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New California Law Blocks Enrollment Drop at UC Berkeley

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People are walking through a gate entrance on a college campus.
The Sather Gate entrance at the UC Berkeley campus, where a security checkpoint was set up to screen attendees of a lecture by conservative author and radio host Ben Shapiro on Sept. 14, 2017. (Sheraz Sadiq/KQED)

Updated 11 a.m. Tuesday

Under new legislation passed swiftly and unanimously by state lawmakers on Monday, and immediately signed into law by the governor, UC Berkeley will no longer be forced to turn away thousands of students from its incoming freshman class.

Less than two weeks ago, the state Supreme Court ordered the university to reduce its enrollment. The court sided with a Berkeley neighborhood group that had sued the school, arguing that university officials did not adequately consider the environmental impacts of its planned enrollment increase, as required by a state law.

But the newly approved legislation (Senate Bill 118) gives UC Berkeley and other schools up to 18 months to comply with the law before judges can order them to reduce enrollment. And it is retroactive, effectively reversing the state high court's ruling.

“I’m grateful to the Legislature for moving quickly on this critical issue. It sends a clear signal that California won’t let lawsuits get in the way of the education and dreams of thousands of students, our future leaders and innovators,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday evening, while signing it.

The new legislation makes changes to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a landmark 1970 law that requires state and local agencies to evaluate and disclose significant environmental effects of projects and find ways to lessen those effects.

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But in the decades since its passage, critics say the environmental law has been used by opponents of development to block affordable housing and public transit projects.

In this instance, the group Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods had sued the university, arguing that adding more students would exacerbate the housing shortage and increase rents for residents in the city and wider region.

UC Berkeley, like much of the rest of California, has an affordable housing problem resulting from decades of lagged development. On-campus housing at the school is limited, and many students live off campus. Rents are expensive, especially for apartments closer to campus, while residents grumble over the added traffic, noise and housing costs brought by an increased student body.

The court agreed with the neighborhood group and ordered the university to stop construction of more housing and classroom space and to keep its enrollment at the same level as the 2020-21 school year. School officials said that meant they would have to reject or offer online-only options to about 2,600 students for the upcoming freshman class whom they had planned to accept on campus.

The ruling stunned lawmakers, parents and anxious applicants awaiting to hear whether they would be admitted this fall. University officials and students pleaded with state lawmakers for an emergency fix.

Lawmakers in the state Legislature dominated by Democrats responded with unusual speed, writing and passing a bill in just 11 days. Most other bills take up to eight months before they become law.

“This would have shut the doors of college education for thousands of Californians,” said Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento. “Our economy requires more college graduates. We know that college is the ticket to the middle class.”

San Francisco Assemblymember Phil Ting, a UC Berkeley alum, who introduced the legislation with state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, said the university was partly to blame for failing to properly plan for campus growth.

“I don’t think the students should really pay the price for bad bureaucratic decisions and a very poor lawyer,” Ting said on Monday.

In a statement, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ thanked legislators for their quick action and said the school is “committed to continuing our efforts to address a student housing crisis through new construction of below market housing.”

Lawmakers hoped the bill would end the controversy. But Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, warned that “this poorly drafted bill will result in more litigation.”

“UC Berkeley does not have the capacity to handle more students,” said Bokovoy, an alumnus of the school who lives near its bustling campus. “We don’t want new students to have to live in their cars.”

Although the law is narrowly tailored to fix the specific problem at UC Berkeley, it applies to all state colleges and universities. It does not, however,  include broader reforms called for by legislators from both parties.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, said the environmental protection law has been “distorted beyond recognition to empower anyone with enough money to hire a lawyer to delay or block even the most environmentally sustainable project” — including the construction of bike lanes, public transportation and clean energy projects.

In a rare moment of alignment, Republicans agreed, with San Joaquin Valley Assemblymember Vince Fong saying there's growing appetite in both parties for reform.

“But the question remains,” he said, "is there the political will to make that happen?”

KQED's Sara Hossaini contributed reporting to this post.

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