Op-ed: Honor Berkeley’s history: build more housing

Please sign Livable Berkeley’s Housing Policy Petition at BerkeleyHousingCrisis.org to let the City Council know you support more housing for Berkeley.

What does the future hold for our community? In many respects, Berkeley is getting better with each passing year. New residents, businesses, and other amenities are bringing greater vitality to neighborhoods across Berkeley. But with low- and middle-income households increasingly priced out of our wonderful city, people are justifiably worried. Slamming the brakes on change may seem a tempting response, but this would ultimately be counter-productive. Attempts to keep newcomers out by “pulling up the drawbridge” will only serve to make Berkeley more exclusive and unaffordable. Instead we must continue to embrace conscientious growth that builds upon the best of Berkeley tradition.

Thoughtfully and candidly addressing concerns about growth is critical to advancing policy reforms that will help alleviate the housing crisis. Some residents worry that new market-rate housing serves only to accelerate displacement. Under certain circumstances, it’s true that the first new development in a long-overlooked neighborhood may very well act as a catalyst for change — for worse and for better. But with virtually all of Berkeley already proving attractive to renters and buyers, it would be a stretch to consider any neighborhood overlooked. Even areas that have so far resisted new development have seen significant increases in housing costs. With eager buyers already forking over seven figures for even modest, older homes, each new unit we build can prevent an instance of displacement.

Some find this perspective hard to believe, but a growing body of evidence supports the idea that solving this crisis demands that we build more housing for all income levels. The importance of increased housing supply is accepted by an expanding progressive consensus that, among others, includes: UC Berkeley Professors Karen Chapple and Carole Galante, who respectively lead the Urban Displacement Project and the Terner Center on Housing Innovation; Jason Furman, chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors; and Paul Krugman, Nobel-winning economist and author. Perhaps most importantly, analysis of data from the Bay Area has shown that neighborhoods that built more housing—even market-rate housing — were less prone to displacement than those that built less housing or none at all. This held true even when new housing developments were not required to include affordable units. These findings led the non-partisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office to state, “construction of market-rate housing reduces housing costs for low-income households and, consequently, helps to mitigate displacement in many cases.”


Skepticism toward this notion remains understandable — we’ve watched prices continue to rise, even as Berkeley housing construction has finally begun to recover from decades of under-building. But just because the dosage isn’t right doesn’t mean the medicine is ineffective. For cities like Seattle and Washington D.C., where housing construction has begun to catch up with demand, rents have started to level off or even drop. Contrast this with the Bay Area, which from 2010 to 2015 added an estimated 346,600 jobs, but a mere 53,500 housing units. In order for Bay Area housing construction to put a dent in this enormous deficit, we have to move beyond plodding, piecemeal approaches. Berkeley can’t solve the regional housing shortage on its own, but the scale of the crisis compels us to act as a regional leader by adopting comprehensive strategies.

Thankfully, Berkeley needn’t undergo a radical transformation to meet these challenges. We can instead recommit to the historical practices that built the vibrant, beautiful, and diverse city we now enjoy. Public transit was central to the development of Berkeley. Over time, the streetcar routes that enabled much of the city’s growth began to evolve into grand boulevards that smoothly transitioned into nearby lower-density neighborhoods. Throughout Berkeley, the cozy coexistence of single-family houses and multi-unit buildings is a testament to this evolution. The ideas that define a forward-looking and more sustainable vision for Berkeley bear remarkable resemblance to the unstated principles that long guided Berkeley’s growth: Concentrate the tallest buildings in the Downtown core, pursue midrise development near transit, and allow two- to four-story buildings on adjacent blocks.

Restoring Berkeley’s traditional growth patterns, however, is not enough; we must also reform the processes and practices that slow down or obstruct the creation of new housing. Accelerated production of new housing alone can’t address all aspects of the crisis, but without it, broad-based affordability will be increasingly out of reach. Under current planning practices, new projects in Berkeley are treated as “guilty until proven innocent.” We must turn this philosophy on its head. Projects that satisfy the City’s zoning regulations, green building standards, and affordable housing requirements should receive speedy approval. If Berkeley truly regards shelter as a human right, we cannot hold new housing hostage to every conceivable objection or impossibly high standards.

Ensuring that housing growth is both graceful and swift means making choices that are informed by evidence and community needs, not fear-mongering and animosity toward newcomers. Once upon a time, the growth of Berkeley was seen as a positive, an opportunity for people to share in the Berkeley dream. City leaders need to hear that you share in this hopeful and open view of Berkeley’s ongoing growth and evolution. I hope you will add your name to Livable Berkeley’s Housing Policy Petition and consider joining us for the City Council meeting on April 5. With your vocal support, we can strengthen the resolve of the City Council and act decisively for housing affordability.

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Eric Panzer is a UC Berkeley graduate with a background in environmental science and city planning, He works for Livable Berkeley, a non-profit whose mission is to promote great governance, environmental sustainability, economic vitality, and equity as the foundation of urban excellence.