Opinion: Berkeley’s approach to the housing crisis doesn’t match its aspirational goals as a ‘progressive’ city

Why ask, as some longer term Berkeley residents and elected officials do, “housing for whom?” if the answer isn’t obviously “everyone!” as it should be?

Walking around Berkeley, I often see a sign with the phrase “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in front of many homes. The message, written in English, Spanish and Arabic, is clearly a response to the despicable immigration policies of the current administration. It’s just a sign, but the welcoming attitude it embodies is critically important and makes me proud to call Berkeley home.

Several recent observations, however, have left me confused with respect to what exactly that sign’s message means to those elected and appointed to run our city.

At a recent City Council meeting that included a contentious agenda item proposing to increase affordable housing fees on developers — against the advice of affordable housing, displacement, and land use experts — council members rhetorically asked “housing for whom?” to explain their resistance to more market-rate housing, seemingly implying that Berkeley only needs to build more housing for low-income people.

I’ve heard this same phrase echoed by commissioners at Zoning Adjustment Board meetings as they demanded more developer concessions (e.g. a higher percentage of subsidized/below-market-rate units) to the point of jeopardizing projects’ overall financial feasibility.

And in Mayor Arreguín’s recent State of the City Address he commented on the recent creation of new homes by saying “when many Berkeley residents see these new buildings going up, they may not see a place for themselves there”. These comments at first may seem innocuous, or even commendable, but I believe they are collectively representative of a misguided, perniciously xenophobic approach to addressing our housing crisis.

The Bay Area is one of the most productive economies in the world and is one of only a few regions in the country with sustained production of middle- and high-wage jobs. For this reason, people from all 50 states and countries all over the world have moved here to earn a living and materially improve their lives. And yet the rhetoric of many longer term city residents and elected officials seems to be “You aren’t welcome here”. Why ask “housing for whom?” if the answer isn’t obviously “everyone!” as it should be? Elected officials proudly cite our city’s status as a “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants. But this seems directly in conflict with the subversive hostility towards new residents that move here only seeking the opportunity to provide a better quality of life for themselves and their families.

This attitude is not harmless. Our anathema to new housing often forces higher income newcomers to compete for scarce housing against lower income residents creating conflict and displacement that diminishes us all. This perverse and completely avoidable competition has pushed many of these opportunity seekers, as well as the service workers, teachers, medical assistants, etc., essential to our economic and civic vitality, to distant East Bay cities, requiring long commutes that induce misery and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. If we openly prioritize the status quo over the wellbeing of these people, whatever their job title or place of origin, we must own up to our hypocrisy and question what we really mean when we label ourselves as “progressive”.

We have three BART stations, each to some degree underdeveloped. We could add a few thousand new market-rate units, as well as several hundred subsidized units, by focusing exclusively on the Adeline corridor surrounding Ashby BART, the surface parking lot at North Berkeley BART and the area defined by the Downtown Plan encompassing the downtown BART station. These developments could easily be planned to significantly reduce or eliminate the need for private car ownership in order to minimize additional traffic while still providing ample access to jobs, cultural events, and amenities. These new homes wouldn’t destroy what’s great about our city, nor would they solve the housing crisis on their own. They would, however, significantly improve several thousand people’s lives, be an act of leadership other cities could follow, and be consistent with values our city claims to and should champion: inclusion, equity, and openness.

But this much needed development won’t happen until we collectively realize that access to our city and the regional economy it is part of is an issue of equity, that this access is diminished by not building enough new housing, and that this choice, and not our rhetoric otherwise, defines our values. We have plenty of room in our city for new residents seeking to better themselves and contribute to our community as taxpayers, neighbors and friends, but I’m not sure we have room in our hearts. And that’s shameful.

Alex Sharenko is a Berkeley resident and works at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab as a research scientist.