Op-ed: Begging my neighbors for respect and affordability

I am a 23-year-old music data analyst making a $42,000 yearly salary before taxes; 46% of my income goes to rent. Nobody at my income level can afford median rent in Berkeley.

I feel utterly disrespected by my older neighbors who oppose much-needed housing.

Berkeley needs thousands of new housing units yesterday, and the hypocrisy of those delaying the approval process is transparent and insulting. As a vocal critic of Berkeley’s housing shortage, I have resisted the temptation to stereotype older homeowners in the area as callous, selfish NIMBYs: it is too easy and it denies good people the nuanced representations they deserve.

Yet after last night’s (9/30/15) Zoning Adjustment Board meeting to discuss the proposed 2211 Harold Way project, fellow housing activists and I faced such a uniform front of vitriol and contempt, I no longer worry that my rebuttals would resort to strawman fallacies. The arguments are as few as they are false. Personally, I’m not a fan of private land ownership at all, but if this is the system we have to work with, we should let it work for everyone.

The Bay Area’s severe housing shortage, coupled with massive job growth, fuels skyrocketing rent prices. Everyone knows this. It is alarming that some opponents to the project seemed to insist that merely resisting the high demand—“we don’t want new people moving here”—would be enough to solve the issue. Clearly, they were not concerned with the plight of rent-burdened tenants, but with the charming small-town “character” of Berkeley. I contend that subjective aesthetic standards are not valid arguments in times of economic crisis.

The fact is, if high-income engineers or students from affluent families need a unit in Berkeley, they will find it, and if enough units aren’t around, they will price out lower-income workers competing for the same scarce housing. The idea that newcomers should simply look for somewhere else to live ignores the realities of job growth, especially when new jobs outnumber new housing at a 3-to-1 ratio in the region.

My friend, Leora Tanjuatco, bravely made this point at the meeting by stating that, although her own salary was not enough to afford these market-rate units, it would make Berkeley overall more affordable for her by absorbing the white-hot demand. She was booed and jeered by mostly older attendees who seemed to think adolescent behavior was acceptable in the face of a valid economic point. It was disappointing to see physics professors, philanthropists, and business owners resist growth in the face of such obvious need for it.

I do concede that one unnamed elderly woman was friendly enough to reach out and engage in respectful dialogue with me. She insisted that Berkeley needs new low- and middle-income housing, not “luxury” housing. The only reason I disagree with this point is that the severe undersupply causes all market-rate housing to immediately become “luxury” on pricing alone. Aesthetically, new units are often quite drab and small; they would not be luxury if the entire Bay Area had been building enough over the past 30 years. Moreover, if new “luxury” housing is blocked, scarcity will cause pre-existing housing to accrue luxury value. For the math-savvy, the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation has published an agent-based model of the San Francisco housing market that shows how market-rate development absorbs increasing demand and lowers rent prices at all income levels.

I have to give this woman credit: she is working on the big issues. She encouraged me to get involved in Make It Fair, a campaign to amend Prop 13 tax loopholes, and I intend to do so. Ma’am, if you are reading this, thank you so much. Property tax reform and efficient regional governance are also needed to amend this crisis.

However, at a local level, the supply shortage must be addressed. If residents of Downtown—essentially the only part of Berkeley allowed to be dense—are upset by the rapid pace of change, they should urge their neighbors in North Berkeley and Elmwood to pull their weight. Far too many Berkeley residents have been sheltered from this debate by their charming suburbs. To solve not just the housing crisis, but the global climate crisis, all suburbs must be urbanized full stop.

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Diego is native to the Washington, D.C. area, a recent college graduate, and relatively new resident of Berkeley.