NOTICE: California’s student housing crisis requires immediate action
Earlier this month, the University of California, Berkeley narrowly escaped a court-ordered suspension of enrollment, thanks to some last minute amendments California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Concerned about the environmental and economic impacts of Berkeley’s growing student population, Save Berkeley Now – a Berkeley community organization – sued the university for violating the CEQA. The actwhich, among many other provisions, requires California universities to carry out an environmental impact study as part of their long-term development plans, would have prevented Berkeley from admitting approximately 2,629 students for the 2022-23 semester.
The California Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to freeze Berkeley’s admission before the order was overturned by a last-minute legislative maneuverallowing the university 18 months to complete the assessment while maintaining its projected enrollment level.
While the legal debacle has been resolved for now, the crisis facing Berkeley is by no means over. Community frustration with the university’s planned expansion ultimately stems from the shortage of affordable student housing in the area and in California as a whole. Over the past decade, California has built enough housing for just a third of the increase in the state’s population at that time. UC Berkeley, meanwhile, only has enough on-campus housing for a third of its enrolled students, forcing two-thirds of its student body to seek off-campus housing in an extremely expensive area, even by California standards.
The expanding student body, despite the fact that on-campus accommodation remains grossly inadequate, is driving up rental prices in the city of Berkeley and surrounding areas, making it difficult for students and local residents to access to affordable housing. Students and low-income households are the most affected by this increase in rents. According to Save Berkeley Now, about 10% of Berkeley students suffer from housing insecurity. This figure is even higher in a Survey 2021, where 22% of undergraduate respondents and 17% of graduate respondents reported experiencing housing insecurity during their college years at Berkeley. For all intents and purposes, the situation in Berkeley has deteriorated into a real housing crisis. This contentious lawsuit is simply emblematic of the crisis facing students which, if left unresolved, will have even more serious consequences in the future.
This college housing crisis is not limited to Berkeley alone. Many other California-based higher education institutions are also struggling to accommodate their ever-growing student population. This problem is more pronounced for large public universities, whose enrollment growth has far exceeded their acquisition of new student housing. For example, Sustainable University Now (SUN), a coalition of community organizations, says UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) violated a 2010 long-term development plan, in which the university promised to limit enrollment to 25,000 and build housing for approximately 5,000 students. So far, UCSB has exceeded their registration limit while failing to provide additional student accommodation on the scale needed. As at Berkeley, the lack of school-sponsored housing at UCSB is pushing students into the already overheated local housing market. The situation also remains dire for other CUs, where 16% of the combined student body live in hotels, other transitional housing or even outdoors, according to a Report of the Office of the Legislative Analyst 2020. Although schools generally subsidize students for their transitional housing, without access to permanent dormitories, students in these accommodations experience long commutes and frequent moves, which are undoubtedly detrimental to their well-being and academic success.
Small California institutions, especially community colleges, are also suffering from the housing crisis. A UCLA 2020 Report suggests that one in five community college students experienced homelessness in that year. The inadequate financial aid system further exacerbates the housing crisis precipitated by the insufficient number of dormitories on campus. According to Michel Munoz, acting president superintendent of Long Beach City College, the cost of housing is not included in the financial aid calculation for most community colleges in California. For students who are not lucky enough to receive a place in dormitory or who are not wealthy enough to afford to rent accommodation off campus, the risk of experiencing housing insecurity is enormous. Some students at Long Beach City College and other similar institutions have even resorted to sleep in their car. This problem has become increasingly prevalent among the undergraduate population, as a growing proportion of them, especially in community colleges, now comes from low-income or otherwise marginalized backgrounds. Without secure housing, their university experience will be severely compromised.
The most intuitive way to solve the statewide college housing crisis is for universities to build more dormitories and offer them to students at below-market prices. That’s easier said than done, however, as the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictive zoning rules, environmental regulations, and community pushbacks are hampering all of these large-scale construction projects. The near-successful lawsuit against Berkeley illustrates the obstacles that prevent schools from building the number of dormitories needed in a timely manner. While universities can overcome these challenges, they must also consider the negative impacts of these construction projects for the local community before proceeding.
Since most urban neighborhoods are already occupied, building new dormitories in these areas could mean demolishing existing residential structures and evicting their tenants. As some of the demolished structures tend to be rent control units that would otherwise house low-income households, demolishing them to make dormitories could inadvertently undermine the livelihoods of the existing vulnerable population. In 2021, for example, Berkeley evicted the residents of a historic rent-controlled building with a lackluster takeover package, before demolishing it for a 14-story student apartment. In addition to evictions, universities could also adopt unconventional building designs that make construction cheaper and more efficient, although such measures could harm student well-being. Last year, UCSB revealed plans to build a massive dormitory complex containing mostly windowless rooms as part of a “social and psychological experience.” Although not explicitly stated, cost savings could be a contributing factor to its windowless and compact design. The plan was heavily criticized by students for being inhumane, as natural light is crucial for mental health. These examples illustrate that universities must strike a balance between providing adequate student accommodation and doing so in an ethical manner. Both objectives are crucial.
Unlike larger institutions, small community colleges often have lack financial resources to build new dormitories in the first place. While institutional investors view the construction of dormitories at large prestigious universities like UC as a profitable asset — especially with ever-increasing enrollment levels increasing demand for dorms — they have little incentive to invest in community college dorms. The market cannot solve the housing crisis for these institutions, and they must look to government subsidies to find a solution.
Overall, solving the university housing crisis requires a delicate balancing act. There must be a long-term plan to dramatically increase the availability of affordable student housing in a way that does not undermine nearby low-income communities or otherwise harm students. To do this, the state government should provide more grants to small institutions with inadequate student housing so that they can build more dormitories and house everyone who needs it. Last year, the state legislature approved a $2 Billion University Housing Fund50% of which will go to community colleges, but this amount is by no means sufficient due to the multitude of schools and the amount of additional accommodation each school needs. Additionally, the government should encourage universities able to build dormitories with existing financial resources to do so without causing evictions, even if it means new housing options will be farther from campus. To compensate for travel, government and schools should co-fund public transit systems, preferably those that serve students at reduced fares.
Ultimately, the recent college housing crisis reflects the lack of affordable housing in California as a whole. The state can only sustainably resolve this crisis if it guarantees stable access to housing for all. Given the urgency of this issue, legislators, academia, and relevant private sector actors must work collectively to employ the most effective measures to address it. We have seen some progress so far, such as the adoption of SC 9, a law that effectively ended single-family zoning in California by allowing residences with higher capacities to be built in more zones. Nevertheless, there is still much to do.
Yifei Cheng PO ’24 is from Nanjing, China. He enjoys hiking, reading (especially fantasy literature), and playing Starcraft 2.