Seldom are the stakes of housing politics made so explicit as in a recent, unprecedented announcement made by the University of California–Berkeley that it would have to admit 5,100 fewer freshmen than it had planned in order to comply with a court order limiting enrollment on environmental grounds. As the local newspaper Berkeleyside summarized, “The order to cap enrollment . . . is the result of a lawsuit filed in June 2019 by a neighborhood group, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, . . . [which] had argued that the university needed to study the environmental impacts of increasing its enrollment by more than 30% to a projected 44,735 students by 2022–23.”
Objectors to Berkeley’s campus expansion often complain that the university has not built enough dorms to accommodate its students. The point admittedly has some validity, given that “about 10% of students . . . experience some homelessness,” in the somewhat euphemistic terms of the City of Berkeley’s chief planner. (One recent UC–Berkeley graduate reacting to the lawsuit on Twitter recalled classmates who lived in their cars or commuted from exurbs dozens of miles away.) But local opposition has also stymied the university’s attempts at building more student housing. The university, for instance, recently had to agree to reduce the height of a planned student housing development at People’s Park, just south of campus.
The leader of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, attorney Phillip Bokovoy, appears to believe that Berkeley needs more housing, too—just not near him. In 2021, for instance, Bokovoy complained to the San Francisco Chronicle that the proposed People’s Park development was “completely out of scale for the neighborhood and the city.” Bokovoy was also interviewed by Henry Grabar at Slate. “Bokovoy’s view,” Grabar reported last August, “is that the university ought to have built more housing to keep up with its rising enrollment. Over the course of our conversation, however, it became clear that he didn’t actually want Berkeley (the city or the university) to build that housing now. Instead, he wants UC–Berkeley to establish a satellite campus on the industrial waterfront 5 miles to the north, on the other side of the freeway”—that is, in the nearby, far less affluent city of Richmond. Bokovoy, Grabar notes, attended UC–Berkeley himself decades ago. Whether he would have taken kindly to attending college in an isolated industrial park, Grabar doesn’t mention.
Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods is hardly unique in its desire to make an omelet without breaking eggs—or, rather, to enjoy life in a college town without the indignity of living near college students. Anti-student provisions are common in college towns’ zoning codes: State College, Pennsylvania (home of Pennsylvania State University), to take one example among many, requires students in most residential districts to live in houses spaced several hundred feet apart from one another.
But the UC–Berkeley case is especially egregious for two reasons. First, few Americans have enjoyed as much good fortune as long-time homeowners in Berkeley, who have profited handsomely from real estate appreciation. The average house price in Berkeley is over $1.6 million, a price partially reflecting a market premium from proximity to the university and the Bay Area’s high-tech economy (fueled in part by UC–Berkeley graduates), but more fundamentally reflecting an artificial scarcity of housing created by regional slow-growth policies since the 1970s. Placing adults’ subjective quality-of-life concerns above opportunities for California’s best students is especially galling when the adults in question have been the beneficiaries of such good luck.
Second, the law that served as the pretext for Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods’ lawsuit—the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)—is a notoriously abuse-prone measure that allows private citizens to hold up almost any development with a vast set of “environmental impacts” available as justifications. And even so, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods’ complaints have a remarkably tenuous relationship with environmentalism: the group’s lawsuit cites issues including (in Berkeleyside’s summary) “[new students’] use of off-campus housing, which could lead to more noise and trash, the displacement of tenants, which could increase homelessness, and a heavier burden on the city of Berkeley services, including police, fire, and ambulance services.”
It’s unusual for a judge to agree that speculative socioeconomic impacts such as homelessness count as environmental concerns, notes Chris Elmendorf, a professor of law at UC–Davis, but other aspects of the lawsuit are de rigueur. For instance, CEQA evaluates projects only on their local impacts, ignoring larger-scale tradeoffs and assuming that the environmental impact of not building something is always zero. As Elmendorf observes, “the analytical requirements and judicial remedies [prescribed by CEQA] are exactly the same whether the population-growing project . . . is in a dense urban setting like Berkeley or a remote natural area.” The likely alternative to an urban infill development in the inner Bay Area whose principal “environmental impact” is a small increase in short-distance car traffic, for instance, is a much farther-flung exurban development that damages virgin wilderness or prime Central Valley farmland, but the impacts of this latter development do not figure into CEQA’s evaluation of the former. The vast majority of CEQA complaints, in fact, are filed against projects in established urban areas.
It is hard not to see the UC–Berkeley lawsuit as the culmination of an environmental movement that has long prioritized the post-hippie aesthetic sensibilities of baby boomer gentry liberals over not just economic functioning but also the environment itself. It may be pleasant and superficially eco-friendly to live in a quaint town with all the amenities of a location near a world-class university and a major city but none of the corresponding crowds. But if everyone tried to live like this, there would be no cities or universities to speak of, and the main environmental effect of anti-development environmentalism in California has been to force the state’s working class into longer and more-polluting commutes. The same impulse undergirds the legacy environmental movement’s longstanding opposition not only to nuclear power but also to alternatives such as industrial-scale solar installations. These technologies may be jarring to small-is-beautiful sensibilities, but they have the considerable virtue of actually working for an industrial society whose comforts rich environmentalists have no intent to give up.
The effect of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods’ lawsuit is unlikely to remain confined to Berkeley. In San Diego, homeowners in the neighborhoods around the University of California–San Diego have also been fighting a campus expansion plan for several years. The lawsuit may prove a blessing in disguise if it finally pushes California lawmakers to reform CEQA and other anti-development regulations—or, better yet, repeal them altogether. California’s middle-class homeowners may be insulated from the state’s housing crisis, but they will likely chafe when anti-development forces rob their children of educational opportunities. Public universities exist to help the economy and the youth of an entire state, not to provide a heavily subsidized source of amusement to homeowners in the vicinity. If Bokovoy and his allies find the prospect of living beside more college students distressing, they are welcome to sell their houses at a vastly inflated profit and move to any of the hundreds of towns in California where they will be free of such a burden.
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