Berkeley program puts students seeking housing in the homes of older adults

Marcia Garcia and Linda Artel are new roommates, thanks to Berkeley Home Match, which pairs UC Berkeley students with older adults. Photo: Robin Estrin

Marcia Garcia, 29, moved to the Bay Area in August, admitted to UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy for a master’s degree. Searching for housing, she quickly learned that options were scarce—and expensive. But thanks to a new program that pairs up graduate students and University retirees with room to spare, she found something affordable: a first-floor bedroom with its own entrance, in a house owned by Cal alumna Linda Artel.

“I like it,” said Garcia over tea with Artel on a recent evening. “It feels like home.”

The program, called Berkeley Home Match, leverages the housing needs of two growing populations in the city: older adults and students. For Artel and Garcia, one of nine matches made in the program’s pilot year, living together is not just a financial agreement—it’s an opportunity for generational and cultural exchange. Garcia recently helped Artel, who is in her 70s, connect streaming services to her TV. Now the two are watching the Netflix reboot of Norman Lear’s “One Day at a Time” in their shared living room.

Artel said she’s learning about Latinx and millennial culture from Garcia. Garcia, who immigrated with her family from Mexicali, likes talking about movies, jazz music, and the news with Artel, who studied history, and who has lived in Berkeley for 50 years. The two look forward to debriefing over hot cocoa at the end of a long day and spending time with Loki, Artel’s seven-year-old Sheltie.

Rachel Bell, who manages the Home Match program, said 24 homeowners and 62 students applied for shared housing this year, by sending in a short bio and information about their ideal living situation. After the program confirmed each party’s affiliation—homeowners must be Ashby Village members or university retirees, and students must be enrolled in a graduate program or employed as a post-doc or visiting scholar—contact information was exchanged.

Artel and Garcia each received a short list of phone numbers. After the two spoke on the phone—and clicked—they scheduled a follow-up video call. Then Garcia drove from San Diego with her dad to meet Artel and see the neighborhood.

Bell said that leading up to move-in, homeowners like Artel receive resources about sharing housing, interviewing applicants, and creating a lease. Students like Garcia receive safety information, renter’s best practices, and when a match is made, renter’s insurance.

“We’re not just throwing them in and saying here, live together,” said Bell, who’s been in the role since May.

Once a pair decides to match, the program sends a “Living Together Agreement,” a dozen-page document that facilitates conversations about chores, overnight guests, noise, and other things that might come up for two people sharing a space for the first time.

“It’s helpful to have everything laid out,” Garcia said.

Berkeley Home Match has participants review a “Living Together” agreement to make sure both parties have similar expectations about their living arrangements. Photo: Robin Estrin

Garcia described the process of seeking housing in the Bay Area as “terrifying.” She applied for on-campus apartments and used the university’s off-campus listings site, Cal Rentals, to begin her search. But what she found in town—$1,200 rooms shared between three people—seemed untenable.

“Ultimately this was the closest place, it was the cheapest place, and I really liked the neighborhood,” said Garcia, who was also looking for housing in Oakland. “It worked out really well.”

For Berkeley residents not affiliated with the University of California or Ashby Village, one of the program’s partners, the housing crisis, of course, rages on. The city’s homeless population has grown by 33 percent since 2015, according to the city’s 2019 homeless count, and the city’s 2015-2023 Housing Element shows that a third of local renters spend more than half of their income on housing costs.

It’s not just residents suffering from the housing crisis: A 2017 housing survey from UC Berkeley shows 10 percent of students experienced homelessness during their time at the school. A bulk of those students, three-quarters of them, were homeless for a total of two weeks to two months. The university provides a lower percentage of beds for its student body than any other campus in the UC system, according to the same report.

Reverend Sophia Dewitt, Berkeley spokesperson for the East Bay Housing Organizations, attributes the critical lack of affordable housing in the city to the migration of high-income earners from Silicon Valley to the Bay Area and to an increase in student enrollment at UC Berkeley. Today the average price for a one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley is $2,420 per month, up 5.2 percent from last year, according to the rental site Zumper. For a similar rental, UC Berkeley’s Housing Office estimated a $2,332 monthly price tag in 2017.

