UC Berkeley sophomore Lilly Sayenga is proud she found a rental unit in Berkeley, but said she wishes that for the price of nearly $2,400 a month, her faucet would remain attached to the sink.
After further inspection, Sayenga said she and her roommate realized their one bedroom apartment had a few other issues. These included a potentially broken fridge, a bathroom window that opened to an air duct people use as a trash chute and a kitchen with shallow and decorative cupboards, she listed.
“I feel very powerless in this situation,” Sayenga said. “But I am grateful I was able to find something that will work out for the year.”
Sayenga and other students make up a large portion of Berkeley’s tenant population, according to Soli Alpert, the vice chair of Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board. According to Alpert, Berkeley’s rental market is one of the most competitive and expensive rental markets in the country, with a select few corporations owning a high amount of the available units.
According to Sayenga, she and her friends struggled to find “realistic” student housing options and were “appalled” by the conditions. Staying near campus was Sayenga’s priority, but she emphasized that she was shocked by the high costs she saw.
Sayenga also noted that her landlord did not allow her to sublease her apartment, forcing her to pay rent for an empty apartment. She called it “wasteful,” but agreed to do so to avoid getting “in any trouble.”
“Students really, really, really want to live near campus and they’re pretty much willing to live in whatever sh*tty condition you give them,” Alpert said. “And they’re going to be paying whatever you ask.”
When searching for housing, Sayenga said she ended up renting from Raj Properties. According to Alpert, Raj Properties is one of the few major rental companies in Berkeley.
Few property companies available for tenants and the inelastic demand for housing among students, according to Alpert, create a system where landlords can keep properties in substandard conditions and inflate prices.
“One of the fundamental reasons rent is so high is because supply is not meeting demand,” said Stefan Elgstrand, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s spokesperson. “Berkeley is one of the most desired places to live in, but we simply have not developed enough housing, especially affordable housing, to meet this demand.”
This poor treatment of tenants stems from the facelessness of these massive corporations, according to city councilmember Terry Taplin. Taplin, who said he has firsthand experience of being temporarily houseless, added that these large corporations often hide behind their LLC status.
Taplin said, as a baseline, there should not be “housing monopolies,” where companies are able to buy up entire neighborhoods and inflate rent.
“The landlords know that if you want to be in Berkeley, we can treat you poorly and you’re not going to be able to go anywhere because most of the competitors are also big players,” Alpert said. “It’s really shameful that these massive landlords do all of these awful things regularly and break the law regularly.”
Raj Properties declined to comment.
Rental prices around campus are more expensive than other parts of Berkeley, according to Matt Brown, general council for the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board. Brown said the high turnover of units increases rental prices around campus since state law allows landlords to set the price of a unit at market rate every time a tenant leaves.
Compared to the average price of off-campus living among the UC campuses, according to UC methodology budgets, UC Berkeley students are paying the most at $16,377 in living expenses, with the closest being UCLA at $15,950.
“If you have a place that turns over every 24 months or every 12 months or whatever, then you’re able to charge a different market rate every time, depending on what the market is,” Brown said. “That’s different from other households that might tend to live in a place for three, or five or 10 years where that rate will remain controlled and steady for the duration of their tenancy.”
Berkeley has a long history of strong rent control, according to Alpert. Alpert said the Rent Stabilization Board works to regulate rent and settle disputes between tenants and landlords. City Councilmember Rigel Robinson added that rent control has allowed him to have a future in Berkeley and noted the housing crisis is Berkeley’s most urgent issue.
Additionally, Alpert said Berkeley’s rental tax goes toward funding affordable housing and the housing trust fund.
Even within the housing that is available in Berkeley, Taplin said not all units are habitable. Alpert and Taplin agreed that many landlords are aware that student tenants do not know their rights and often take advantage of that by charging high rates, cramming too many students into a unit or allowing poorer living conditions.
“It was pretty brutal,” Sayenga said, reflecting on her experience searching for housing. “I’m not looking forward to trying to find housing again but for now I can at least relax.”