Op-ed: Berkeley must insist that developers build more affordable housing than currently required

It appears that the Mayor and City Council of Berkeley, which has had the reputation of being one of the most progressive cities on the west coast, have been practicing embarrassingly stingy NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) with regards to affordable housing in the city.  They are in the process of approving a number of new residence high-rise buildings in downtown Berkeley that will be so high that they will require zoning changes to allow for the taller buildings and greater density.  Yet they are requiring too little in return from the developers!

In sharp contrast to this is Mayor de Blasio of New York City, who was in town recently and held a conversation with Robert Reich at the Freight & Salvage on May 14. He responded to questions afterward, the first two of which concerned affordable housing.  He stated that it is the policy in NYC to have “mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to include affordable units in new buildings in return for zoning changes to allow for taller buildings and greater density.”  And, if the developers refused to include a mandatory minimum of affordable housing, the city could find a different developer.  Period.  No exceptions.  And the percentage of affordable housing units per building is really high – 20 or 30%.

I was not sure the exact numbers, so I Googled what I thought I had heard: “nyc planning commission requires 30% low-income housing in any new housing.”  This was one of the articles that came up. It is from Crain’s Weekly: “City unveils 200K-unit, $41B housing plan,” dated May 5, 2014. The quote above is from this article.  Here are a few other quotes from this article:

“…the city will work with the real estate industry to build 80,000 new affordable apartments.


“More building will require denser neighborhoods, and the mayor has stated his willingness to build taller and more closely grouped buildings to achieve his goal. … ”

Mayor de Blasio called the old “80/20” model in which 80% of new developments are market rate and 20% affordable “a model of the past.” Going forward, the city will adopt a new “50/30/20” model in which 20% of units will be available to low-income households, 30% to moderate income households, and 50% for middle-income households, which is essentially market-rate. In other words, 20% of the low-income units would be available to households earning 50% of the area median income, or around $41,000 for a family of four. …

Mr. de Blasio said his desire was to work collaboratively with the real estate industry, but promised to “drive a hard bargain” in future negotiations.”

In contrast, Berkeley is requiring only that 10% of units in each development be affordable – a miniscule amount. Developers can skip building affordable units entirely if they pay the city the very small amount of $20,000 per unit. (The city would then use these funds to supposedly build affordable housing units somewhere else, but what can you build for $20,000?)

When I think of the mayor and city council allowing this great accommodation to developers, I’m reminded of that old Phil Ochs song, “but now I’m older and wiser, …so love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.” And I think of the much younger and more progressive City Council member Tom Bates, now an older and apparently much more conservative mayor, rushing the gentrification of Berkeley with not nearly enough regard for the low-income Berkeley residents being forced out of the city for lack of affordable housing. And the city council is mirroring the mayor in this affordable housing give-away.

The “progressive” city of Berkeley can, should, and must do a lot better.  We should at least be able to mirror what Mayor deBlasio and New York City is doing: demanding a minimum 20% low-income housing and 30% moderate income housing in every new developments, period.  No exceptions.  No $20,000 minimum payoffs.  It’s not too late to demand this of our mayor and city council members.

Why can’t Berkeley catch the New York City Mayor de Blasio progressive wave when it comes to low-income and moderate housing new construction requirements, then encourage other cities to do the same? The city is not powerless with developers. If the Federal government cannot be depended upon to lead the way to more humane housing for all, then the cities can pick up the slack and show how it can be done. I want to be as proud of my city in this regard as I am inspired with what Mayor de Blasio is doing in New York. WE CAN DO THIS.

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Richard Tamm has lived in Berkeley for 25 years. He is a retired main frame computer programmer.