Public Comment

The affordable housing crisis: how Berkeley should deal with it

Harry Brill
Thursday June 29, 2017 - 06:23:00 PM

As progressives have contended, the Berkeley Housing crisis is not about a shortage of housing. Rather the housing crisis is about affordable housing, particularly for residents whose wages are below the poverty level. It is the desperate situation of these low wage individuals and families that the Berkeley City Council is attempting to address. 

In a move in the right direction, the Council voted eight to one on Tuesday to charge developers a substantial fee for each unit -- $34,000 -- unless the developers provide 20 percent of their housing units at below market rate.  

But the gain is a modest one. A very serious problem confronting the City Council is the limits of what a city can do since rent control was abolished by the California legislature in 1995. Unquestionably, decontrol mainly accounts for the incredibly high rents. Even if we accept the US Census underestimated count of the poor in Berkeley, which is over 24,000 --that's too many individuals and families who can be accommodated by the relatively few available below market rate units. A Berkeley City Council member pointed out that the projects which have already been approved will meet only 3 percent of the goal for low income housing.  

Of course the more below market rate units that a developer provides, the greater the number of low income residents that can be accommodated. One advocate urged that the percent of below market rate units should be increased from 20 to 40 percent. Although that's a relatively high figure, it is a mistake to assume that that we cannot do better. Rather than dismissing such called grand ideas, we should raise our expectations. Both the Berkeley City Council and community activists should avoid being trapped by a culture of low expectations. A well organized and vigorous campaign can accomplish much. Providing below market rate housing for only 20 percent of poor residents is not enough. 

Another very serious problem is that most below market rate units are still expensive and unaffordable, particularly for the economically vulnerable. The federal agency, Housing and Urban Department (HUD), mainly determines the rent that poor tenants pay. According to the Agency's arithmetic, rents for tenants defined as poor could be as high as $2,000 per month. Section 8 housing, which subsidizes the rent for poor tenants, limits rents to 30 percent of their income. However, there are too many poor applicants to provide subsidies to a majority of residents. As the writer Steve Martinot mentions in a Berkeley Planet article (6-10-17), many of these tenants who live in below market rate units pay 70 percent or more of their income for rent. With very little money left over, they suffer from hunger and malnutrition. And many of the sick cannot afford medical care. Also, the exorbitant rents have increased homelessness tremendously. 

Although there are serious constraints in what the Berkeley City Council can accomplish, it nevertheless should first make an effort to negotiate with developers for lower rents rather than allowing HUD's formula to serve as the first rather than the very last resort. Not attempting to engage the establishment to provide better terms for low income residents, including those who live on the streets, is tantamount to ignoring their welfare., 

Since the persistence of the housing crisis transcends what the Berkeley City Council can accomplish, we should certainly not blame the progressive majority for what they are unable to achieve. Instead, we must work together with the City Council by demonstrating, marching, lobbying, publicizing, and involving the public to develop at least a statewide strategy to turn things around