‘Mobility is on a decline’: Berkeley, West Coast rental vacancy rates hit historic low

Photo of an apartment building
Sam Reinard/Staff
According to data from the American Community Survey, the city of Berkeley has a vacancy rate of 1.9%, which includes housing units on the market and units that are rented but not occupied.

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Rental vacancy rates in Berkeley are at a historic low, comparable to similar trends from recent United States Census data indicating an all-time low vacancy rate across the West Coast.

According to East Bay activist Darrell Owens, American Community Survey data from 2015 to 2019 show that Berkeley’s rental vacancy rate is 1.9% compared to the West Coast’s 4.3%. This number includes both housing units on the market that are available to rent and units that are rented but unoccupied. Owens said the majority of the latter cases in Berkeley are students who have leased a unit but have yet to move in.

“The West Coast is at a historic low for vacancies, and Berkeley is way beyond that historic low,” Owens said. “A 1.9% rental vacancy rate is traumatic; there are dozens of people competing for a rental unit.”

One reason for this historic low is that housing construction has lagged behind population growth, according to UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation policy associate Muhammad Alameldin. Consequently, there is not enough housing for new residents — including refugees and vulnerable communities — to move here.

Since the 2000s, Berkeley has consistently increased housing by 5.6% per decade, but Owens noted that Berkeley’s population has been increasing by about 10%.

“With less choices in the housing market and a lack of protections, it’s easier for landlords to break the law and abuse tenants,” Alameldin said. “Academic research has shown time and time again that there is a correlation between low vacancy rates and higher rent.”

The low vacancies and recent rent increases have contributed to the housing crisis, Alameldin added. According to Owens, these are the two major factors behind homelessness, rather than mental illness and alcoholism.

Alameldin emphasized that vacancies are measured by the amount of people moving at a given point, so a lack of mobility can mean people are unable to leave dangerous situations, such as domestic violence, abusive families or bad roommates.

“Very few people live in the same housing unit forever,” Owens said. “And if they do, they live in substandard housing because they cannot afford to move — mobility is on a decline.”

Ideally, Owens said the rental vacancy rate should be 10%, and that one possible policy solution is a vacancy tax, which the Berkeley City Council voted to add to the November ballot Wednesday. While Owens does not believe it would affect market prices, he said it could minimize situations where California’s low property taxes disincentivize the landlord from facing rent control or renovations.

The city also needs stronger tenant protections and more housing supply, Alameldin said. He noted that Berkeley’s first zoning laws were passed to exclude people of color, making this a zoning issue as well.

“We need a higher vacancy rate for housing on the market that’s available, not necessarily derelict housing,” Owens said. “Berkeley needs to upzone all its neighborhoods, not just downtown.”

Contact Aileen Wu at [email protected], and follow them on Twitter at @aileenwu_.