UC Berkeley student housing insecurity worsens under COVID-19 conditions

Photo of houses in Berkeley
Erica Cardozo/Staff
Many UC Berkeley students face difficulties in their housing search due to the high cost of rent, increased financial strains and lack of available units.

Related Posts

UC Berkeley students continue to struggle with housing insecurity as the COVID-19 pandemic brings on financial strain and limited housing.

A campus fall 2021 student pulse survey asked, “Since the beginning of the Fall 2021 semester, have you lacked a safe, regular, and adequate nighttime place to stay and sleep?” with 22.8% of undergraduate student respondents and 17.1% of graduate student respondents reporting they had experienced this lack.

A previous campus survey in 2017 found 10% of all respondents, including undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students, had “experienced homelessness at some point since arriving at UC Berkeley.”

“We need to move toward systems and culture change,” said Basic Needs Center director Kiyoko Thomas. “We need to understand that basic needs are integral to student success.”

Founded in 2019, the Basic Needs Center aims to be a centralized hub of resources for unhoused students as well as an agent of institutional change, Thomas said. The center provides various services, short-term emergency housing, a food pantry and assistance through the Basic Needs Holistic Fund, according to Thomas.

Ruben Canedo, chair of the UC Berkeley Basic Needs Committee, said he was “not surprised” by the findings of the fall 2021 survey.

Thomas said at the start of the pandemic, the Basic Needs Center was deemed an essential service provider, allowing it to stay open.

During the shelter-in-place orders, Canedo said, the center saw students unable to break their leases, and upon returning to campus, they struggled to navigate the rental market.

Using funding from the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, the Basic Needs Center was able to assist students in “real time” and provide emergency housing services during the pandemic, Thomas said. However, Thomas also noted students need more time than emergency housing allows to search for longterm housing and secure funding.

Students were also faced with increased financial strain as a result of the pandemic, as their families — some for the first time — were experiencing unemployment, Canedo added.

According to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof, the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office has awarded more than $50 million in federal, state and local relief funding to students since spring 2020. Since fall 2021, the Basic Needs Holistic Fund has awarded upward of $60,000 to students for emergency rental assistance, and more than 30 students have been provided emergency housing, Mogulof said.

Canedo added that college students are facing more obstacles in the housing market.

“We are seeing more active and vocal anti-college student sentiment,”  Canedo said.

Ads on Craigslist and other sites frequently include statements such as “college students do not apply,” Canedo said. Students’ identities, specifically if they are low income, first-generation, LGBTQ+ or a person of color, also create more barriers for students in the housing search, he said.

The high cost of living in the Bay Area, especially in Berkeley, adds to the strain students are facing, Canedo said.

“If (UC Berkeley) lowers the price of the dorms, it would lower prices of housing across Berkeley,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, chair of the Berkeley Rent Board, who alleged that the current cost of student housing is “shameful.”

Cal Housing only offered single-occupancy rooms in residence halls during the 2020-21 school year due to COVID-19 regulations. This year, it was able to offer double and triple occupancy rooms, in addition to “quad” rooms, according to Mogulof.

However, this fall, campus turned away more than 5,000 students who requested to live in campus-operated housing, Mogulof said.

Simon-Weisberg said she believes campus has been irresponsible by continuing to increase enrollment numbers without considering the need for secure housing for its students.

According to Mogulof, in the 2021-22 academic year, campus prioritized providing campus housing for students including those in programs such as the Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholarship; students with documented disabilities; students with an estimated financial contribution of $0; students admitted to living-learning programs; and student-athletes.

Since the beginning of the fall 2021 semester, Mogulof said the Basic Needs Center has heard from 19 students who have reported living out of their cars.

Thomas said the Basic Needs Center hopes to implement a safe parking program in the future.

ASUC External Affairs Vice President Riya Master said such a program could be one way to “prevent the criminalization” of homelessness. She added that the program would also protect students from the risk of being harmed or robbed in their vehicles, as it would grant secure spaces for their cars overnight.

Moving forward, Canedo hopes that campus and community will transform the way they approach meeting the needs of students facing housing insecurity.

“Now we need to hold ourselves accountable in the way that we think about housing,” Canedo said. “We need to come together and make sure that we are resourcing, designing and realizing.”

Contact Lydia Sidhom at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @SidhomLydia .