BERKELEY — After a semester studying housing, transit and other issues plaguing the Bay Area, a group of UC Berkeley students has some unexpected solutions. Free buses, anyone? How about a podcast on homelessness?
Those are some of the out-of-the-box ideas students presented last week during the culmination of UC Berkeley’s newest class — an experimental, civic-minded course called Hacking4Local. Professors gave students real problems, such as the lack of affordable housing in the Bay Area, and challenged them to work with local city officials, companies and organizations to come up with solutions.
The ideas that came out of the class, which is the latest in a nationwide series of startup-oriented courses that includes Hacking for Defense, surprised even the professors in their creativity and variety. Some students got so invested in the class that they plan to continue pursuing their projects even after they receive their final grades.
While none of the students figured out how to solve a housing shortage that has eluded experts and elected officials for years, the ideas that came out of the class surprised even the professors.
“They all found good starting places, and found that they could make a difference even in a small way,” said Rachel Dzombak, one of the professors teaching the course.
At the start of the semester, the students divided into five groups, each responsible for solving a specific problem. One group dreamed up a podcast that would tell the stories of local homeless residents to humanize their struggles and strengthen community support for affordable housing. Another proposed getting more people on public transit by making buses in Berkeley free — a project they calculated would cost $4 million a year. A third group floated the idea of an online platform to improve communication between developers and the people living in the communities where they build.
The podcast group originally set out to create more low-cost housing in the Bay Area. Their assignment was to help San Leandro-based women’s impact organization WeAccel and high-tech real estate company, Dragonfly Group, with their plan to build small, manufactured in-law units in homeowners’ backyards.
But as they researched the issue and interviewed dozens of stakeholders, the students decided in-law units weren’t the answer. Few homes in the Bay Area could handle an in-law unit, they concluded, and of those that did, most would be rented to the homeowners’ family members. So the students broke away from their original assignment and came up with something out of left field: a podcast called “Slipping through the Cracks” that tells the stories of homeless people living in the Bay Area.
The reason? The students determined that a main roadblock to getting affordable housing built is a lack of empathy: people who can afford housing have a hard time relating to those who can’t. By capturing the real stories of people struggling with homelessness, the students hope to ease the divide between the haves and have-nots.
“We can’t be looking at people who are different from us as ‘others,’” said Lucas Duffy, a graduate student pursuing a Master of Development Practice, focusing on sustainable development.
Going from in-law units to a podcast is a big jump, but the professors were on board. The whole point of the class is to get students to think for themselves, rather than being hemmed in by rigid assignments, Dzombak said.
And even though the podcast idea ultimately won’t help the students’ community partners with their in-law unit project, WeAccel CEO Deborah Acosta didn’t mind.
“It’s a fascinating concept that was definitely worth my time,” she said of the podcast.
Duffy plans to pursue the podcast or a similar homeless-engagement idea for his final project before graduation.
Another team was tasked with figuring out how to make development in Oakland more equitable — tackling the common complaint that the new buildings going up are for wealthy techies, not working-class, long-term Oakland residents. The problem, the students determined, is that there’s a disconnect between developers and residents. Residents the students talked to felt like their voices weren’t heard by developers, but at the same time, developers said everyone loves their projects.
The students called their solution “TownTalks:” an online platform that makes it easy for local residents to share their ideas and opinions on proposed projects with the developers themselves.
For Erik Phillip, a media studies student who was born and raised in Oakland, the assignment was deeply personal. As his East Oakland neighborhood gets more expensive, he’s watched his friends move away to Antioch and Brentwood in search of cheaper housing.
“I just wanted to really learn about what I was seeing happening,” Phillip said.
Other student groups proposed an app that would teach homeowners how to protect their property from wildfires, and a community healthcare forum designed to help South Berkeley residents solve their health issues.
Any ideas that aren’t pursued by students after the semester is over might carry over into the next Hacking4Local class, where a new crop of students can move them along, Dzombak said.
“It’s a new class, so it was an experiment,” she said. “But the students were really fantastic.”