Waitlists for apartments are long and rents are high in Berkeley, making it hard for lots of Cal students to find housing. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

On a recent evening, Joshua Leibner returned home from an exhausting evening scavenging for apartment units. It had been a long night. One rental was too expensive. The other so old and filthy that he may as well have been sleeping on a sidewalk.

For a full-time student at UC Berkeley with no regular income, sharing a small bedroom with a small bathroom and a window big enough to allow him to breathe for $450 a month would have been ideal for Leibner. (That is not his real name.) However the waitlist for an apartment like that is long and competitive, and time is a luxury he does not have.

Liebner walked downstairs into his current home, the basement of a 100-year-old structure-turned-student-cooperative, right across from the Cal campus. What appears initially to be a hole in the wall leads into a tiny room. The area smells like old carpet and mold.

“Obviously this is temporary,” said Liebner, referring to the dark apartment. “But it’s pretty cool, considering I’ve been living here for weeks without paying and I get to have this space all to myself.”

Liebner is among thousands of students at UC Berkeley struggling to make ends meet and pay the monthly rent. Full-time students with no regular income other than student loans often have difficulty being financially self-sufficient.

Being picky about housing is a luxury many, like Leibner, do not have. Choosing an apartment is no longer a question of weighing up a rental’s Wi-Fi connection, parking garage or a centralized cooling system. Rather the questions are more basic: does the place have a window large enough so the room does not feel claustrophobic? Can it fit a mattress and maybe a small couch? Is it “livable?”

According to Apartment List, a San Francisco-based rental marketplace, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley is $2,810, a 3% increase over the past year. The rate far exceeds the national average of $1,150. In a confidence survey conducted by the same company, Berkeley renters expressed dissatisfaction about affordability, giving the city a failing grade.

UC Berkeley does the worst job housing its students of all the campuses in the University of California system. Cal only provides places to live for 22% of its undergraduates and 9% of its graduate students, according to a report released in January by the Housing Master Plan Task Force.

In contrast, the system-wide average is 38.1% for undergraduates and 19.6% for graduate students.

Moreover, the housing crunch is coming at a time when the student population is on the rise. The number of undergrads increased 15% from 2006 to the spring of 2016 to a total of 26,094, according to the university’s office of planning and analysis. The graduate student population went up 7% in the same period, to almost 11,000.

UC Berkeley officials are seeking ways to ameliorate the crisis. The housing task force, which was created by then-Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and is now chaired by his successor, Carol Christ, identified nine potential sites for student housing, including a large agricultural tract on Oxford Street, People’s Park, and the University Village in Albany.

The campus is also working with private developers to provide housing. It signed a contract with American Campus Communities to construct a residence hall on Bancroft Avenue that can house 781 students. It is slated to open in the fall of 2018. It also leases apartment complexes throughout Berkeley.

“The issue of housing is one of Chancellor Christ’s top priorities,” said Dan Mogulof, a university spokesman. “We understand that the construction of residence halls is a long-term project. In the interim, our goal is to make sure that students are aware and that they are utilizing resources available to them.”

An ad for a mini dorm on Craigslist in 2015. The ad says the seven-bedroom house can sleep 20.

But these long-range plans are doing little to negate the housing insecurity many Cal students are currently experiencing. The high cost of housing has put many Berkeley students into precarious conditions, including spaces that do not meet fire-safety standards. Many students are also living in homes that have been dubbed “mini-dorms” because beds are crammed into every nook and cranny.

Given the level of income inequality in Alameda County (see interactive map), it is perhaps not surprising that for those who fall on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the standard for picking a “home” boils down to one question: would you rather be homeless?

Michelle Rodriguez (not her real name) asked herself that question when she first set foot in Berkeley in the fall of 2012. After hopping from one small apartment to another over the past four years, the fifth-year Cognitive Science and Art History undergraduate finally settled in a 36-person student housing co-operative.

Her room is a room within a room accessed down a flight of stairs without a rail.

“Living in a room below another room is not the most ideal,” says Rodriguez. “But when you have to choose between paying $15,000 and $6,800 per year, you always go for the cheaper one.”

As the first person in her family to go to college, let alone to relocate in a wealthy suburb, Rodriguez does not mind a little bit of inconvenience. In fact, she has relished the freedom of living on her own and having a place all to herself – even it entails living in unsafe housing.

A 10-minute walk from campus, Rodriguez’ home is on Panoramic Hill near the Cal Memorial Stadium. It lacks the fading grandeur of some of its neighboring sororities and fraternities, not to mention the housekeepers that maintain those properties. Instead it relies on donated furniture from past residents and community organizations. Despite the smell of old and poorly shampooed carpet, and hallways that give one a slight feeling of claustrophobia,it is adequate for students seeking affordable housing,

“The fire marshal is the least of my concerns,” said Rodriguez as she unlocked her bedroom door. “I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Boyle Heights, downtown Los Angeles. This is actually an improvement considering I used to share a thin mattress pad with my brother.”

Rodriguez turns on the light and examines the floor with her foot, for fear of missing a step and falling down the flight of stairs. Then, she walks through a pile of clothes, leading to a narrow room in the back, the innermost part of a vast space that has been turned into a bedroom. Rodriguez pays around $6,700 for the room for the 9-month academic year. The rent includes food.

Table, compiled by the author, gives an indication of what students face when looking to rent in Berkeley. Note that the rent for Rochdale is for shared housing. Source: Carlo David

Cooperative housing has become an alternative for those who do not have the immediate resources to pay going rents for apartments. The houses, which are sprinkled around the UC Berkeley campus and across the city, range in size from a house accommodating anywhere from 12 to 140 people. Everyone chips in with the chores, including dishwashing, sweeping and vacuuming, to mediating conflicts between roommates. Fulfilling these chores, though at times burdensome, is worth it considering how little cooperative homes charge for rent, students say.

Some students can’t even afford to pay the low-cost coop fees so they live covertly in co-ops for free, which is known as “fishing.” Some “surf” their friends’ couches for weeks without paying rent. Others, like Leibner, occupy communal spaces — a meditation room, for example.

Leibner eventually left his tiny room in the coop. He is now temporarily sharing a single bedroom – not designed for two tenants – for $400 for six weeks. While the room is an improvement over his past dwellings, it is a short term solution. With the end of the summer quickly approaching, Leibner is faced with the choice of either working multiple jobs to break even or jumping from one friend’s apartment to another like he’s done so for months now.

“Sadly, this issue [housing insecurity] is not just limited to students, but they certainly are one of the more visible victims of housing affordability or the lack thereof,” said Igor Tregub, chair of the Housing Advisory Commission and a member of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board. “While we are limited in what we can do, in the interim, we want to continue to strengthen anti-displacement policies and look into avenues to maximize the supply of affordable housing and opportunities for income-qualifying tenants to live there.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated after publication to clarify that Joshua Leibner and Michelle Rodriguez are pseudonyms. Leibner’s current living situation was also added.