California spends more than most states on its colleges, resulting in lower-than-average tuition at state colleges. But college is actually less affordable there than in most states. What students save in tuition is more than offset by higher-than-average living costs, due to California laws that restrict housing construction, making housing scarcer and more expensive. The The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity reports:
The University of California-Berkeley must slash on-campus enrollment by at least 2,500 students in the fall of 2022, according to the outcome of a legal battle that concluded last week.
A local activist group, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, had sued the university under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a state law that “has been used frequently to block or force modifications to developments, commercial and residential housing tracts, infrastructure, and other projects,” according to Capitol Weekly. Courts agreed with the activists that the university’s environmental reviews of new building projects on campus—some of which would have provided student housing—were inadequate. Thousands of acceptance letters won’t go out as a result.
The dramatic court decision illuminates a deeper problem facing college students in California and many other states: there are not enough housing options near many of the state’s top universities. The dearth of housing supply pushes up rents, making it far more difficult for students to afford to attend college.
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As Nolan Gray writes in the Times of San Diego, “the same broken environmental review framework that allowed [anti-housing activists] to force UC Berkeley to freeze enrollment has also made it increasingly difficult to build housing in the first place.” Gray notes that activists have used also CEQA to block or delay student housing projects at UCLA and UC-San Diego.
As a result, California students pay more for on-campus housing than students in any other state in the nation. While in-state tuition and fees at California’s public universities are a reasonable $7,700, the estimated cost of room, board, and other living expenses tops $21,000 for on-campus students. At UC-Berkeley, living expenses for students residing on campus exceed $25,000.
Off-campus students don’t fare much better. California students living off campus (but not with family) can still expect to pay over $20,000 annually for rent, food, and other non-tuition expenses. Off-campus living costs in California exceed those in every state but New York and New Jersey.
As the California Policy Center noted in 2018,
There are obvious reasons the median home price in California is $544,900, whereas in the United States it is only $220,100. In California, demand exceeds supply. And supply is constrained because of unwarranted environmental laws such as SB 375 that have made it nearly impossible to build housing outside the “urban service boundary.” These laws have made the value of land inside existing urban areas artificially expensive. Very expensive. Other overreaching environmentalist laws such as CEQA have made it nearly impossible to build housing anywhere. Then there are the government fees attendant to construction, along with the ubiquitous and lengthy permitting delays caused by myriad, indifferent bureaucracies with overlapping and often conflicting requirements. There is a separate fee and a separate permit seemingly for everything: planning, building, impact, schools, parks, transportation, capital improvement, housing, etc. Government fees per home in California often are well over $100,000; in the City of Fremont in 2017, they totaled nearly $160,000 on the $850,000 median value of a single family home.