Opinion: Berkeley housing policy has failed the people who need the most help

The bulk of the housing built in Berkeley from 2014-2017 has been for the well-to-do. Berkeley must reverse course and build for those who need help the most.

What’s happening with Berkeley’s vicious housing squeeze? In October, Berkeley tallied up new housing construction authorized from 2014 to 2017, presenting the numbers in a “report card.” Unfortunately, the numbers show that the city gets an F in housing equity.

Why? Translating numbers into pictures shows what has gone horribly wrong. Berkeley’s “pie” of new housing built from 2014-2017 has been eaten almost entirely by the upper class, leaving crumbs for low to moderate-income residents.

Although the city has added 1,429 housing units between January 2014 and September 2017, only 10% of those units serve the people who need the most help. 90% of new units have been designed and priced for people with an income of 120% (or more!) above the city’s median annual income. The city’s building permits have prioritized the upper classes at the expense of working people.

This is not just a failure to meet the city’s housing goals. It is willful neglect of the people who are hurting the most. It ignores the common-sense principle of triage used in every hospital emergency room: treat the life-threatening injuries – the people who are bleeding or gasping for air – before you deal with less severe problems.

The harsh truth is that for years now, Berkeley’s housing permit process has prioritized “tummy tucks” and elective surgeries before putting vulnerable people on life-support.

Many people will object to this analogy. “Don’t the economically privileged deserve housing, too?” Of course. And, being economically privileged, they have many options and resources available to take care of their housing needs. The moneyed classes can rent fashionable temporary homes from Airbnb. They can afford “Extended Stay” corporate hotel rooms. They can pay property management fees. They are far more likely to have professional networks of wealthy people who own or know about rental properties. They have many more options than the poor.

In fact, we need to know if some of the rich people who acquired these new units are living in them only part-time, while renting them on Airbnb for a profit.

This raises another question: How many new units are designed for working parents with children? Housing developers want profit, so they like to build chic 1- or 2-bedrooms for well-heeled single professionals. If you ask working-class parents with children what it’s like to try to rent housing in the Bay Area, they’ll tell you it’s close to impossible. Many are living out of cars because they don’t have homes.

The city of Berkeley needs to face its own facts and prioritize the needs of people whose income falls below the median of $66,237. It’s an error to assume that increasing housing stock, in general, will solve the crisis – not in the current winner-take-all economic system tearing our society apart, where the global rich buy property as speculative investments instead of homes. The city must adhere to the common-sense principle of triage. Focus on decent housing for those who have been suffering the most.

According to The Daily Californian, “the city plans to address the low-income issue by requiring that 20% of new housing be… low-income units.” But that’s not adequate – or equitable — at all. Look at the data: 90% of new housing has gone to the economically privileged. Reducing that number to 80% in the future is still giving crumbs to the poor. Since 50% of people make less than the median income, at least 50% of all construction – past, present, and future – should be serving their needs.

The rich ate 90% of the Berkeley housing pie created between 2014 and 2017. Now we need to make a new pie and give it all to the people who have been starving for housing.

A writer, scholar, and teacher, Elizabeth Davis has been a long-time resident of the East Bay and earned her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley.