Cyn Gómez understands from personal experience how badly the University of California at Berkeley needs to expand its student housing. Desperate for an affordable place to live after returning from an academic study program in Washington, D.C., she spent three weeks crashing on friends’ couches and trying to keep up with her studies before landing a coveted spot in a student dorm.
Still, when construction crews arrived at nearby People’s Park this month to begin clearing the site for a proposed student apartment complex, the incoming third-year student was among the protesters who linked arms and tried to contain them, as well as dozens of police officers who escorted them. them away. On August 3, protesters broke through the security fence and clashed with construction crews, forcing the university to withdraw.
According to Gómez, the historic park is the wrong place for Berkeley to break ground. The university acquired the land through eminent domain in the late 1960s. In 1969, protesters who wanted to turn it into a community park and concert venue clashed with police in riot gear. One person was killed and many injured in the collision.
Since then, the park has become a symbol of community resistance and cultural protests. In recent years, many people who have gathered there are in financial difficulties or homeless. The proposed student housing project has drawn fierce opposition, despite the university’s commitment to help relocate many of the people who lived there.
“From a student-activist perspective,” Gómez said, “it’s frustrating to see the struggles of Berkeley students pitted against the needs of people in the Bay Area.”
The tensions at People’s Park are an extreme example of the challenges colleges face due to the housing shortage, as students seeking to return to campus face limited dorm space and high rents for off-campus accommodation.
It is disheartening to see Berkeley students struggle with the needs of homeless people in the Bay Area.
These tensions also reflect the competing demands facing the University of California and its flagship institution today. The housing stock of the UK system has not kept pace with the state’s population growth and record number of applications. Despite adding 15,000 student beds between 2016 and 2020, thousands of students remain on housing waiting lists across the system. As students have spread into surrounding neighborhoods, putting pressure on traffic and housing prices, community groups have fought back, often in court.
Berkeley enrolls just over one in five undergraduate students, the lowest percentage in the UC system. Freshmen are guaranteed access to one of the 9,875 beds on campus. The university wants to extend this to two years for undergraduate students and at least one year for transfer and graduate students, which would require 8,000 additional beds.
On-campus dorm rooms and apartments typically cost around $1,100 to $1,900 per month, depending on how many students they house, while one-bedroom apartments in Berkeley typically cost over $2,000. To make ends meet, many students live far from campus or squeeze into single-family residences with so many beds that they’ve been called mini-dorms.
“The student housing crisis is urgent and serious,” Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ wrote in an Aug. 15 message to the campus explaining the need for the People’s Park complex. “Each year, we are forced to turn away thousands of students seeking affordable housing on campus. It’s a crisis that particularly affects students from low-income families.
A systemic housing crisis
The People’s Park project, halted by court order after protests this month, is the most controversial of the six housing complexes struggling on the flagship campus. The A $312 million project would house more than 1,100 students and 125 people who are currently homeless in two wings of the building — one rising 11 stories and the other six stories. Together, the six projects would provide 3,650 beds, or less than half of the required beds.
At the same time, the university system continues to be under pressure to expand. Last month, the system announced plans to increase enrollment by 23,000 students over the next eight years — the equivalent of adding 10 campuses to the system. Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2022-2023 state budget provides enough money to do so. However, if more money is received from the state, the university would like to increase this to 33,000 additional students and master’s students by 2030.
Each campus adapts growth plans to its own situation. Despite widespread criticism of its design, the University of California, Santa Barbara is moving forward with Munger Hall, a massive 11-story hall that would house more than 4,500 students, mostly in small windowless private bedrooms interspersed with shared living spaces. It is based on a design dictated by Charlie Munger, a 98-year-old billionaire and close friend of Warren Buffett. Construction could begin early next year and be completed by 2026.
Berkeley, like Santa Barbara, must follow long-term development plans created with input from their communities. Berkeley calls for its undergraduate population to grow by 1 percent or less over the next 15 years. Even so, it is expected to accommodate much of California’s population growth in the system’s growth plan.
