America’s Housing Crisis Is So Bad It Makes ‘Dormzilla’ Look Good

For a semester in college, I lived in a basement room with one solitary, tiny window far above our heads that never received sunlight. Because the room was perpetually shrouded in darkness, waking up was physically difficult. I tried various methods, like an artificial light and increasingly obnoxious alarms, to aid the process. But none successfully accommodated my body to the lack of this basic input in the circadian rhythm. 

Other aspects of my health suffered, from my digestion to my energy levels and mood. Sleeping in a windowless bedroom is not quite a form of torture, but it disrupts one’s natural body processes so profoundly it’s closer than you might expect.

This experience was part of the reason I was eager to dunk on Munger Hall, the $1.5 billion planned box on the University of California Santa Barbara’s campus to house more than 4,500 students that has been dubbed “Dormzilla.” The building was planned and partially funded by billionaire philanthropist Charles Munger. To house so many students, Munger played the old game of “trade-offs,” as he described to Bloomberg News, sacrificing natural light for density. So he decided to pack 94 percent of future Munger Hall residents into windowless rooms. 

The dorm had been a local issue for years, but received national attention last week when architect Dennis McFadden resigned from the university’s Design Review Committee in opposition to the plans. In his resignation letter, McFadden excoriated the plans as inhumane and a “social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact on the lives and personal development of the undergraduates the university serves,” citing among other things the known impact of a lack of natural light on one’s health.

As often happens with viral stories, the backlash to Dormzilla created its own counter-backlash. Some rushed to Munger Hall’s defense. The basic thesis of these defenses is that the housing crisis in this country and California specifically is so bad that maybe Munger Hall is actually good. 

The two most stirring defenses of Munger Hall came from Choire Sicha in Curbed—which, I should qualify, may well be a parody but reads so indistinguishably from typical Yes In My Backyard talking points it might as well be real—and M. Nolan Gray, a professional city planner writing for Bloomberg

“It is time not to just to build this dorm but to build this dorm nearly everywhere, from the housing-hate mean streets of San Francisco to Downtown Los Angeles to the stupid suburbs of Westchester,’ Sicha wrote. “Mint the coin, build the hive, let’s save the future.” For his part, Gray said that aside from some “minor issues” like its absurd $1.5 billion price tag, fire safety and “what to do if the power goes out, Dormzilla is fine.” 

What do they like about Munger Hall? Sicha notes many undergraduates may well accept a tradeoff of no windows for having their own room. Both appreciate the lack of car parking and the incorporation of thousands of bicycle racks. The heavy emphasis on common areas is hardly a departure from typical university architecture which has long promoted collaboration and interaction through design. They argue it is less something new than something mega, an appropriate response to a crisis that has reached mega proportions.

UCSB has a housing crisis of its own, to go along with Santa Barbara’s to go along with California’s, to go along with ones in virtually every major American city. In 2019, 41.6 percent of Californians paid more than 30 percent of their income towards housing, the highest share of any state, according to Bloomberg. That year, the median home price topped $600,000, twice the national average. And California has 12 percent of the U.S. population but a quarter of its homeless population. The basic cause of this housing crisis is there are more people who want to live in these places than homes for them. If nothing else, Munger Hall does one thing very well: It adds a lot more beds. 

As a result, Gray links the backlash against Munger Hall with Not In My Backyard opposition to housing projects all over the country. “The NIMBY impulse is an unlimited renewable resource, forever coming up with superficially convincing reasons for why nothing should ever be built anywhere. The only way to overcome it is to remain true to one simple fact: We need housing.” 

To Gray, it doesn’t seem to matter that much of the Munger Hall opposition came from architects and planners who do not live in Munger Hall’s backyard, but are expressing concern for a building’s design that seems both unhealthy and—as Gray himself acknowledges by nodding to “minor issues like fire safety and what to do if the power goes out”—unsafe.

Still, there is an undeniable validity to Gray’s argument, that for all its problems, Munger Hall is likely a better future than continuing to not build housing and having more students sleep in their cars or crash on couches or drop out altogether. But it is a validity that is uncomfortable to acknowledge, because the “minor issues” Gray wants Dormzilla to sort out aren’t minor at all. By likening concerns about stuffing 4,500 college kids into a giant building with just two major entrances and exits to typical NIMBY backlash, Gray falls into a common YIMBY trap of defending any dense housing project on the grounds that it is a dense housing project and therefore needs no other defense. 

But I think this misses something important about what being a housing advocate is, which is a means to an end of a decent quality of life for all of our neighbors. As someone who considers myself a YIMBY, there is still something unnerving about Munger Hall, something that feels even more fundamental than a bed to sleep in at night. 

“What will be known as the largest college dorm in the world ignores both research-based evidence identifying natural light, air and views of nature as necessary to our physical and emotional well-being, as well as basic principles of environmental sustainability,” McFadden wrote in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed. “This total reliance on energy-consuming artificial environmental systems, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, also means that the building is not passively habitable: In the event of a power outage the entire building—all 4,500 residents—would have to be completely evacuated.”

The housing crisis has become so profound that it has altered what many Americans are willing to accept. Some defend their turf with the sincerity of the Medieval crusader, believing this five-story building in a city of millions will be the end of all things good. Others will bend over backwards to justify virtually anything that replaces a single-family home or underutilized lot with hundreds of beds. In the vast chasm in between these extremes, there remain, as Munger correctly pointed out, many potential tradeoffs. Whether or not Munger Hall ever sees the light of day, its most enduring lesson will be as a demonstration of how crises compound themselves. In order to solve one crisis, we are often all too willing to create others. 

A few weeks into the semester I slept in that basement, I went home and slept in my old bedroom, which had two windows and a skylight. After sleeping in that dank basement for weeks, I woke up in my old bedroom and felt so good I had forgotten it was even possible to feel like that. In just a few short weeks, the basement dorm had shifted my conception of my own self to such a profound degree that I no longer even knew what feeling good felt like. 

Perhaps it’s utopian of me, but I believe we as a society are up for the challenge of building more housing while not risking the health and safety of thousands of college kids through efforts like tearing down the zoning laws that make so much of our cities off limits to new construction. Then again, the last few decades suggest that, perhaps, we are not up to the challenge to fix this crisis or any of the other crises we face. That would be the biggest crisis of all.

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