One factor contributing to the crisis is that Berkeley has built very little new housing in recent decades. About 83 percent of the city’s housing stock was constructed before 1970. From 1970 to 2010, the number of units in Berkeley only grew by seven percent.

In the last few years, however, as the economy has flourished with the growth of technology firms, developers have accelerated building. Since 2012, 1,300 units have been built; 1,047 are under construction; and another 1,252 have been submitted for approval, according to Berkeleyside reporting.

But only 128 units constructed since 2014 are listed as below-market-rate housing, according to the city’s report. (Berkeleyside reporting shows that 171 have been built or are under construction, with 84 more approved). That number is split nearly evenly between units considered affordable to very-low-income households and low-income households. Prior to 2014, only 14 percent of units were built for “low-income” and “very-low-income” people. Meanwhile, 30 percent of households in Berkeley qualify as low-income and very-low-income.

Berkeley voters responded to the city’s housing crisis by passing Measure O, a $135 million affordable housing bond, last November.

“That’s very positive,” said Dewitt, “but policy and funding takes time to result in actual homes for people. The new policy and the new funding hasn’t yet caught up to the scale of the need.”

A year later, the city has yet to spend any Measure O funding. One-hundred percent affordable housing projects take time, said Matthai Chakko, a city spokesman, adding that a portion of the housing bond will go toward the $110 million Berkeley Way project, which will provide temporary, permanent and transitional housing to low-income, homeless and disabled residents, as well as veterans, by early 2022.

A study released last year by the Terner Center for Housing noted racial disparities emerging in the region’s migration patterns: low-income African Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately represented among those leaving the Bay Area.

African Americans account for nearly 60 percent of Berkeley’s homeless population, despite the fact that fewer than 10 percent of Berkeley residents are African Americans, according to the 2019 homelessness count and survey. White people, on the other hand, account for 60 percent of the city’s population and fewer than 30 percent of the homeless population.

“Without concerted action, the region risks backsliding on inclusion and diversity and displacing its economically vulnerable and minority residents to areas of more limited opportunity,” the study said.

“There’s nothing fair about this,” said Artel, referring to the price tag of living in the region.

UC Berkeley has teamed with a number of private corporations to house students. One project is the David Blackwell Hall, seen here from the corner of Bancroft Avenue and Dana Street. Photo: Clark Schaefer

Garcia pays Artel $1,000 each month for rent and Artel takes care of utilities. A report published by Home Match in November shows that’s about average: In the program’s first year, participating students paid $990, or 45 percent below 2017 market value for a room, while homeowners earned $1,000 per month on average.

The program is small, but Bell said the number of matches is scheduled to grow from nine to 100 annually. That’s still a paltry fraction of Berkeley’s burgeoning student population.

The university currently enrolls more about 41,000 students, about a third of the city’s population, and it intends to increase the number in the next three years to 44,735, according to a recent report.  That’s a 33.7 percent higher increase than was estimated in the university’s 2020 Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). In June, Berkeley sued Cal for its failure to study the impact of these increases on city resources, including housing.

Chakko said that the additional 11,000 students—about the size of Emeryville’s population—has put a strain on an already unforgiving housing market. Chakko said the city has had limited financial resources to fund the development and management of affordable housing.

UC Berkeley does intend to greatly expand the housing it can offer students, but significant relief is still years away. In January 2017, a university task force, headed by then-university provost Carol Christ, who is now the chancellor, identified nine possible sites for housing, including People’s Park and the Upper Hearst Development, the focal point of the city’s lawsuit. The plan calls for adding 7,500 beds by 2028.

The university has also entered into a number of master leases with developers, where the university rents out entire buildings and in turn rents out rooms to students. One of the newest of these private-public partnerships is the 751-bed David Blackwell Hall on Dana Street between Bancroft Way and Durant Avenue.

Once, teachers and nurses moved into Artel’s North Berkeley neighborhood. Now, she said, the only people who can afford to move in are doctors, lawyers, and software developers. Home Match allowed Artel to bring company into her home after a recent loss, and it’s enabled her to give back, too.

“My husband and I bought a house at a time when it was affordable,” she said. “And now it’s not.”

Chakko said that the city is “supportive of” all efforts and programs to add more housing in Berkeley.

“We just have to be mindful that some people are more vulnerable than others,” he said, “and we want to get those individuals housed as well.”