Supervisor Joan Hartmann candidly discussed housing issues for UC Santa Barbara, which lies in her 3rd District. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Long before this year’s public furor over UCSB’s proposed mega-dorm and Goleta’s lawsuit over the school’s apparent non-compliance with its 2010 Long Range Development Plan (LRDP), 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann and District Representative Gina Fischer sensed a problem. In order to meet its LRDP obligations, UCSB needed to build an additional 5,000 beds by 2025 while capping average on-campus enrollment at 25,000 students. By 2017, with enrollment already probing the limit, the university had only completed apartments to house 1,515 additional students. But in communications with Hartmann, Fischer, and other stakeholders like Sustainable University Now (SUN), a community coalition, UCSB officials made assurances that deliverance was coming in the form of a dormitory, which came to be known as Munger Hall.

Those assurances did not have the intended effect. One of the problems, Fischer said, was UCSB’s reticence about its specific plans, leaving stakeholders with little warning of Munger Hall’s most controversial features. “In the last two to three years that the county has been meeting with UCSB, we have always asked for them to provide details such as a firm timeline for building Munger Hall. Nevertheless, we were given only a vague idea about what was happening until the middle of [July 2021].” That was when the university went public about Munger Hall‘s full design.

The lack of bedroom windows and a limited number of exits for 4,500 residents raised intense questions about livability and safety from the community, faculty, and alumni; the outcry was so outsized that there was a question of whether the project would go forward at all in spite of UCSB’s sanguine projections. “There is a great deal of concern in the wider community about whether it is possible for Munger Hall to get permitted and whether it ought to get permitted,” said Hartmann.

SUN chair Richard Flacks is not optimistic about its prospects: “The fact that [Munger Hall] is so fraught with opposition makes us doubt that it will be done at any time.”

Because UCSB has not made plans for any other projects, its ability to meet the 2025 housing deadline is completely dependent on Munger Hall winning what Fischer called an uphill battle for approval. “As things stand, it is hard to see how they will be able to close the 3,500-bed gap between now and 2025,” she said. Goleta elected not to wait for a miracle, instead suing UCSB for failing to provide adequate housing for its students as outlined in the LRDP.

Based on UCSB’s “Where Students Live” report, average enrollment over three quarters in 2020-2021 (excluding study abroad) was 25,103. UCSB spokesperson Andrea Estrada maintained that the report included some students who were off-campus in unspecified programs. Regardless, the persistent gap between enrollment and available university housing has left some students homeless now, a present-day reality that a Munger Hall tomorrow does not relieve.

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One graduate student, who asked to be called “Zhang” for this story, returned from two years of research abroad in 2019 only to find there was no graduate housing space. His chances of making it off the waitlist were minimal due to the university’s policy of prioritizing first- and second-year students. For a year he lived from roof to roof, sometimes on friends’ couches, other times house-sitting for professors. In the most desperate times, Zhang found temporary shelter in campus spaces, trying to sleep until the next day was heralded by early-morning maintenance crews and loud music. According to Zhang, the university provided little help. “Because they didn’t have a specific contact for homelessness-related issues, I called some housing department numbers for help. All they did was connect me with a psychologist.”

The alternative to university housing is private landlords, but ever-increasing rents have made this option unaffordable to many students. In 2017, the median rent of a two-bedroom apartment was $2,598; in 2020 it was $2,947. Although Zhang’s graduate stipend may have been enough for him to pay rent in a few apartments, landlords dismissed him out of hand because it was not a regular salary. “Some landlords even insisted that renters maintain a salary three times larger than the monthly rent,” he explained. “The money UCSB was providing me was not anything close to $6,000 per month.” Although Zhang eventually found a place to live, he had to get a full-time job to afford it. And he considered himself lucky.

In addition to an endowment of $585.5 million, as of June 2021, and revenues generated from sources like tuition and rent, UCSB also receives assistance from both the UC Regents and the State of California. In 2017 and 2018, the Regents allocated a total of $57 million to campuses for housing projects, with each campus having discretion to address their most pressing housing needs. In the 2021-22 budget agreement, California earmarked $100 million to UC campus housing, with another $300 million prepared for 2022-2023 and 2023-2024. Although the total package falls short of the $600 million initially requested by UC, some stakeholders maintain that the issue of student housing is one of priority rather than funding.

“[UCSB] is spending on many other kinds of facilities,” said Hartmann. “Those facilities are important, but I think that [UCSB] has the resources to concurrently invest in housing, especially given current housing interest rates and the fact that campuses generally recoup the costs of housing through rent.” UCSB did not respond to questions about how much of the state or Regents’ funds were earmarked for the school or whether funding was a notable issue.

Amid the public controversy and legal escalation, UCSB students continue to suffer the consequences of an acute housing crisis. Even when students find short-term shelter, the stress can inflict a toll on their mental health and academic commitments. “As a graduate student, my energy should be directed toward research and writing my dissertation,” said Zhang. “But all the time spent looking for housing and all the accumulated stress has severely hampered my ability to focus.”

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