Campus & community, Campus news

An update from Chancellor Christ on two UC Berkeley student housing projects

Two students walk toward Sather Gate on a virtually empty campus during the coronavirus pandemic.
The few students who returned to Berkeley in August found a desolate campus. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)
Two students walk toward Sather Gate on a virtually empty campus during the coronavirus pandemic.

UC Berkeley houses fewer undergraduate and graduate students than any of the other UC campuses, Chancellor Carol Christ said in a message to students on Monday . (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

Chancellor Carol Christ sent the following message to all UC Berkeley students on Monday:

Four years ago, a campus task force documented the extent of our student housing crisis, and set the stage for an urgent initiative to address it. UC Berkeley houses fewer undergraduate and graduate students than any of the other UC campuses. Due to the high cost and low supply of housing close to campus, we estimate that 40% of our students are not able to live in Berkeley, undermining your ability to thrive, succeed and fully partake in all that the university has to offer.

These are the reasons our student housing initiative commits us to doubling the number of beds available in university-owned and -operated residential facilities. And, that, in turn means we must build on every university-owned site identified in the task force’s report . We are a land-poor campus and we must use all of the sites we have to support the students we enroll.

I know that few of you were enrolled when the initiative was launched, and I want to ensure that all who have arrived on campus since that time have accurate, updated information regarding the two projects that are closest to being opened: People’s Park and Anchor House.

People’s Park

We did not prioritize the People’s Park site simply because of its proximity to campus. Consistent with our responsibilities and commitments to both the campus and city communities, this site offers a unique opportunity for a win-win-win-win: Housing for as many as one thousand students. Permanent housing for very low-income and unhoused members of our community. Renewed open space for the safe use and enjoyment of everyone. A commemoration honoring and enshrining the park’s storied past.

We strongly believe that there are better solutions for those who do not have housing security.”

– Chancellor Carol Christ

I urge you all to review the plan’s details on the project website and see for yourself.

There are those who say we cannot do it all, that we must choose between meeting the needs of 1,000 students, and the needs of the 45-50 people who have historically used the park on a daily basis. I believe that we can and will serve the interests of all. We deeply appreciate and share the concern so many of you have for unhoused people in our community, and that concern is at the heart of all that we currently do — and will continue to do — to meet the needs of unhoused people. A few facts for your consideration:

  • We strongly believe that there are better solutions for those who do not have housing security than simply providing them with outdoor space for camping.
  • This is the reason we took the unprecedented step in 2018 of hiring a full time social worker to be our Homeless Outreach Coordinator. His sole focus is supporting the ever-changing population that frequents the park. Working with partners in the City of Berkeley, Alameda County and nonprofit organizations, he has, to date, secured housing for 58 people, with the help of graduate student interns from the School of Social Welfare. We are not waiting for the construction of the People’s Park project to try to find safe housing options for the people who use People’s Park.  We work every day to try to find for them acceptable housing and shelter solutions.
  • We are making part of the site available to Resources for Community Development (RCD), a local, non-profit organization with deep experience creating housing for very low-income families and individuals. RCD will oversee the construction and operation of a building that will provide affordable, as well as supportive housing and onsite services for people in need , an approach that has proven to be the best solution for those without housing security. The new building will substantially increase the city’s current supply of supportive housing units and provide opportunities for students from our graduate school programs to support and learn from the residents.
  • The campus will not decide who will live in the supportive housing. That will be left to the city departments and/or community organizations with the necessary expertise.
  • Even as we work to find housing and shelter for unhoused individuals at People’s Park, we strive to meet their other needs. Every day our social worker and interns are helping people in the park connect with the support and services they need. The campus spends over a quarter million dollars a year to keep People’s Park and its facilities clean, including maintaining a public restroom. We have reassigned a campus facilities and operations manager to assist unhoused individuals in the park. We placed a “sharps” needle container on the site to keep discarded needles from creating a health hazard.
  • Every week our social worker, facilities manager, and director of local government and community relations meet with city and civic leaders to coordinate and improve efforts to meet the needs of unhoused people in the Park and surrounding neighborhoods.
  • Once construction starts and the site temporarily closes, we will not leave those who regularly use the park to fend for themselves. Consistent with our commitments, our homeless outreach coordinator is working to develop – in concert with local experts and officials – a program to accommodate and support the unhoused people who use the park in the daytime.
  • Prior to the pandemic, no one slept in the park at night. Camping in the park is illegal. We have successfully enforced this camping ban for 50 years. We have temporarily suspended enforcement of that law during the pandemic due to limited alternatives for the unhoused as a result of shelters that have either closed or limited occupancy.
  • We will eventually resume enforcing the law against camping in the park. So, abandoning plans for student housing on the site would not enable the park to become a permanent solution for anyone who is unhoused. And, again, we believe we can and must do better than simply provide open camping space for those who do not have housing security.
  • Regardless of the law, and even if the campus did not need to use the land it owns to support the students it enrolls, we do not have the resources or expertise to permanently provide safe and sanitary living conditions for a permanent encampment at the park.
  • Left in its current state, People’s Park will continue to be a locus of extensive criminal activity, much of it violent, much of it targeting those who frequent the park. In recent years, that activity includes a homicide, five reported sexual assaults and at least 140 assaults. Our plans offer the promise of a safer neighborhood for all, and a park that will be used by all.

