High rent forces many who work in city to live elsewhere

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MARCH 07, 2013

Suzan Steinberg lived in Berkeley for 17 years as the owner of Stonemountain and Daughter Fabrics, located on Shattuck Avenue. But, unable to find affordable housing, she was forced to move to Oakland.

Steinberg finds herself among a growing group of people who work in Berkeley but reside outside the city — often due to the city’s high living costs.

“I never thought I’d leave Berkeley because of the creative diversity,” she said. “My work and business is here … (but) my husband and I couldn’t find a place in Berkeley that was affordable.”

Only 17.1 percent of Berkeley jobs are held by city residents, according to the city’s quarterly economic development report released Tuesday. By contrast, nearly 44 percent of Berkeley jobs were held by Berkeley residents in the 1990s, according to a city report compiled in 2000.

“We have a giant economic divide,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “If you’re getting minimum wage working at a job, you can’t afford to live in the city of Berkeley.”

Though Steinberg owns her own business and dislikes commuting, she finds it less expensive to live in neighboring Oakland. In 1980, Steinberg’s rent for a large one-bedroom apartment was $250. By the time she left in 1995, rent had increased to $650.

Even in the last decade, rental prices have risen dramatically in Berkeley. In 2002, a two-bedroom unit in Berkeley cost $1,650 a month. By the end of 2012, the same unit averaged $1,995.

This issue also extends to houses in the city. Berkeley has one of the most expensive real estate markets in the Bay Area, with average home values exceeding $500,000, said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin.

The city suffers from a disparity between the supply of housing and the demand for homes, according to Polly Armstrong, CEO of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce.

“The desirability of Berkeley and the growth of the campus has far outpaced our ability to get housing built,” Armstrong said. “People were being priced out … A better way of dealing with the problem might be to build more housing.”

For Jacquelyn McCormick, a Berkeley resident who also works in Berkeley, the city’s unique environment and culture have kept her here, although she acknowledges the high housing costs.

“There’s the ability to discuss and debate points of view that just doesn’t really exist in many other places,” she said. “It’s a very intellectually stimulating environment … (but) there’s a schism between people who can afford to live here and the people who are barely making it.”

Arreguin believes there must be more done in this city to address this issue, such as building more housing close to where people work and creating public transit areas that may encourage people to live in the city.

“That was the best part of my life — to eliminate any type of commute, to walk to work or go home for lunch,” Steinberg said. “Berkeley is about being local, so when people have to live in Oakland, there’s a disconnect there … It’s vital to the local economy that we should be able to make housing available.”

Contact Daphne Chen at 


MARCH 07, 2013

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