Concerning the debate about land use and density in Berkeley, I believe it is helpful to keep in mind the strong link between housing supply and the price of housing. Most of us who have lived in Berkeley for a few decades (I arrived in 1979 for grad school) long for the days when it didn’t take being a millionaire to buy a modest home in a nice neighborhood close to shops. What has happened, simply put, is that the available stock of single-family homes has barely changed since 1980, while the demand to live in Berkeley (which we all agree is one of the best places to live in America) has soared. Combined with historic low mortgage rates, this has lead to a situation where even homes in “less desirable” neighborhoods go for half a million or more.
On the rental side, the situation is rather different. While historically rent control was an important factor in keeping rents low, in the past decade most rents in Berkeley have come close to market levels. Yet rents have been fairly stable in recent years, especially compared to the price of single-family homes. Various factors account for this divergence, but one of them is that the supply of rental housing has expanded significantly in the past five years.
Given the coming growth in northern California’s population, the scarcity of attractive places to live, and the vibrancy of the Bay Area, increasing demand for housing in Berkeley is pretty inescapable. It’s hard to see how the number of single-family homes in Berkeley could increase very much, at least not until after the big earthquake provides an opportunity for a new approach (such as co-housing “villages”). On the rental and condo side, however, the existing plan for new development along key transit corridors (University, Shattuck, and San Pablo) and in the downtown is a sensible way to provide more housing. If well-designed, such development can enhance the living quality of the surrounding neighborhood rather than detract from it. Here we run into the problem I raised in an earlier letter: the combination of current city and state policies, along with ill-conceived design of some developments, results in buildings that are too bulky and in site plans lacking in any amenities that would serve the neighborhood.
Current efforts to reconsider the density bonuses awarded developers are a much-needed step in the right direction. Changes in the state law regarding density bonuses would be even more helpful. In addition, I believe the current city policy of requiring developers to include below-market units, while well-intended, has had negative effects that more than outweigh the meager benefits of having a few more ‘cheap’ apartments and condo units. Finally, we need to give some thought to the pace of residential and commercial development, including that of the university. “Too much too fast” makes many long-time residents (myself included) uneasy, and it strains the ability of the city government and its citizens to provide the oversight needed if new development is to enhance the quality of our community.
Steve Meyers is a Berkeley resident.