On Wednesday, protesters flooded People's Park in Berkeley, California, chanting, "Housing is a human right, fight, fight, fight!" The reason the crowd was protesting? The University of California, Berkeley, was set to begin construction on a student housing project, which would not only house 1,100 Berkeley students at below-market rates, but also provide subsidized apartments for 125 homeless people. And the protesters want to stop this project.
According to the Associated Press, protesters threw rocks, bottles, and glass at construction workers. They also removed several sections of the chain-link fence surrounding the park. On Wednesday, the university announced that it would pause construction of the park, citing protester violence.
"All construction personnel were withdrawn out of concern for their safety," Dan Mogulof, UC's assistant vice chancellor, said in a statement to NBC News. "The campus will, in the days ahead, assess the situation in order to determine how best to proceed with construction of this urgently needed student housing project."
The University has tried since 2017 to construct more student housing in a city where rents are often so high and student housing supply so low that some students have resorted to sleeping in their cars. The construction project would provide much-needed affordable housing to many students. However, the project has faced considerable pushback, including lawsuits to prevent the construction. In typical NIMBY fashion, the lawsuits claim that the University did not consider enough other building sites. According to The Real Deal, a San Francisco real estate news website, the University considered over a dozen.
"Ever since we announced plans for the People's Park project in 2018, I have been convinced that we have an opportunity for a win-win-win benefitting our students, unhoused people in our community, and our neighbors across the city," said UC Chancellor Carol Crist in a 2021 email obtained by The Daily Californian.
The main source of controversy is the housing site's location, People's Park, a university-owned plot of land with a history as an activist site. Most famously, the park was the site of "Bloody Thursday," a 1969 student protest-turned-riot that left 50 injured and one dead after police fired buck and bird shot into the crowd. Protesters thus view the park as a crucial historic site, and even though over half of the park will remain intact as a green space, many of them believe it should not be changed. The park is also the "home" of dozens of homeless people.
"Since its founding in 1969, People's Park has been home to countless houseless individuals in Berkeley," wrote The Daily Californian editorial board on Thursday. "It has served as the prime location for political events, performances and recreation, among countless other affairs. From these, a community bloomed, and it has quickly become a cultural and historical landmark."
Ironically, this oft-criticized building project would create housing for homeless people, not destroy it. According to the A.P., during the duration of construction, the nearly 50 homeless people living in the park were offered shelter (which almost all of them accepted) at a motel paid for by UC. When the project is complete, it will include 125 apartments for homeless individuals.
Those that oppose the housing project voice a uniquely Californian kind of NIMBYism when discussing homelessness. Sure, the project would provide much-needed housing for the homeless, but it would also displace the small number of homeless people who like sleeping in an open-air tent encampment with no running water. Apparently, we should prize the interests of a few—in the case of People's Park, the two or three individuals who refused shelter out of nearly 50—over the surely plentiful number of homeless who desperately want shelter and privacy.
"I think that it's really unjust what the university is doing trying to build housing here but at the cost of moving out all of these residents," UC student Sarah Hager told local news station KTVU. "You're causing significant amounts of harm by moving residents who have lived here forever and are absolutely integrated into the community."
If construction on People's Park is permanently stopped, cash-strapped students and homeless people will be the ones to suffer. Stopping the construction of new housing in a city with one of the worst housing shortages in America—below-market-rate housing aimed at students and the homeless no less—seems deeply at odds with the claim that "housing is a human right."