In Germany, when you hear someone talking about the Bay Area, the first things that pop into your mind are the well-known city of San Francisco, the highly modern tech industry, the progressive and liberal attitude of the people and the disproportionately high rents and living expenses.
For more than 20 years, housing expenses have experienced a serious increase. I think I am not wrong if I claim this development has been noticed over the world. From Berlin to Paris to Rome to Washington and San Francisco, all capitals and metropolitan areas are facing the same issue: housing crises.
The rents are getting higher, and housing units are becoming scarce. There are a variety of reasons for this, even though the consequences are even more obvious and distinct: non-affordable housing in downtown areas, time-consuming commutes from the suburbs, a decay of downtown areas in terms of livability and extension of urban expanse. Residents who have been living in a part of the city long enough to call that place home are leaving the urban space because the neighborhood they used to live in is now becoming a part of the financial district.
The landlords are making large profits by selling their apartment buildings to big companies, which in turn rebuild the houses into office buildings. The tenants have no other choice than to move out; they cannot afford the rent anymore because the landlords raise the rents excessively. Newcomers looking for housing close to their job or school within the city cannot find a place to live. They have no alternative but to move to the suburbs and hope for good public transportation into the city center.
Social scientists call this development “gentrification.” Gentrification means monetary appreciation of a neighborhood within the city’s boundaries. A certain part of the city is getting more valuable at tenants’ expense. Gentrification has become a phenomenon throughout the early history of cities. Residents have always relocated from one part of a city to another for whatever reason.
The current situation, however, is serious. The western world has never seen as many homeless people as today. Business interests and the right to housing are being played off each other. According to the rules of lawless capitalism, he who makes more money is going to win.
The median rent in the San Francisco metropolitan area, for instance, experienced an increase of more than 10 percent, as compared to the year 2000. Today, the average tenant in that urban area spends at least 42 percent of their income on rent. According to a 2017 report that considered more than just the median price of an apartment or the monthly rent as a percentage of the average income, San Francisco is the most expensive city to live in. However, that report took the average price per square foot into account and calculated the size of the housing unit based upon the minimum space recommended for one person and for a family of four.
Although London is famous for its high living expenses, the city is just No. 11 on the list. The most expensive German city is Munich (the third-biggest city in Germany), which came in 31st place; monthly rent for a family of four is $1558. It is almost one-third of the amount a family pays in San Francisco. Furthermore, the average tenant in German metropolitan areas spends less than 30 percent of their income on the rent.
The so-called Mietpreisbremse, a rent control bill, was passed to restrict the increase of rents. The bill requires that landlords not raise the rent more than 10 percent above the area’s median rent. Three years later, the bill doesn’t seem to have made any impact at all. The population, especially the part that relies on the government intervention in the strained housing market, perceives the law as not much more than well-meant.
For that reason, it doesn’t make any sense to me why the mayor of Berkeley, Jesse Arreguín, recently called the housing bill SB 827 proposed by the California State Senate a “declaration of war against our neighborhoods.” He sees the bill as dangerous and believes it would deprive governments on the local level of the right to control their own zoning laws. Basically, the bill is an approach to kill two birds with one stone; I argue it provides more housing units within cities by eliminating restrictions to build apartment buildings close to public transportation hubs.
In that way, it also contributes to reducing car pollution, which is still the cause of the biggest amount of greenhouse gas in California. Berkeley’s mayor agrees on the point that something must be done in terms of tackling the housing crisis. To make that happen, there is a need for rethinking what housing means to the people. I may now offer the answer already: It is an unimpeachable human right!
Jan Schuermann is a Berkeley resident with a bachelor’s degree in history and media science from University of Cologne.