By Forcing U.C. Berkeley To Cut Enrollment, Have California's NIMBYs Finally Gone Too Far?

Lawmakers are proposing to strip neighborhood activists of the legal tools they've used to freeze the university's student population.


"Not in my backyard" (NIMBY) activists in Berkeley, California, might end up winning the battle but losing the war in their legal crusade to stop the growth of the student population at the University of California, Berkeley, campus.

Activists' success in a court-ordered enrollment freeze at the university—which would result in thousands of otherwise accepted Berkeley students receiving rejection letters—is prompting a backlash from both Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers that could undo their efforts to deprive incoming freshmen of a Berkeley education.

The governor is asking the California Supreme Court to side with the university and stay the impending enrollment freeze. Legislators are going further with a proposed bill to deprive litigious neighbors of their ability to stop people from going to a school that is eager to accept them.

"It is unacceptable for NIMBY lawsuits to strip students of their right to a quality education by blocking housing and effectively forcing schools to reduce enrollment," said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco) in a press release Tuesday announcing the introduction of Senate Bill (S.B.) 886.

The bill would exempt public universities' staff, students, and faculty housing projects from having to go through the onerous environmental review required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Those reviews can take years to complete and cost millions of dollars. CEQA also allows citizens and third parties to sue if they think an environmental review wasn't thorough enough, making it a favored tool of anti-development activists looking to gum up projects they don't like.

That includes the group Save Berkeley's Neighborhoods. In 2019, it sued U.C. Berkeley and the U.C. Board of Regents (the U.C. system's governing body) arguing that an environmental study of a new on-campus faculty housing project didn't adequately examine the impacts of a growing student population on things like traffic and noise, as required by CEQA.

In August 2020, a lower court judge agreed with Save Berkeley's Neighborhoods and ordered U.C. Berkeley to freeze enrollment at 2020–2021 levels until a new study on the impacts of more young scholars on campus could be done.

In January, the university asked a California appeals court to stay the enrollment freeze while its appeal of the lower court ruling worked its way through the courts. That request was rejected earlier this month, leading the university to ask the state Supreme Court to intervene to stay the enrollment freeze.

Letting the cap stand, it argued, would have a "devastating impact" on prospective and current students.

In order to cut enrollment down to 2020 levels, the university says it would have to send out 5,100 fewer admission letters. It would also lose $57 million in tuition by accepting fewer students, which the university says would impact its ability to offer financial aid and fund existing programs.

Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley's Neighborhoods, says that the university has no one but itself to blame for its court losses. He says the university is constantly expanding enrollment without establishing plans for housing the new students it's bringing to town.

The university was trying to escape responsibility for "the severe impacts that unmitigated enrollment growth has had on low-income tenants in the city of Berkeley," said Bokovoy in a press release. He also said that the university could easily hit its enrollment cap by accepting fewer out-of-state and international students.

That argument hasn't sat well with Newsom. Last Friday, his administration filed an amicus brief in support of U.C. Berkeley's request to stay the enrollment cap.

"We can't let a lawsuit get in the way of the education and dreams of thousands of students who are our future leaders and innovators," said the governor in a statement announcing the amicus brief. "I urge the Supreme Court to step in to ensure we are expanding access to higher education and opportunity, not blocking it."

The amicus brief, submitted by state Attorney General Rob Bonta, explicitly states that it isn't weighing in on whether the U.C. Board of Regents is compliant with CEQA. Rather, it's focused solely on "the benefits and burdens" of the board's requested stay of the enrollment cap.

Nevertheless, the one-two punch of Newsom's amicus brief and Wiener's university housing bill is more evidence of a sea change in California housing politics.

State officials are increasingly working in tandem to combat the often cynical (and sometimes silly) efforts of local NIMBYs to stop or stall new development. The NIMBY backlash to these interventions is increasingly falling flat.

Last year, for instance, the state legislature passed a number of pro-development housing reforms, including a bill (co-authored by Wiener) that legalized duplexes on single-family zoned land statewide.

When the small Silicon Valley community of Woodside attempted to skirt this duplex legalization by declaring the entire town as a protected mountain lion habitat off limits to duplexes, Bonta sent the town a letter arguing the move was illegal. The Woodside government quickly folded.

Local control activists pushing a ballot measure that would nullify that duplex legalization—and prevent the state from passing future zoning reforms—are now trying to get their initiative on the 2024 ballot. Their initial goal was to have their measure before voters later this year.

State officials are also beefing up their enforcement of state laws that put limits on local officials' discretion to deny housing projects or delay them with endless CEQA reviews. That task used to largely fall to a few small "yes in my backyard" (YIMBY) organizations.

To be sure, California's laws are still quite favorable to the opponents of new development. The U.C. Berkeley episode suggests the state's patience with these NIMBY escapades is wearing thin.

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  1. Let's cut enrollment to zero. Equity!

