Opinion: The case for more housing, from a Berkeley native

I hate to see any changes to the town I grew up in, but I will take high-rise apartment after high-rise apartment if it means we all still get to live here.

By Kevin O'Neill

Kevin O'Neill is a math graduate student at UC Berkeley, member of the Graduate Assembly, and a Berkeley native.

My parents lucked out on the housing market here in Berkeley when they bought a house and moved in during January 1987. They had been outbid, but the winning couple was eager to move in while the previous residents wanted to stay a little longer and so gave it to the next bidder.

Of course, that wasn’t the only luck my parents had with their new purchase. The median price of a single-family home in Berkeley has risen from $256,500 in 1990 to over $1 million today, and rents have skyrocketed as well. So where did that leave me when I returned to Berkeley for grad school in 2013?

The rental market was much tougher than I had expected. After a couple months of searching, my roommate and I finally landed a place in late September, taking advantage of the fact we were both local and could stay elsewhere for a little longer. The place went for the maximum amount we had agreed to spend. Upon signing the lease, I felt the need to apologize to the four Berkeley undergraduates who just missed out and returned to crashing at the apartments of various friends.

Since 2013, the median rent for a two-bedroom in Berkeley has increased significantly, to an amount not even a man as frugal as I can afford on a graduate stipend. Fortunately for me, I live in a rent-controlled building and can still just afford to live here.

But I cannot ignore those who are left behind in our surging housing market.

On the one hand, there are those who have lived here for 40 years and are able to stay, thanks to rent control. Certainly, we must protect those who have made Berkeley the city it is today.

On the other hand, there are the thousands of students who enroll at Berkeley each year, and need to live close enough to campus. The technical term for them is a captive population. Even if we endorse their upcoming projects (we should), the university cannot house all 38,000 students, and so thousands will continue to hit our market each year. While we typically think of new Berkeley residents as being rich, (probably white) families or “tech bros,” most of our housing market consists of students.

As someone who has spent most of his life living in Berkeley, I believe that much of what makes our city so special is the university. It was Berkeley students in the 1960s who channeled our values of liberalism and activism into protests known as the Free Speech Movement. When I was a Berkeley High student, many of the tutors who volunteered on campus were UC Berkeley students. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in times of budgeting crisis, it was the city with a world-class public university that continually voted to raise taxes in support of K-12 education.

I have also always admired the ability of my hometown to see the big picture, to think globally — like when we voted to reduce our carbon emissions 80% by 2050. Whether it benefits our city or not, we always care about others. I say this because many of the students struggling to find housing are first-generation or undocumented immigrants. Say what you will about how the university has struggled on racial diversity after the passage of Proposition 209, but over 30% of students are on Pell Grants and over half pay zero tuition thanks to need-based financial aid. For these reasons, the New York Times described the University of California as an “upward mobility machine.”

In addition to rent control, there are many in Berkeley who believe affordable housing will solve our crisis. Yes, if we are building a new apartment complex we should include affordable housing, but let us not ignore the market rate. If affordable units are cheaper, we help those lucky enough to stay in those units. But if the market rate goes down, we help everyone on the market, including not just long-time residents but the 1 in 5 UC Berkeley students who skips meals to save money. Since many of these students pay zero tuition, it is clear the cause of this financial stress is rent.

I wish we could solve all our housing troubles with rent control and affordable housing and keep Berkeley the way it is, just like the town I grew up in. But if we are going to acknowledge all of what makes our city great, then we have to work towards a housing market that is supportive of newcomers, because most of those newcomers are students. The problem today is not that we have too many people trying to move to Berkeley, it’s that we have too little housing. I hate to see any changes to the town I grew up in, but I will take high-rise apartment after high-rise apartment if it means we all still get to live here.