UC Berkeley facing a big challenge over housing and homelessness

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Homelessness is up all over the Bay Area. In 2019 a single day count of homeless people found the numbers were up a striking 43% in Alameda County which is home to UC Berkeley. About a month after those figures were revealed, a group called Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods filed a lawsuit seeking to force the school to build more student housing.


Phil Bokovoy only has to take a few steps from his front door in the Parker-Piedmont area in South Berkeley to see an example of what he considers UC Berkeley’s failure to build enough housing for its students.

There, on the corner of his block stands a brown-shingle home that once held a single family. Now, it has nine bedrooms filled with more than a dozen students.

“I can’t tell you how many times neighbors have had to call the police on this house,” says Bokovoy…

As UC Berkeley increased its enrollment without building enough new beds to accommodate the growth, investors rushed in to convert single-family homes into places where a dozen or more students could live. But young people living together with minimal adult supervision can mean noise, late-night disturbances, parties, trash and increased calls to the police.

And the size of UC Berkeley really has grown dramatically over the last 15 years. In 2005 the school had just under 32,000 students. At the time, the school predicted very modest growth such that enrollment would be nearing 34,000 students by 2020. However that’s not how things worked out: “Driven by a mandate by the UC Board of Regents, there were 42,347 students in the 2019-20 academic year.” And enrollment was scheduled to go up again this year to a new high of 45,057.

But as of last week, a judge’s ruling is being allowed to stand which means enrollment must be capped at 2021 levels. So just weeks before admissions letters are set to go out to students for the next school year, Berkeley is probably going to have to cut about 5,100 students.


UC Berkeley will have to significantly reduce the number of undergraduate and transfer students it admits for 2022-23 unless it gets the California Supreme Court to intervene in a lower court ruling, the university said Monday.

About 5,100 fewer high school seniors and transfer students will be offered a place at Cal for the next academic year because of an Alameda County Superior Court ruling that ordered UC Berkeley to freeze enrollment at the same level as 2020-21. The 24% drop in offer letters would bring about 6,450 new students to Cal — about 32% fewer than in a typical year.

UC Berkeley applied for a stay of the decision to the California First Court of Appeal, but the court turned down the university’s request on Thursday, Feb. 10.

The school is now appealing directly to the State Supreme Court in hopes they can avoid having to slash admissions at the last minute. It’s not just a potential loss for thousands of students, cutting that many would also put a huge dent in the school’s budget, i.e. a loss of more than $50 million in tuition.

But one reason the judge sided with the neighborhood group in this case is not just because some Berkeley neighborhoods have been turned into the equivalent of frat row. The concern is that the housing shortage in the city is driving up rents and, possibly, contributing to the homeless problem which is a top issue of concern for many residents in the Bay Area. The judge wants a more careful environmental impact study of the school’s growth.

Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods had argued that the university needed to study the environmental impacts of increasing its enrollment by more than 30% to a projected 44,735 students by 2022-23. (Enrollment has actually surpassed that.) UC Berkeley did not do a separate EIR on the enrollment increase but instead examined it as part of an EIR for the Upper Hearst Development project, which will add a new building for the Goldman School of Public Policy and adjacent housing for about 150 people. UC Berkeley also focused in the EIR on the impacts of the increased enrollment to the main campus rather than the city.

On Aug. 23, 2021, Alameda County Judge Brad Seligman ordered UC Berkeley to toss out the EIR it did for the Upper Hearst project and start anew, in part to examine the impact on Berkeley of the increased enrollment. The plaintiffs, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, argued that Cal has not built sufficient housing for its new students, exacerbating the city’s housing crisis and increasing homelessness.

Currently, UC Berkeley only houses 22% of its undergraduates and 9% of its graduate students — the lowest percentage in the UC system.


The San Francisco Chronicle published a related story today suggesting that the problem is bigger than just the growth of UC Berkeley. In order to keep rents reasonable, the city really needs to build nearly 1,000 new units a year. And in recent years it has started approving more construction. But the Chronicle repots it’s not clear how many actual units are being built.

While officials are trying to address the region’s housing and homelessness crisis by pushing density and all kinds of housing, the city has struggled to get homes built. Its challenges underscore what cities throughout the region face in generating housing even when they have the political will…

Officials said data on how many homes have been built in the city since 2015 was not readily available. There was data on a limited area. Two areas where the city allowed more density over the last decade —downtown and San Pablo Avenue — saw more new housing. From 2018 to 2020, 242 housing units on San Pablo Avenue and 316 units in the downtown area were completed, said Jordan Klein, the director of the city’s planning department. While that’s almost as much as was built from 1970 to 2000 in the entire city, the city needs to be producing an average of a thousand of units a year to meet their state goals.

So it’s possible the situation could improve over the next few years but that won’t be nearly soon enough to help UC Berkeley’s enrollment situation this month.

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