With zoning and neighbor veto power, Berkeley is pricing out the non-rich, says author of new book

Most construction of new housing in Berkeley is happening downtown, like Parker Place on Shattuck Avenue. Randy Shaw says apartments must be built in residential neighborhoods, among other approaches, if Berkeley is to overcome its scarcity of housing affordable to the working and middle classes. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

In 1980, after being active in tenants’ rights in Berkeley, Randy Shaw opened up the Tenderloin Housing Clinic which has evolved into San Francisco’s leading provider of housing for homeless single adults. The THC’s legal team has fought hundreds of Ellis Act and other types of evictions for people whose landlords wanted to kick them out of their rent-controlled or low-cost housing.

During his 40 years as a housing activist, Shaw has also watched as governments punted their obligations to ensure there was housing for all residents, not just those who can afford to pay the highest rents. The Bay Area now has one of the country’s worst jobs/housing imbalances. In 2017, the region added 52,700 jobs but only 14,900 housing units. The median value for a home in Berkeley is more than $1 million, according to Zillow, and the average monthly rent of a one-bedroom apartment is $2,296, according to Rent Jungle.

“When did it become acceptable for America’s politically progressive and culturally diverse cities to price out the non-rich?” — Randy Shaw

“When did it become acceptable for America’s politically progressive and culturally diverse cities to price out the non-rich?” Shaw writes in his new book, Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America, just published by UC Press. “And why are progressive cities — those that back minimum-wage hikes, LGBTQ rights, health care for all, and greater racial and gender equity — allowing and often promoting increased housing inequality? … Cities must act far more urgently to stop the pricing out of working-and middle-class residents.”

Shaw, a Berkeley resident, will be talking about his book at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29 at Books, Inc. at 1491 Shattuck Ave.


In the book, Shaw examines the roots of housing inequality around the U.S. and provides a blueprint for how cities can make sure that artists, teachers, restaurant workers and others can continue to live in ever-more-expensive locales. A combination of approaches is needed, Shaw writes.

Cities must allow the construction of more housing and must mandate that new complexes contain a percentage of affordable units. (Berkeley currently requires that 20% of the units in any project be set aside for affordable housing or that developers pay a $37,962-per-unit in lieu fee. Cities must also push for new housing aimed at low-income residents. Permit regulations must be streamlined so new projects don’t face years and years of delay. Single homeowners should not be able to block a project, as they can in San Francisco, writes Shaw. There also must be stronger protection for tenants, including providing public funds to fight off Ellis Act and unjust evictions. Zoning laws need to be changed to allow higher density in single-family-home-zoned neighborhoods, Shaw says.

Shaw also examines where the crisis began. He believes that neighborhood preservation groups — such as the ones that formed after Berkeley passed its pioneering Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance in 1973 — must assume some of the blame for the rising housing prices that are squeezing out artists, teachers and others.

Neighborhood activists routinely fight against the construction of apartment complexes because they say it will change the character of an area. But since cities are mostly made of up neighborhoods, that approach means not much housing can be built, argues Shaw. Those who already own homes benefit as their property values soar. But people trying to break into home ownership are squeezed out of places like Berkeley when the home prices are so high.

“Decades of misguided land-use policies have plunged urban America into a deep affordability crisis,” Shaw writes.

Shaw argues that things are changing as new YIMBY, or “Yes in my Backyard,” groups, mostly made up of millennials who are impacted by inflated housing costs, are fighting NIMBY, or “No in My Backyard” groups made up of mostly home-owning baby boomers. But until apartment buildings are allowed in neighborhoods like the Elmwood or Thousand Oaks in Berkeley there won’t be a significant change, says Shaw.

Berkeleyside caught up with Shaw in advance of his Nov. 29 appearance at Books, Inc.

Dec. 2 marks the second anniversary of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland that killed 36 people. You said that fire inspired you to write this book. Why?

I was inspired to write this book after the Ghost Ship fire because the death of 36 people in a legally uninhabitable Oakland warehouse said to me that there was something very wrong with how our progressive Bay Area cities — Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco — have priced out the next generation of the non-rich. Oakland was always the affordable alternative to San Francisco and now artists and bohemians could not even afford safe housing in that city. I ended up expanding the book beyond the Bay Area as I realized that working and middle-class people were now being priced out of nearly all of the nation’s progressive cities, with Seattle, Portland, Austin and much of Los Angeles now joining Oakland in the ranks of cities whose longtime affordability has been lost.

