The city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley will begin leasing the Rodeway Inn on University Avenue to house people who are currently living in People’s Park and will be displaced when Cal begins building student housing there this summer, the two groups announced Wednesday.
The city and Cal are partnering on the 18-month lease of the property at 1461 University Avenue for supportive housing. Berkeley will use a $4.7 million grant from the state’s Encampment Resolution Fund to pay the lease for 12 months and contract with Abode Services, and Cal will contribute $2.2 million for the remaining six months.
After decades of back and forth, the UC Regents voted in September to build a $312 million housing project for 1,100 students at People’s Park. Impassioned pushback from advocates for the park, who argued for its preservation as a rich, cultural landmark and home of major civil rights movements of the 1960s, ultimately failed.
The Rodeway Inn was used during the COVID-19 pandemic as housing for some residents who lived in encampments by Interstate 80, and is managed by Abode Services as housing for homeless people who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 under the state’s Project Roomkey. According to Peter Radu, assistant to the city manager, all residents who are currently staying at the hotel will be given permanent housing vouchers from the federal American Rescue Plan and transitioned into other residences.
There are approximately 55 people staying at People’s Park right now, according to Cal’s outreach worker Ari Neulight, with about 20 people already involved in the county’s housing pipeline. There are 42 rooms available at Rodeway and anyone who does not want to stay at the hotel will be offered personalized support to find a placement, Radu said.
Abode will continue project management under the new lease, which offers private rooms to each resident, as well as meals, healthcare, counseling and transportation services and allows pets.
The project is among the major promises made by Chancellor Carol Christ when Cal decided to develop over People’s Park, a controversial process that has also brought forth lawsuits from four separate groups.
Christ said during a press conference Wednesday that the university’s priority is creating below-market housing for students, while also playing its part in addressing the housing and homelessness crisis throughout the Bay Area.
“We are grateful for and humbled by the coming together of this new alliance in support of a new People’s Park,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said in a statement. “Together, we will provide a true win-win-win for our students, for unhoused members of our community, and for all of the residents of the city of Berkeley.”
Nicholas Alexander, project coordinator for the People’s Park Kitchen, currently lives at the park and recently received a Section 8 voucher to find affordable housing in Oakland. He and other encampment residents, the majority of whom moved into the park during the pandemic, have been fighting to protect the historic area.
He said the interim housing option is a positive step, but he’s curious how many will be supported into permanent housing once the lease expires.
The move “undercuts the narrative of displacement” and protects Cal’s public image, Alexander said, but Cal wasn’t motivated to support the homeless until five years ago when they hired an outreach coordinator for People’s Park in the run-up to development plans.
“The fact remains that that park has been a haven for the homelessness and unhoused for years now. The concerns should have been shown decades ago when droves of homeless people were sleeping here in dark, cold conditions,” Alexander said. “I’m glad that the university is doing something now, but I don’t think it’s coming from a place of integrity, frankly.”
Radu said the city is committed to ensuring that no one served at the Rodeway Inn, either in its current iteration or the next one, returns to living on the streets. He said that will be accomplished through a combination of supports, like money for moving, help with paperwork and personalized options in addition to a housing placement.
The partnership will also include a daytime drop-in center at the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, which the university agreed to in its $83 million settlement with the city stemming from lawsuits over the university’s increasing enrollment.
It’s dubbed the Sacred Rest drop-in center and will be located on church grounds at 2407 Dana Street, across Telegraph Avenue. Cal is paying $500,000 and the city $250,000 for meals, mental health counseling, support with documents, housing navigation and other services, operated by the nonprofit Village of Love. After the city approves construction for the project, it’s expected to open up in the summer from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.
Council Member Rigel Robinson, who oversees the student district, remarked that “never before has a university invested so directly in alleviating homelessness in its host city,” and Mayor Jesse Arreguín emphasized the importance of local, university, state and federal involvement in the partnership.
“This partnership will put a roof over the heads of those living in People’s Park, instead of simply pushing them from one neighborhood to another,” he said in a statement. “I’m deeply appreciative of all the partners that came together to make this happen.”
This story has been updated.