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Proposed bill would exempt UC, Cal State from environmental review for new student housing

Groups of students near UC Berkeley's Sather Gate.
UC Berkeley could be forced to slash its incoming fall 2022 class by one-third and forgo $57 million in lost tuition under a recent court order to freeze enrollment, the university announced last week.
(Ben Margot / Associated Press)
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A bill introduced Tuesday — in the wake of a potential student enrollment crisis at UC Berkeley — would exempt public universities’ housing developments from California’s arduous environmental review process.

Introduced by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), the bill comes as UC Berkeley sent thousands of applicants letters last week saying the university may have to cut enrollment by about 3,050 seats if a court order is upheld. A Berkeley neighborhood group successfully sued UC Berkeley saying the university did not adequately address environmental issues related to increasing student enrollment. An Alameda Superior Court judge agreed and ordered an enrollment cap.

The university has petitioned the California Supreme Court to stay the lower court ruling while the case is being appealed.

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Wiener’s bill would exempt University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges from the state’s premier environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act, when pursuing housing projects. Campuses must, however, pay prevailing wages and employ a skilled and trained workforce. Housing can’t be built on farmland, wetlands or a high fire hazard severity zone.

The bill was developed in fall 2021 amid “a massive student housing crisis” before the situation at Berkeley escalated, Wiener said. But he believes it could prevent similar obstacles in the future.

“CEQA is a very important environmental law that unfortunately sometimes is used in ways that it wasn’t intended.” Wiener said. “Instead of protecting the environment, it’s used to delay or kill projects that are environmentally beneficial — like student housing.” Student housing projects eliminate pollution by offering students easier access to school, allowing them to walk or bike to campus instead of commuting by vehicle, he said.

“The pollution is when you force people to live in sprawl and to commute an hour, two hours everywhere they go,” Wiener said.

Access to housing could make a difference to students of lower-income backgrounds, who are disproportionately affected by homelessness and housing insecurity.

“The pandemic has made our housing crisis worse,” Wiener said. “We need more housing of all types — student housing is definitely part of it.”

California’s housing crisis has been exacerbated during the pandemic and has affected college students. When campuses closed, many students struggled to find alternative housing plans. At Long Beach City College, for example, a parking lot was designated for up to 15 students who sleep in cars. The Los Angeles Community College District is currently assessing housing needs to put forth in a bond proposal for student housing.

According to a 2021 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, 16% of UC students and 10% of Cal State students are currently experiencing homelessness, which includes transitional housing or hotels. And a 2019 survey of 40,000 California community college students found that 19% were homeless in the prior year and 60% had experienced housing insecurity.

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Phil Bokovoy, the president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, the group that filed the lawsuit against UC Berkeley, said that if the bill sets out to help streamline housing projects on campuses, he could see its benefit.

“The community groups in Berkeley have in the past been supportive of housing projects built on property that the university owns, as opposed to property that the university acquired,” said Bokovoy, adding “the devil is in the details.”

The Newsom administration’s 2022 budget proposal addressed the need for more affordable student housing with $750 million for campus housing projects.

Supporters of Wiener’s bill included the State Building & Construction Trades, the UC Student Assn., Student Senate for California Community Colleges and the California Faculty Assn. Wiener anticipates support will continue to grow.

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