A quick and dirty guide to affordable housing

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Rents and house prices in the Bay Area — and in Berkeley especially — have risen exponentially in the last decade, resulting in lower-income individuals, families and students being unable to afford to live in Berkeley.

The proposed solution for such expensive housing costs has a simple name: affordable housing. But the term has complex definitions and implications, both for the laws created to address affordable housing and for the people in desperate need of it.

What is affordable housing?

Affordable housing is housing that only costs 30 percent of the renter’s income. In Berkeley, however, housing can be considered “affordable” when it costs up to 50 percent — and even 80 percent — of the household’s income.

And in the eyes of Sophie Hahn, a member of the city’s Zoning Adjustment Board, this expectation is not at all affordable and reveals the heart of the affordable housing issue in Berkeley.

“The affordable housing crisis in Berkeley has been caused by an influx of new workers and a failure to pay a living wage to lower-income workers,” Hahn said. “They cannot compete for housing.”

Why is affordable housing an issue in Berkeley?

According to Matthew Lewis, the ASUC director of local affairs and chair of the ASUC Student Housing Commission, affordable housing in Berkeley was exacerbated when the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act was passed in 1995.

The act illegalized rent control and introduced “vacancy decontrol,” which allows landlords to raise rent when previous tenants move out, leading to a significant rise in rental prices.

“Escalating rents are driving the middle class and poor out of Berkeley,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, adding that these increases are greater than the rise of cost of living.

How does this affect Cal students?

Students are often classified as low-income because they cannot work full-time jobs. But they are also often ineligible for affordable housing because they are still dependent on their parents. This means students cannot take advantage of federally funded or subsidized housing.

“The university has never provided sufficient housing,” Lewis said, noting that the university is planning to increase admission rates while still being unable to provide housing for current students.

“It’s a crisis, and like any other crisis it can’t just be solved with a simple band-aid,” said Chris Yamas, ASUC Housing Affairs manager. “The university has been implementing band-aid solutions by converting laundry and lounges into living and sleeping locations for students.”

Lewis said UC Berkeley has the lowest percentage of student housing out of the UC system, and with increasing tuition costs along with other expenses, students may be getting priced out of housing in Berkeley.

“Students shouldn’t have to go into debt to be able to afford to live close to their school that they’ve dreamt of going to,” Yamas said.

How can we solve the affordable housing crisis?

Affordable housing can be inclusionary units or building projects. Inclusionary units are units that are designated as affordable at the time of construction of the building.

The city of Berkeley requires property owners to either designate 10 percent of their units to be affordable housing or to pay an affordable housing mitigation fee.The fee goes directly into the city’s housing trust fund, which helps create affordable housing projects.

As noted by Yamas, affordable housing is a complex, multifaceted issue with no easy solution.

“(Housing) is something that takes a variety of approaches. It takes effort and collaboration between the university, the city and nonprofits, and ultimately students themselves,” Yamas said.


Anderson Lanham is the lead crime & courts reporter. Contact her at [email protected].