Public Comment

Sex and Tomatoes

Toni Mester
Friday March 18, 2016 - 12:06:00 PM

This is an article about housing, which seems to be everybody’s favorite topic these days. I’ll get to the sex and tomatoes. The problem of affordable housing weighs so heavily on the communal mind that the Berkeley City Council devoted a special session to it on February 16, and the newly formed Progressive Alliance followed with a well-attended panel discussion on March 6 at the South Berkeley Senior Center.

The MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) held an excellent forum on housing on February 20 in Oakland, and the videotape is worth watching not only to hear the experts but also to listen to the testimony from victims of displacement. In fact each of us has a housing story to tell, so it seems right to add to the discussion, especially since some areas of this subject remain to be fully aired, either because of complexity or taboo. So where angels fear to tread, this old fool has decided to rush in.

The Greying of Berkeley

At the Council hearing, Miriam Chion from ABAG gave the first presentation on population and housing trends, stating that the Bay Area senior population will increase in the next 25 years by 30%, a rate twice that of children, a statistic that flew by the ears of subsequent speakers, none of whom mentioned housing for seniors as a priority.

Attention must be paid. According to the census in 2000, Berkeley had 10,484 people over 65 (10.2%) a number that grew in ten years to 13,176 (11.7%). The 2014 American Community Survey (ACS), comprising statistical estimates between the decennial counts, shows the population over 65 at 15,057. Of course 4,570 older adults did not move into Berkeley in those fourteen years. They just stayed put because there are few affordable options for downsizing unless they uproot themselves from friends, family, and community connections and move away. In my career, I worked with seniors, and now that I’m retired myself, I draw upon my professional experience to better understand the situation of these thousands of Berkeley elders. 

First of all, seniors don’t like change and complaining about that won’t change a thing. It’s human nature to become habituated to familiar surroundings. Violent or rapid change disorients people, and the older we get, the more stuck in our ways. For this reason, many seniors are tech adverse. My older students with email usually have grandchildren who set up their computers. Boomer seniors are savvier because an Apple dropped from the tree during their 30’s, and out went the typewriters. Learning new tricks like computer skills helps seniors stay connected and enjoy better, longer lives. 

The old folks who invested in a Berkeley neighborhood decades ago expect continuity in their environment and respect for the contributions they have made with their energy and money. They voted for bonds and dutifully paid taxes and fees for years, supporting schools, parks, and street repair. The generosity of Berkeley taxpayers is legendary, but the City Council should stop counting on it. As homeowners age, they seek to lower expenses, and Berkeley’s demographics are changing. New homeowners are paying exorbitant taxes, and many of them are fed up. 

The second fact of aging is diminished physical capacity. Elderly homeowners need help, but many cannot afford house cleaning, personal care services, and repairs. Run-down and cluttered houses endanger health and safety, degrading into fire traps. The other day I stopped by an estate sale on Virginia Street to find the house a filthy shambles. And while the place was far from decomposition, the rug was grey with age and dirt, and the contents - from old magazines to spice bottles- looked at least twenty years old. At some time in the past, property up-keep stopped, as the occupants aged. 

The third inevitability is living on old money, not inherited wealth but the wages of yesteryear, which determine the size of social security and other pensions. For example, my first full time job in 1967 paid $7,000 a year, when my rent was $135 a month. I bought a house in West Berkeley in 1979 on an income of less than $15,000 and an affirmative action mortgage. The place was rotting and infested with rats, termites, and powder post beetles. I got a second mortgage from The City of Berkeley under a Carter administration HUD program called 20/20 that provided $20,000 for 20 years, the interest adjusted to income. The aim of 20/20 was to save deteriorating housing stock in blighted areas. Mine was the last 20/20 loan in Berkeley, and we know what happened to Jimmy Carter. 

After 45 continuous years in the work force, I retired on an income at 80% of the Alameda County AMI (average median income). I’m not complaining. Some of my friends are better off, many less so. A few are dead. A house requires constant maintenance but the cost of repairs, both labor and materials, rises while our DIY abilities decrease. Some people think that a house is like a gold mine, except that nobody gets the gold unless they can find another affordable place to live. The windfall that comes from selling a house is depleted by capital gains tax, relocating costs, medical expenses, inflation, and the higher cost of new housing. 

As a result, many older home owners are staying put for financial reasons including tax breaks à la Prop 13. A nationwide movement, aging in place is represented locally by Ashby Village. For lack of reasonable alternatives, elders continue to live in houses they can’t afford to leave, which contributes to the limited supply, aka lack of inventory, and rising prices for single family houses in Berkeley. 

Old economy pensions tend to be lower than the AMI, which means that most new construction for seniors needs to be subsidized. The number of homeless elders is growing with nine people waiting for each new affordable unit of senior housing. It took the City of Berkeley over 20 years to break ground on Harper Crossing, a very low-income senior housing project of 42 units. At this rate of construction, few older homeowners will find a place to downsize and instead will die in place. 

