Opinion: Berkeley can set a national example of how a city can grow sustainably and responsibly

The city can develop housing in order to reduce rents and displacement, make homeownership more attainable, and end epidemic levels of homelessness.

California faces a crisis. Rents are sky high and homeownership in California is increasingly out of reach for the vast majority of us. Years of inaction have driven the displacement of predominantly marginalized communities while exacerbating epidemic levels of homelessness. The lack of effective action has also worsened our climate crisis, resulting in poor air quality, fire conditions, and rising sea levels. We must act now to protect our planet and the California dream.

There is no disputing that California is knee-deep in a problem decades in the making, a problem free-market policies alone have failed to resolve. We know there are no easy solutions, and all levels of government need to act with urgency if we are going to reverse this trend. Cities across the state are frozen in quicksand, content to leave the crisis to the next generation of leaders rather than tackle what can be controversial policies, too often described as protectionist or pro-developer.

Berkeley, too, found itself stuck. But over the past few years, the City Council has broken free of stalemate, demonstrating the import of leadership at the local level to implement sustainable housing policies. Make no mistake, our efforts have been met with some controversy, too. From absurd memes of skyscrapers built beside single-family homes to accusations of racism, conversations on the future of Berkeley’s housing crisis have taken some ugly turns. Change in any community is hard, but it can’t be avoided and must be guided in an inclusive way.

Berkeley’s plans to reassess single-family zoning have generated a lot of attention, but this proposal is a part of our city’s larger, coordinated approach to developing housing in order to reduce rents and displacement, make homeownership more attainable, and end epidemic levels of homelessness. Our housing plan is predicated on adherence to three principles in housing policy: protect tenants, preserve communities, and produce housing. We know that building market-rate housing alone won’t solve the problem. We need to center equity and affordability in our work and prevent existing neighbors from becoming homeless. Berkeley’s approach also comes in response to our community’s growing obligations under state law to build more housing.


Every eight years since 1969, California’s Department of Housing and Community Development undergoes a “Regional Housing Needs Allocation” process mandated under state law, known as RHNA, which determines housing development goals to meet demand throughout the state. Pursuant to the most recent RHNA process completed earlier this year, the Bay Area is required to produce 441,176 housing units between 2022 and 2030.

While the state determines regional allocations, it’s up to the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), to divvy up the 441,176 housing units to individual jurisdictions across the region. As the current president of ABAG, I have been working with cities across the Bay Area to chart the course forward, and Berkeley is leading by example.

From Measures O, a $135 million affordable housing bond, and U1, a gross receipts tax for housing development and retention, to our city’s proposed groundbreaking Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), developments at the Ashby, North Berkeley BART stations and along the Adeline Corridor, upzoning, and much more, Berkeley officials are working to re-envision every aspect of our housing policies to meet this moment. We cannot allow division, misinformation and fear to perpetuate stalemate and inaction. Solving our housing crisis depends not only on the substance of new policies but collaboration and community engagement that will ensure new developments enhance the character and quality of our neighborhoods and support a diverse and inclusive Berkeley.

So. I leave you with this: Before us is an opportunity to not only come together to end our affordable housing crisis and end our homelessness epidemic, but a rare chance to set a national example of how a courageous city can grow sustainably and responsibly. Let’s not waste it.

Jesse Arreguín is the mayor of Berkeley and president of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG)