‘End rent burden’: UC Berkeley academic workers rally to address housing affordability

photo of a rally
Hsi-Min Chan/Staff
Several campus and university academic workers rallied with the goal of getting the UC system to address the housing crisis faced by its employees and demand affordable housing for students and employees.

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About 200 UC Berkeley academic workers and members of United Auto Workers unions 2865 and 5810 and Student Researchers United-, or SRU-, UAW, rallied Feb. 17 to demand the university to address the housing crisis faced by thousands of its workers.

The rally was part of a university-wide bargaining action across nine UC campuses between Feb. 15 to March 3, according to the UAW 2865 website. The rally’s intent was to ask the university to provide affordable housing to students and employees. Among the attendees were academic workers and students from various disciplines.

“UC is not providing enough housing for students and postdocs, even the provided housing is not affordable,” said Sarah Arveson, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Integrative Planetary Science and UAW 5810 vice president, at the rally.

Arveson added that half of her income goes toward rent and utility after taxation and that 70% of postdoctoral researchers and 90% of student employees spend more than 30% of their salary on rent.

A live survey was carried out at the rally, where participants lined up outside of California Hall according to their rent burden, the price of rent divided by pretax income. The result showed that the majority of participants spend between 30% and 50% of their income on rent, with some spending more than 60%.

Participants held signs bearing slogans including “End Rent Burden” and “Physics needs Housing” and chalked messages illustrating their rent-burden percentages on the ground in front of California Hall where UC Berkeley administration offices are located.

UAW 5810 started bargaining in the summer, Arveson said. This action shows the university that not only postdoctoral candidates, but all UAW unions, are bargaining for the spring contracts.

“For the first time in UC, postdocs, academic researchers, graduate students and student researchers are negotiating new contracts with UC at the same time,” said UAW 2865 head steward Jess Banks at the rally.

UAW 2865 represents more than 19,000 academic student employees, including teaching assistants, GSIs, tutors and readers, while UAW 5810 represents more than 11,000 postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers in the university and at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory according to the unions’ websites.

SRU-UAW, which was recently established, is a union comprising students who work in research positions.

“If UC employees cannot afford it, everyone else cannot,” said Wynn Jacobson-Galán, a GSI and doctoral candidate in UC Berkeley’s astronomy department, at the rally.

Jacobson-Galán added he has been living in the Bay Area for five years and that the housing issue is “disgusting” and “out of control.”

Lukas WinklerPrins, a doctoral candidate in campus’s environmental engineering department said at the rally that he spends 45% of his salary on rent, and his colleagues are experiencing a similar — or in some cases, worse — rent burden.

He added that concern over his housing situation is a “baseline” stressor in his life.

“It is hard to focus on doing my job when this extra burden is putting on my shoulder,” said Ryan Yohler, a campus doctoral candidate in integrative biology who shared a similar concern.

Yohler said he also pays 45% of his salary on rent and had to work as a bartender when he was at home in Indiana over winter break to make extra money to go toward the rent burden.

Campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff said in an email that the university is planning an additional 7,500 student beds by the year 2028. The long-term future goals include providing two years of university housing for incoming undergraduate students and one year of university housing for entering transfer undergraduate students and incoming graduate students.

“As the Bay Area faces rising housing costs, UC Berkeley is committed to supporting students by increasing the number of student beds available in the next 10 years,” Ratliff said in the email. “Housing in the city of Berkeley is a concern for the University – it’s a desirable place for students and non-students to live, resulting in limited capacity and increasing prices.”

Arveson said there are only two housing options that postdoctoral researchers are eligible for: the graduate housing in Emeryville and the University Village in Albany, which puts postdoctoral researchers to be the “lowest priority.” According to Arveson, 11.5 % of graduate students, 9% of postdoctoral researchers and 0% of academic researchers can enjoy university housing.

“For a long time, housing was reasonable in Berkeley because you couldn’t raise it in between tenants,” said Berkeley Rent Board chair Leah Simon-Weisberg. “But we lost some of those protections students in the past fought for.”

Simon-Weisberg explained that rent control, or vacancy control, was implemented in the city of Berkeley after a student-led citywide strike in the 1970s. Rent control restricts a certain percentage rise in rent every year by landlords.

There have been efforts to improve state laws around rent control, but they have not been successful, according to Simon-Weisberg. However, she believes changes can be made at a local level.

“The mission of the rent board is to create stable housing, and that is not happening anymore,” Simon-Weisberg said at the rally. “When the regents stop using housing to make money and instead turns it to the common good, then we are able to live stably again.”

Contact Winnie Lau [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @winniewy_lau.