Up until very recently, the UC system had a reputation for nurturing the American dream. Not just for students, but for families like mine.
After immigrating from Mexico back in 1990, we made Berkeley our home. My mom had a union job in the facilities department at UC Berkeley, or UCB. She bought a home in the city in 1996. She paid off her mortgage in 2018.
I attended Berkeley’s public schools, and graduated from Berkeley High School before following in my mom’s footsteps and landing my own job as a custodian at UCB. I also got married and became a mother to two incredible girls.
By 2003, we were still living with my mom, but knew we needed a place of our own. With a stable union job, and a husband who also worked as a professional tile setter, I had hoped to do what my mom had done. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a place to buy or rent that we could afford.
It was hard to understand how in less than 10 years, the very same dream my mother had been able to access had become an impossibility for her children. Over those years, UCB was growing, but it was not building enough housing to accommodate that growth. Working families like ours had been priced out of the community. I was heartbroken. Our entire life — our jobs, schools and families — was in Berkeley.
With no choice but to leave, we moved our family to Richmond, and had our third child, a son.
At 7 months old, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. We drove every single day during rush hour to see his doctors at Children’s Hospital in Oakland. When he succumbed to the disease in 2009, my husband and I were beyond devastated. We took time away from work to grieve, but that ultimately caused us to lose our new home. We were then forced to move even farther away from Berkeley.
All the while UC Berkeley has continued to grow, pricing even more families out of the local housing market. Median home prices now exceed $1 million. And, while university custodians like me earn around $48,000 per year, the wage required to afford even a one-bedroom apartment in Alameda County has ballooned to $77,000, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
This isn’t just an issue for UC staff and their families, but also students. UC Berkeley provides less student housing than any other school in the UC system. Only the most well-off can afford to live close to campus.
I wanted my girls to go to Berkeley schools and grow up in Berkeley like I did. However, instead of walking to work or school, we now commute as much as one hour, each way, every day. My youngest daughter is forced to wake up before her peers because I drop her off at school early in order to get to work on time. She stays at her school later than everyone else because she has to wait for me to pick her up.
California’s housing affordability crisis represents a collective failure to stand up for the next generation. In less than 10 years, my immigrant mother’s story of planting roots in Berkeley became impossible for the next generation earning even larger incomes. The campus’s decades-long failure to plan growth in a way that preserves affordability for its most vulnerable families has only accelerated this transformation. Even worse, it has needlessly made the lives of workers and students harder.
Now, by failing to build enough new housing to accommodate thousands of new students and staff, UC Berkeley’s current Long Range Development Plan promises to deliver more of the same. It will increase demand for housing far beyond available supply. It will mean higher prices and higher rents, displacing even more families who cannot keep pace.
My family, and others just like me, have been loyal to UC Berkeley, and are committed to its success. We deserve to be able to send our children to local schools and parks. We deserve a manageable commute and a mortgage or rent we can afford. We deserve to stay in the communities we’ve spent decades serving.
UC Berkeley is at a crossroads. It can choose to make my mother’s story possible again, or to make it a permanent relic of the past. If campus truly values our contributions, our aspirations and our quality of life, it will stop repeating the same mistakes, and produce more affordable housing for workers and students alike.