Opinion: Lower rents are needed to prevent more displacement in Berkeley

Thousands of Berkeley residents are on the brink of being displaced, and my wife and I are among them, but I am hopeful the city won’t let me down.

A June 28 article in Berkeleyside reported that thousands of Berkeley residents have been displaced by excessive rents. Thousands more are on the brink of being displaced, and my wife and I are among them.

We spend more than 45% of our monthly income toward a $2,705 rent payment. For many reasons, we hold out hope that our rent can be lowered so that we can feel economically stable enough to plan on making Berkeley our future home.

First, we have applied for and are being considered for a Below Market Rate (BMR) unit in our apartment complex. This is not guaranteed, but we are hopeful that we have met the criteria for this program and our manager certifies this.

Second, we take comfort in reading that community groups and lawmakers at the state and municipal levels have instituted new laws and proposals that promote lower rent. Tenant activists, for example, have introduced a ballot measure for November that could repeal the so-called Costa Hawkins law that prevents municipalities from instituting rent control or capping rent for buildings constructed after 1995.

The cities of Concord and Fremont have established rent control boards that require landlords to formally justify rent increases. Oakland has adopted a petition policy that allows tenants to petition a city housing agency to lower the rent if the tenant shows that the landlord has failed to adequately provide adequate property maintenance, adequate security, insufficient office and maintenance staffing, and other services.

Third, we are hopeful that Berkeley politicos will do more to better keep middle-class renters from homelessness or displacement to another city.

While the city government is correct in emphasizing homelessness as a priority, they should enhance their efforts to focus on the middle-class part of the housing issue. Failing to do so has helped increase the rate of homelessness among middle-income folks. The city should expand the scope of the BMR program by requiring landlords to automatically lower a tenant’s rent if it exceeds more than one-third of a tenant’s income. Another criteria for lowering rent could include the basic services included in the Oakland petitioning process described above.

Failing the above, it would be admirable if the city government adopted some other similar measures that encourage lower rents and/or provide some form of subsidy for middle-income renters because the current laissez-faire approach is not working. This approach — which claims that building more housing will encourage more affordable housing as landlords continue charging as much as $3,400 for a one-bedroom unit on the rationale that that is the market rate caused by the demand of high-salaried tech workers — is flawed.

Not everyone is a tech worker and, even if they were, city officials need to ask if they truly believe in advocating for the so-called missing middle-income renters, at what point does the market rate theory become impractical? At the point of displacing households like mine that make $68,000 in annual net income? Or those making $80,000 or $100,000?

I have always and continue to believe that Berkeley city leaders will ultimately do everything they can to keep Berkeley the “dream city” it was once described as in the early 20th century, a city where people of all classes including the middle class thrived. Only time will tell.

Sam Cacas is a writer who lives with his wife in downtown Berkeley.