Opinion: Berkeley needs a new housing policy that works for the many, not just for the few

It is not true that asking developers to pay higher fees will kill their incentive to build. Just look at all the cranes out there.

By Sheila Jordan

Sheila Jordan is the recently retired Superintendent of Schools of Alameda County. She is a Berkeley resident.

The heart of Eric Panzer’s op-ed is his belief that “Berkeley’s housing policies have been working.” The huge gap in his article is that he does not ask, “For whom?” Berkeley’s housing policies have opened the door to an over-abundance of luxury developments. The same policies have starved housing opportunities for everyone else. Homeowners may sit on inflated equities, but their children and grandchildren cannot afford to rent or purchase homes nearby. People working average jobs balance their lives on the brink of eviction, while many have been economically expelled from the community. Are Berkeley’s housing policies working? Ask the families who are systematically pushed out to Brentwood and must commute into the town they used to live in; ask our teachers who can’t hope to find a place they can afford to live in; ask the students bunking up like in a gulag; ask the young adults working gig jobs and couch-surfing; ask the homeless.

Berkeley needs a new housing policy that works for the many, not just for the few. The key items before the City Council on June 13 are far from ideal. It is deplorable that affordable housing (“Below Market Rate” or BMR) has to be carved out at knifepoint from luxury developments. It would be far better for the required volume of affordable housing to be built on its own because the community needs it; but that would require federal and redevelopment money, which was shut down already years ago and is not coming back soon. And so we are left with the Robin Hood option: take from the rich and distribute to the poor. That, plus some transfer tax and U1 bond money. It isn’t enough to build all the housing needed. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a strong start.

Panzer argues that we need more studies. Really?? Unfortunately, this bureaucratic response seems nothing more than a transparent attempt to stall off housing reform that the city desperately needs. It also acts as a direct assault against the new Mayor and council members who were elected to move quickly to solve the critical shortage of affordable housing options and are working hard to solve the multiple issues before them. Housing economics is not rocket science. The fee amounts that are being asked are based on an exhaustive study that Panzer does not challenge, except to argue that the information is dated. True. The existing fees are based on rent levels and housing values of three years ago. Good point, but not for his argument. Both rents and values are substantially higher today, and so should the fees be.

Panzer and others argue that the fees asked of developers are liable to kill their incentive to build. The cranes and Ready-mix trucks running all over Berkeley refute this boilerplate argument, which is trotted out whenever the haves are asked to contribute their share to the common welfare. In today’s overheated market, developers and new development owners are making more; so they should pay more. It’s only fair.