Texting Bot Demands Housing Accountability

Illustrated by Bridget Rios

Shoshana Medved

Investigative Beat Reporter

In the midst of the UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) housing shortage, a local vegan meal provider hopes to make a difference — it all starts with a texting bot.  

“The bot (which we fondly refer to as plum-bot) is programmed to have a short conversation over text,” the provider, known as Food Not Bombs Isla Vista (I.V.), wrote to The Bottom Line (TBL). “We wanted to create a fast way for people to send emails to the UCSB administration and show their support for houseless students.”

After filling out their name and relation to UCSB, plum-bot drafts the user an email that urges UCSB’s administration to take accountability for housing. The email is addressed to four high-profile members of the administration — including Chancellor Henry Yang. 

“We wanted to flood Chancellor Yang’s inbox with our demands,” Food Not Bombs wrote. “We need UCSB to reinvest the money it has spent on Band-Aids into real solutions and basic needs for students.”

The email lists three demands: an extension on student hotel contracts, an option for unhoused students to receive online classes, and an assurance that wages will not be cut, nor will tuition be raised in the process.  

“The housing market is not going to magically fix itself,” Food Not Bombs wrote. “UCSB must offer hotel contracts lasting until the end of the 2021-2022 school year and optional accommodations for students to attend class online if they cannot find housing near campus.”

In response to the scarcity of student housing, UCSB partnered with local hotels to give students the rate of a double-occupancy dormitory on campus. This is currently a temporary measure, with housing only provided until the end of fall quarter on Dec. 10.  

“There are 349 students living in hotels,” Food Not Bombs wrote. “The hotel contracts end in December — where are those students supposed to go when the hotel contracts end?”

The bot-drafted email criticizes UCSB’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP), a 2010 document that promised the building of additional student housing. The plan affirms that more housing would come either by the year 2025 or when the undergraduate student body hit 25,000 students — this has not gone into effect.  

“So far, UCSB has broken promises made to the campus community by failing to adhere to the legally-binding [LRDP] every year since 2017,” the bot email states. “So far, the university has exceeded the LRDP admissions cap of 25,000 students since 2017, and has only built 1,500 beds of the promised 4,800. The addition of the promised 3,300 beds would have been more than enough to address the housing crisis without the need of hotels.”

The UCSB vice and associate chancellors argued that the LRDP had been followed in a university-wide housing update to students, saying that increases in enrollment were responses to mandates made by the California Governor and State Legislature. 

“Contrary to reports in news outlets and on social media, campus enrollment has not exceeded the three-quarter average of 25,000 on-campus students,” the chancellors wrote this past September. “Enrollment this year is at the same level it was prior to the pandemic.”

Food Not Bombs disagrees, citing the problem as a lack of concern for students. 

“UCSB does not have a long term plan to find these students permanent housing because they don’t care,” they wrote to TBL. 

As an organization, Food Not Bombs prides itself on serving free vegan meals to everyone, no questions asked. They advocated for those who lost their homes during the pandemic, protesting the People’s Park eviction in June 2021.  

“A core belief of Food Not Bombs is that essentials such as food and housing are a right, not a privilege,” the organization wrote. “We thought [the bot] was a natural extension of our previous efforts.” 

To access the bot, students can text “PLUM” to (844) 202-4100. 

Food Not Bombs encourages those interested to get involved in local organizing efforts. 

“We’re not helpless,” Food Not Bombs Isla Vista wrote. “There are lots of things students can do to help each other and organize for long term solutions.” 


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