Casa Zimbabwe, part of the Berkeley Student Cooperative, normally houses 124 residents. Until Sunday, its no-guest policy wasn’t being enforced, according to a post by a house manager in a private Facebook group. Photo: Pete Rosos

Bridget Martin could feel the onset of an anxiety attack every time she thought about stepping into the kitchen of the UC Berkeley co-op where she lives, which normally feeds 57. Before the Cal PhD candidate decamped from her building, Martin sounded the alarm on how fast COVID-19 could spread in such communal conditions.

“I feel like I already lived through like a microcosm of the apocalypse in that house because people were defecting one by one and everybody had a different perception of risk,” said Martin. “I felt like my community imploded. I had to leave home.”

The Berkeley Student Cooperative, or BSC, one of the biggest student cooperative housing systems in the country, is scrambling to adapt during the coronavirus pandemic, amid calls to protect the health of student residents and provide refunds for those who have evacuated.

The BSC nonprofit houses 1,200 students spread across 20 properties surrounding the UC Berkeley campus. So far, three COVID-19 tests of co-op residents  have come back negative. To prepare for the worst, however, an emergency-response team established by BSC’s board has recommended that co-op houses assume that a member is already infected. 

“The (emergency response team) has been advising all residents/staff to act as though someone in the community may have been exposed and we have been actively creating resources for residents and staff to employ increased cleaning, sanitization, disinfecting, and personal safety protocols,” Ella Smith, Vice President of External Affairs for the BSC, said in an email to Berkeleyside. 

Coping with the pandemic presents a particular challenge for the co-ops, where food, labor and living space are shared to reduce the cost of housing. Many houses are no longer allowing visitors and reducing the hour requirements for chores. One recommendation sent by the BSC’s emergency-response team suggested that houses set up separate “well” and “isolated” areas. 

Already, one member of Casa Zimbabwe is self-quarantining after coming into direct contact with a confirmed case, according to a post by a house manager in a private Facebook group. Until Sunday, March 29, the no-guest policy wasn’t enforced at that co-op, according to the post. Casa Zimbabwe normally houses 124 residents. 

The Hillegass Parker House, part of the Berkeley Student Cooperative, normally houses 57 students. About half its residents left in during March. Photo: Pete Rosos

Alongside measures to bolster hygiene in the co-ops, house managers hope that an exodus of residents could help slow the spread of the virus. While a head count is hard to come by, some members estimate the numbers will have significantly thinned when classes start back up from spring break on March 30. Earlier this month, about half of residents remained in Hillegass Parker, which normally houses 57. One BSC employee said in a text that “more would be leaving than coming back. Especially with the email of possible COVID-19 exposure.”

“I left the day before the [shelter]-in-place order. What was happening then was the panic was starting to rise,” said Zara Saif, a UC Berkeley sophomore and resident of Casa Zimbabwe who has returned home to Southern California. “The thing about quarantining in CZ is that it’s so hard because you are living with so many people.”

Across the co-op system, residents who have left are calling for refunds on housing costs for the time they aren’t living in the co-ops, citing UC Berkeley’s decision to do so for on-campus housing, which has been largely evacuated. 

A discussion on rent relief during the last BSC board of directors meeting on March 19 exposed disagreements between more senior board members and house-level managers. 

Kim Benson, Executive Director of the BSC, said at the meeting that an anticipated decline in summer occupancies, combined with mandated seismic safety retrofitting at the Rochdale and Fenwick Apartments, means that the BSC would need to tap into an emergency operating fund. Refunding housing for the remainder of the academic year could cost as much as $2 million, Benson added.

A petition sent to house managers from members of Cloyne is demanding a more urgent response from the BSC board. One request seeks to “allow for early contract release of displaced members who do not plan to return to their units to live, with full reimbursement for the third term of the spring 2020 contract.” 

Members of Cloyne Court, part of the Berkeley Student Cooperative, are demanding rent relief because of the COVID-19 crisis. Photo: Pete Rosos

Both Smith and Benson, members of the emergency-response team and BSC’s board, have said they are exploring alternate sources of funding to assist low-income members and those with elevated health risks. 

Given the state of the financial markets, the discussion about rent relief even included the idea of tapping into the BSC’s scholarship fund. The recently approved budget projects summer occupancy at 90%, but with the uncertainty about how long the pandemic will last, along with potentially more cancelled in-person classes through summer sessions, that figure may drop.

“We anticipate the COVID-19 epidemic, coupled with UC seismic requirements, will have a significant economic impact on the BSC and our ability to expand in the future,” Benson told Berkeleyside. “Our focus now is providing immediate support to protect the health and safety of BSC members and staff and the wider community while also ensuring our ability to offer low-cost student housing at all of our existing properties over the long-term. Surviving these current challenges will take all of our collective energy and resources — but the co-op has been a Berkeley institution since the Great Depression and we are confident in the BSC’s ability to cooperate to overcome these challenges.”

Andy Garcia, a board representative for the Fenwick Weavers apartments, says that one mid-term solution may be to distribute money through a scholarship-like process to help vulnerable students recover the cost burden of relocating due to the outbreak.

With some students returning from spring break last week, the board of directors is expected to vote on further public-health measures and a resolution on the question of rent relief soon.  

“The desire for rent relief is something that a lot of members are pushing for. I have yet to see a board rep push for it but I do think that there is a distinction that staff has about giving rent relief due to financial concerns and whether a rent relief would essentially tie our hands in terms of our finances,” said Cherod Johnson, a board representative of Cloyne Court, the largest coop house. 

While the coronavirus outbreak has upended daily life for all Bay Area residents, for Berkeley co-op members the pandemic represents a total upheaval of a sense of community. In a home where everything is shared, communal life itself becomes a risk in the age of coronavirus. David Faulkner, an industrial hygienist and resident of Hillegass Parker, made the decision to move out on March 15 as his asthma placed him at higher risk.

“It’s unfortunate because [Hillegass Parker] has been my home and they’re my family. After the meeting on Sunday I just thought, you know, it’s just not going to be possible to turn this aircraft carrier fast enough,” Faulkner said. “I moved in with my partner in Oakland and that’s where I’ve been since. It’s quite emotional because it’s my home, but it just doesn’t feel like I can be there right now.”

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Freelancer Brandon Yung likes to say he receives his education from Berkeley — the city as much as the university. As a former lead city government reporter for the Daily Californian, Brandon has reported...