The Munger dormzilla scandal, combined with the fall flood of unhoused UCSB students, spotlighted the cascading housing crisis in the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s an issue I’ve been involved with for more than a decade — a tale of hope and frustration, a mystery tale that deserves greater public telling and response.

A few years after I retired after almost 50 years as a sociology professor, UCSB announced its plan to gradually increase student enrollment from the 20,000 cap established some decades earlier to 25,000 by 2025. UCSB is the only UC campus in the coastal zone — meaning that campus development must be approved by the California Coastal Commission, and that means there’s an opportunity for local government and citizens to challenge campus growth and development. In the past, such challenge compelled the campus to agree to enrollment caps, and mitigate negative impacts of its growth. Starting in 2008, campus administrators put forward a draft Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) indicating how the campus growth would be accommodated. In the past, environmental groups and local governments gave a lot of negative scrutiny to such draft LRDPs. This round, there was much less public outcry. The new plans, in Chancellor Henry Yang’s administration, were far more responsive to likely community concerns than earlier ones had been.

Still, local environmental groups agreed to study the draft plans and identify concerns. Chancellor Yang encouraged campus planners to negotiate with the environmental coalition SUN (Sustainable University Now), which I chair. We were concerned that the draft plan assumed that private automobiles would continue to be the primary means for campus access, that water conservation wasn’t adequately provided, and that climate change wasn’t foregrounded. We were excited, however, by the fact that the plan provided for campus housing for the entire enrollment increase — and pledged to provide housing on campus property for more than 1,800 faculty families. We were excited because these housing plans would reduce the impact of campus growth on the region’s housing market and result in a much better jobs/housing balance. The promised employee housing — planned to be below market price — would be an historic employer contribution to reducing the local housing crisis.

SUN and UCSB reached a legally binding agreement that reduced campus reliance on autos, established major commitments with respect to energy and water conservation, and invited SUN representatives to join some campus planning committees. UCSB promised to meet with SUN regularly and to be transparent about its effort to meet their stated goals. And UCSB agreed to enable current faculty — as well as those newly recruited — to be accommodated. Both the City of Goleta and Santa Barbara County reached similar agreements with the campus — and the final LRDP, hammered out with the Coastal Commission, embodied the agreed-on principles. SUN supported that plan at the Coastal Commission, which approved the final plan in 2014.

UCSB in many ways has done well in living up to the sustainability and environmental provisions of the LRDP. But not when it comes to housing. Instead, the housing plans have been delayed or derailed as follows:

  1. In 2015, Charles Munger made a $200 million offer for construction of a campus dorm to house most of the 5,000 students to be added to the campus population. This offer led the campus to put aside the LRDP plan to build several dorms over 15 years — the sites and conceptualizations for which are laid out in the original plan. In its agreement with SUN, UCSB committed to a policy providing that no more than 500 dorm rooms (designed for two students) should be tripled. Currently, there are about 2,000 tripled dorm rooms on campus.
  2. In 2017, the Legislature used budgetary pressures to get the whole UC system to greatly accelerate the growth of the student body. It’s been widely publicized that UC Berkeley, for example, enrolled 10,000 students more than it had planned in the past five years. UCSB reached the 25,000 cap in 2019 rather than 2025. The delay in dorm development because of the Munger project might have had a minor effect had the enrollment growth kept to the original plan. But, accelerated campus growth contributed to a perfect storm by the beginning of this academic year.
  3. The academic year opened with hundreds of UCSB students unable to find  a place to live — ending up sleeping in cars or housed in motels or in overcrowded rentals.
  4. Meanwhile, UCSB has declared that a faculty housing project, called Ocean Road, providing 540 for-sale and rental apartments was “going forward.” This project was first conceived around 2005, delayed but publicly relaunched in 2019. It is supposed to be developed in partnership with a private developer, unlike all the other employee housing previously done at UCSB. Apparently, a final deal remains to be made. The Ocean Road concept is attractive — and UCSB has a very good history of faculty housing development. But, in this case, the administration has been unable to say when it might actually go forward.
  5. But Ocean Road represents less than a third of the promise UCSB made more than a decade ago to sponsor 1,840 units of faculty/staff housing. The pledge to the wider community to help expand the supply of affordable housing was integral to UCSB’s case for population growth. It was a promise not only to house the growth within the campus but to partner with the community to ease the housing burden on the local housing stock and to reduce the need to commute to work. As a long-time faculty member, I was proud that the university was making that promise.
  6. UCSB says that the need for more faculty housing has so far not materialized because only a few hundred new hires have been made. They’re not saying how many new hires will be required to meet the needs that growth has created, nor to replace hundreds of faculty and staff who have retired or left. They haven’t come to grips with the fact that newly recruited young faculty simply can’t afford to live here even as renters. And there’s a shortage of affordable housing for grad students, especially those with families, who are crucial for the instruction and research life of the campus and whose training is a fundamental reason for the university’s reason for being.
  7. UCSB needs the housing it planned. So why have the plans remained unfulfilled? SUN has tried to get answers — to no avail. The 2014 LRDP contains detailed plans specifying sites and sketching design concepts for all the housing it promised. Other UC campuses may lack open space for housing. That’s not the UCSB problem. Other campuses face community resistance to student housing in surrounding neighborhoods. Not UCSB. In fact, the City of Goleta is suing UCSB for its impact on the Goleta housing market and its failure to live up to its housing promises.
  8.  No surprise that financing must have a lot to do with the matter. That a billionaire philanthropist was willing to finance a huge dormitory project undoubtedly seemed a godsend, if UCSB’s capacity for indebtedness was limited. Depending on private developers to build and manage employee housing might solve problems of short staffing of campus planning functions.
  9. The effort to get such private financing and planning might have looked attractive in the pre-recession ’90s. Privatizing public assets was really fashionable and seemed politically smart. In fact, for decades, public higher education leaders have bought into the perspective that its costs should increasingly be born by tuition-paying students and corporate contractors. The Munger Hall project illustrates how the appearance of philanthropic beneficence can be coupled to the selling out of the university’s ability to decide its future and serve its students.
  10. The Legislature forced a big expansion of UC enrollment but hasn’t provided the budget absolutely needed to instruct and house the student body. Students struggle to get the courses they need to graduate. There’s a faculty shortage as well as a housing shortage.

If you’d like to get the big picture on the crisis of public higher education, I recommend getting hold of the work of my UCSB colleague Chris Newfield. His most recent book’s title summarizes his perspective: The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them.

There are signs that the tide could turn — but the turning depends a lot on citizen action. The Munger Hall scandal and this year’s student housing mess have awakened public awareness. The Legislature is considering a major effort to fund campus housing development after decades of neglect.

If UCSB were to be transparent and forthcoming about its housing dilemmas and plans, and if state representatives and politicians were to commit to reinvestment rather than privatization, the community benefit to our region would be real. Maybe pressure from students and faculty and from the wider community will hasten that day.

Dick Flacks is emeritus professor of sociology at UCSB and co-chair of the SB County Action Network.


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