Opinion: Harness local power to help Berkeley’s housing crisis

Between 2014 and 2017, only 137 units of affordable housing were permitted, while 1,320 market rate units got permits. To correct this imbalance, Berkeley must pass Measure O, increase density & involve community voices.

We all agree the Bay Area is facing a housing crisis, but we don’t always agree on how to solve it.

There’s a flurry of competing narratives, ranging from an eagerness to build anything, anywhere, as quickly as possible — without community or regulatory input — to a rather unwelcoming and unrealistic desire to stop the influx of newcomers and new housing altogether.

I think it’s safe to say the remedy lies somewhere in between. The housing crisis demands a more nuanced conversation about where we build, how we build, and who we are building for.

We should be building within the urban core and near transit to contain sprawl and reduce vehicle emissions. We should build more densely to maximize the number of residential units on each valuable urban parcel. And with the vast majority of housing in the Bay Area already “market rate,” we must concentrate on building housing that meets the growing need for extremely low, very low, low, and middle-income housing.

According to the Berkeley Housing Authority, a two-person household that is considered “very-low income” in Berkeley makes no more than $46,500 a year. “Affordable” for that household would be a monthly rent of $1,162.

To put things into perspective, rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley hovers around $3,800. Who is that affordable to? If monthly rent should be no more than 30% of a family’s gross income, a $3,800 two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley is only affordable to a household making $152,000 a year or more.

Between 2014 and 2017, only 137 units of affordable housing were permitted in Berkeley, while 1,320 permits were issued for units at market rates. So how can we get more affordable housing financed, permitted, and built?

One way Berkeley supports the creation of affordable housing is by requiring builders of market-rate housing to pay an affordable housing fee or to build affordable “in lieu” units on site. Berkeley’s “in lieu” inclusionary housing requirement is for 20% of units to be affordable. Given the extreme need for affordable housing, we should continue to advocate for the highest possible affordable housing fees and in-lieu inclusionary housing requirements, while still assuring that projects are financially feasible — and get built.

Like many Bay Area cities, Berkeley has struggled to obtain the affordable housing funds necessary to build “truly” affordable projects. The best way to ensure large amounts of truly affordable housing is built is to pass local affordable housing bonds and leverage local monies with county, state and federal dollars to build 100% affordable projects. The Berkeley City Council unanimously placed Measure O — a $135 million affordable housing bond — on the November ballot. Vote ‘Yes’ on O to provide funds for non-profit developers and community land trusts to build and preserve affordable housing at extremely, very low, low and moderate income levels. And while you’re at the polls, vote ‘Yes’ on Measure P to provide services for people struggling with homelessness.

Another way to obtain additional housing is to zone for increased density. In the past decade, Berkeley has increased allowable density in the downtown district, but more should be done to allow for increased density in other areas of the city near transit hubs and corridors. Developing housing at the North Berkeley and Ashby BART stations presents another great opportunity to provide housing just steps from bus and rail lines. Let’s push for the highest percentage of affordability possible. Berkeley should also revise its zoning code to reduce complexities and implement new processes to streamline permitting.

These are all tools that the city has at its disposal to help create much needed affordable housing. It’s our job as residents of Berkeley to encourage our city officials to make the most of these tools while respecting community input.

Local control over development either tends to be blamed as the enemy of progress or upheld as the protector of community concerns. A bottom-up approach presents an opportunity to incorporate community needs into the push for sustainable infill development.

On the flip side, local voices can sometimes delay or even derail housing development. Residents who are invested — both literally and figuratively — in their properties and communities can be reluctant or even fearful of change, causing some projects to be challenged, stalled, and shut down. In this climate, defenders of local control for the sake of equity, including affordable housing advocates and community groups concerned about displacement, are too often dismissed as “NIMBYs.”

With the failure to build sufficient housing to meet demand, we are seeing heavy-handed legislation coming down the pike at the state level — including, recently, Senate Bill 827, which would have rezoned large areas around transit and overridden local control over land use. Rezoning to allow denser development near transit is an important step forward, but without proper protections and community input, vulnerable communities can be severely hurt. Although SB827 died in its first committee hearing, it will surely be back in a new form.

The best way to counter cries for state-level legislation that would override community input is for cities to demonstrate that they have the political will to create affordable transit-oriented development. Let’s harness our local power to increase housing in ways that support existing communities and ensure equitable access to housing. We need to show up at Zoning Board and City Council meetings and say ‘Yes!’ to projects that increase housing in Berkeley while providing deep affordability and community benefits. We need to listen to communities feeling the pressure of speculative displacement and advocate for more inclusionary and not-for-profit housing to be built — quickly.

Local power is a right and a privilege. Let’s put it to good use.

Julia Foote is an organizer with the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter located in Berkeley.