Berkeley is in a housing crisis and the University of California system plays an integral role in this. With a large student population enrolled at UC Berkeley, there is an increasing demand for new housing. However, this crisis isn’t unique to UC Berkeley or the Bay Area. In a University of California Global Food Initiative study, an average of 5% of UC students have experienced homelessness during the school year. In another study researching student basic needs, the number for California State University students is approximately 11%.
Despite these pressing concerns, campuses and cities have faced challenges building adequate amounts of housing. Perhaps the most notable example is the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, an environmental law adopted in 1970 that has contemporarily been used to shut down housing developments by local homeowners. An overview of student housing done by legislative analysts reports that CEQA delays building plans and increases costs on projects. This is also compounded by groups expressing concern over new housing, whether it be from an environmental, pricing or alternative perspective. Building more housing, even at market rate, is a clear answer to addressing the lack of affordability in American cities, but how can Berkeley and other cities in the Bay Area address the housing shortage with these barriers in the way?
Recently, we got an answer. Gavin Newsom signed into law three major pieces of housing legislation in September. Arguably the most relevant one to Berkeley and other California college campuses is SB 886. The bill allows universities to build student housing in a faster and more efficient manner by being exempt from the CEQA process. Thus, plans that adhere to certain requirements, such as no net greenhouse gas emissions and accessibility to campus, can be given a way around CEQA and proceed with building new housing properties.
This seems to address the need for new housing, provides opportunities for unions and prevents the misuse of CEQA, all while being mindful of environmental concerns. The enrollment freeze nearly imposed on UC Berkeley applicants earlier this year is a result of the modern misuse of CEQA, with the majority of concerns being related to preserving the character of Berkeley rather than environmental worries. In fact, the attempted prevention of Berkeley’s expansion would have been detrimental from an environmental standpoint.
In an article in the New York Times, UC Davis law professor Christopher Elmendorf weighed in on the gravity of this housing crisis.
“If UC Berkeley welcomes more students to campus or if the city of Berkeley approves a housing project or revises its ordinances or general plan in a way that allows more people to live in Berkeley, that’s an environmental win, from a statewide perspective. But CEQA pretends that if those people weren’t living in Berkeley they wouldn’t be living on planet Earth, where they’ll be driving or making trash or noise or starting wildfires or bulldozing habitat.”
The ability for universities to build sustainable housing is integral to fixing the broken housing landscape in Berkeley and California as a whole. We cannot allow local homeowners to block developments due to unrelated concerns, when we must prioritize student accessibility to housing, transit and their campus above all.
While SB 886 is the most relevant to the UC system, it was not the only bill passed recently. SB 2221 allows accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, to be built more easily. ADUs have become a more popular way of increasing housing supply in California with the passing of other recent legislation, and SB 2221 furthers that by streamlining the process of building ADUs on new multifamily units.
The final bill that was passed in this bunch is AB 2011, which will provide approval for affordable housing in commercial areas. This is significant because it promotes mixed-use areas in California, a rarity in most American metro areas. This can help reduce car dependency since people would be able to live within walking distance from work, entertainment and other essentials. A recent analysis of AB 2011 by Urban Footprint predicts that the bill could increase the housing supply of California anywhere from 1.6 to 2.4 million new housing units, which includes 300,000-400,000 units of strictly affordable housing.
These three bills will make a huge difference not only for the Berkeley housing market, but for California as a whole. With SB 886 being the most impactful for UC Berkeley and other college campuses across the state, it is an undeniable step in the right direction. This is a strong direction to achieving housing affordability and accessibility, and ensuring prospective students do not have to worry about being denied admission for factors completely out of their control. This advancement reflects the importance and role that our civic engagement has with political issues.
At the end of the day, these policies would have never happened without voters. If you are unsatisfied with the current housing landscape in the Bay Area and beyond, do your due diligence by researching ballot measures and local candidates’ policies and making a plan to vote.