Gwendolyn Downs spent years working as a nurse in Alameda County. But when she retired, she found that her retirement income prevented her from even renting her own apartment in Berkeley. She also watched her elderly, but otherwise healthy friends be put into convalescent homes because it was the only place they could go besides the streets.
As leaders of local housing organizations, we hear these kinds of stories every day. They are heartbreaking and demoralizing. Gwendolyn, her friends and many other lower-income Bay Area residents are victims of a tech boom that has doubled housing prices. There has been insufficient new construction going back three decades. The state and federal governments have also made deep cuts to housing subsidies. Taken together, those have created a humanitarian crisis.
Luckily, this November, Berkeley residents have a chance to do something meaningful to invest in and uplift our community for decades to come. Similar to measures recently passed in Emeryville, Oakland and Alameda County, Measure O is a bond measure that would generate $135 million to immediately begin building housing for people who cannot afford to live in our community, despite having a job (or in many cases, two or more jobs.) These are people like the barista who whips up your latte each morning, the preschool teacher who educates your child and the electrician you’ve come to rely on when something needs fixing.
The city of Berkeley has been pushing ahead with building below market rate housing in recent years, but progress has been slower than we need because of two simple reasons: most for-profit developers are not interested in building this type of housing (Developers are required to make 20% of the units in a building affordable or pay a $38,000 per unit affordable housing mitigation fee, with the vast majority opting for the latter) and municipalities lack the funds to do it alone.
Despite the hurdles, Berkeley has recently purchased a block-wide parcel at University and Ninth Street formerly known as the Premier Cru building. The city plans to create affordable housing there at some point, hopefully similar to the 42-unit Harper Crossing senior apartments built last year in South Berkeley where Gwendolyn now lives. It’s also launching a program that would allow nonprofit developers to purchase or lease land owned by religious organizations and/or nonprofits for affordable housing. And it has already laid out plans for a development at Berkeley Way. That complex would create 89 units of affordable housing in one downtown building and 53 studios of permanent supportive housing in another, along with,32 shelter beds, 12 transitional units for veterans and a community kitchen to serve people now on the streets, among other amenities.
Measure O would expedite these and other projects and allow Berkeley to make good on its promise to build more deeply affordable housing, something that 84% of Berkeley residents say they support.
Most importantly, Measure O would allow Berkeley to leverage affordable housing funds available from the state and Alameda County. Doing so could turn $135 million into $500 million that could be used to create the new, below-market housing in Berkeley that is so sorely needed. Competition for county and state funds is stiff, and with only $3.5 million currently in the Housing Trust Fund for a local match, Berkeley does not always look like the most desirable candidate for state and county funds. Measure O funds will make Berkeley more competitive. Without the bond, these funds will go to other cities.
The best part is that since the money is raised through a bond measure, it is earmarked specifically for the development of affordable housing and can be used for nothing else. The funds will be subject to rigorous citizen oversight and audited each year, ensuring that they are spent as intended.
While Measure O aims to create more permanently affordable housing, Measure P would generate revenue to help house our community members who are facing homelessness, 70 percent of whom were previously housed in Alameda County, according to recent surveys. Since it would bump up the transfer tax on homes sold for $1.5 million or more from 1.5% to 2.5%, most residents would never pay this fee. Instead, it asks the wealthiest among us, who have seen large increases in the value of their properties over the past decade, to invest back in our community and support our most vulnerable.
The $6 million to $8 million generated annually through Measure P will be used to help house homeless youth, the formerly incarcerated and others who need a leg up if we ever want them to be contributing members of our society. It would help fund rental subsidies and create housing for people on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, such as those making below $27,000 a year. Finally, it could generate funds for navigation centers where people can receive wrap-around services such as treatment for addiction, mental health counseling and help finding a job, and which been found to have a high rate of success in keeping people off the streets.
Money raised by Measure P would be overseen by a panel, the same way proceeds from the sugary beverage tax Berkeley voters approved in 2014 are being monitored. This group would recommend funding for homeless services to the City Council and make sure the money is spent appropriately.
We all win when more people have a roof over their heads. Children do better in school when they aren’t worried about where they are going to sleep at night because they have been priced out of our city, and crime is reduced when people don’t feel like they have little to lose.
We urge the community to show compassion and real empathy for those around us by voting YES on O and P. Because one of these days, it just might be you who is asking for help.