Op-Ed: Why Berkeley needs more affordable housing

Dan Sawislak on Sacramento - Cropped
Dan Sawislak, head of Resources for Community Development, on an affordable housing tour on Sacramento St. in Berkeley.

If you happened to come across a group of people on bikes criss-crossing their way through Berkeley last Sunday afternoon, you may have caught a glimpse of this year’s Berkeley Affordable Housing Bike Tour. The tour was one of the events held as part of the East Bay Housing Organization’s Affordable Housing Week.

A group of people on bikes gathered on Oxford outside the offices of Resources for Community Development (RCD), the non-profit that organized the tour. The group consisted of a variety of housing activists, community members, and representatives from other affordable housing developers, who set out to learn about over 15 affordable housing sites in Downtown, South and West Berkeley.

Dan Sawislak, Executive Director of RCD led the tour and offered a wealth of information about the history of affordable housing, how projects are funded and the benefits to residents. The tour included a wide variety of housing projects ranging from the five unit 9th Street Cooperative, to the Harriet Tubman Terrace with 90 units for  seniors on Adeline, to Harmon Gardens on Sacramento, a 16-unit building for youth transitioning out of the foster care system, and other small to large sites. Some projects housed the formerly homeless and others specialized in serving people with disabilities, low-income families with children and/or people with special needs. Some of the housing we visited also offered on-site supportive services, including medical clinics, counseling, resident activities, and classes.

Funding mechanisms for these projects are complex often using a combination of tax credits, tax-exempt bonds, local, state and federal funding.  With cuts and attacks on housing and human services and the elimination of redevelopment programs, funding for affordable housing is increasingly a challenge. Thank goodness for Community Economics Inc., represented on the tour by Elissa Dennis, an organization that specializes in helping non-profit developers wade through the financial and development process for building affordable rental housing.

The tour gave us a wide view of both the needs and possibilities for offering safe, maintained, supportive housing for people in our community who otherwise would be living in dire circumstances. In my work with the Alameda County Healthy Homes Department (previously named the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program) we too often see the consequences of the lack of affordable housing in the East Bay; multiple families crowded into small units, living with lead paint hazards, mold, cockroaches, rats, lack of heat, and safety hazards. These housing problems affect the whole family but especially children who are vulnerable to neurological damage from lead poisoning, chronic asthma episodes set off by unhealthy conditions in the home, and preventable injuries.

Safe affordable housing not only addresses these housing-related health problems but offers a stability that some families have never experienced. This has been shown to have a dramatic impact on people’s quality of life, mental health and personal development. It can also significantly cut down on health care costs, lost school days and adult loss of productivity. It makes sense on so many levels.

At the end of the tour, everyone agreed: we need more affordable housing. While the tour included just a small sampling of existing projects, the need is still great. When RCD opened Oxford Plaza family housing, they had over 3500 applications for 97 units. The tour showed that we have a dedicated group of organizations and individuals committed to maintaining and increasing the supply of safe, affordable housing. We know it can be done and we know how to do it. Now all we need is the political will and financial commitment to create more of what we know works.


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Julie Twichell is the Outreach and Communications Manager with the Alameda County Healthy Homes Department (previously named the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program). She is a health educator and has been with the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program for over 20 years, and lives in south Berkeley.