Op-ed: An omnibus housing plan to address a critical shortage

We all agree on the urgent need to address our critical shortage of housing, especially affordable housing.

But how?

In Berkeley, as in other Bay Area population centers, the housing supply has not kept pace with population. Berkeley’s population grew 5.5% from 2010-2015, while the housing supply increased by only 1.2%.

The worsening shortage has fed steep increases in rents and home prices far beyond the pace of inflation. Berkeley’s median monthly rent jumped by nearly $400, or 12%, in just the past year, to $3,584, while the median sales price of homes rose even faster, 15% over the past year, to $974,000, according to Zillow data. Under federal guidelines allocating 30% of household income to housing costs, a renter household would need to earn an annual income of $143,360 to afford a median-rent unit.


In short, we don’t have enough housing, and what we do have is rapidly becoming too expensive for low- and moderate-income households. Even without the statistics, the impacts are evident to most Berkeley residents and those who seek housing in our City.

Our ethnic and economic diversity is being eroded as low- and moderate-income households are displaced or priced out. Many people who work in Berkeley cannot afford to live here, meaning they face long commutes, creating more greenhouse gases. Our many college students likewise are burdened, often obliged to endure long commutes and/or live in increasingly crowded multiple-tenant units. And with UC Berkeley receiving a substantial share in UC’s big enrollment increase – 10,000 more students systemwide in the next three years — the impacts will grow even worse.

I’m happy to say that we’ve steadily increased our housing stock since I took office as Mayor in 2002, adding more than 1,300 units, including more than 400 affordable (below market rate) units. We have another 762 units under construction and still another 1,146 units with use permits approved but not yet under construction. And there are more than 1,000 additional units still making their way through the zoning process prior to receiving a use permit. Of the total 3,215 units that have received use permits (including those already built), 633 are affordable, or about 20%.

But those are drops in the bucket. Like the Bay Area as whole, we are far behind in meeting the housing goals established by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG).

There is no simple answer. The solution depends on addressing the problem on multiple fronts.

I’m proposing a comprehensive Housing Action Plan to optimize our existing housing initiatives.

At the same time, I’m proposing a package of new policies, which include some ground-breaking strategies. We recently revised local regulations to boost our housing supply by making it easier and much less expensive to add “in-law units” or “granny flats,” and I hope that my current proposals will dramatically expand our progress.

The new policies, which go before our City Council on April 5, are designed also to accommodate our existing financial resources and assist all income levels. They include:

  1. Streamlined approval for green housing projects.
  2. A new “City Density Bonus” designed to create workforce housing.
  3. Policies to encourage transit-oriented development, including
  4. Higher densities for housing projects on streets along major transit corridors (with step-down height limits on the back side of blocks that face lower-density residential neighborhoods).
  5. Raising the height limits on buildings devoted exclusively to housing to match the height allowed for mixed-use buildings that have ground-floor commercial with housing on top.
  6. Support for more student housing, such as increased multi-unit housing in the Southside area of the UC campus.
  7. Incentives for landlords who rent to Section-8 tenants.

Details of the package can viewed on the City Council agenda for April 5.

Berkeley historically has been a leader in a number of areas, and perhaps some of our housing initiatives will be able to be applied elsewhere.

The housing crisis affects the entire Bay Area. We are all in this together, and it is my hope that other cities also will push the boundaries and that we will learn from each other.

Update, March 30: Since this op-ed was published, Mayor Bates has revised his housing package. The link included in the op-ed now leads to the revised version of the Housing Action Plan proposal.

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Tom Bates is the mayor of Berkeley.