Opinion: ‘Social housing’ is the best way to ensure that everyone has a stable home

Social housing ensures that people of all income levels — including teachers, artists, activists, students, and working families — have access to dignified stable housing.

For half a century, California has run a failed market-based experiment where needed affordable housing isn’t built, rent stabilization is outlawed and undermined, and market-rate housing is out of reach for a large segment of our community.

Our failure to fund, build, protect, and maintain an adequate supply of affordable housing has resulted in growing homelessness and housing insecurity, and in the displacement of low-income communities and communities of color. We see the results in Berkeley, where nearly 1% of residents are unhoused at any given time, and the diversity and cultural fabric of our community are challenged.

The pandemic has shown in very stark ways that homelessness is not the only risk of housing insecurity; many people live in cramped quarters without the indoor space necessary to manage the spread of illness among family members and housemates or meaningful access to the outdoors. The wealthiest region in the wealthiest country on earth cannot accept these conditions as adequate housing, even under normal circumstances.

Our commodified, market-based housing industry has not created “naturally affordable” housing in any meaningful way. Consider San Francisco, where even with rents down nearly 25% from their peak, the average 1-bedroom apartment in San Francisco still rents for over $2,600 a month. Contrast that with rental rates for truly affordable 1-bedroom apartments for very low- and low-income households in San Francisco: $1,100 and $1,869, respectively. While the dip in rents is a welcome relief for those who can afford market rates, it does nothing to provide truly affordable homes for working families and other very-low, low- and moderate-income residents — the majority of Bay Area residents.


The only way to ensure access to dignified and stable housing for all is for a large portion of our housing — at least 25% — to be “social housing,” protected from the full weight of market forces.

Social housing encompasses a variety of means to achieve housing that is permanently affordable, high quality, and allocated on the basis of need rather than sold or rented to the highest bidder. In short, it treats housing as the human right it is, not as a commodity. The concept can apply to rental or ownership housing, and often includes cooperative or other democratic participation in the management of shared properties.

Social housing is common in European cities including Vienna, where a majority of residents live in housing provided and managed by the city or a nonprofit organization. Whatever the methods used to achieve affordability, a critical mass of social housing ensures that people of all income levels — including teachers, artists, activists, students, and working families — have access to stable, healthy, and dignified housing.

As we set out to update Berkeley’s Housing Element to meet the City’s new Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), which requires us to plan for and produce approximately 9,000 new homes, we have an opportunity to do things differently.  Legislation we introduced that will be heard at a Special Meeting of the City Council on March 25 seeks to center Berkeley’s RHNA planning process on achieving broad and protected affordability.

We need to maximize the production and protection of social housing — housing that is permanently affordable, protects tenants, working families and the environment, and is owned and managed by residents, non-profit organizations, or by the City itself. That’s why we are calling on the city to launch a robust, equitable, and inclusive RHNA planning process — to achieve a community-informed result with housing affordability, achieved through a variety of means, and an end to speculation, at its core. This is how San Mateo County, the City of Santa Monica and other jurisdictions are approaching updates to their Housing Elements; Berkeley can and should do the same — because it’s legally mandated, and because it’s the right thing to do.

Updating Berkeley’s housing element is a substantial task, with broad implications for the City’s economic, humanitarian, and cultural future, and to address the climate emergency. It is likely to entail changes on a scale that transforms the physical shape of Berkeley over the coming decades, impacting not just our neighborhoods and commercial districts but also open space, infrastructure, and transit.

Equitable, affordable and democratically controlled housing and robust, inclusive planning processes — both of which are central to our legislation — spring from the same set of values: respect for individuals and communities, and a belief that people should have agency over where they live. We invite all Berkeleyans to bring forward their voices and values as we plan – together – for a healthy, diverse, and sustainable future.

Sophie Hahn is the city councilmember from District 5. Kate Harrison is the city councilmember from District 4.