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Middle-income housing helps everyone

Charles Siegel Berkeley
Wednesday January 09, 2002


Chris Kavanagh’s recent letter about housing (“Spring, a champion for affordable housing” 1/3) represents a confusion that is common in Berkeley. Councilmember Dona Spring was attacked for not supporting more housing, and Kavanagh defended her by listing the publicly-funded affordable housing projects she has supported. 

But we will never build enough subsidized housing to solve the crisis of affordability caused by the Bay Area’s housing shortage. There was plenty of affordable housing in Berkeley in the 1950s and 1960s, much of it in elegant old homes. But during the 1970s, the NIMBY movement became very influential, and there were down-zonings in Berkeley and throughout the Bay Area. Because of the housing shortage they caused, affordable units were gentrified away. 

When I came to Berkeley in 1970, I rented a room in a nice old 1920s house for $40 a month. But during the 1970s, that house shifted from rental to owner-occupancy. Recently, it sold for $500,000. If progressives back affordable housing but not market rate housing, the people who would have bought that market-rate housing do not disappear. They bid up the price of the existing housing stock. 

When there is a housing shortage, the rich are not the ones who end up on the street. Poor people are displaced from their homes as prices go up. On the other hand, if progressives all over the Bay Area were strong supporters of smart growth – of new market rate housing as well as affordable housing concentrated around transit nodes and corridors – we could ease the housing shortage before it becomes bad enough to gentrify away the remaining affordable units in the East Bay. 

Unfortunately, Berkeley’s progressive councilmembers have supported affordable housing, but they have been lukewarm (at best) about supporting housing in general. No city in the Bay Area makes life harder for developers who want to build housing. 


Charles Siegel