Here’s how these seemingly contradictory guidelines might work: About a quarter of the growth at the Berkeley campus, as well as the Los Angeles and San Diego campuses, is expected to come from replacing out-of-state and foreign students with Californians. Berkeley, where about a quarter of its students are from overseas or out-of-state, also needs a big infusion of state money to meet goals set by some lawmakers to have 90 percent of its students in California. These students pay less and need more financial aid, especially now that the voluntary university attracts so many more first-generation and other disadvantaged students. The current California Legislature has committed to making up the tuition elimination gap, but some fear that future lawmakers may not.
Much of the remaining growth would depend on limiting the number of students on campus at any given time. It requires a delicate dance that accommodates many more students than they care to. Urging them to stay home and study online. To enroll at Berkeley but spend time away. To expand yourself by taking courses during the summer, ideally online.
One way to reduce the number of students on campus is to improve the four-year graduation rate (currently 81 percent for incoming freshmen) and the two-year transfer rate (currently 60 percent). Teaching can be expanded and data can be analyzed more thoroughly to identify bottlenecks and help struggling students.
The university also plans to expand enrollment in summer courses, many of which will be online. Bridging programs provide mentorship and support to help students get on and stay on track.
Courts are open to anyone with the means and motivation to challenge us in court, and there is no shortage of people suing us at every turn.
Distance course options can be expanded, and faculty will be given more assistance in planning and conducting such courses and programs. Last spring, Berkeley was able to avoid sweeping enrollment cuts by requiring some admitted students to start online.
Berkeley also plans to expand participation in study abroad and remote internships, which would further reduce campus enrollment. Off-campus programs include Cal Capitol in Sacramento and UCDC in Washington
Even with these steps, the need to build in areas where opposition is strong cannot be bypassed, Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said. “We need to build up every piece of university-owned property that is in close proximity to campus,” he said. “People’s Park is one of those places.”
In response to concerns about the development, the university spent nearly $5 million to help move people who lived in the park into transitional housing in a converted motel. He also spent $1 million in a joint effort with the city of Berkeley to open a daytime gathering space where homeless people can get food and services. Just over 60 percent of the park will be left as green space, and the university plans to work with local groups to commemorate the history of the park, which is widely seen as a hotbed of political and social activism.
The university’s opening remarks to the community did little to appease activists who gathered at the site after midnight on August 3, when construction crews with chainsaws began clearing trees from the park. After clashes with protesters that damaged some equipment, the university recalled its teams, citing safety concerns.
Two days later, a state appeals court approved a order suspend all construction until October. The university can maintain fencing and security at the site, but cannot continue construction or demolition. The delay was intended to give the judge time to consider an appeal by two community groups that fought the project.
After agreeing to the university’s concessions, the city of Berkeley has supported the campus People’s Park plan, as have two-thirds of the university’s surveyed students. Still, Mogulof said, “the courts are open to anyone with the means and motivation to sue us, and there’s no shortage of people suing us every step of the way.”
If the court allows the university to continue construction at People’s Park, it plans to do so until the work can be done safely, he said. Construction is expected to take three years.
Jonathan Lorenzo Dena is a formerly incarcerated, first-generation Berkeley student who spent time on the streets to escape the crowded and chaotic living conditions at home. When he walks in the park and sees people living in makeshift tents, the problem of homelessness stares him in the face, he said. “We forget that some of the students we go with don’t have housing.” The People’s Park development, while far from perfect, could help, he said. “Any housing that’s designed to be affordable, I’m all for it.”
Dena, an exchange student at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, knows what it’s like to be so focused on basic needs that you have little time or energy to study. “It’s hard to excel in your courses if you’re constantly focusing on, ‘Where am I going after this semester?'” Dena said. Some leases are for one semester, he said, and rent increases are common. “Some students who have been couch surfing drop out because they just didn’t get it. It was, ‘I was ready to go to school, but Berkeley wasn’t ready for me.’