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UC needs to break up with Blackstone

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SEPTEMBER 20, 2023

For me, the University of California’s massive multibillion-dollar deal with Blackstone Real Estate Investment Trust was overshadowed by the chaos of my final semester at UC Berkeley. But the UC’s investment in Blackstone has intense implications for all of its students — and for everyone who lives in California.

In April, the UC Board of Regents invested $4.5 billion into Blackstone Real Estate Investment Trust, a company to which two members of the regents have close ties. In total, this brings UC holdings in Blackstone to $6.5 billion. In August of 2022, Blackstone purchased 69% of America’s largest collegiate private housing company — American Campus Communities — that is explicitly profit-seeking and centers its business around rent revenues. David Blackwell Hall is an American Campus Communities project, and is also the most expensive option for traditional dorms at Berkeley. 

So, what’s the deal with Blackstone, anyway? In 2019, the United Nations named Blackstone as a key contributor to the global housing crisis through its exploitation of tenants and predatory business practices. Blackstone is the largest private equity holder in the world and the largest landlord in the United States. It owns more than 300,000 units of rental housing across the U.S. and has raised rents in some of its units between 43% and 64% in just two years. 

Blackstone is also no stranger to meddling in California politics. In 2018, they spent over $7 million to defeat Proposition 10, an initiative that would have expanded rent control in California. Blackstone spent an additional $7 million in 2020 to defeat Proposition 21, another proposed rent control expansion.  Rent control supports those who are affected most by the housing supply and affordability crisis in California: people of color, low-income and working-class folks and middle-class families. It’s a vital and accessible way to seriously alleviate the housing crisis, and Blackstone spent millions to defeat it in California. It’s hypocritical and harmful for the UC to invest billions into a company that has actively fueled housing struggles everywhere.

UC investment in Blackstone explicitly undermines the mission of the university to teach and uplift our communities. In the summer of 2020, months after the global pandemic began, the Blackstone Group filed to evict many residents in Florida. We must recognize the ethical implications of UC investment in a company that evicted residents during one of the most uncertain and deadly times in our history. 

Students aren’t the only people impacted by this issue. Hundreds of thousands of UC faculty and community members struggle to afford housing near UC campuses because of high rent costs. Remember the UC-UAW strike last year, where GSIs and others fought for the bare minimum they deserve? 92% of striking union members are rent burdened and forced to spend more than 30% of their income on rent, while 95% of UC service workers cannot afford single-bedroom homes close to their campuses. More than 14,000 UC students experienced homelessness in 2021. We can’t be silent about the UC pouring billions into a corporation that is exacerbating the global housing crisis while so many students and staff experience housing insecurity. 

It is wrong to invest billions into a corporation that spent millions to defeat rent control, while gouging students and other folks struggling to make ends meet — all in the name of enriching wealthy investors. The UC said library hours needed to be slashed or closed, laying off librarians in the process, and refused to pay academic workers equitably until an unprecedented strike was launched. But now, just a short time later, it apparently has billions of dollars to throw at a profit-driven private equity corporation in order to build more luxury housing. We need to call out these actions by the university — as a public education institution, its first responsibility should be to students. 

We can force the university to listen to our demands as students and workers. Students are the ones who give the UC hundreds of millions of dollars every year in tuition — imagine our power if we withheld those funds! The time to act in solidarity on this issue is now. 

UC labor unions representing over 110,000 have called for the UC to divest from Blackstone. The concrete steps proposed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 are vital to housing affordability for students and workers across California. They include freezing annual UC-owned rental rates, committing to end “no fault” evictions and developing social housing for folks of all income levels. 

In solidarity with university labor unions, blue collar workers and fellow students, we must demand that the UC divest all $6.5 billion in holdings from Blackstone. Removing that investment creates opportunities for reinvestment in positive community projects and affordable housing for students. If NYU students can force their campus to divest in fossil fuels by organizing students, staff and unions, so can we. Unwavering solidarity and collective action are key to our success.

Olivia McHaney is a UC Berkeley alumnus. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

SEPTEMBER 20, 2023