Friday July 30, 2004


Editor, Daily Planet: 

Robert Denham, in a letter in the July 23-25 issue of this newspaper, claims that the Bay Area needs 300,000 housing units per year to keep up with projected growth. I assume this projection comes from the growth-obsessed Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). ABAG was responsible for loaning Patrick Kennedy over $72 million dollars (including an $8.2 million dollar refinance job for the decaying Berkeleyan building) to create hundreds of dinky rental units in Berkeley, without bothering to check if they were needed. 

For two years I tried to warn the Zoning Adjustments Board and the City Council of the impending apartment glut, as projects came before them for approval. I can still hear them whine “the desperate need for housing” as they approved almost every rental colossus which was proposed. 

About a year and a half ago, a Daily Cal article entitled “City Housing Construction on the Rise” (Feb. 26, 2003) quoted several local developers who were exuberant about rental housing, including Patrick Kennedy. The article stated, “Kennedy maintained there is ‘unlimited demand’ for more housing in Berkeley.” I wonder if he believes this now. 

UC’s fall semester begins in less than a month, and we will see if the many new apartments and dormitories rapidly reach full occupancy, or if they, too, will suffer vacancy problems along with the pre-existing apartment houses. 

Despite ABAG’s meaningless growth projections, Berkeley’s population is considerably smaller now than it was in 1950, and there has been a net increase in housing units during each decade since that year. Moreover, current events suggest that our population is actually decreasing. For example, UC Extension’s English language program, which had an enrollment of nearly 3,000 students, closed in May. Also, Berkeley’s largest employers have recently experienced layoffs and hiring freezes. Even the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that local population has dropped since 2000. Where’s the growth? 

Common sense would suggest that you don’t need more buildings when you have fewer people. Empty storefronts only accentuate the lack of need for more construction. 

Yes, bungalows and condos are way too expensive—so much so that many people think we are in the midst of a speculative real estate bubble, fed by low interest rates and easy lending practices—a bubble which may be just about to burst. 

Nonetheless, Mr. Denham refers to the desperate need for additional housing of all kinds because of the “rapid pace of household formation fueled by immigration, maturing of the population and economic growth.” I’m baffled. Unlike other parts of California, Berkeley’s population is simply not growing at this time. 

As for increasing density on University and Shattuck avenues, does anyone really believe there’s an “unlimited demand” for cramped, poorly constructed units on noisy streets? Just as overbuilding rental housing was a mistake, condo-mania will be the next blunder, unless people wake up and notice that Berkeley’s planning process has been taken over by those who benefit from endless construction—whether it’s needed or not. 

Gale Garcia