A recent national WalletHub study on housing ranked Berkeley and San Francisco as tied for last place in home affordability in the country, measured by home price as percentage of income. Measures O and P address two of the most pressing needs in our community: housing affordability and homelessness. If passed, they will greatly benefit students as well as the greater Berkeley community.
O and P are important because they address the needs of the vulnerable members of our community. Measure O, an affordable housing bond, will allow Berkeley to create and preserve housing suitable for salary and wage workers such as teachers, artists, first responders, nurses and public/not-for-profit workers, and for low-income students, seniors, veterans and other vulnerable individuals — including the homeless — who simply cannot afford market-rate housing. Measure O would give the city of Berkeley the opportunity to leverage state and county funds allocated for affordable housing if it issues bonds to finance affordable housing projects.
Measure P plans to increase the real property transfer tax for 10 years from 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent for property sales and transfers more than $1,500,000. This is a progressive tax that asks those most able to access housing to provide 1 percent for people who are homeless. The revenues from the tax would be used to fund general municipal services and could be used for homeless shelters, youth transitional housing services, navigation centers, mental health support, rehousing, rental subsidies and other services for people experiencing homelessness.
Bridge Housing, a nonprofit partnering with the Berkeley Food and Housing Project to build a major affordable and homeless housing development in Berkeley, has contributed the largest amount of funding. Measures O and P are supported by Rep. Barbara Lee, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, all eight members of the Berkeley City Council, the entire school and rent boards, the Democratic Party, the ASUC, The Daily Californian and many more community and student organizations.
By contrast, the main opposition to the measures comes from the National Association of Realtors and the California Association of Realtors. Together, these real estate industry folks have contributed thousands of dollars to oppose Measure P.
Against this backdrop, let’s look at the facts. According to the city of Berkeley, homelessness in the city has increased by 17 percent from 2015 to 2017. As the Daily Cal has reported, a shocking number of UC students experience homelessness. In addition, we have homeless children going to K-12 school every day in Berkeley. In the 2014-15 school year, there were nearly 480 homeless high school students in our town.
Not only do homeless youth in San Francisco experience a premature mortality rate 10 times higher than that of the general youth population, but they are also at higher risk of being trafficked. According to Robin Ledford, executive director of a local YWCA that focuses on human trafficking intervention, foster and transition-age youth who are homeless are among those at highest risk of being trafficked. The United Nations reports trafficking to be the world’s second-largest type of criminal activity. Despite common stereotypes, it affects all genders, children, citizens and noncitizens in the United States by the thousands every year. Domestic trafficking victims are often young girls. Oftentimes, people being trafficked are manipulated by their exploiters.
Juxtapose this with findings from the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy that state that 40 percent of U.S. homeless youth are LGBTQ+. And in the 2014-15 school year, 20 percent of Berkeley homeless youth surveyed left home because of conflict with parents about LGBTQ+ status. The housing crisis affects LGBTQ+ kids, especially young girls, by dire proportions. When cost of rent is more than half one’s income or homelessness is looming because of lack of security or a job, profitable illegal activity, debt bondage and staying in abusive relationships become viable options to many young people with very few financial prospects. Ignoring the issue of homelessness puts young girls, femmes and women especially at increasing risk of violence and premature mortality.
As experts’ understandings of human trafficking demonstrate, providing services and housing to homeless youth not only helps solve the crisis of living on the streets; it also helps protect our young people from being targeted for crime. All in Berkeley are affected by the affordable housing and homelessness crises — some more deeply than others. From the 10 percent of UC Berkeley students who report experiencing homelessness in their time at the school to our local businesses that must navigate so many people living on our streets, this issue hurts all of us every day. The skyrocketing rates of homeless high schoolers, college students and young people in Berkeley should act as a canary in the coal mine to all members of our society, indicating that we need serious and swift action for equitable housing access.
Measures O and P are the most important package of affordable housing and homeless measures ever proposed in Berkeley, put before us at a time when we are facing the most acute affordability and homelessness crises in our history. The time to take action is now, at the voting booth, today!
Alyse J. Toulouse is a writer and NGO development specialist who studied public policy at UC Berkeley.