Opinion: Berkeley neighbors call for housing and climate action

The group is seeking action to dramatically reduce transportation emissions and improve affordability, through revisions to Berkeley’s housing policy.

On this Earth Day 2019, Berkeley faces not one, but two existential crises. Berkeley Neighbors for Housing and Climate Action (BNHCA) has formed to advocate for solutions to both these challenges, and we believe City Councilwoman Lori Droste’s Missing Middle proposal on Tuesday’s council agenda is an excellent first step towards that goal.

It’s clear that climate change is the single greatest threat to our planet. Whether it’s the wildfire smoke we breathed for weeks, the drought we tolerated for years, or the rising sea levels that are eating away at our shoreline, we know the climate is changing here in Berkeley, and across the planet.

We also know that housing here is unaffordable. The rate of homelessness is growing uncontrollably. Middle- and low-income workers have ever-lengthening commutes, young people can’t afford to attend our public university, and Berkeley’s diverse communities are threatened by ever-escalating rents.

These two crises are linked. Cars emit almost sixty percent of Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions. Those transportation emissions are going up, not down, because our restrictive land use policies force thousands of people to travel further to get to jobs, stores, and childcare. And it’s these very same restrictive land use policies that create an artificial shortage of housing, driving prices through the roof.

We have come together as Berkeley Neighbors for Housing and Climate Action in order to advocate for solutions to these interlinked challenges.

We’re calling for bold action to dramatically reduce transportation emissions and improve affordability. We believe the best way to do this is through housing policy, ensuring the creation of affordable homes throughout our city, close to transit and jobs.

It’s clear that our zoning no longer meets the needs of our present-day community. Droste has taken action to change this by asking city staff to study “Missing Middle” housing strategies — strategies that could re-legalize the construction of duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes that already exist in many neighborhoods of our city. These homes are more affordable by design, creating more opportunities for low- and middle-income workers to live in our community, without dramatically changing the feel or lived experience of the neighborhoods many of us call home. Missing Middle zoning alone won’t solve all our affordability issues, but completing this study is an important step.

This progressive housing policy needs to be linked to the right kind of progressive transit policy. The key to a Berkeley with much lower carbon emissions and housing costs is a comprehensive housing and transit plan that prioritizes pedestrians, bikers, and public transit over cars; apartment buildings over parking lots; and duplexes or triplexes over single-family homes. The same gentle, walkable communities that grace Berkeley’s older neighborhoods — and knits together the unique urban fabric we know and love — could once again be built in all our neighborhoods, ensuring a future Berkeley where our children can afford to live and our seniors can age in place.

Berkeley is at the heart of a global metropolis with amazing economic opportunities and home to a world-class public university that serves as a bulwark against income inequality. By building more housing here, where it is most environmentally responsible and urgently needed, Berkeley can be a regional leader in tackling climate change while becoming a more affordable and equitable city for ourselves and future generations. Let’s step up to the challenge of ensuring that Berkeley is inclusive, equitable and sustainable for generations to come – together.

We have an easy first step. For this Earth Day, email your City Council member at council@cityofberkeley.info and tell them you support April 23rd’s Missing Middle proposal, which will study the kinds of policies that might make these gentle walkable communities possible again.

We are Berkeley Neighbors for Housing and Climate Action. Join us at www.bnhca.org and let’s get to work!

Betsy Thagard is a teacher and long-time homeowner in Berkeley and member of South Berkeley Now. Theo Posselt is a Berkeley schools graduate and technology consultant. Alex Sharenko serves on the housing and labor commissions. Ben Gould is a Berkeley native and Cal alum who works as a sustainability analyst. Savlan Hauser is a non-profit community development director and member of the Bateman Neighborhood Association. All are residents of Berkeley.