Opinion: Build housing on BART’s lots to create a climate-friendly, walkable, and affordable Berkeley

The memorandum of understanding the City Council will sign with BART will make 35% of the housing affordable

On Tuesday, we will choose if we want to create a climate-friendly, walkable, and affordable Berkeley centered around low emission transportation, or if our streets will forever remain crowded with cars and houses ever more unaffordable, which is Berkeley’s current trajectory.

The Berkeley City Council will consider passing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) sponsored by Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilmembers Rashi Kesarwani and Ben Bartlett. The MOU will outline the council’s commitment with the BART district towards building housing at both North Berkeley and Ashby BART station parking lots. There will be 35% affordable housing at the sites and better station access.

It’s imperative that everyone concerned about the housing crisis in Berkeley, the increase in homelessness, and the declining diversity of the city show up and support both MOUs as proposed by the three councilmembers, as written.

When BART was built in Berkeley during the late 1960s, Ashby and North Berkeley saw homes bulldozed to make way for the parking lots and subways. Since then, the regional economy has driven population growth in the Bay Area that has far outpaced Berkeley’s minimal housing production between the 1970s and the 1990s.

As a fourth-generation Berkeleyan, who grew up four blocks south of North Berkeley BART station, I’ve witnessed the process of gentrification and unaffordability that ravages the city. Since the 1990s, homes once occupied by working-class residents, African-Americans residents like my own family, have left Berkeley. Single-family homes near North Berkeley and Ashby BART stations now cost well over a million dollars. The same old bungalows that once housed working-class Black and brown families are now only available to millionaires and the well-off, who engage in vicious bidding wars to secure once-affordable homes. These trends are predictable as shown by recently published research. “Anti-density  zoning  and  local  opposition  to  development predict more  exclusive  jurisdictions with fewer Black and Hispanic residents and fewer blue-collar workers, relative to the areas in the surrounding metropolitan area.” (Page 16). But we don’t need a study to see that South Berkeley is ever more resembling Claremont or Rockridge.

Very few of the service workers in my North Berkeley neighborhood actually live in Berkeley. I’ve chatted with the employees at Safeway for years, and I know most of them do not live here. Many commute as far away as 20 miles, waking up at 4 a.m. and commuting into the city to serve us coffee in the morning. As a child, I would play the bongos at the Ashby Flea Market, and even today I still visit nearly every weekend. The flea market struggles now that much of the Black community that frequented it has moved away. Businesses along Adeline suffer from the same issue.

Today, despite Berkeley’s population recently exceeding the previous record of 113,805 in 1950 by a mere 8,519 additional residents, the city is gridlocked by neverending traffic. Nearly all of the traffic is clustered around Ashby, Gilman, Shattuck and University, the roads entering the city from the freeway. Many of these commuters are workers, who live with their families in areas where housing on the market is cheaper further away from their employment.

On BART, while the North Berkeley station is the second least-used station on the Richmond-line (4,273-weekday users in 2019), El Cerrito del Norte (8,091-weekday users) station is the second-highest used. Del Norte station is notably the transit hub of all West Contra Costa and Solano county suburban commuter bus lines and has exceeded capacity. These ever-longer commutes not only have an environmental toll but a severe psychological one.

It’s time we reverse this housing and climate crisis. Transportation, largely by private cars clustered on our street, accounts for 60% of Berkeley’s emissions (Climate Action Plan, Page 2). The most recent United Nations Emissions Gap report states a chief way to reduce emissions and meet the Paris temperature target is putting denser housing in urban areas. (Page 58-59). Building housing beside BART will not only reduce car dependency but will enhance the character of the neighborhood because ultimately it’s people, working-class, families, seniors and the young, socializing people, that make neighborhood character.

It’s also important that we pay attention to the total number of affordable homes. Most 100% affordable housing projects require taxpayer funds to build between 20-90 low-income homes. In the queue for public funding for affordable housing is the Berkeley Way project, several other recently approved projects, and the exciting BUSD housing proposal. We don’t want to waste Measure O funds taxpayers generously voted for, just to finance a small number of homes at a higher cost which would jeopardize other 100% affordable projects that haven’t secured funding. The city gave a financing example of how a hypothetical project at 26% affordable, would produce 201 low-income homes out of 773 homes at North Berkeley BART, achievable with a developer paying for low-income homes built by an affordable housing nonprofit

More housing, both affordable and market, ensures low-income residents stop being priced out of existing housing by new residents, per the UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project.

“Both market-rate and subsidized housing reduce displacement at the regional level, yet subsidized housing has over double the impact of market-rate unit,” the project reads on page 3.

We need to ensure the total number of affordable housing is the highest number we can get, at a time when Berkeley’s homeless population (1,000 – 2,000 homeless, city pop: 120,000) has exceeded Tokyo’s (570 homeless, city pop: 9.6 million).

The MOU and the community advisory commission should start a project that not only reduces the housing and congestion burden in the city, but also protects the Flea Market for generations to come, and ensures better access to North Berkeley BART from neighborhoods in the hills.

If the status-quo bothers you, join North Berkeley Now, South Berkeley Now, and your neighbors on December 10th at the City Council chambers, and let’s start the community process to build housing at our BART stations.

 Darrell Owens is a housing activist with East Bay for Everyone, a pro-housing organization, and a is a fourth-generation resident of Berkeley. He is also a data analyst for California Yimby, but the organization was not involved with this op-ed.