Recently, Bay Area NIMBYs made international headlines when they convinced an Alameda County judge to order UC Berkeley to freeze enrollment. Casting students as an environmental nuisance, the decision could result in 5,100 fewer admission letters going out next month, and nearly $60 million in losses for the University of California.
The reaction to the decision has been a mix of confusion and anger. And with good reason: the case is a caricature of all that has gone wrong with the Golden State, a land of rising costs and declining opportunity. But what should policymakers do about it?
If you can overlook the litigation’s bizarre implication that students are a kind of pollution, and the technical issues with this case, the concerns aren’t totally without merit: Raising UC Berkeley enrollment amid a stagnant housing supply risks further inflating rents, deepening the affordable housing crisis facing students across the state. By one estimate, one in five California Community College students, one in 10 CSU students, and one in 20 UC students are homeless.
Of course, rather than pull up the ladder of opportunity by suppressing enrollment, our universities should be building more on-campus housing. Even better, college towns like Berkeley—which permits less housing than NIMBY college town peers like Cambridge and Boulder—must allow more housing to be built.
Yet the irony of this case is that the same broken environmental review framework that allowed NIMBYs to force UC Berkeley to freeze enrollment has also made it increasingly difficult to build housing in the first place. Indeed, this case is merely a new low for the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which allows naysayers to subject even run-of-the-mill projects to onerous legal fees and years of delays, so long as they couch their concerns in bogus environmental terms.
The same NIMBY group currently using CEQA to block enrollment—Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods—used equally suspect environmental concerns to delay the construction of UC Berkeley faculty housing.
At UC San Diego, NIMBYs exploited CEQA to try and block housing for 2,000 students. At UCLA, NIMBY groups misused CEQA to delay and downsize the construction of a desperately-needed new 1,300-bed student housing facility.
The fate of those 5,100 prospective UC Berkeley students is now in the hands of the appeals process, with little likelihood the university can avoid downsizing for the fall semester.
At the Capitol, California Senator Scott Wiener has introduced legislation that would exempt on-campus student and faculty housing from CEQA’s provisions. It’s a step in the right direction, and when combined with the pot of money set aside by Sacramento for student housing last year, it could spark a long-overdue building boom.
But deeper reforms are necessary. After all, CEQA abuse doesn’t just hold up student housing—on the contrary, it makes virtually everything harder to do in California, from renovating elementary schools to expanding hospitals to transitioning to renewable energy. As a team of environmental attorneys recently pointed out in a report for the Pacific Research Institute, a handful of modest reforms to CEQA could prevent bad actors from abusing environmental review for myopic purposes.
Our state was built on lofty ideals, on the idea that regular Americans could come here and live out the California Dream. Whether that meant getting a great education, owning a home, or starting a business, California was once the land of opportunity. Today, well-meaning but broken institutions like CEQA have turned the dream into a nightmare, with hundreds of thousands of frustrated Californians now forced to move elsewhere for a chance at a better life.
With any luck, the UC Berkeley debacle will serve as a wake-up call. The next generation of Californians is waiting.
M. Nolan Gray is a professional city planner, housing researcher at UCLA, and Pacific Research Institute fellow.