Op-ed: No on Measure R isn’t nearly enough

I am thrilled that we voted 3 to 1 to defeat Measure R, and that the building of new housing in downtown Berkeley will continue. Let’s build on this momentum, and get serious about addressing the massive housing shortage in our community that is hitting working families hard. Downtown is great, but we have to do an order of magnitude more to bring supply and demand into balance.

Only 18% of Alameda County families can afford to buy the average home. In San Francisco the average rent is a staggering 46% of the average household income. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a family must earn $37.62/hour to afford the average 2 bedroom in San Francisco, and $30.35 to rent a 2 bedroom in the “affordable” East Bay. And the trend line is pointing way up.

For folks who want an overview of how we got in this situation, I highly recommend this article from back in April. It’s a long read and has a SF/tech industry perspective, but the dynamics discussed here apply to the whole Bay Area. A few of the takeaways that I think are particularly pertinent to Berkeley:

  1. Most voters (and politicians) have a strong incentive for keeping the status quo. For homeowners like me, a housing shortage means your home price appreciates. Free money! And for tenants in rent controlled units, increases in housing supply won’t reduce their rents since they’re not subject to the market. So politicians don’t have much of a constituency for building a lot more housing. Meanwhile, the folks who are forced to live further and further away and commute to service jobs here don’t get to vote in our elections.
  2. Some “progressives” don’t believe in supply and demand. I’ve heard this at parties and online – people who say “the new condos are just for rich people”, or think that pro-development policies are a front for greedy real estate interests. Then there are the folks who have pet theories about how housing economics really work, which can feel eerily like talking with climate deniers. It’s actually pretty simple Econ 101 stuff – the rich folks will be at the front of the line no matter what, and if you don’t build the condos they’ll just take over middle-class housing. Build more housing and at least the line gets longer.
  3. Well-off homeowners don’t like increased housing density. I get it. More traffic is annoying. It’s nice to have quiet, tree lined streets that feel safe for kids. When you buy a house you feel like you bought the neighborhood as it was, and don’t want big changes that will impact your quality of life. As a result, well-to-do homeowners often fight hard against new housing, as we saw in San Francisco where Proposition B jeopardized nearly 4,000 new housing units and $124 million in affordable housing fees, and was funded primarily by a single wealthy couple that live in a nearby condo complex.

All of these things make sense, but they’re not “progressive” — they’re making it impossible for working people to live here. The good news is that this is an area where local leadership has a lot of power to make a difference. This is not like climate change and corporate personhood and other issues that Berkeley likes to spend time on but doesn’t have a ton of control over. We are in charge here, and can make a major impact without raising taxes. A few ideas:

  1. Start a city-wide up-zoning effort. Downtown is a great model. Let’s look at the whole city, not just one neighborhood, and have a discussion about where to allow for more housing density. When you look at things at a project or neighborhood level, folks tend to say things like “I’m all for more development, but this is the wrong place for it” without having to get into the tricky details of where the right place is. Yes, housing is a regional issue, but the authority to make these changes is local. Let’s be a model.
  2. Use these incentives to increase the city’s stock of subsidized housing. Again, build on the downtown plan model and make sure the new buildings include new units set aside for low-income families, or pay in-lieu fees to the city’s affordable housing fund.
  3. Use truly inclusive planning processes. It’s an open secret in Berkeley that our beloved public participation processes are dominated by a small group of people who have lots of spare time, but don’t necessarily reflect the views of the rest of the community. Let’s make sure we structure this upzoning effort so that working families with kids can actually participate! These are the folks who are currently getting the short end of the stick, and they can’t participate when meetings are during bedtime or don’t offer childcare like PTA meetings do.

I promise, this isn’t just about building condos for Google employees, or a cover for a sinister plot by greedy real estate developers — it’s basic economics. Affordable housing is great, but market rate housing helps working people too, and we need it all. As UC Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti recently said in the Washington Post, “People are marching against Google buses when they should be marching for more housing permits.” If you don’t believe me, just head over to campus and talk to the academics yourself. You can even bring one of your conservative friends to chat with a climate scientist while you’re there.

It’s time to be honest with ourselves about the impact of the status quo on the folks who can no longer afford to live here, folks who tend to be low-income people of color. We need to ask whether we are willing to make some personal sacrifices in terms of housing density to lessen that impact. Personally I think the benefits will greatly outweigh the sacrifices, in terms of greater economic vitality; more restaurants, shops and services within walking distance; maintaining the economic, racial and cultural diversity of our community; and reduced pressure on suburban sprawl.

We have a choice – we can build a ton more housing of all types, or we can stand by as Berkeley becomes a playground for the wealthy like San Francisco is becoming. In Berkeley we think of ourselves as progressive leaders. So let’s lead.

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related, local authors are preferred, and we don’t publish anonymous pieces. Email submissions to editors@berkeleyside.com. The recommended length is 500-800 words. Please include your name and a one-line bio that includes full, relevant disclosures. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

Zach Franklin lives in South Berkeley with his wife and two daughters, and has a degree in economics and history from Brown University and a professional background in affordable housing.