In summary

Listen to the new episode of the California housing crisis podcast, featuring the debate at UC Berkeley over enrollment and environmental law.

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UC Berkeley will likely have to reduce its on-campus population considerably this fall following a California Supreme Court decision announced Thursday.

The basis of the lawsuit: The California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

In the latest episode of “Gimme Shelter: The California Housing Crisis Podcast,” CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias and the Los Angeles Times’ Liam Dillon explain how the state’s premier environmental law is being used to cut enrollment at one of the state’s premier public universities.

University officials said they will need to cut in-person enrollment by about 2,600 students, though they plan to keep the incoming undergraduate class at the same size by offering online courses or deferring enrollment until the spring of 2023. On Saturday, the group that filed the CEQA lawsuit against UC Berkeley, offered a temporary settlement to allow 1,000 more in-person students, if at least 90% of them are from California. But the university quickly responded that enrollment decisions aren’t up to “a small group of litigants,” but the Legislature and the UC president and Board of Regents.

The episode features interviews with Phil Bokovoy, the president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, and Jesse Arreguin, the mayor of Berkeley, which originally filed a similar lawsuit to the neighborhood group.

CEQA requires developers to disclose a development project’s potential environmental effects on the surrounding community and take steps to reduce or eliminate them. It has been used by groups and individuals across California to halt housing and other development, or squeeze concessions from developers along the way.

Bokovoy’s group argues that the university did not properly assess the impact population growth would have on city services, scarce local housing and noise. The school has exceeded its enrollment target set out in 2005 by 11,000 students, without building nearly enough housing to keep up.

“I think it would pretty much end any possibility of having low-income renters within a mile or a mile and a half of the campus,” Bokovoy said. “If you’re serious about providing access, then you need to build the housing so that students have someplace to live.”

But if the hold-up over UC Berkeley’s expansion is insufficient student housing, the campus’s plans to build those are also in legal limbo. Two other UC Berkeley student housing projects have been challenged by community groups on environmental grounds

Alameda Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman last year sided with Bokovoy, and ordered UC Berkeley to cap enrollment at 2020-21 levels. The California Supreme Court refused to strike that order on Thursday — a decision made public after this episode was recorded.

The city was once part of the CEQA litigation against the university, also alleging that the university wasn’t taking into account its negative impacts on the broader community. Following a $83 million settlement, however, the city withdrew its opposition.

“The remedy that we sought was never to freeze enrollment,” Arreguin said. “The reason is because while we think that the university needs to be a good neighbor, and needs to pay its fair share, we don’t want to deprive thousands of students from being able to get an education.”

“I am a first-generation college student. And if it wasn’t for the University of California, I certainly wouldn’t be mayor of Berkeley,” he added.

State lawmakers say they are working on a legislative fix. In the meantime, the university has plans in place to enroll many of those otherwise excluded students through a combination of online classes and deferred enrollment.

“This is against everything we stand for — new pathways to success, attracting tomorrow’s leaders, making college more affordable,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Twitter. “UC’s incoming freshman class is the most diverse ever but now thousands of dreams will be dashed to keep a failing status quo.”

The state Court of Appeals is expected to hear the full case later this year, if it isn’t settled.

more on uc student housing

If UC Berkeley must cut 3,000 students, should it spare Californians?

If UC Berkeley loses its fight to block a judge’s enrollment cap order, UC Berkeley said it’ll have to deny slots to a third of its incoming class. One key lawmaker thinks the university should give priority to Californians. It’s a coda to ongoing tension over how many nonresident students the UCs should enroll.

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Manuela is the housing reporter for CalMatters. Her stories focus on the political dynamics and economic and racial inequities that have contributed to the housing crisis in California and its potential...