The NIMBY King Taking on UC Berkeley

Phil Bokovoy, a former investment banker and ardent community activist, is giving me a tour of his neighborhood, Elmwood, in Berkeley, California. It is some kind of paradise. October weather, all year round! Arts-and-crafts manses on streets lined with redwoods, succulents, and oaks! Accessibility to San Francisco in minutes and Yosemite and Tahoe in hours! Walkability, bikeability, transit, parks! One of America’s best institutions of higher education, UC Berkeley!

But Berkeley the school is putting Berkeley the city at risk, Bokovoy tells me. Students are driving up housing costs, displacing low-income families, draining city resources, and degrading the environment. To stop that from happening, the community group he leads, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, in 2019 filed a lawsuit under the purview of the state’s Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA—a far-reaching law frequently invoked by opponents of new development. A superior-court judge ordered the school to throttle enrollment, because additional students might “result in an adverse change or alteration of the physical environment.” Short of a reprieve from the state supreme court, UC Berkeley said this month, it will have to issue roughly 5,000 additional rejection letters, slashing the size of its incoming cohort by a third.

UC Berkeley is calling the situation “dire.” City and state politicians are apoplectic. High-school seniors are enraged. Bokovoy agrees that this is a nightmare, calling the university “incompetent” and arguing that administrators have “created their own crisis,” while also insisting that the current growth situation is dangerous and untenable. This is a town-gown dispute playing out on a national stage, one pitting homeowners against renters, the old against the young, and antidevelopment lefties against density lefties. It is also an object lesson in how impossible the housing crisis will be to solve if everyone is able to say no to building in their own backyard.

Some things are not under dispute: The university has added students without adding dorm rooms to house all of them, just as the Bay Area has added jobs without adding enough homes. That has resulted in the homeless population swelling, families moving to far-flung suburbs, and skyrocketing housing prices. The problem is statewide but particularly acute in Berkeley. Fixer-uppers in Bokovoy’s neighborhood go for $1 million. Nice family homes go for double that, easy. And single bedrooms in shared homes go for $1,000 a month, if not more.

The solution is not really under dispute either: California needs to build more housing—dorms, apartment buildings, casitas, duplexes, fourplexes, anything to bring prices down for students and everyone else. The state “has been underbuilding for something like 30 years now,” Jenny Schuetz, an economist at the Brookings Institution, told me. “The amount low-income families are spending on housing is completely unsustainable.”

Bokovoy—a gregarious, community-minded, dyed-in-the-wool liberal—agrees that the situation is completely unsustainable, but because there are too many people, not too few houses. Last week, he walked me around the neighborhood to make his case. We started at his home, a corner-lot beauty that he has owned since the late 1980s. He bought it with a former partner just after graduating from the university himself, he noted. (He’s an ABD from the graduate economics program and has a law degree.) “It was a duplex, or a single family that had been badly converted to a duplex,” he said. “We fixed it up.”

Many of the homes in the neighborhood are lovingly cared for stand-alones occupied by single families. But some have been converted into multifamily units or “mini dorms” occupied by students. “This place was a beautiful brown shingle,” Bokovoy told me, pointing at a house two doors down from his. “It got bought by one of Berkeley’s most notorious landlords” and has “triggered the neighborhood” ever since, he said, noting that there are “parties, beer bottles thrown into the neighbors’ yards, [students] up on the roof illegally.”

That kind of disorder drives him nuts. To mitigate it, he first worked with the university, helping implement an information campaign called Happy Neighbors that publicized the city’s overnight “quiet hours” and warned students about the potential for public-nuisance fines. “It was really clear that the university wasn’t going to have the resources to make the project successful,” he said as we walked up through the UC Berkeley campus.

In time, “get off my lawn” became “not in my backyard,” and complaints and flyers and community meetings became lawsuits. As we passed near the site of a proposed beach-volleyball complex, he warned of noise and light pollution and wondered if people could evacuate safely in the event of a wildfire. He said the city’s transit system was overloaded, and argued that “people love cars” and thus “we need to figure out how to design around them.”

Bokovoy also cited homelessness and displacement as major concerns. When I suggested the city could remedy those problems by allowing developers to pull down or convert single-family homes, he wasn’t pleased. “A travesty,” he said, and the kind of thing that would cause the neighborhood to “revolt.” “There’s a lot of resentment over that kind of thing” across the state, he told me. There are towns “full of new homeowners who were immigrants, who lived in crowded, dense places.” He went on: “They do not want to have fourplexes next door to them. It’s just—that’s what they spent their lives trying to get away from.”

Aesthetics mattered to him, too. He marveled at a white-brick apartment building that he called “contextual,” and pooh-poohed a 1950s concrete number for being “non-contextual.” Berkeley’s homes are what “make Berkeley special as a place to live,” he said. “If you look at the stuff that’s going up, it’s really pretty awful.”

For the students, he suggested that the university add facilities, but not in Berkeley—maybe in nearby Richmond or El Cerrito. “I went to school in Ann Arbor, which has a satellite campus,” he told me. “They did that because Ann Arbor is a very constrained environment. It’s a historical city, just like Berkeley.” He added that he did not advocate “just sticking students out there. I mean, I think there are academic units that could be there. And it’s pretty close to transit. There are two El Cerrito BART stations.”

If that’s what it takes to keep Berkeley special, Bokovoy thinks it’s worthwhile. What that means in practice, though, is thousands fewer Berkeley students and tens of thousands fewer Berkeley families. Keeping Berkeley special for existing Berkeleyans is the housing crisis, because it means long commutes and unsustainable prices. Keeping Berkeley special for existing Berkeleyans is the environmental crisis, because it means more Californians living in sprawl and commuting by car. The university needs to expand as California expands, and Berkeley needs to expand too.

Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods might have prevented that from happening this year, and thousands of kids might have to attend college elsewhere as a result. But this week, State Senator Scott Wiener announced a bill to exempt student housing from CEQA. (The timing was a coincidence, he told me, because the bill has been in the works for months.) Activists are hoping to harness public outrage to target other parts of the law as well. “This is crystallizing just how deranged and broken the process is,” Brian Hanlon, the chief executive officer of California YIMBY, told me.

That might mean a different, denser Berkeley, with new neighbors whom Bokovoy will have to learn to live with. At least part of the time. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, he said, he spent much of his time traveling and half of the year living in his second home, in another earthly paradise that welcomed him as a newcomer: Nelson, New Zealand.