Opinion: Berkeley can and should speed up affordable housing construction

It could happen if there was ministerial review and as-of-right permitting, along with increased density.

When Kala Bagai first came to Berkeley over a century ago, she found a city hostile to her immigrant community and was pushed out when she tried to call our city home. Today, we honor her in downtown Berkeley as a California South Asian activist. But as Berkeley community historian Anirvan Chatterjee asks, “Are we displacing or keeping out today’s Kala Bagais?”

Bagai’s family asked supportive residents to honor her legacy by donating to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, East Bay Community Law Center, and Berkeley Food and Housing Project. The Berkeley Food and Housing Project finally broke ground last year on a permanent supportive housing project with 100% affordable housing and services for the formerly homeless after nearly a decade of delays. Meanwhile, over 1,000 people are homeless on any given day in our city, and over half of California’s renters are excessively cost-burdened, facing higher risks of displacement. Our city should not just be offering palliative resources, but working to end this crisis permanently. We support Councilmember Terry Taplin’s proposals—a social housing pilot program and Affordable Housing Overlay—as the most ambitious policies available to achieve a truly universal housing guarantee.

Our modern society has abundant resources available to provide everyone with safe, secure housing, available to all without discrimination. So why haven’t we fixed this yet? Over the past decade, Berkeley has produced abysmally low amounts of low- and moderate-income housing: a mere 121 new homes for low- and very-low-income households, and 137 new homes for moderate-income households, are far below state-mandated goals. Taplin’s proposals are a good start, and the absolute bare minimum our city should be considering.

We have the resources to get started on this right now, locally. For example, the city of Berkeley currently owns a surface parking lot at 2468 Russell St. adjacent to the 51B bus line, AC Transit’s highest ridership route, and less than a half-mile from the Rockridge BART station. According to a 2019 inventory of city-owned land by Berkeley’s Health, Housing and Community Services Department, the only obstacle to building affordable housing there is the current zoning, restricting height and density. Even at a modest density of around 150 homes per acre, and even if the ground floor were reserved for retail or community space, we estimate that a 100% affordable housing development there could provide ten family-sized apartments per story, or 70 permanently affordable homes at 8 stories under Taplin’s Affordable Housing Overlay proposal. (The main part of the Elmwood parking lot is roughly 250′ long and 65-80′ wide. This works out to a building that’s about 55 feet wide, with a hallway down the middle and a stair at either end, for a total of 13,000 sq ft per floor. Of that total, we assume 15 to 20% of the area is stairs and hallways, leaving about 10,000 to 11,000 square feet for apartments. A typical 2-bedroom apartment is 850 sq ft; a 3-bedroom is 1,100 sq ft.)


In order to produce more affordable housing, nonprofit builders will need the major advantage in development rights it could get from a density bonus to compete in the land market for infill sites, particularly during times of economic recovery, which is precisely why Cambridge and Somerville, MA introduced Affordable Housing Overlays of a similar scale. (And hey, leasing land already owned by public entities couldn’t hurt either.) The increased density also allows nonprofits to spread out the cost of land across more buildable square feet, helping them produce more affordable housing without sacrificing the quality of other inputs such as good labor standards and more bedrooms for larger households. For city-owned land, Taplin’s social housing pilot proposal also offers a roadmap for permanent affordability and cooperative housing.

In the Bay Area, the development costs for affordable housing are in the obscenely high range of $600,000 per unit on average. According to a recent case study by the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation, a new affordable housing project at 833 Bryant St. in San Francisco is “is on pace to build homes, conservatively, about 30 percent faster and at 25 percent less cost per unit than the similar project.” The nonprofit developer achieved this primarily through “ministerial review,” receiving over-the-counter permits after meeting the letter of the law for local requirements, and flexible funding sources.

Ministerial review and as-of-right permitting, along with increased density, are essential to meeting the dire need for affordable housing both locally and regionally. In Marin County, a 100% affordable housing project used a state density bonus program and ministerial approval to provide twice as much affordable housing on a shorter timeline. Taplin’s Affordable Housing Overlay proposal builds off a state density bonus law specifically for 100% affordable projects, AB-1763, to increase this effect even further. A 2014 study by several state housing agencies also found that increased density itself lowered construction costs for affordable housing, specifically: “for each 10 percent increase in the number of units, the cost per unit declines by 1.7 percent.”

Households making over 80% of the county’s median income (that includes many healthcare workers and a household of two teachers, for example) are squeezed on both ends: market-rate housing costs are too high, but public subsidies typically target lower-income ranges. State and local cooperation on social housing can begin to change that dynamic for several reasons.

First, the private market has also failed to sustain a robust pipeline of construction labor and apprenticeships. California’s construction workers faced massive layoffs after the 2008 recession and have hardly recovered. Meanwhile in Austria, the municipal government of Vienna employs thousands of construction workers for its social housing program, which has robust tenant protections and is available for residents of all incomes. This is also a key to affordability: leasing housing for moderate incomes, or even higher incomes at market rate, can be reinvested to issue revenue bonds and subsidize housing for those with low or zero incomes at a greater scale, rather than paying dividends to stockholders. Another strategy is leasing housing “at cost” to target affordability for the middle class, which is being explored in new legislation by Hawaii State Sen. Stanley Chang. Ultimately, the key to a successful social housing agency in California will hinge on institutions that seamlessly and fairly maintain the windfalls from rising land values in the public trust.

The efficiencies of permit streamlining, density, and affordability don’t necessarily come at the cost of beautiful design. Far from it—in addition to supporting good union jobs, Vienna’s municipal housing program holds regular design contests that reward beauty and innovation in design for its social housing, which have received “extremely positive ratings” and praise for a “culture of cooperation.” Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party of Austria has implemented a program aiming to streamline the permitting process for housing development since 2016, with the aim of increasing annual housing production from 10,000 to 13,000 new homes. With collaborative and innovative design standards, we believe that streamlining affordable housing at such a scale in Berkeley could greatly enhance the natural beauty, charming neighborhood character, and overall quality of life in our gorgeous city.

For far too long, local policymakers in California have sought more resources for affordable housing primarily through unfunded mandates and concessions from private developers.  While these strategies can indeed produce affordable housing where it is sorely needed, they are complex processes that rely on the private to produce affordable housing across long and unpredictable timelines that ultimately leave us with less affordable housing on net and less innovative architecture. The discretionary permitting process is currently premised on an inherent tradeoff between growth and affordability by assuming that permitting density itself is a giveaway for private interests with no public benefit. We clearly have not been getting anywhere near enough affordable housing out of this. We urge the city to reject this false choice and embrace a both-and approach. Density, affordability, and beautiful architecture can work hand in hand if we let them. So what are we waiting for?

Alfred Twu is an architect in Berkeley and also on the board of East Bay for Everyone, and is Terry Taplin’s appointee to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Jordan Burns is a UC Berkeley graduate student and an organizer with UAW 2865. Alexandria Rodriguez is a housing activist, Terry Taplin’s appointee District 2 Commissioner on the Housing Advisory Commission and Tenant Commissioner for Berkeley Housing Authority.