Union workers and students at seven UC campuses called for the UC to “break up” with Blackstone — the largest commercial landlord in the U.S. — and promote more affordable housing options in tandem with Valentine’s Day at a Feb. 14 rally.

AFSCME 3299 called for the university to divest its $6.5 billion holdings from Blackstone and reinvest in affordable housing. Carolyn Li / Daily Nexus.

The joint action was organized by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Action, which previously helped pass the Homeless Prevention Act in 2019 to protect tenant rights. The collective effort was also supported by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) 3299, a UC-wide union representing over 30,000 service workers and patient care technical workers, among others. The union is currently undergoing contract negotiations with the University for better wages and benefits and wants to include a clause for divestment within their contract, according to AFSCME 3299 UC Santa Barbara organizer and union representative Wendy Santamaria.

“Right now they’re bargaining for better wages, better benefits, but one of the specific things that we’re negotiating is a housing package that is able to provide financial assistance for members,” Santamaria said. 

In January 2023, the UC invested $4.5 billion into Blackstone Real Estate Income Trust (BREIT) — totaling $6.5 billion in Blackstone holdings that the union is asking to be divested. The company has faced criticism over claims of raising rents, evicting tenants and failing to conduct basic maintenance on properties to allegedly maximize returns to shareholders. Last year, at UC San Diego, Blackstone acquired 6,000 units in a mobile park and increased rent prices by 40%, according to Cal Matters reporting.

At UCSB, the rally began at Storke Tower at 11 a.m. with around 10 students in attendance. Santamaria led the group in a march to Cheadle Hall, where Chancellor Henry T. Yang’s office is located on the top floor. 

As the group marched in a straight line down the Arbor walkway, they chanted “UC, UC, you’re no good. Treat your workers like you should,” “Blackstone, Blackstone, you better know. Tenants say you got to go,” “What do we want? Affordable rent. When do we want it? Now” and “Decent housing is right. We are here, ready to fight.” 

Upon arriving at Cheadle Hall, several more campus workers and students joined the group. Some students carried signs that read “Ceasefire in Gaza” and “End the occupation.”

Santamaria asked the group to share their personal stories in front of Cheadle Hall. 

“This is my story. Today I just found out that I have no Valentine. So that means I now have no place to live. My thoughts are thinking of getting a van so I can live in that van, because I don’t make enough at UCSB to afford housing,” UCSB custodian and union member Felipe Gonzalez said. “My problem with that is that the chancellor makes $500,000 [or] above a year and he’s on welfare. We’re paying for his home.”

“We have value and we want to be recognized for that value,” he continued.

The group went up the steps to the chancellor’s office at 11:30 a.m. and knocked on the doors of the Chancellor’s and Vice Chancellor’s Offices. Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Margaret Klawunn addressed the group 10 minutes after entering the building.

AFSCME 3299 intern Nelson Mu told Klawunn how difficult it is for students to secure housing.

“If you don’t wanna live in university [housing], you gotta start looking for housing in September,” third-year statistics and data science major and AFSCME 3299 intern Nelson Mu said to the vice-chancellor. “You look at the university housing applications — 50% of students don’t get housing.”

He referenced how in the first few hours of the university housing application opening, the portal crashed as 3,000 to 4,000 students tried to apply. 

“We don’t just have no affordable housing. We have, in some cases, no fucking housing,” Mu said.

“This is a very time-sensitive issue. We have people literally living in cars, students living out of the RecCen. This is a dire situation. Can we expect an answer from the chancellor soon?” Santamaria said. 

Klawunn said Yang was not in the building that day and said she would “make sure the chancellor understood how dire it is.” She also pointed out how the residence halls currently have vacancies for students.

“The workers are not going to be living in residence halls,” Santamaria said in response. “Our demands are not just go build more affordable housing. Specifically, we are asking the university to divest from Blackstone. $7 billion in there already that could be used for this affordable housing that we so desperately need.” 

Klawunn said she would report the group’s call for action to the chancellor. The rally ended after an hour and a half.

“This is something that is very interconnected. The more the university admits students without building housing for them, the more students and workers are competing for the very limited housing here and so as a result, you’re seeing rents go up, folks getting evicted for little to no reason and honestly a lot of these are illegal evictions for the sole purpose of raising rent,” Santamaria said. 

This article was edited on Feb. 22 at 1:41 p.m. to clarify the rally was organized by ACCE and supported by AFSCME 3299, as it formerly stated it was organized by AFSCME 3299 and supported by ACCE.

A version of this article appeared on p. 3 of the Feb. 22, 2024, print edition of the Daily Nexus.

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Lizzy Rager
Lizzy Rager (she/her) is the Assistant News Editor for the 2024-25 school year. She can be reached at lizzyrager@dailynexus.com