Public Comment

Commentary: Affordable Housing: Reality or Myth?

Tuesday April 04, 2006

In this progressive City of Berkeley, so-called “affordable housing” is not within reach of people with incomes that hover around the poverty line. Section 8 is a high-odds lottery that’s hanging by a thread. Investing in a condo or TIC is not a possibility for people living on fixed incomes whose nest egg is gone. And for older folks, applying for the scarce senior housing options that exist can mean years of waiting for a one-room studio and saying goodbye to treasured possessions. 

My experience as a tenant illustrates what happens when real estate interests succeed in destroying the few protections low-income tenants have against joining the ranks of the homeless.  

In 1979, Vacancy Decontrol became law in New York, replacing years of Rent Control. I was a working mother who had lived with my daughter for 15 years in a two-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. When a corporation bought the building, tenants had two choices: buy shares in the corporation, or move out—unless two-thirds of us voted against the offer. Though some tenants voted against it, a majority agreed to buy into the “co-op” (the corporation held the “lion’s share”), knowing they could not find another affordable rental in the fast-becoming-gentrified Upper West Side. When the bank rejected my mortgage application, I made a deal with a lawyer who wanted my apartment and, with the money he paid me, left New York in 1980 for a newly rent-controlled apartment in Berkeley.  

Since the implementation of Vacancy Decontrol in Berkeley, I’ve witnessed a replay of New York with the highest rentals this side of Manhattan in previously controlled, old buildings. Newer so-called “affordable housing” offers a small percentage of units at rents that are unaffordable for low-income residents. 

The decontrolled apartments in my building go for $1,200 to $1,800/month, generally rented to students whose parents are paying their rent and their tuition. The turnover is frequent, the building is maintained minimally, and some apartments remain vacant. Because Eviction Control was not wiped out, the owners cannot legally evict long-time residents unless we default on our rent or otherwise violate the terms of occupancy. 

When I asked a former member of the Rent Stabilization Board about other housing options, he advised me to stay where I am, saying I could not afford the “affordable housing” springing up around Berkeley. Unless I have to face an attempt to convert this damp and moldy, poorly constructed and maintained building into condos or Tenants in Common, I will consider myself fortunate to live in a progressive city like Berkeley with its dwindling economically “diverse” population. If the changing face of neighboring Shattuck Avenue in the “gourmet ghetto” is any indication—not to mention Fourth Street and other neighborhoods being “redeveloped,” I am witnessing Berkeley’s version of what I fled in Manhattan’s unaffordable, upscale Upper West Side.  


Marianne Robinson has been a tenant in Berkeley for 26 years. ›