Opinion: What Elisa Cooper taught me about the history of the affordable housing shortage

The Council is reneging on its 2006 pledge to divert all excess property taxes into an affordable housing fund. In 2017, $7M went into the Capital Improvement budget instead.

By Isabelle Gaston

Isabelle Gaston sits on the board of the North East Berkeley Association (NEBA).

Until recently, Berkeley had a dedicated revenue stream for affordable housing – Elisa was determined to restore it.

First, I want to express my condolences to Elisa’s family, all of her many friends in South Berkeley and throughout the city and beyond. (See the Berkeleyside article on Cooper and her unexpected death).

I was not a personal friend of Elisa’s, but as a frequent City Council watcher, I always listened closely to what she had to say. As someone recently remarked, Elisa had many pearls of wisdom.

Elisa and I sat next to each other several times at council and meetings of the Berkeley Neighborhoods Council. The last time I saw her was back in March, at the City Council, when she kindly offered to give me her two minutes so that I could speak about the city’s finances. I greatly appreciated that.

Elisa reached out to me several times over the years regarding the budget, infrastructure (she felt that South Berkeley would not receive its fair share of Measure T1 money), the container housing proposal, and a few other issues. During the 2016 election, I invited her to speak in favor of Measure U1 at a North East Berkeley Association debate but she declined; she said she wasn’t a good public speaker.

What impressed me about Elisa was her knowledge of city finances. She kept a keen eye on the budget. Although we did not see eye to eye on everything, we shared a similar concern about how limited resources were being spent, and because of that, I held her in high regard.

Transfer tax policy, affordable housing, and the Housing Trust Fund

What I will remember most about Elisa was her stating at numerous council meetings how the property transfer tax had been increased by 0.5% in 1990 for the purpose of providing a steady revenue stream for affordable housing – but then the revenue was diverted to the General Fund during the Great Recession – and never restored.

She saw this retreat as a major contributing factor to the lack of affordable housing in Berkeley. In fact, she once commented in one of my Berkeleyside op-eds, “What we need is a grand jury to shed light on what is happening with the General Fund.”

I now wonder whether she hoped the new progressive majority would open its eyes and revisit the transfer tax policy, and that was why she kept repeating it at the council.

She wrote me an email once to thank me for my analyses on the decline of Berkeley’s infrastructure for it helped her with her own analyses. Yesterday, with her on my mind, I pulled up some old budgets on the City’s website (only budgets dating back to 2005 are online).

Sure enough, Elisa was absolutely right, “excess transfer tax” was to be prioritized for affordable housing. As clearly stated in the FY2006/2007 budget, page 6:

Recognizing that one-time revenue may either come in higher or low, the budget will be adjusted accordingly. If the City receives more Transfer Tax revenue than currently anticipated, priority spending will be in the following areas:

Affordable Housing

Economic Development Investments

Street Repair

Efficiency Investments

The take home message is that Elisa recognized that the city had once provided for a “reliable stream” of revenue for affordable housing through its raising the amount collected in property transfer taxes – but then reneged on this commitment during the economic downturn. She was determined to see this policy corrected.

It is difficult to discern in the budgets exactly how much transfer tax revenue was actually put towards affordable housing or the HTF in the last 12 years (I’m sure Elisa had the numbers) but this is the best I can ascertain:

  • In 2005, the transfer tax was $13.7 million and the excess (above $10.5 million) was $3.2 million; that year, $2.3 million was designated for affordable housing presumably from the transfer tax and other sources. Comparable amounts were set aside in 2006, 2007, and 2008; however, it is unclear from budget documents exactly where the money came from.
  • Property transfer tax dropped to less than $10.5 million in 2009 through 2012 due to the recession. From what I could glean, the last year any transfer tax money may have been put into the housing trust fund was in 2011 ($500,000).
  • In the 2014/2015 budget, there is an unambiguous policy change: there was no mention of using excess transfer taxes to prioritize affordable housing rather, all excess transfer taxes would support capital infrastructure needs.
  • By 2016, the transfer tax was $17.5 million – higher than before the economic downturn – and the excess (above $10.5 million) was $7 million; none of the $7 million was set aside for affordable housing. A similar amount of transfer taxes was projected for 2017.
Berkeley Property Transfer Tax. Info: City of Berkeley

Some of Elisa’s last comments at the Council were on May 2nd. As she did so many times in the past, she told the council how much it “bothered” her that the excess transfer tax was not being used for affordable housing as was its intended purpose.

She also said what a “disgrace” it is to use in-lieu fees for the housing trust fund (“too tiny” and “unstable”); her displeasure with the $800,000 loan to the City Manager to purchase a new house; and her disapproval of the $3+ million for rebuilding Tuolumne Camp (see 1:44:44 minutes).

There is more I could say about Elisa (entirely different topics such as her great ideas about improving hiring practices in Berkeley) but I will leave it for her friends and family who knew her best. I was just a fellow City Council attendee who admired her intelligence and guts.

I had only recently learned that Elisa had a serious illness and was living in pain. It makes her work all the more remarkable. Elisa will be remembered as an outstanding woman who touched so many lives, including my own.