Berkeley student workers struggle to find safe and affordable homes


Diego Villegas had no illusions that leaving Mexico City to pursue a graduate degree at UC Berkeley would be easy. But he was unprepared for the harsh reality of finding safe and affordable housing in a college town struggling to accommodate its growing student population.

After a faulty air conditioner set fire to his first rental, Villegas slept on couches for months while frantically searching for a new place to live. The school helped by getting him into scarcely available student housing, but he could barely afford the cramped studio apartment. He’s since moved to a shared house in Oakland where the $1,000 monthly rent is over three-quarters what he earns grading papers for university classes.

“It has not been, as they say in Mexico, through a path of flowers,” Villegas said. “It’s been through a path of pain and stress and lots of economic uncertainty.”

Villegas, 27, is one of roughly 48,000 University of California graduate student workers and academic employees at campuses across the state who walked off the job last month, demanding higher wages to ease the strain of mounting housing costs. While two of the four bargaining groups representing nonstudent employees recently reached an initial deal with UC, student workers such as Villegas — who make up the large majority of strikers — have not.

But even a new contract won’t solve a widespread student-housing shortage that has long pushed UC students into competition for expensive and sometimes dangerous off-campus apartments and shared houses — driving up rents and fueling local concerns about overcrowded neighborhoods and gentrification.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Berkeley. Despite recent efforts to add university apartments, the school housed just 8% of its graduate students and 30% of its undergrads on campus in 2020 — the fewest of any UC school — according to the latest available university data. For the current fall semester, UC Berkeley has over 45,000 students, about 12,000 of whom are graduates, but only 8,485 on-campus beds.

“Time and time again (university officials) have neglected their responsibilities to build student housing for their growing academic communities,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson, a 26-year-old UC Berkeley graduate student studying public policy who supports the strike.

Officials with the United Auto Workers union — which represents the striking teaching assistants, academic and student researchers, and postdoctoral scholars — are touting the work stoppage as the largest in UC history. It’s halted most in-person classes across the 10 UC campuses ahead of final exams scheduled this month.

On Tuesday, as the strike entered its third week, the bargaining group representing 12,000 nonstudent researchers and postdocs reached a tentative agreement  that includes pay raises and other benefits. But the remaining 36,000 lower-paid graduate-student workers are still in negotiations.

All union members, some of whom have begun occupying the UC Berkeley chancellor’s office, are vowing to continue the strike until student workers reach a deal that reflects the high cost of housing and other workplace accommodations.

A survey by the union found nine in 10 student employees in the UC system spend at least 30% of their income on rent, classifying them as “rent-burdened” by federal standards. And many spend much more than that.

The minimum pay for graduate teaching assistants, responsible for much of the actual instruction at UC campuses, is around $23,200 a year, according to the union. But other student workers, such as Villegas, can earn even less. He makes $17 an hour as a part-time “reader” grading student coursework and handling other administrative duties. Working 20 hours a week during the semester, that comes to only about $1,470 a month.

For graduate students lucky enough to secure university housing, monthly rents range between $1,335 for a private room in a shared apartment to $2,095 for a one-bedroom apartment. The median rent for a one-bedroom in Berkeley is $2,364, according to Zillow.

UC Berkeley spokesperson Adam Ratliff said the school has a variety of programs offering students emergency rental aid, help with security deposits and other housing assistance.

“We are committed to keeping housing and the overall cost of a Berkeley education as low as possible and providing financial aid to students,” Ratliff said in an email.

Striking student employees have made it clear they don’t think that’s nearly enough.

“I shouldn’t be struggling every single month in paying my rent in Oakland and BART-ing to Berkeley,” said Villegas, who would earn only about $130 more a month under UC’s current contract proposal.

In a letter to university officials last month, UC Provost Michael Brown pledged to “work diligently” to support student employees grappling with high housing costs. But he said tying compensation to rent prices would have “overwhelming financial impacts” on the university and cost it “at least several hundred million dollars” annually.

To alleviate the housing pressure on students and the city, the school plans to add over 6,600 student beds by 2028. That includes the 772-bed Anchor House now under construction on Oxford Street, and the controversial 1,113-bed People’s Park Housing project that a court put on pause after neighbors filed suit to block it.

For Villegas, now in the second year of a public policy master’s program, going on strike is about more than just being able to pay his rent.

He praised UC for giving international graduate students like himself a chance to study in a world-class environment and bring the knowledge and experience they gain back to their home countries. But if students have little hope of affording to live here, he worries that future generations won’t have the same opportunity.

“That’s why this strike is so important,” he said, “because it’s forcing them to take a step in the right direction.”

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