The Mercury News

UC approves housing projects, but goals may be too `optimistic'

Official says plan for more beds could face financial, lawsuit woes

- By Michael Burke

Responding to the housing shortage facing its students, the University of California's board of regents has approved plans for residentia­l projects that would add nearly 8,000 beds across five campuses.

But those beds are still years from being available to students, and a top UC official said the plans may be overly optimistic in some cases, given the challenges that come with building new housing, including lawsuits that seek to stop projects.

The projects that were advanced by the regents' finance committee include more than 3,000 beds at UC Santa Cruz and more than 2,400 at UC San Diego. Projects were also approved at UCLA, UC Irvine and UC Riverside.

Those projects are part of a larger UC goal to add 22,000 beds across its nine undergradu­ate campuses by fall 2028.

Accomplish­ing that goal could be difficult, in part because UC housing projects are often challenged and delayed by lawsuits that cite the California Environmen­tal Quality Act, said Nathan Brostrom, UC's chief financial officer. Most recently, a judge ruled UC must indefinite­ly halt constructi­on of new housing at People's Park in Berkeley, siding with neighborho­od opponents who sued and cited CEQA.

At the same time, some projects are also reliant on state funding that may not be guaranteed or could be delayed given the current deficit facing the state. UC officials also mentioned labor shortages, inflation and supply chain issues as additional challenges to building new housing.

“Our plans to construct 22,000 new beds might be optimistic given our current constraint­s. However, it's critical that adding more student housing is a top priority given the escalating costs of housing in our communitie­s and our goal to add tens of thousands more students over the same time period,” Brostrom said.

To help with the cost of new housing, UC this year has applied for $500 million through the state's Higher Education Student Housing Grant Program to support projects at four campuses. However, Brostrom said UC may only receive about $50 million. At the same time, to cut costs amid a state budget deficit, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed delaying some of the grant money for housing available to colleges this year. However, it's unclear what will happen to that funding since lawmakers are opposed to delays.

The need for new housing across UC was further made clear when a new report on students' basic needs at UC was presented to the regents. The survey found that across the system, 8% of undergradu­ates reported being housing insecure in 2022, up from 7% in 2020. UC defines someone as being housing insecure if, over a 12-month period, they slept overnight somewhere, such as on campus on a friend's dorm floor or couch or in an outdoor location, because they didn't have a permanent home. The report also found that 43% of undergradu­ates reported being food insecure in 2022, up from 38% in 2020. A student is considered food insecure when they're unable to afford an adequate amount of food.

The CEQA lawsuit brought against the housing project at UC Berkeley isn't the only time that such legal challenges have delayed UC's effort to add beds to its campuses. Since 2018, seven housing projects have been challenged by CEQA lawsuits and about 4,100 beds are still being delayed by ongoing litigation, according to a memo prepared for the regents.

One of those projects is at UC Santa Cruz, which is attempting to add more than 3,000 beds at two sites. One site would include 140 twobedroom apartment units for students with families, while the other would include 2,960 apartment-style beds for both undergradu­ate and graduate students.

The project has been mired in lawsuits since 2019 and constructi­on was previously intended to be completed through a public-private partnershi­p. But the regents re-approved the project Wednesday as one that will be managed and funded by UC.

The housing crisis at Santa Cruz is particular­ly bad for students. UC Santa Cruz has enough on-campus housing to accommodat­e less than half of its students. Off-campus vacancy rates in the area are low and the housing that is available is expensive.

“The need for housing comes up over and over again,” UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Cynthia Larive said in remarks to the regents Wednesday.

Brostrom, the CFO, said UC is committed to working with Gov. Gavin Newsom and lawmakers to advance legislatio­n that would reform CEQA. Last month, Newsom said CEQA is “clearly broken” and that the law “needs to change” after the People's Park project was blocked by a judge who said UC failed to assess the potential noise impacts of the extra students who will live there. UC plans to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Under the plan initially introduced by UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ in 2018, the campus would house 1,100 students at the site and another 125 beds would be provided for unhoused people. About 1.7 acres of the park would be kept as green, open space.

Another controvers­ial housing project is under debate at UC Santa Barbara. Munger Hall would be nine stories and house about 3,500 students. The dorm, for which constructi­on has not yet begun, was originally planned to be 11 stories and house 4,500 students, but the planned design was criticized because many rooms lacked windows. The dorm is now being redesigned.

 ?? JANE TYSKA — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ?? A judge recently ruled that the University of California's plan to build student housing at People's Park in Berkeley must be put on hold because of an opposition lawsuit citing environmen­tal concerns.
JANE TYSKA — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER A judge recently ruled that the University of California's plan to build student housing at People's Park in Berkeley must be put on hold because of an opposition lawsuit citing environmen­tal concerns.

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