  2. This is hilarious. Berkeley, the home of activism, is against activism when it affects them. The saying "You made your bed now lie in it." has never been more true.

    1. Exactly. I have zero sympathy.

      The bill would exempt public universities' staff, students, and faculty housing projects from having to go through the onerous environmental review required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

      No, fuck that. The CEQA is insane and should be destroyed. No letting favored constituencies side-step it. If building things in CA is going to suck, the suck should definitely apply to state institutions.

      1. Yeah, difficulty feeling a lot of empathy. If this process is needed for everybody else, it is also needed for universities.

  3. I assume that most Berkeley residents are liberals if not progressives. I would encourage students (and will also assume that many or most look like the visual diversity championed by progressives) to march in the NIMBY neighborhoods, and challenge the home-owner groups to explain how "This is different".

    Popcorn is on me.

    1. Berkeley is sort of like an onion. There are layers. The further one gets away from the university the more conservative it gets. Get to the hills and you have a ring of Red. They actually have an active Republican organization there. A close friend of mine has been on the Berkeley Republican central committee for a long time. He is as conservative as they come.

      It's also similar in neighboring Oakland. When you get to the hills it's much more conservative. Of course, both are correlated with distance from nasty urban downtown and the expense of the real estate. But unlike the hills on the west bay, those ont he east bay tend towards a more conservative mindset then the hyper affluent liberal enclaves of the penninsula hills.

  4. I'm not seeing any actual changes proposed. Just more California business as usual of carving out exceptions to their ridiculous regulations when they happen to effect someone who is politically connected.

  5. Government schools exempted from onerous restrictions everyone else has to follow. Some animals are clearly more equal than others. They should start addressing the Cal President as 'Napoleon'.

    1. Why do you insult Napolean? They should refer to him as Mussolini.

      1. Mussolini may have been an evil bastard, but he was a competent evil bastard.

      2. FWIW, Napoleon was the lead pig in 'Animal Farm'

  6. "Finally"


  7. You kids get off my lawn!

  8. Follow the rules.

  9. Clearly showing how stupid they are Newsom et al. have failed to realize that CEQA is the problem, not the NIMBYs. After all, it's the government that handed the NIMBYs the CEQA axe handle they're using in the exact way it was intended when the government passed it. Maybe Newsom could use this as a way to rail against Ronald Reagan and strip the "evil Republican law" from the books. I'm sure it would play quite well to the Cali media.

    1. Yeah, stupid Newsom is gonna stupid. I found it more interesting that Reason hangs this hat on a "NIMBYs Gone Wild" narrative rather than a "Environmentalism And Progress Don't Mix" one. Fuck libertarianism, we've go small, amorphous bands of homeowners to step on! Muh Privut Schoolz rights iz beein' infringed!

      1. Environmentalism is a luxury good of the stagnant / declining population society.

  10. I find myself hoping there is a way they all can lose.

    The state passed a law. The local community group used that law to stop a state entity from expanding. In a different issue, the state passed a law and a local government tried to usurp it.

    I am going to pop some popcorn and watch.

    1. I am lukewarm on the NIMBY issue in the case. However, the state enacting a zoning law change seems extremely heavy-handed. Zoning laws are traditionally and narrowly local. For the state to tell cities that duplexes will be allowed in areas zoned for single family dwellings seems to be a huge overreach.

      1. Central Planning.

  11. The neighborhood group first attempted to stop construction of a huge dormitory on open space near the campus by pointing out, accurately, that the student housing "crisis" in Berkeley had been willfully exacerbated by years of UC's ignoring enrollment limits agreed to in its own campus long-range-development plan, adopted in 2005 and extending to 2020. Over the years since adoption of the LRDP the campus elected to deal with declining financial support from the state by admitting more students -- in particular, out-of-state and foreign ones who pay premium tuition -- than it had already acknowledged it could accommodate. That line of appeal by the neighbors didn't play in the courts, though IMO it should have done, so they've pivoted to CEQA as a final resort. None of this background is mentioned in any of the NIMBY-bashing coverage we're currently seeing, including in this account. It's as if the campus were blameless in creating this situation, wanting only to remain open to all qualified applicants as if this were still 1960 and Clark Kerr's vision of open admission to UC was still relevant and feasible. I worked in the Berkeley campus PR office when the 2005 LRDP was in development, so I am not only familiar with the devious posture the campus has been assuming through all this, but know well how UC can drape itself in aspirational drag when its expansionst aspirations are threatened.

    1. And the "crisis" is largely a result of the gun going off while aimed at the foot:
      "What is Rent Control? ... and How Does It Affect Me?"

  12. Haw,haw,haw.....getting a laugh at the war between the little NIMBYs and against progressive. Nothing could please me more than this. Love to watch them tear each other apart. It's gonna get ugly very soon.
    Now where's my popcorn?

  13. N3-MethylpseudoUridine manufacturer
    N1-(1,1,1-Trifluoroethyl)pseudoUridine - CAS 1613529-80-8

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