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Living College Life in a Car

By Ellen Lasko

“Hi, my name is Caitlin, I’m undeclared in the College of Natural Resources, and I’ll probably be living in my car unless I find a place before school starts.”

I first met Caitlin Phan about week before Golden Bear Freshman Orientation at UC Berkeley during a week-long computer science camp for female freshmen. Throughout the first night, as everyone got to know each other through icebreakers and conversation, I can recall all of us going around in a circle and saying our name, major, and dorm building for the upcoming school year. While those who said “Unit 3” received sympathetic looks and the occasional “Blackwell” heard a chorus of groans, Caitlin’s answer, that she would potentially be living in a car, surprised us all.

Caitlin is one of the many students living off-campus at UC Berkeley who face housing insecurity. It’s common to hear horror stories about scrambling to find an apartment off-campus for fall of sophomore year after living in the dorms for a year. However, a task that is often overlooked is finding housing on your own before you even step foot on campus.

Born in Sacramento and raised in San Jose, Caitlin is no stranger to less than ideal housing situations. When she was in fifth grade, her parents relocated her and her younger brother from the house that they owned in Sacramento to a rental in San Jose for new employment opportunities. She recalls that watching her parents significantly downsize to afford the price jump between Sacramento and San Jose was one of the first times that she recognized how costly it can be to live in the Bay Area.

Cut to eight years later: Caitlin found herself unable to afford the hefty price tag of on-campus housing at UC Berkeley due to a meager financial aid sum that barely covered a fraction of her in-state tuition. When I asked if her parents were involved in her financial situation, she said, “In addition to being low-income, my parents have a pretty bad credit score, so they couldn’t really help me co-sign a lease.”

At the time of our meeting, Caitlin had spent the entire summer searching for housing opportunities with nothing to show for it. Unlike freshmen living on-campus who simply input their information and preferences into a streamlined portal, Caitlin turned to housing groups on Facebook advertising where fellow students advertise vacancies. This process was difficult for two reasons: tough competition for housing spots and her age.

With regards to the competitiveness, Caitlin recalls that, “There was one time I had my friend drive me down to Berkeley to try to sign a lease but by the time we got down there from San Jose, another party had already signed it.” Alternatively, the “ageism,” as she calls it, had to do with most of the listers being upperclassmen who preferred living with fellow upperclassmen, rather than a freshman. This reveals a little-acknowledged issue unique to freshmen who cannot afford to live in the dorms. Without the advantage of a year’s knowledge of Berkeley or even an idea of people to room with, off-campus freshmen who are not commuting from home are tasked with searching for housing without any support.

When I examined the process of finding off-campus housing for myself, I found that although UC Berkeley offers a rental-listing platform called Cal Rentals, the service only has a handful of places listed. Most of the options available are well outside the budget of an undergraduate supporting themselves through school.

As for her current circumstances, Caitlin was lucky that a few days before classes started, after going through what she describes as a “very thorough interview process centered around how much they liked my personality,” she was able to sublease a space about four blocks away from campus.

“The reason my rent is affordable is because I’m actually living in a living room with two makeshift walls in a corner. I say ‘cozy’ to make it sound more homey, but it’s really just very small,” she admitted. Though she is grateful that she has a place to stay, Caitlin says that she often feels envious of her peers who have the of socializing with floormates.

UC Berkeley administration does very little to help students in positions like Caitlin’s. It was during Golden Bear Orientation that Caitlin realized just how oblivious the school was to her situation. “They specifically grouped off-campus students together so we could meet each other which, hypothetically, is great. But, I realized pretty quickly that most of these students were commuting from home, unlike me who was completely on my own. I feel like the administration just lumps people who are housing insecure together with commuters.” Not differentiating between students commuting from family households and those who are housing insecure elucidates the lack attention allocated to housing insecurity issues at the university. 

According to Caitlin, her difficult situation for housing consequently bleeds into food insecurity.

“Eating gets pretty tough for me because I don’t have a meal plan. I get a lot of groceries from the Food Pantry, and I try to buy cheap foods like bulk rice or eggs,” she explained. The “Food Pantry” she is referring to is the Student Food Pantry located in UC Berkeley’s Student Union as a place for food insecure students to take donated food for free. “Although it’s a great resource,” Caitlin said, “since the stock is donated, you’ll be digging through a box of produce and often there’ll be moldy items mixed in. If you’re uncomfortable, you just don’t touch it.”

Looking towards the future, Caitlin plans on beginning her search for an apartment next year early with the hopes of finding an actual bedroom. She says that, “I know that the most important factor in finding a place is luck, so I’m just going to cross my fingers and assume the best.”

As for UC Berkeley, an investigative campus committee headed by then Interim Executive Vice Chancellor, now current Chancellor, Carol Christ released a “Housing Master Plan” report enumerating possible sites and plans for new housing projects. After the recent opening of Blackwell Hall, a brand new freshman housing complex with approximately 752 beds, the university has released a design brief revealing plans to develop the UC Berkeley-owned landmark, People’s Park, for undergraduate housing. In addition to being met with protest from those who believe the park should be preserved rather than developed, there is no telling if the new hall will be any more affordable for students than current options.

With swelling undergraduate student enrollment numbers and ever-increasing housing prices, UC Berkeley’s inability to efficiently address its housing crisis remains unaddressed, leaving freshmen like Caitlin scrambling to put an affordable roof over their heads.

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