Housing Advisory Commission Policy Review

By Lydia Gans, Special to the Planet
Thursday July 23, 2009 - 09:47:00 AM
“Extremeley Low” comes out of his box.
Lydia Gans
“Extremeley Low” comes out of his box.

The July 9 meeting of the Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission kicked off with a bit of improv theater.  

The purpose of the meeting was to review and revise the policy statement in the housing element of Berkeley’s general plan.  

The theatrics were intended to call attention to an agenda item that dealt with affordable housing.  

A relevant issue was introduced by a number of people during the public comment session concerning the provision of affordable housing specifically for very low- and extremely low-income categories.  

The low-income category had been defined as 40 percent of area median income. In the East Bay this is approximately $46,000 a year for a single person, clearly far beyond the incomes of a great number of people, even people with jobs. In planning for housing needs, the state of California requires cities to use a further breakdown of low-income into very low- and extremely low-income, which, it is hoped, would provide for people who are homeless or living under grossly inadequate conditions. Very low is defined for a one person household as 50 percent of median, or about $31,000, and extremely low as 30 percent of median, or just under $19,000. 

Among those with extremely low- or no income at all are many homeless youth who have aged out of foster care or run away from dysfunctional or abusive families. A group of homeless young people who have been getting together as part of a program run by Youth Engagement Advocacy Housing (YEAH) to discuss social justice issues were talking about housing as a human right. Jill Dunner, a member of the Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission and a board member of Everyone Home, and who herself has experienced homelessness, has been working to focus attention on the plight of people with very low and extremely low incomes. She approached YEAH and suggested that the young people make a presentation before the commission meeting. Their creative juices flowing, they made posters and props and prepared a skit.  

They set up a large refrigerator carton which they had decorated and tied with a red ribbon and labeled as the home of Extremely Low Income. (Jill Dunner had procured the carton from a local appliance store.) A young man, “Extremely Low,” lived inside. Someone cut the ribbon while the audience was asked to cheer as Extremely Low came out of the box. But he did not have a voice. The audience was asked to give him a voice—and they did. Several people came up, and standing behind him, spoke into the microphone, symbolically giving him a voice. They described their own struggles, often having to chose between food or shelter or much-needed medical care. Culminating the presentation, Angel, a brilliant, articulate 19-year-old, read a poem she had written, a powerful and heart-stirring description of life on the street, life without even the basics that others take for granted. She spoke eloquently about never having any privacy, about trying to keep clean, finding a bathroom or a place to change clothes, to be alone with her sweetheart. 

Angel and Roger and Ujima and others are part of the YEAH program. YEAH used to stand for Youth Emergency Assistance Hostel when it was operating a winter shelter for young people, aged 18 to 24 years, at the Berkeley’s Lutheran Church of the Cross at 1744 University Ave. Keeping the same acronym they changed the name when they expanded to offer a year-round daytime program Monday through Friday afternoons in addition to the winter shelter.  

“We are an activity-driven space,” said YEAH Youth Services Coordinator Heather Love, “offering opportunities for young people ages 18 to 25 who have experienced or are experiencing poverty, houselessness, and/or landlessness to get access to counseling and services, build community, find stimulation, and be empowered.” 

The commission members were moved by the young peoples’ presentation. The requirement that the housing designated specifically for people with very low and extremely low incomes is now written into the housing element of the General Plan. But those are words; the reality is something else. The obstacles to actually providing anything are fierce. It’s not just a matter of money, which is next to impossible in the current economic crisis; there are issues of zoning, of finding an interested developer and various other problems. And once the plans are in place it could still take a year to have something completed. For homeless young people at a stage in life when they are transitioning into adulthood with no support or resources, this is a very, very long time.  

At this point the only project that is in the pipeline is a 16-unit complex—one unit is for the manager—which is not yet fully funded. To grab another handy metaphor, that’s barely a drop in the bucket.