On July 22, the UC Board of Regents voted to approve UC Berkeley’s plans to significantly increase housing development over the next 16 years. This meeting was the last formal opportunity to make changes to the contentious proposal, which has been hotly debated since it was released in February this year. The 2021 Long Range Development Plan—or LRDP— has sparked outrage from community groups, homeless advocates, UC Berkeley students, and for a time, the City of Berkeley, who say that it would displace many who are already being marginalized by the city’s housing shortage, which is driven in large part by the University’s continuous growth.
Supporters of the plan point to the fact that UC Berkeley houses the lowest percentage of students of any university in the UC system at 22 percent of its undergraduates and 9 percent of its graduate students. This forces the vast majority of Cal students to find housing in Berkeley’s rental market. The LRDP outlines plans to build 11,730 beds over the next 16 years.
“Expanding on-campus housing will significantly improve the student experience and student success, and ease pressure on the off campus private housing market,” said UCBerkeley Chancellor Carol Christ in the Finance and Capital Strategies Committee meeting on July 22.
But advocates, Cal students, and others say that like the university’s current student housing, the beds proposed in the LRDP will be too expensive, which would ultimately continue to drive up the cost of housing in the city as a whole.
“UC gentrification hurts all of us because it raises the rent floor,” says Athena Davis, a Cal sophomore and student activist. “Continuing to build more high-cost housing will make all housing less affordable.”
The cost of housing in Cal’s current student dorms hovers around $1,600 per month, and that’s before the cost of the default meal plan, which is required for all students who live in the dorms and costs $5,485 per year. Community groups expect rents for the new housing to be comparable.
Additionally, UC Berkeley has increased enrollment by 30 percent since 2005, and plans to continue doing so. By 2036, there will be 67,200 people on campus including students, faculty and staff. That’s up from about 43,000 students in the 2019-20 academic year. These increases will leave 70 percent of Cal students without a place to live, even if the university builds all the beds proposed in the LRDP.Students, advocates, and community groups also point out that the proposed development plans would displace current Berkeley residents in the short term. Hundreds have turned out to protest building on two of the proposed development sites—People’s Park and 1921 Walnut Street. People’s Park has been designated as a landmark by both the City of Berkeley and the state, and is currently home to over 50 unhoused people who have been living there since the start of the pandemic. The LRDP stipulates that the park would be developed into a mixed-use building with 1,187 beds for students, faculty, and staff, as well as a residential building for up to 125 unhoused people.
“The real issue is getting the students to talk to our peers, our neighbors”
1921 Walnut Street is a 112-year-old rent-controlled apartment building that was purchased by the university last year. The LRDP stipulates that the building will be demolished to make way for Anchor House, housing for transfer students that would contain 760 beds. The current tenants say that losing their housing there would equate to being priced out of Berkeley—even considering the relocation agreement being offered by the university.
“At retirement age I won’t be able to afford to stay in Berkeley at market rent,” Paul Wallace—a current tenant of 1921 Walnut Street—said during public comment at the Regents meeting. “I implore you to please think of the community that you’re displacing, think of the long-term impacts of tenants in Berkeley who absolutely would not be able to afford to live in Berkeley if you displaced us.”
Until recently, the City of Berkeley numbered among those who opposed Cal’s development plans. In April, the city issued a scathing 75-page response to the LRDP, in which acting head of the planning department, Jordan Klein, wrote that the university failed to seriously analyze the impacts of the proposed growth. Specifically, the letter says that UC Berkeley provided superficial responses to how it would mitigate the impact of their growing student body, increased carbon emissions, transportation use, and increased sewer use, among other things.
“The University must fully disclose the impacts of its development projects and anticipated growth and mitigate the environmental impacts of those projects,” Klein wrote.
However, in July, the Berkeley City Council voted to sign a settlement agreement which states that the university will pay the city at least $83 million over 16 years for use of city services, such as fire, police, and emergency personnel. In exchange, Berkeley will withdraw from two lawsuits it has already filed against Cal. The city also agreed not to file a lawsuit against the 2021 LRDP, despite its harsh criticism in the spring.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín told Berkeleyside that even if the city won those lawsuits, UC Berkeley would simply have to do more environmental reviews before moving forward with the LRDP. The settlement, he says, is a better deal for the city.
“More CEQA litigation gives us more CEQA,” Arreguín told Berkeleyside, referring to the environmal impact reports required by the California Environmental Quality Act (or CEQUA). “It doesn’t give us a check.”
As the city walks back its resistance, a coalition of 12 community groups is continuing to push back against the university’s plans. Calling themselves the Coalition for a Truly Public UC, the group intends to fight both the LRDP and the privatization of the University of California as a whole.
“I think the UC likes to say we’re just this coalition of schools in your own community providing education for all Californians,” says Davis. “No, we have to treat it as a company. [Through the Board of Regents] it is run by CEOs of investment companies, venture capitalist groups, politicians. We must dismantle the narrative that it’s a benevolent force acting in the best interest of the public and be frank about the profit motives there.”
While the Regents were meeting on July 22, a group of 50-some protesters gathered outside the University of California Office of the President building in Downtown Oakland. Representatives from the Coalition for a Truly Public UC took to the mic and spoke about their frustration with the way the UC is headed, as well as their specific demands. The protesters called for adopting a zero-tuition UC system that is governed according to a democratic process, that Cal cease plans to develop on 1921 Walnut Street and People’s Park, and that the university divest from campus police, amongst other demands.
Members of this coalition say they are disappointed by the regents’ vote, but not surprised.
“The UC is both the largest employer and the largest landholder in California,” said Dayton Andrews of the United Front Against Displacement, an anti-gentrification advocacy group. “The issue is not the Regents… The real issue is getting students to stop trying to talk to them, and start talking to our peers, to our neighbors instead.”
The group says their next steps will start with organizing on campus, as in-person classes resume this fall. On the ground organizing has been effective in past fights against the regents board, says Andrews: in 2014, UC Santa Cruz students were able to successfully delay the tuition increase that had been voted into effect by the Regents for two years.
“We have to dispel this idea that [the Regents’ vote] is the last nail in the coffin. That’s what everyone keeps saying and it’s never the case.”
Alastair Boone is the Editor in Chief of Street Spirit.