OPINION: California’s student housing crisis requires immediate action

A large college campus filled with red square buildings.
The housing crisis at UC Berkeley is only the latest sign of a much broader problem, writes Yifei Cheng PO ‘24. (Courtesy: Firstculture via Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this month, the University of California, Berkeley narrowly escaped a court-mandated enrollment suspension order, thanks to some last-minute amendments to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Concerned by environmental and economic impacts of Berkeley’s expanding student population, Save Berkeley Now — a community organization in Berkeley — sued the university for violating CEQA. The act, which, among many other provisions, requires universities in California to complete an environmental impact review 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 nullified by a last-minute legislative maneuver, granting the university 18 months to complete the evaluation while maintaining its projected enrollment level.

Though the legal debacle has been resolved for now, the crisis facing Berkeley is by no means over. The community’s frustration towards the university’s planned expansion stems ultimately from the shortage of affordable student housing in the region and California as a whole. Over  the past decade, California has built housing units sufficient for only one-third of the increase in state population in 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 area that is extraordinarily expensive even by California standards. 

The expansion in the student body, despite the fact that on-campus accommodation remains severely inadequate, drives up rental prices in the city of Berkeley and the surrounding area, making it difficult for both students and local residents to access affordable housing. Low-income students and households are most impacted by this increase in rents. According to Save Berkeley Now, around 10 percent of Berkeley students suffer from housing insecurity. This figure is even higher in a 2021 survey, where 22 percent of undergraduate respondents and 17 percent of graduate respondents reported having experienced housing insecurity during their academic years at Berkeley. For all intents and purposes, the situation in Berkeley has deteriorated into a full-blown housing crisis. This contentious lawsuit is merely emblematic of the crisis facing college students that, if not addressed, will create even graver consequences in the future.  

This college housing crisis is not constrained to Berkeley alone. Many other California-based institutions of higher education are also struggling to accommodate their ever-growing student population. This issue is most pronounced for large public universities, whose growth in enrollment has vastly outpaced their acquisition of new student housing. For instance, Sustainable University Now (SUN), a coalition of community organizations, claims that UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) has violated a 2010 Long Range Development Plan, in which the university promised to cap its enrollment at 25,000 and build accommodations for around 5,000 students. So far, UCSB has exceeded its enrollment limit while failing to deliver additional student housing at the necessary scale. As at Berkeley, a lack of school-sponsored housing at UCSB drives students into the already overheating local housing market. The situation remains dire for other UCs as well, where 16 percent of the combined student body live in hotels, other transitional housing, or even outdoors, according to a 2020 Legislative Analyst’s Office report. Though schools usually subsidize students for their transitional accommodations, without access to permanent dorms, students in such accommodations experience long commutes and frequent moving, which are undoubtedly detrimental to their well-being and their academic success.

Smaller institutions in California, especially community colleges, are likewise suffering from the housing crisis. A 2020 report from UCLA suggests that one in five community college students experienced homelessness during that year. The inadequate financial aid system further exacerbates the housing crisis precipitated by insufficient on-campus housing dorms. According to Michael Muñoz, interim superintendent president at Long Beach City College, the cost of housing is not included in the financial aid calculus for most California community colleges. For students not fortunate enough to receive a dormitory spot or not wealthy enough to afford to rent off-campus accommodations, the risk of experiencing housing insecurity is tremendous. Some students in the Long Beach City College and other similar institutions have even resorted to sleeping in their cars. This problem has become increasingly prevalent among the undergraduate population, as a growing proportion of them, especially at community colleges,  now comes from low-income or otherwise marginalized backgrounds. Without guaranteed housing, their college experience will be severely undermined. 

The most intuitive way to resolve the statewide college housing crisis is for universities to build more dormitories and offer them to students at below-market prices. This is easier said than done, however, as the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictive zoning rules, environmental regulations and community pushbacks all hinder these large-scale construction projects. The almost-successful lawsuit against Berkeley illustrates the barriers preventing schools from constructing the number of dorms necessary in a timely manner. Even if 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 dorms 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, tearing them down for dorms might inadvertently undermine the livelihood of the existing vulnerable population. In 2021, for instance, Berkeley evicted the residents of a historical rent-control building with a lackluster buy-out package, before demolishing it for a 14-story student apartment. Besides evictions, universities might also adopt unconventional building designs that make construction less costly and more efficient, even if such measures might undermine student well-being. Last year, UCSB revealed its plan to build a massive dorm complex containing mostly windowless rooms as part of a “social and psychological experiment.” Though not explicitly stated, cost reduction might be one factor contributing to its windowless and compact design. The plan has come under heavy criticism from students for being inhumane as natural light is crucial for mental health. These examples go to illustrate that universities must strike a balance between offering adequate student housing and doing so ethically. Both objectives are crucial.

Unlike larger institutions, small community colleges often lack the financial resources to build new dorms in the first place. While institutional investors see dormitory construction in big, prestigious universities like the UCs as a profitable asset — especially with continuously growing enrollment levels that increase the demand for dorms — they have little interest in investing in community college dorms. The market cannot resolve the housing crisis for these institutions, and they must look to government subsidies for a solution.

Overall, addressing the college housing crisis requires a delicate balancing act. There must be a long-term plan to substantially boost the availability of affordable student housing in a way that doesn’t undermine nearby low-income communities or harm students in other ways. To accomplish this, the state government should provide more subsidies for smaller institutions with inadequate student housing so that they can construct more dormitories and house everyone in need. Last year, the state legislature approved a $2 billion university housing fund, 50 percent of which will go to community colleges, but this amount is by no means sufficient due to the multitude of schools and how much additional housing each school needs. Additionally, the government should encourage universities capable of building dorms with existing financial resources to do so without causing evictions, even if this means that the new housing options will be farther away from campus. To compensate for the commute, the government and schools must collaboratively fund public transportation systems, preferably ones that would serve students at reduced rates. 

Ultimately, the recent university housing crisis reflects the lack of affordable housing in California as a whole. The state cannot resolve this crisis permanently unless it guarantees stable housing access for all. Given the urgency of this issue, lawmakers, universities and relevant private sector actors must work collectively to employ the most effective measures to address it. We have seen some progress thus far, such as the passage of SB 9, a law that effectively ended single-family zoning in California by allowing for the construction of residences with higher capacities in more areas. Nevertheless, there is still much to work for. 

Yifei Cheng PO ’24 is from Nanjing, China. He enjoys hiking, reading (especially fantasy literature), and playing Starcraft 2. 

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