Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley's Neighborhoods, points out a house on Piedmont Avenue that holds many students.
Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, points out a house on Piedmont Avenue that holds many students. Credit: Frances Dinkelspiel
Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, points out a house on Piedmont Avenue that holds many students. Credit: Frances Dinkelspiel

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.

A block away on Piedmont Avenue sits another house that Bokovoy says has four students in each bedroom. It is owned by an international investment firm, he says. One house on Parker Street has 20 inhabitants, a density similar to those in midtown Manhattan, according to Bokovoy. In all, the neighborhood that Bokovoy has called home since 1989 has eight houses crammed with students, according to city of Berkeley records. Most of the renters pay $1,000 or more for a place to sleep. Not a separate bedroom. A place to sleep.

For almost 10 years, the proliferation of mini dorms in Berkeley’s residential neighborhoods has been a flashpoint, pitting long-term neighbors against students, the city and the university. 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.

The City Council tried to address this issue in January 2016 when it passed new rules for mini dorms, defined as any dwelling unit occupied by six or more people over 18, as well as for places like sororities, fraternities and student cooperatives. The council imposed new permitting requirements for when landlords converted buildings and required each mini dorm to have a “responsible resident” who would make sure trash was kept in cans and the house abided by Berkeley’s noise ordinance. Neighbors now have to be notified before parties and alcohol use are restricted. UC Berkeley created the Happy Neighbors program, among other initiatives, to educate students about community expectations, Berkeley’s noise ordinance and rules around drinking. Police also increased weekend patrols.

Students at UC Berkeley pushed back against the proposed requirements, telling officials it would micromanage students in their apartments and make students avoid calling for help when they were in trouble for fear they would be labeled a nuisance.

But the rules, while marginally helpful, didn’t address the underlying problem of too few beds for Cal students. Currently, UC Berkeley only houses 22% of its undergraduates and 9% of its graduate students — the lowest percentage in the UC system. (The average across the system is 38.1% for undergraduates and 19.6% for graduate students.) UC Berkeley has plans to build 11,730 beds in the next 16 years but that would still leave 70% of Cal students to find a place to sleep outside the Cal system.

UC Berkeley’s enrollment has increased by more than 30%

UC Berkeley’s enrollment growth has exacerbated the situation. In 2005, in a long-range development plan, UC Berkeley said it would grow to 33,450 students by 2020. But driven by a mandate by the UC Board of Regents, there were 42,347 students in the 2019-20 academic year. By 2036, there will be 67,200 people on campus, including students, faculty and staff.

“Cal needs to take more ownership over what is happening in the community because they are forcing kids into the community,” says Bokovoy. “Berkeley doesn’t have the resources to help.”

Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, of which Bokovoy serves as president, has filed numerous lawsuits against UC Berkeley to force it to mitigate the impacts of increased student enrollment. Other Berkeley groups are also challenging UC Berkeley’s growth, including the Southside Neighborhood Consortium, which is a coalition of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, The People’s Park Historic District Advocacy Group, Make UC A Good Neighbor, Save 1921 Walnut, Berkeley Citizens for a Better Plan and other groups.

“UCB must provide adequate student housing on campus and not continue to push demand into the community where new students displace low-income renters, people of color, and/or long-term residents,” the Southside Neighborhood Consortium wrote in a recent letter to the city. “This is a matter of equity and preserving cultural and economic diversity. UCB’s recent enrollment growth to date has accelerated gentrification and displacement throughout the city.”

Now Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods has new reasons to be hopeful — as well as a reason to be more concerned. A July ruling by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman said UC Berkeley abused its discretion when it failed to study the impacts of increasing its student enrollment. Seligman told the university it must do a more comprehensive review.

“CEQA requires public universities to mitigate the environmental impacts of growth and development,” Seligman noted.

UC Berkeley is not conceding that it has to do this mitigation, according to Dan Mogulof, a university spokesman. Its legal interpretation — which Judge Seligman will consider — is that UC Berkeley will have to study the physical impacts of enrollment growth but not the social or economic ones.

While Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods is overjoyed with the development, which came on top of another favorable court ruling in June 2020, the group recently lost its biggest ally — the city of Berkeley.

Last week, the City Council voted to accept a settlement with UC Berkeley that will have the university pay the city at least $83 million over 16 years. In exchange, Berkeley will withdraw from two lawsuits it had filed against Cal, including the one Judge Seligman had ruled on. Berkeley also agreed not to file a lawsuit against UC Berkeley’s new 2021 long-range development plan and an environmental impact report, both of which the city had harshly criticized in April. The Board of Regents is scheduled to vote on accepting those plans this week.

Two neighborhood groups are seeking a preliminary injunction to force the City Council to set aside its vote.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín said that the settlement offered hard dollars that continuing the lawsuits would not. Favorable court rulings would only mean UC Berkeley had to do more environmental reviews.

“More CEQA litigation gives us more CEQA,” said Arreguín. “It doesn’t give us a check.”

Arreguín said UC Berkeley’s future plans as outlined in its 2021 LRDP and EIR include a strong commitment to building more housing.

“To sue the university over the LRDP in which they emphasize housing, to make them focus more on housing, would be hypocritical,” he said.

Group wants Cal to tie growth to number of new beds

Despite the withdrawal of Berkeley, Save Berkeley Neighborhoods is still fighting. The group wants UC Berkeley to agree to what three other UC campuses have done – tie growth to the number of beds it builds. UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Santa Cruz have all reached legally binding agreements with their host cities to cap enrollment and tie it to housing availability, according to a letter the Southside Neighborhood Consortium sent to the City Council.

“The neighbors’ biggest priority is getting UC to be accountable and to be a true partner and not to be unleashed to do whatever they wish in the city,” said David Shiver of the Stuart Street/Willard Association.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said in a press call last week that the campus seeks to be a good partner with both the city and its neighborhoods and believes the settlement agreement will ensure that happens. She rejected the idea of enrollment caps or tying enrollment to the creation of housing. For the 2021-22 academic year, about 112,000 students applied for Cal’s freshman class of abut 6,000.

“What we hear from the Legislature is a real urgency about more places, specifically at UC Berkeley,” said Christ.

However, UC Berkeley will look to add space outside the Berkeley campus to accommodate more students, Christ told the Regents’ Finance and Capital Strategies committee on Wednesday. Those locales could include the Richmond Field Station and Moffett Field in Mountain View, she said,

“Enrollment growth is very much on our mind but we are right in limiting enrollment growth on campus on the city of Berkeley,” Christ said.

Bokovoy is optimistic because he believes the law is on the side of the neighbors. UC Berkeley has lost a number of CEQA suits in a row, and that should serve as a wake-up call for it to do business differently, he said.

“All we want is for the university to be a good neighbor and to recognize there are quality of life issues they need to address,” said Bokovoy. “It’s not hard and it’s not expensive but there’s an institutional arrogance and resistance we’ve been unable to overcome.”

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...