More affluent young families have moved into the flatlands, snatching up the few available houses, but most have been priced out of the urban core, find houses in outlying towns, and endure long stressful commutes. It’s a dilemma. Having mortgaged themselves to the hilt in order to secure a future for their families, the young couples find that the commute erodes quality time with their children. 

In these and many other ways, the housing needs of various age and income groups are connected, like dem bones. We can ignore these realities, wring our hands and blame NIMBYs, grey beards, techies, greed, politicians, developers, banks, capitalism or whatever. What is commonly called a “crisis” is mainly a shortage of appropriate and affordable housing, and the consensus is growing that it needs to be addressed proactively. 

The 2010 census counted 3,425 vacant units in Berkeley, about one-third for rent. The 2014 ACS put the number at 3,773. Everybody talks about the shortage, but nobody analyzes the vacancies. This one-sided thinking reminds me of the old blues song: “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. Everybody wants to laugh, and nobody wants to cry. Everybody wants to know the answer but not the reason why.” 

Form follows functions

Just as the housing needs of seniors and young families are connected, so too are the needs of women and children, especially single mothers. Price is probably one explanation for vacant units. Another could be that many new apartment buildings do not meet the needs of women and children. Here comes the sex. 

Two of the more bizarre moments in the City’s forum came from Mark Rhoades and Eric Panzer, when they referred to Zoning Adjustments Board member Sophie Hahn’s comments about the size of units in the proposed 2701 Shattuck Avenue project, a dormitory style 5 story building using modular construction and containing 70 micro units from 269 to 344 square feet each. The project was denied because the overall project was deemed out of scale with inadequate transition to the adjacent residential neighborhood and because the applicant refused the ZAB’s suggested modifications. 

Ms. Hahn was concerned that human relationships would be difficult in the tiny units, which accommodated only a twin bed with limited floor space, thereby locking in an inflexible life-style that denied guests, a partner or a child. Rhoades and Panzer found Hahn’s comments absurd, but for me, and I presume many others, her comments were refreshing - among the most insightful and sensitive heard at the ZAB, where little consideration is given to the quality of life for the inhabitants of a proposed building. The public hearings mostly deal with developers’ costs versus the impacts on the neighbors, and nobody represents the new residents. Women’s needs are particularly crucial because intimacy can result in a pregnancy, and if the apartments and the building do not support motherhood and child rearing, then an expectant woman is forced to find a new place to live. 

The interior design of an apartment building should recognize the needs of partners, families and children if development of a community is the goal, rather than simply maxing out the envelope, stuffing it with as many small apartments as possible, and expecting that the supply of highly paid young single workers will continue unabated for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile the biological clock of the millennials is ticking away. Pretty soon many will weary of finding new restaurants, bike trails, and parties and want to settle down with a partner and kids, only to find few choices of appropriate and affordable housing anywhere close to their jobs. 

Two proposed projects are typical of this short-sighted trend, 1500 San Pablo Avenue, on the site of a car dealership between Jones and Cedar, and 2100 San Pablo Avenue on old U-Haul site at the corner of Addison Street. Without delving into the relative merits and problems of these two buildings, which belong in another discussion, let’s note that both projects include long, double loaded (entry doors on either side) interior corridors without any natural light. Such a design may be appropriate for a hotel or dormitory intended for transients or students, but not long-term housing for families. Not only are the corridors energy inefficient, but the long and dimly lit hallways are not child friendly and can even be dangerous. 

Save the tomatoes

Another complaint from Mark Rhoades at the Council forum was saving tomato patches and “other things” – referring to the open space of homes located next to the arterials. By “other things” he means whatever needs sunlight: from solar panels, to the Bar-B-Q, outdoor living space, and children’s play area in the yard. Apparently buildings should take precedent over gardens, contradicting policies in the City’s Climate Action Plan, which calls for “more complete and sustainable local food production.” 

Mr. Rhoades advocates “transition zoning,” meaning that the City should eliminate the half-block-deep zoning along San Pablo, University, Adeline and Sacramento to allow for even bigger buildings - spanning the entire depth of the block. This “transition zoning” policy was floated in a draft of the last housing element, when it aroused such a roar of discontent from the flatlands that it was removed. The call to destroy our lower density flatlands neighborhoods is just class warfare by another name. Apparently the pleasures of gardens, outdoor play space, sunlight and home grown produce will be reserved only for the most affluent. 

The Berkeley City Council is faced with finding a new Planning Director. We can only hope that they select a person with enough stature, professional grit, and healing leadership to bring this community together in creating new zoning along the arterials that values the needs of residents at all life stages, preserves the neighborhoods and existing housing stock, promotes harmonious architecture, and improves our communal open space. Most importantly, we need planning and decision making that respects and promotes health, relationships, family, and community. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.