Three years ago, $1,175 per month for a three-bedroom flat in the East Bay was pretty reasonable by most measures. But for Felix Germain, a UC Berkeley graduate student with a small income and family to support, it was back-breaking.
“We couldn’t make it,” said Germain, 30, who lives with his wife, mother and two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. “We were living day to day.”
At the time, Germain lived in the newly built, university-owned East Village complex in Albany — part of the larger University Village compound UC Berkeley has set aside for students with families.
But with rents escalating at 5 to 6 percent per year, Germain moved his family to cheaper housing within the village — a smaller, two-bedroom flat built in the 1960s, which he now rents for $728 per month.
Germain, part of a vocal group of University Village residents who are pushing UC Berkeley to cap rent increases at 2 percent per year, said young families simply will not be able to afford an education if the university continues with 6 percent annual hikes.
Residents’ efforts to curtail rent increases won support from Berkeley’s top two politicians this week. Mayor Tom Bates and his wife, state Assemblymember Loni Hancock, both showed up at a Saturday rally to speak out in support of the students.
“I truly believe that access to affordable housing means access to education,” said Hancock. “It is essential that affordable housing be a priority of the university.”
Bates, who has made an improved relationship with the university a top priority of his new administration, said UC Berkeley’s conduct regarding University Village is inexcusable.
University officials acknowledge that escalating rents could hurt their ability to recruit top-flight graduate students. But they note that village rents, which for some apartments have jumped as much as 44 percent over the last six years, are still 21 percent below market rates.
They also argue the rent hikes played a crucial role in improving the quality of life at University Village, which is just over Berkeley’s northern border.
Rent dollars are funding most of the $55 million reconstruction of the East Village — which replaced about 400 units of run-down housing three years ago. And tenants’ money, according to university officials, will help fund the replacement of roughly 560 units of old housing that still remain — many of them plagued by mold and heating problems.
“Part of the challenge for us is making sure this housing is around in 20 years,” said Harry Le Grande, UC Berkeley assistant vice chancellor for residential and student service programs.
Le Grande said the university will require 4 to 6 percent increases every year for the next 30 years to keep viable, livable units in place.
Graduate student Peter Brownell, who lives in the old housing, acknowledged that replacing run-down units would significantly improve living conditions. But he said it’s not worth building new apartments if the university relies upon rent hikes to subsidize the project.
Brownell, who serves on the board of the Village Residents Association, added that he has been angered by the university’s failure to show residents any documents demonstrating that their rent dollars are actually going toward replacement of old housing.
“For a long time, as someone who lives in a unit that needs to be remodeled or replaced, I was very sympathetic” to talk of building new units, he said. “But when I looked at the budget and didn’t see a reserve, I was irate.”
Assistant Chancellor Le Grande acknowledged that the university could provide residents with a clearer budget and said that officials are working on a pie chart which will show that roughly 25 percent of student rents go into the reserve.
Although Le Grande said he has not spoken one on one with Bates or Hancock, he said he communicated with a member of Hancock’s staff and plans to “keep the information flow going.”