To lower housing costs, Berkeley renters need stronger protections, more homes

Illustration of a person looking up at an apartment for rent that has had steadily increasing prices
Aishwarya Jayadeep/Staff

Related Posts

Berkeley has some of the strongest rent control laws in the country — many apartments have controls that limit rent increases to approximately 2% a year. However, with the extreme housing shortage in the Bay Area, Berkeley’s rent control is not enough to make the city’s housing affordable.

Berkeley’s local laws also limit the reasons landlords can evict a tenant and require relocation payments for evictions in which the tenant is not at fault (for example, if the owner wants to move in or demolish and replace the building). But neither this nor the recent cooling of the Bay Area housing market due to tech companies transitioning to remote work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has helped.

While rents in downtown San Francisco have gone down, East Bay rents remain consistent. People have traded their crowded San Francisco apartments for relatively cheaper and more spacious units in the East Bay. It’s time we strengthen Berkeley’s rent control to prevent price gouging, while also encouraging the building of more homes that are capable of meeting the needs of modern-era families, individuals and students.

While rent control limits price increases for any given tenant, several circumstances still exist that unjustly allow landlords the ability to raise rents substantially. Over time, especially in buildings with high turnover, rents can quickly rise to market rates of more than $2,000 to $3,000 a month. Because rent control protections follow the original tenants on the lease, if the last original tenant leaves, the other roommates may face large rent increases or find themselves being displaced. Additionally, unethical landlords often find fiscal temptation as an incentive to harass long-term tenants into moving out.

Up until the late 1990s, Berkeley was able to prevent this through vacancy control, which limited rent increases even after a tenant moved out. Vacancy control was banned by the state’s Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act of 1995. Repealing Costa-Hawkins, which will be on the ballot this November as Proposition 21, will be key to keeping rents low in many rent-controlled buildings. It would also allow rent control protections to be applied to houses owned by large and corporate landlords, which are numerous in Berkeley.

In addition to rent control, this competition can also bring down housing costs. While costly at first, new buildings are popular with high-income commuters and dorm-style student living, which could reduce overcrowding in otherwise family-oriented neighborhoods, in addition to bringing the added benefit of providing subsidized low-income housing.

That said, there are cheaper ways to build new homes than constructing tall buildings with multiple elevators, extensive hallways and gratuitous indoor parking garages. Many opportunities to provide “missing middle” housing are hiding in plain sight. These houses have been subdivided and expanded to increase the number of available units to be rented. Allowing more of these conversions can rapidly build up the number of lower-cost homes while offering an opportunity to improve energy efficiency and the conversion from natural gas to electricity. This is also one of the only ways to create new rent-controlled apartments until Costa-Hawkins is repealed.

Berkeley’s housing crisis won’t be solved overnight. It has taken many years to reach this level of inaccessibility, and is unfortunately the direct result of poor decisions, not just within Berkeley but throughout the entire Bay Area. Troubleshooting this disaster will require bold and innovative approaches locally, regionally and with statewide cooperation. It’s time we think bigger and make conscientious changes to shift the course of access to housing in Berkeley.

Alfred Twu, Dohee Kim and Shane Krpata are running to be on the pro-tenant slate for the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board. Voting is taking place by mail-in ballot and online from July 5 to 12.