UC Santa Cruz’s proposal to build family student housing and a child care center for students and staff on a corner of UCSC’s East Meadow has faced significant opposition. An overhead rendering of that part of the development is pictured here. (UC Santa Cruz)

New rounds of complaints challenge a university’s student housing plans

History is repeating itself for UC Santa Cruz’s massive — and hotly contested — on-campus housing project, Student Housing West.

Already long-delayed, the project is now facing two new lawsuits filed after UC regents re-approved it last month.

Last week, the East Meadow Action Committee filed a new round of litigation challenging the project’s recently released cost analysis. The alumni- and faculty-led group has fought for years against developing one of the project’s two proposed sites, a corner of the campus’ East Meadow that some view as an iconic piece of UCSC’s natural heritage.

Another advocacy group, called Habitat and Watershed Caretakers, had also sued over the project two years ago. And on Monday, HAWC, too, filed a new round of litigation, raising similar questions about the project’s cost estimates and campus officials’ commitment to offer the housing at below market rates.

“We’re strongly in favor of housing on campus that is truly affordable, both for the benefit of students and the community,” said Don Stevens, chair of Habitat and Watershed Caretakers. “High-priced campus housing drives students to seek more affordable housing off-campus, exacerbates our housing crisis by pressuring rents upward and squeezing out other renters, and creates major impacts to our neighborhoods. This lawsuit calls the bluff that UCSC is capable of supplying affordable housing.”

UCSC spokesman Scott Hernandez-Jason said in response that the campus is still reviewing the complaints but is “disheartened” to see the project faced with further challenges.

“These actions only further delay our efforts to address the urgent housing shortage, provide much-needed housing support for students and reduce the housing pressure on the community. These are not hypothetical challenges,” Hernandez-Jason said in a statement. “There are real, negative impacts on a significant number of individuals that such actions cause.”

In the works since 2017, Student Housing West has already faced years of delays due to a widespread outcry led by UCSC alumni and faculty.

The project — a public-private partnership with developer Capstone — is planned across two on-campus sites and would include more than 3,000 student beds. After replacing or phasing out existing housing, it would allow for more than 2,000 additional students to live on campus.

Most of the new housing is proposed on a site on the western campus, on Heller Drive.

But opposition has focused on a second site added to the project later in 2017, after it was discovered that part of the initial project site is considered habitat for a threatened species: the red-legged frog.

That second site is at the bottom of UCSC’s East Meadow, at the corner of Hagar and Coolidge drives. It would include student-family housing — just 5% of the project’s beds — and an expanded child care center for both students and staff.

Campus officials had hoped to begin development of the East Meadow site in early 2022 and be completed by spring 2023, while the larger site would be completed in two phases, in 2025 and 2028. But now those plans are in doubt amid the new litigation.

The southern corner of the East Meadow, at UCSC
The southern corner of the East Meadow, at UCSC, is one of two sites proposed for development as part of Student Housing West. (Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

An array of alumni, former campus officials and faculty have lined up against development of the meadow, some organizing under the banner of the East Meadow Action Committee. (Lookout founder Ken Doctor, a trustee on the UCSC foundation board, has been among the project’s critics.)

And after the project was approved by regents in 2019, the East Meadow Action Committee filed a lawsuit challenging the approval process and aspects of its environmental impact report. So did Habitat and Watershed Caretakers.

A judge delivered a mixed ruling in October in the EMAC challenge, upholding the project’s environmental analysis but overturning its approval by UC regents for failing to properly review cost estimates.

Then, in March, UC regents reapproved the project after reviewing the more detailed cost analysis. During the reapproval the project seemed at risk of getting rejected, however, with several regents raising concerns about affordability.

To alleviate those concerns, UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive committed to offer the housing to students at 30% below market rates. “I don’t have the bids yet so you can understand why, as a person who who values my word above everything else, it’s a little bit of concern to do that, but I’ll make that commitment to you,” she told regents at the time.

That cost analysis — previously not publicly released — factors into both renewed legal challenges.

Stevens, for one, says, based on his reading of it, he doesn’t believe UCSC can live up to Larive’s affordability commitment.

“It’s almost double what the off campus market rate is, and the regents wanted it to be 30% below the off campus market rate,” Stevens said. If that holds true after construction and the university doesn’t live up to Larive’s pledge, it would incentivize more students to live off campus and add further pressure to Santa Cruz’s high-cost housing market, Stevens said.

Asked how those figures square with Larive’s commitment, Hernandez-Jason responded that the final housing rates have not yet been set — and won’t be until construction concludes.

“If this project is able to proceed, the university intends to meet its commitment to the regents,” Hernandez-Jason said.

“Additional legal challenges not only further delay this much-needed housing, they increase the project’s overall cost,” Hernandez-Jason added. “Both outcomes are a great disservice to our students.”

Nick Ibarra covers higher education for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.

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