Berkeley universities

New California law prevents UC Berkeley enrollment decline

“I am grateful to the Legislature for acting quickly on this critical issue? This sends a clear signal that California will not let lawsuits get in the way of the education and dreams of thousands of students, our future leaders and innovators,” says Newsom.

The new legislation makes changes to the California Environmental Quality Act, a landmark 1970 law that requires state and local agencies to assess and disclose significant environmental effects of projects and find ways to reduce those effects.

But in the decades since its passage, critics say the environmental law has been used by development opponents to block housing and transit projects.

In the UC Berkeley case, the nonprofit group Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods sued the university, arguing that adding students would worsen the housing shortage and raise rents for everyone in the Bay Area city of San Francisco.

UC Berkeley, like much of the rest of California, has an affordable housing problem resulting from decades of underconstruction. On-campus housing at the school is limited, and many students live off-campus. Rents are expensive, especially for apartments closer to campus, while residents complain of increased traffic, noise, and housing costs driven by rising student numbers.

The court agreed with the neighborhood group and ordered the university to stop building more housing and classrooms and keep enrollment at the same level as the 2020-21 school year. School officials said that meant they had to reject about 2,600 students for the next freshman class who would have been accepted.

The decision stunned lawmakers, parents and anxious applicants who waited to hear whether they would be admitted this fall. University officials and students pleaded with state lawmakers for an emergency solution.

Lawmakers in the Democratic-dominated state Legislature responded with unusual speed, drafting and passing a bill in just 11 days. Most other bills take up to eight months to become law.

“It would have closed the doors of college education to thousands of Californians,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento. “Our economy needs more college graduates. We know college is the ticket to the middle class.”

Lawmakers hoped the bill would end the controversy. But Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, said “this poorly drafted bill will lead to more litigation.”

“UC Berkeley doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate more students,” said Bokovoy, a UC Berkeley alumnus who lives near the bustling campus. “We don’t want new students to have to live in their car.”

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said the school is “committed to continuing its efforts to address a student housing crisis through the construction of new below-market housing.”

The law signed by Newsom, also a Democrat, is narrowly tailored to address the specific problem at UC Berkeley, but applies to all state colleges and universities. It does not include the broader reforms called for by lawmakers from both parties.

Senator Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, said the Environmental Protection Act had been “twisted beyond recognition to allow anyone with enough money to hire a lawyer to delay or block even the most environmentally sustainable project” – including building bike lanes, mass transit and clean energy projects.

Republicans agreed, with Assemblyman Vince Fong saying there was a growing bipartisan appetite for reform.

“But the question remains,” he said, “is there the political will for this to happen?”

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Har reported from Marin County.