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Priced out of house and home

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MARCH 04, 2016

Moni Law considers herself an anomaly  and she has the data to prove it.

A campus alumna from the Class of 1982 and housing counselor for the city’s rent stabilization program, Law is one of many members of the Berkeley community who have found themselves priced out of accommodation in recent years.

Unlike many of her peers and colleagues in similar situations, she eventually managed to find a new rent-controlled apartment that satisfied her needs without exceeding her budget. She is now one of a minority of city employees who live in Berkeley, and remains a member of the city’s dwindling black community.

“If I were to move to Berkeley today, I would not be able to live here,” she said.

Though Law had to compromise her  hopes of home ownership and come to terms with aging in an apartment with a stable rent, her experience stands out as a rare case of a somewhat satisfactory ending in a city that has witnessed significant socio-economic change since the 1970s.

Census data from the past four decades provides a glimpse into the changing face of the city of Berkeley. When adjusting for inflation, median household income in America has remained relatively stagnant in this between 1979 and 2014.

In Berkeley, however, the most recent measure of median household income shows it to have increased by nearly 50% since first measured in 1979. In 2014, it was about 20% above the national median household income after having been 20% below in 35 years ago.

While such statistics suggest that Berkeley has experienced a period of great economic prosperity, they do not account for the individuals who have had to leave due to increasing cost of living in the city — or the increasing cost of living in Berkeley for students on campus.

In her role as housing counselor, Law regularly interacts with students on campus struggling to find housing, and is often surprised by the living conditions of many of those who come to see her.

“I’ve heard about Cal students who have been temporarily homeless, some who are living in their cars, and some living with 9 other people in the same unit,” she said. “It is a crisis on every level.”

Graduate student Thomas Sliwowski is all too familiar with the struggles of finding affordable housing as a student in Berkeley.

A graduate of Hunter College in New York City, Sliwowski said that the two-bedroom apartment he had rented in the notoriously competitive Manhattan housing market as an undergraduate cost him and his roommates a total of $1600 a month.

In Berkeley, after subletting a room in a house for two months that had been rented out on AirBnB, he finally beat out 59 other applicants to pay $1500 a month for a room in a house.

“The university is failing to do anything to control rents in Berkeley, and failing to adequately inform students about the cost of housing,” he said.

Particularly concerned about the increase in enrollment planned for the fall, he added that “any mandate to admit more students is ultimately fatuous if it does not include a mandate to ensure that students have the resources they need to live here.”

As a graduate student, Sliwowski receives an annual stipend of about $23,000 — about $10,000 less than what he would have received had he chosen an admissions offer from Columbia University. Though he chose Berkeley because of the strength of the campus’ Slavic Studies department, he said that the local housing market would discourage students from making a similar choice if they too were offered more money by peer institutions.

“If you have to pick between living comfortably in a place like Ithaca and struggling to get by in a cool town like Berkeley,” he continued, “you’re going to start to see many more graduate students refuse to come here.”

With his lease up for renewal soon, Sliwowski’s priorities were clear.

“My biggest concern right now is not my term papers, but looking for housing.”

Contact Ishaan Srivastava at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ishaansriv.

MARCH 04, 2016