This post was updated Oct. 17 at 12:17 a.m.
Chaonan Liu pays exorbitant sums to live several miles away from campus.
Liu, a fourth-year financial actuarial mathematics student, said the expense of living near campus had forced her into an apartment a few miles away from campus still costing $1,100 a month – with no bathroom.
“The (price of rent) definitely affects the social life of off-campus students a lot because I live further away, I take the bus,” Liu said. “I have to take the 7 p.m. bus every day because it’s not safe for me to take a later bus, and I still need to walk from the bus station to my apartment.”
Liu’s experience isn’t an outlier – Westwood has the highest rent rate in California and fourth-highest in the nation, according to a study released last month.
The average apartment in Westwood costs $4,944 a month, a 4.1% increase from 2018, according to RENTCafe, a listing service for apartments and homes. The only three ZIP codes with higher rent in the United States are in New York City. Westwood held the title for California’s priciest in 2018 as well.
This high cost of living stems from several factors, primarily the economics of supply and demand, said Michael Skiles, president of the North Westwood Neighborhood Council.
While the number of UCLA students continues to rise, thus increasing demand for off-campus housing, the development of new housing units in Westwood to match this population increase has been lacking, Skiles said.
“The price is being driven up by the fact that students need places to live,” Skiles said. “The only solution I see is having enough units to meet the demand from students. Otherwise, rents will continue to go up because landlords will take advantage of supply and demand.”
Since students are unable to afford one-bedroom apartments at exorbitant rates, they’re forced to find roommates, the result being a cramped living situation, Skiles said.
“These students end up in an apartment designed for one person, paying $700 a month individually to live in bunk beds, in very cramped situations,” Skiles said.
The impact of this cost on the student experience at UCLA has been significant, said Michael Lens, an associate professor of urban planning and public policy. Housing prices in Westwood force large numbers of students to commute long distances every day, with some living in their cars, and some students going homeless at different periods throughout the year, Lens said.
“I’m hearing more and more about very precarious or nonexistent housing opportunities for students. Some are going homeless,” Lens said. “And then there’s the long commutes. How often do I park in a structure on campus and see someone asleep in the back of their car because they had to leave at 5:30 a.m. just to catch class?”
Even for those who do find housing, many such students are forced to live much further away from campus than would otherwise be convenient, resulting in decreased social engagement with on-campus clubs, organizations and activities.
“For many people not living in Westwood, it’s not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t afford it,” Skiles said. “The college experience is fullest when you’re going to school, attending clubs, having a social life. It takes you from just taking classes to really being at that college. It’s an experience students should have.”
Duncan Brouwer, a fourth-year Chinese language and culture student, said the cost of rent forces students to work rather than pursue other activities.
“(The cost of rent) is definitely affecting the student experience,” Brouwer said. “One big thing is having to work while being a student. … Having to work to pay that higher rent prevents you from getting involved in college activities.”
In addition to affecting the on-campus engagement and social life of UCLA students, Skiles also said the high cost of living in Westwood forces some students to take extreme measures to attend school.
“I’ve talked with many students who commute from as far as the Bay Area or the Central Valley,” Skiles said. “They live in cars during the week and drive home during weekends. It’s sad that they have to do that. It enables them to not be completely homeless – this is a surprisingly common phenomenon.”
Skiles is a member of Westwood Forward, a coalition of students, business owners and community members seeking reforms in Westwood to support affordable housing and business growth.
While Westwood Forward has been pushing local officials toward developing more affordable housing units, Westwood’s strict zoning regulations have been a considerable obstacle, Skiles added.
One of the solutions Westwood Forward has pushed for has been the development of multistoried businesses. These are structures with apartment units on the second or third stories of buildings with restaurants and other businesses on the first floor.
However, the Westwood Village Specific Plan, which designates what kind of establishment can be approved as a restaurant, in conjunction with strict requirements forcing business owners to maintain a minimum number of parking spaces, has impeded such progress.
Skiles said he and other members of Westwood Forward are working with Westwood Councilmember Paul Koretz to amend the Westwood Village Specific Plan, both to make it easier for “fast-casual” restaurants such as Chipotle to come into Westwood as well as to ease inhibiting parking requirements.
Lens agreed that changing parking requirements and zoning regulations would help fight rising rent costs.
“For students who may be less likely to own a car or multiple cars per household but then you have this requirement of parking spots per unit, without a doubt you could build housing more cheaply specifically for students without having to pay for a parking structure,” Lens said.
In addition to easing local regulations to stimulate housing development, Skiles was hopeful that UCLA’s efforts to construct additional university housing could also ease the problem of supply and demand.
UCLA is constructing two major housing projects: the Lot 15 Residence Hall, which will provide 1,781 beds for first- and second-year undergraduates, and the Southwest Campus Apartments, which will accommodate over 2,000 upper-division undergraduates and graduate students.
The new units are expected to be completed by 2021.