The sobering reality of houselessness plagues people throughout California. For university students, the lack of housing guarantees by their universities and sky-high rent off-campus has students starting the school year asking: Will I have a place to sleep next year? 

While cramming for tests, some have to find a couch to crash on. While balancing social life and mental health, others have to find a spot to park their car so they can sleep for the night. For those who do find housing, it’s often in another city — potentially having to commute for hours just for one 60-minute class. 

Senate Bill 886, introduced to the California Legislature by Senator Scott Wiener of District 11, would streamline university housing development projects. By providing an exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review process, university housing developments would not have to go through a secondary review required under CEQA.  

Students like Laz Meiman, a first-year at UC Santa Cruz and Vice President of Policy at the Student Housing Coalition, share the same sentiment — Students need housing. Urgently. 

“We want to get a quality education. And in order to have a quality education, you need a stable place to live,” Meiman said. 

The Student Housing Crisis

In a recent 2020 survey by the University of California, approximately five percent of UC students have experienced houselessness. For California State University (CSU) students, that amount is doubled at 10 percent, along with nearly 20 percent of California community college students also facing houselessness.

“For many college students, the housing situation is bleak,” said Sen. Wiener. “Students are frequently forced to compete with the general population for housing in the surrounding community. And that makes it very expensive and difficult for students and also raises housing costs in those surrounding communities.”

Student activists have been heavily involved in the creation of this bill. Organizations like California Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) and the Student Housing Coalition are co-sponsors of SB 886. 

Ray Diaz, a first-year UCSC student and organizer involved with the Student Housing Coalition, says that an absence of clear communication from the university is a major cause of frustration among students. 

“The university should have been clear from the get-go of the situation we are in right now, with students, and how they are trying to mitigate the problem,” Diaz said. “Students are the ones that are ending up having to face the repercussions of [administration] not being transparent or clear with what the current housing situation is right now.”

California YIMBY is a grassroots housing activism organization that advocates for the expansion of universal affordable housing throughout California.

The Student Housing Coalition is a student-led coalition, along with university faculty and administration. Across the Santa Cruz Region, the group works to promote solutions for the housing crisis.

The CEQA Review 

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) was established in 1970 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. The act serves as an environmental statute for proposed housing by analyzing its environmental impact, implementing mitigation measures and monitoring, and providing public disclosure of the development process. 

For proponents of CEQA, SB 886’s curtailment of CEQA in the university housing development process would lead to detrimental environmental impacts. Furthermore, they argue that the public’s right to weigh in on community land-use developments would be severely undercut. 

In response, supporters of the bill believe that CEQA today has been alienated from its original purpose of mitigating environmental damage. Rather, they argue it has been weaponized by residents to restrict campus growth. 

“Having these additional lawsuits is duplicative, it doesn’t necessarily do anything about the environment,” Meiman said. “It’s just a way for these members of the community in town to stop housing from being built on college campuses because they don’t want to see it built.”

UCSC’s Student Housing West project was initially approved by the UC Board of Regents in 2019 as a way to combat the worsening housing crisis on campus. The development would provide 3,000 beds for students, along with a new family student housing center and a child care center. 

A year passed without any ground being broken. And then another year. And then another one. 

Student Housing West became perpetually swamped in litigation due to CEQA-related lawsuits. The East Meadow Action Committee, which sued the UC Board of Regents, argued that Student Housing West didn’t adequately assess or inform the public about the environmental impacts of its construction. 

In February 2022, the 6th District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the housing development, which was also recently re-approved by the UC Board of Regents in March 2022. 

While the project is now set to begin in the spring of 2022, the cost of delays and court battles led to insufficient rooms for students. 

For developments currently in limbo like Student Housing West, SB 886 wouldn’t work retroactively. Rather, it would prevent future development from facing a similar fate. 

“The delays are very costly. It might mean that no housing gets built, or it may just make the project cost more money,” noted Sen. Wiener. “So this law won’t solve every problem, but it’ll allow the projects to proceed in a more streamlined way.”

The Future of SB 886 

The bill passed on the California Senate Floor with 33 yes votes and one no, and 6 abstentions on May 24. It is currently waiting to be heard by the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources with no set hearing date.  

Though SB 886 will not cure the complex housing crisis in California, its supporters believe it is a step towards alleviating the suffering and housing anxiety of students pursuing higher education. 

Until the housing crisis is solved, the calls by students for solidarity and support from the university will only increase in fervor, as echoed by Diaz. 

“Why is it that students are having to create the solutions for you? We are here to get an education, not to do this free labor for you,” Diaz said. “Take a stance, join students in the fight, and be more transparent about the entire process.” 

Additional reporting by Keith Gelderloos.