Together, these are the reasons our plans have gained support from the mayor, members of the city council, the media , our neighbors, local churches, faculty experts and professionals who have dedicated their lives to helping and supporting unhoused people. We are grateful for their endorsements.

Last year we held three open house events to solicit input from the public regarding our plans for the park. We listened carefully and the feedback received from students, faculty, staff and our neighbors helped improve the finalized plan. At the September 2021 Regents meeting, the campus will seek environmental and project approval for the People’s Park Housing. We expect to begin construction in 2022.

Anchor House

This transformative student housing project is unlike anything else in our university’s past – and, perhaps, any university’s past – due to its origins, underlying values, targeted population and the financial support it will provide in perpetuity to low-income students.

This transformative student housing project is unlike anything else in our university’s past.”

– Chancellor Carol Christ

A generous donor has offered to fully fund the cost of the building’s design and construction, representing the largest philanthropic gift in our history. And, this will literally be a gift that keeps on giving: As per the donor’s instructions, all of net operating revenue generated by this residence hall will be dedicated to funding scholarships targeted toward under-represented and first-generation undergraduates.

Equally important is the fact that Anchor House will prioritize transfer students, who are predominantly from California community colleges and, compared to the undergraduate student body as a whole, are more likely to come from low-income families and communities of color. Transfer students also face challenges in terms of connecting to and becoming a part of the campus community, particularly when, due to low supply and high costs, they can be forced to live far from campus.

Located on the site bounded by University Avenue, Oxford Street, Walnut Street and Berkeley Way, Anchor House will set new standards as home to 772 students per year. It will include a wide array of amenities focused on providing support for students’ health and well-being. Each apartment will be furnished with a full kitchen and in-unit washer and dryer in order to foster independent living skills. In addition, there will be a full fitness center, a yoga/meditation room, two dining venues, as well as event and social interaction spaces. Many of these spaces and venues will be open to all students and targeted, in particular, for commuter students, who are currently underserved in terms of accessible indoor space on campus for studying, socializing and wellness activities.

As you may know, the Anchor House building site includes a small, university-owned apartment building at 1921 Walnut Street. Six of its units are occupied by a total of ten tenants. To make the Anchor House project work we need to utilize the entire site. The inclusion of the 1921 Walnut site enables the university to add 75 beds to the building, providing urgently needed housing for an additional 7,500 students over the course of the building’s anticipated, 100-year lifetime.

However, we will not require anyone to relocate in the midst of the pandemic. In addition, we are offering each tenant a very generous relocation package that could easily reach six figures. We have made clear to the tenants that we are ready and able to be flexible and accommodating. I am confident we will be able to balance the needs of the tens of thousands of students who will benefit from Anchor House in the years ahead, with the needs of the ten remaining tenants.

We see this project as vital to the long-term health of our students, the campus and the community. We plan to seek Regental approval of this extraordinary gift in July 2021, and expect to begin construction towards the end of this year, with occupancy planned for sometime in 2024. In the weeks ahead we will have ready a project-specific website with design renderings, mock-ups of apartments and detailed descriptions of the Anchor House’s indoor spaces and amenities, services and programs.

I will continue to keep you updated on these and other important student housing projects.