Berkeley and the Bay Area as a region suffer from a critical lack of housing. Between 1970 and 1990, Berkeley actually lost housing units as a city. While we have been building more housing, it’s not nearly enough to offset years of underbuilding or to make a real dent in current prices. While Berkeley hasn’t reached the outlandish prices of our uber (pardon the pun) fancy neighbor San Francisco, our city is certainly approaching those untenable housing prices.
In a tradition almost as familiar as student protests on Sproul Plaza — or at least as prevalent as late-night munchies runs to Gordo Taqueria — students have spent the last few weeks scrambling for housing in Berkeley. Breaking from this tradition won’t be quick or easy, but we can do it, and UC Berkeley students have a critical role to play. Here’s what you can do to help reverse this trend.
Insist that UC Berkeley provide students with more housing
UC Berkeley doesn’t provide enough housing for its students, and the city and students suffer. Nonstudents and students alike should work together to make the campus do its fair share. Total enrollment at UC Berkeley has increased by roughly 8,000 students since 1994. Students are often forced to live in cramped off-campus group living accommodations farther away from campus, which can lead to conflicts when the college lifestyle doesn’t jibe with neighborhood expectations. We need to hold the campus accountable to provide students with more housing. For example, UC Berkeley passed up enormous opportunities to provide additional student housing when it elected not to place student housing above the Underhill Parking Facility. For future projects, students should demand that the campus use vacant or underutilized land to provide new student housing.
Demand more housing
I was thrilled when City Council unanimously approved a proposal last month that will make it much easier for homeowners to add secondary units (also known as granny flats or in-law units). Although this may not sound like a big deal, it has huge impacts on affordability, primarily because it is so difficult to increase the supply of housing in Berkeley due to bureaucratic obstacles and neighborhood concerns. As you know, the demand is high right now, and we need to figure out ways to increase the supply. This particular way of adding density is subtle and is about providing more housing choices in a greater variety of neighborhoods.
We also need to increase mixed-use housing along our transit corridors. This means redeveloping underutilized sites that no longer serve our community and replacing them with new commercial and housing opportunities. This type of growth is beneficial for several reasons. First, we want to provide housing for a variety of people — teachers, nurses, students and service workers. Second, the environmental benefits of this type of development are significant and well documented. It spares fragile ecosystems and reduces urban sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions by providing residents with better access to public transportation or walkable lifestyles. Third, our workers and students will be able to live in our city, and our residents will be able to find local jobs because our economy will thrive. Finally, an added benefit will be a more vibrant and desirable Downtown.
Advocate more affordable housing units
Every eight years, the state compiles a Regional Housing Need Allocation, or RHNA, that assigns each community its share of the housing need (broken into housing units for very low-, low-, moderate- and above-moderate-income brackets). From 2007-2014, Berkeley’s RHNA was 2,431 units (the number of units needed to meet demand). Over that time period, Berkeley only issued permits for 1,046 units. In other words, Berkeley created less than half of the recommended housing we need. When we look at how moderate-income earners were served, Berkeley built a total of 3 percent recommended units. Clearly, we are not meeting housing needs, and moderate- and low-income earners are feeling the brunt of that. As long as we continue to see job growth in low-wage sectors, demand for affordable housing will only increase.
To create affordable housing, developers can allocate a portion of units within their projects as affordable or pay in-lieu fees to the city’s Housing Trust Fund. There are benefits to both approaches. When developers pay in-lieu fees to the Housing Trust Fund, we can get more affordable units for our dollar and renovate older affordable housing. On the other hand, when developers build affordable units within new projects, it gets them on the market quickly. In the past few years, no developer has contributed in-lieu fees to the Housing Trust Fund. Ideally, we need to create a policy and an iterative fee-defining process that will incentivize both the affordable unit building and contributions to the Housing Trust Fund.
All of these tasks will take time and effort. We chose to live in Berkeley because it’s a terrific town with a top-notch university. Let’s ensure that Berkeley can remain diverse and interesting by doing our part to make it affordable for everyone. Let’s get to work!
Lori Droste is a Berkeley City Council member.