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Guest commentary: UC San Diego has obligation to help solve the affordable-housing crisis, not exacerbate it

Students from Acts2Fellowship build a replica of Geisel Library at UC San Diego in September 2019.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The other day I found myself standing in a long line on Morena Boulevard in the Bay Park neighborhood of San Diego that snaked around the apartment complex we were all interested in. There were 25 of us, composed of several couples, a few families with infants and children, groups of roommates and many college-age individuals with their parents.

It wasn’t hard to spot the other college students, as many wore their UC San Diego apparel proudly, as if their college aspirations would give them a competitive edge. It did not.

Eight years ago, UC San Diego set into motion ambitious plans to expand on-campus housing.

When there were 32 of us, the broker herded us into a two-bedroom apartment that overlooked Interstate 5. As groups of potential tenants toured the unit and the crowd reached 47 at its peak, I felt compelled to ask the broker about the competition.

He said several hundred people had inquired about the unit and many of them had already submitted applications. He encouraged me to provide stellar references that highlighted my character. Was I a volunteer? Had I had any newspaper articles written about me? Did I have any awards? Then I should mention that. He also said he’d been offered more than the $2,600 asking price, with cash upfront, so I would need to beat that.

Unfortunately for you, he said, it’s a landlord’s market.

Several of us left immediately.

Experiences like mine are becoming more common for my fellow UC San Diego graduate students, as well as for all renters in the San Diego area. And the situation will only worsen in the coming years unless UC leadership reverses course and makes a major investment in affordable housing for the graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and others who do the majority of the teaching and research at this world-class institution.

In an article published last month by The San Diego Union-Tribune [and the La Jolla Light], Chancellor Pradeep Khosla projected a grand vision of expanding UC San Diego enrollment. That’s a good thing, but he has no real plan to build the affordable housing that the expansion will require. Without affordable housing, Khosla’s expansion plan is a formula for putting today’s housing crisis into overdrive for all renters, hiking rents even further, accelerating gentrification in the trolley corridor, and displacing low- and moderate-income San Diegans, especially in communities of color.

Tellingly, the project Khosla highlighted in the article was an 87-unit apartment building in downtown San Diego. Reactions among my colleagues about these apartments have been mainly disbelief about their likely high cost and small size, followed by laughter. In no universe could any of us afford to squeeze into those tiny apartments. And neither could nurses, teachers, service workers or other renters.

Maybe Chancellor Khosla, gazing out at another spectacular ocean sunset from the deck of his rent-free mansion, can’t see the housing crisis that is so glaringly obvious to the rest of us. But his blindness to our lived reality shows a stunning indifference to us and to the hundreds of thousands of other working people who are the economic engines of our region’s economy.

Right now, the article points out, the average one-bedroom near UC San Diego rents for $2,686 — several hundred dollars more than my monthly salary.

And while UC San Diego is receiving $100 million in state funds to address the student housing crisis, it is in the middle of increasing campus rent for graduate and professional students by an average of 31 percent, and up to 85 percent in some units.

Meanwhile, those of us who live in the areas surrounding this UC housing have been explicitly told by landlords that rents are going up by hundreds of dollars “because UCSD did it first.”

Khosla has said he sees South County neighborhoods near the Blue Line as a viable location for student housing. This would mean flooding some of San Diego’s lowest-income and most non-White neighborhoods with high-rent housing, almost certainly causing gentrification and displacement. By refusing to take leadership and site affordable housing in La Jolla, the university is off-loading its problem onto those with the least resources to deal with it.

In reaction, our union has called on the university to build much more affordable housing for its staff. Our proposal would benefit UC staff and also all renters, as it would relieve cost pressures that are harming tenants throughout the entire community.

As a key driver of growth in our region and state — and the state’s largest housing landlord — UC has an obligation to help solve the affordable-housing crisis, not exacerbate it.

Stefanie Holden is a graduate student in experimental psychology at UC San Diego.