug. 3, tenants of the rent-controlled apartments at 1921 Walnut St. in Berkeley protested outside the UC Office of the President in Oakland. They feared their relatively affordable housing would be demolished by the UC system, whose Board of Regents recently acquired the building.

For now, the UC system ostensibly has no plans to evict tenants and raze the apartments, but without the community’s firm, vocal opposition, that restraint seems unlikely to endure. Never mind that the UC system could build housing elsewhere, on lots without affordable housing.

UC leadership is surely sensitive to demands for more student housing, expanding access and hopefully lowering rent prices. But the UC system also has a duty to the wider community — a duty it has historically disregarded — and student housing cannot come at the expense of Berkeley’s short supply of affordable apartments.

Years of relentlessly rising enrollment have strained the UC system beyond its capacity to provide adequately for students — especially regarding housing. But the persistent growth of UC Berkeley’s student population has also strained the city, lining the pockets of local landlords while pushing out lower-income individuals and families. The UC system has raised Berkeley’s rents and cost of living simply by existing.

Students themselves seem unlikely to support projects that pit their interests against the city community, particularly when it involves evicting low-income families. And evictions, though reprehensible, are only the most visible horrors of gentrification. De facto segregation of schools, for instance, is a subtler and slower consequence.

But the UC system does not have to gentrify. With its heavyweight budget and institutional exemptions, the university could easily continue to purge Berkeley’s socioeconomic diversity, but that is not inevitable. The UC system has the expertise and the resources to increase housing units without displacing less-affluent residents — so it ought to.

The city, too, shares blame for the dearth of affordable housing; support for development and zoning reforms have proven too little, too late. And the UC system may contend that 1921 Walnut St. presents a rare opportunity for construction close to campus, located ideally for students while minimally disrupting neighborhood character.

But there are other places to build. Affordable or rent-controlled housing is Berkeley’s flimsy firewall against further gentrification, and the UC system should bar itself from any projects that would reduce such housing.

Demolishing affordable housing anywhere sets a dangerous precedent everywhere, and slightly growing the city’s housing stock does not outweigh the displacement of low-income residents. Gentrification is an innately callous process, and its Pyrrhic benefits never come without victims.

In a city that embodies the risks of stark socioeconomic inequality, UC Berkeley risks remaining part of the problem, not the solution. And for the residents of 1921 Walnut St., their only hope is that UC Berkeley will refuse to let them become collateral damage.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the summer 2020 opinion editor, Aidan Bassett.