You write that cities must act more urgently to stop the pricing out of working and middle-class residents. You write that the neighborhood preservation groups that rose up in the 1970s to stop the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods done in the name of urban renewal are now major impediments to building new housing. Can you describe how these groups work to prevent the creation of housing in Berkeley? What are the obstacles in Berkeley to creating more housing?

Berkeley puts housing developers into a labyrinth of public hearings and appeals that either kills projects or makes them less affordable. I describe in the book the senior housing on Sacramento Street, and the three-unit Haskell Street project on a site zoned for four where neighborhood opposition subjected the developers to years of costly delays. Neighborhood opposition to increased height and density on Berkeley’s major transit thoroughfares of University and San Pablo has restricted housing options for millennials. The same is true with the longtime opposition to housing on the North Berkeley BART parking lot, which took a state law to overcome.

I recall a “How Berkeley Can You Be” parade from over a decade ago where protesters harassed Barbara Lee the entire parade route because she supported a housing development on San Pablo. Neighbors sufficiently delayed the project so that by the time it finally got approved, the developer lost its financing. The proceedings at the Zoning Adjustments Board and City Council on project approvals are unheard of in Seattle because the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance made Berkeley’s housing process about promoting neighborhood input and giving veto power to neighbors over what gets built. Promoting inclusion and racial diversity by adding housing units has been a subordinate concern.

Berkeley has been adding more housing, although most of it is at the high end. Since 2014, about 1,435 units have been built or are being built in the city. In September 2017, the city noted that building permits had not yet been issued for another 1,134 units that had already been approved. That same report noted that Berkeley hadn’t issued any permits for units for those with “moderate” incomes (80% to 120% of the area median income) or extremely low income (30% area median income) goals. How does a city encourage the construction of housing for teachers and other middle-class workers?

I think the development numbers for Berkeley can be misleading as most of the new housing is built along Shattuck and in proximity to downtown. You will find few families with children living in such housing, which is heavily occupied by students and recent grads. When you think how your family, mine and so many others raised families with kids in Berkeley, I do not see similar opportunities for the non-rich families to live in the housing that fits a family of four or more. Nearly all houses in Berkeley now go for over $1 million, and Berkeley prices are far closer to San Francisco’s than when we bought our house in Berkeley in 1989. Berkeley should upzone all of its single-family zoned neighborhoods to allow new apartments and should raise heights and densities on University, San Pablo, Solano and Telegraph.

In Berkeley, housing increasingly comes down to a battle between baby boomers and millennials. The boomers, you write, already own houses and fight to stop the development of apartment complexes in residential neighborhoods. The millennials fight to put more housing everywhere and have earned the sobriquet YIMBY. Yet the market-rate projects they support are derided as “luxury housing.” Can these two approaches be reconciled?

I see boomer homeowners dominating the opposition to new housing, and a new millennial generation finally offering a long overdue pro-housing counterbalance. Groups like East Bay for Everyone are equalizing what has long been a one-sided, boomer-dominated debate.

I look at what’s being built along Shattuck and in the downtown area and none of it fits my definition of “luxury housing.” You do not have wealthy people living in even the most expensive of these units. The true luxury housing in Berkeley is in its single-family homes. I cannot recall a home in North Berkeley being offered for under $1 million since a house on Vine went on the market for $870,000 and sold for $1.4 million two years ago. Nothing stops Berkeley from following San Francisco’s lead in building teacher housing. And if fourplexes were allowed in the Elmwood, Thousand Oaks and the rest of the city, you would see more opportunities for families of moderate incomes to get housing. 

Prop 10, which would have repealed Costa Hawkins and allowed cities to impose more tenant protections, like eliminating vacancy control, failed badly in the November 2018 election. Do you think the incoming legislature will regard that loss as a mandate to punt on rental reforms or will it look at ways to keep rents lower? If the legislature does the latter, what steps might it take?

I see no prospect of a legislative deal on Costa Hawkins. Realtors have never agreed to weaken a single sentence of Costa Hawkins. They certainly will not do so after Prop 10’s defeat. And many forget that if the legislature were to pass a Costa Hawkins bill over realtor objections, realtors would do a referendum. So any change to Costa Hawkins will have to come from voters, one way or another. I think tenants have a good chance to pass Ellis Act reform in 2019, as incoming Governor Newsom supports the reform bill that narrowly failed in 2014.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to remove a sentence that said Oakland did not mandate inclusionary housing. Oakland requires a fee, but not that developers include a certain percentage of housing.