About 180 people attended a “teach-in” about Berkeley’s housing affordability crisis on Sunday. Photo: Kathleen Costanza
About 180 people attended a “teach-in” about Berkeley’s housing affordability crisis on Sunday. Photo: Kathleen Costanza

About 180 people packed into Berkeley Arts Festival, a performance space in Downtown Berkeley, on Sunday to hear housing experts and advocates discuss the city’s housing affordability crisis and what can be done to make Berkeley a more affordable place to live.

Audience members lined the walls, balcony and sat on the floor for the “teach-in,” organized by the Ad Hoc Committee for a Progressive Berkeley in conjunction with eight other advocacy and tenants’ rights organizations.

Housing experts say there’s a rental affordability crisis across the country, and the Bay Area continues to be one of the most extreme cases in the nation. In 2014, median rent in Berkeley reached just over $1,300 for a one-bedroom or studio apartment, according to the American Community Survey. (The national median rent for a one-bedroom or studio is $796, according to the survey.) And Zillow, an online real estate database, currently estimates the median rent for all units and homes in Berkeley is $3,584.

Steve Barton, former director of the Berkeley Housing Department and deputy director of the Rent Stabilization Program, opened the “teach-in” by explaining that rents in Berkeley have been rising faster than inflation since the 1950’s, but the sharpest increase in rents occurred after vacancy decontrol in 1999. The vacancy decontrol law allowed landlords to charge market rent (whatever price they can reach) when a new tenant moves into a unit and starts a new lease. A number of compounding factors, including the tech boom, have exacerbated the rise in rents since.

“The only long-term solution is socially-owned, affordable housing,” Barton said, which was met with cheers from the audience.

The situation may soon get worse. The Regents of the University of California recently approved a plan to accept 10,000 more students into the system. Mayor Tom Bates has said the plan will bring 4,000 more students to Berkeley in the next few years, which will place “tremendous pressure” on Berkeley’s rentals.

There are more than 1,400 apartments that have been built in downtown Berkeley in recent years or are in the pipeline. However, the majority will be priced at market rates; Berkeley laws only require developers to set aside 10% of their units for affordable housing. Or they can pay an “in lieu” fee of $20,000 per unit into the Housing Trust Fund.

Audience members listen to talks about Berkeley’s housing situation. Photo: Kathleen Costanza
Audience members listen to talks about Berkeley’s housing situation. Photo: Kathleen Costanza

Some of the rental prices on Craig’s List have shocked members of the community, such as this seven bedroom house that can sleep 20 and is up for rent for $20,995 a month; this nine-bedroom house that is renting for $14,800 a month; and this one-bedroom apartment renting for $4,500 a month. 

Moni Law, a housing counselor for the Rent Stabilization Board, was the next speaker and she described how skyrocketing rents have displaced many of Berkeley’s African American residents and made it difficult for people of color to return to Berkeley after moving away. She also said she has talked with many seniors on a fixed income who are being priced out of their long-time apartments.

“My heart aches talking to 75 and 80 year-old people whose rent exceeds their income, even in rent-controlled units,” Law said. “It’s a horrible situation we’re in.”

Though a portion of the meeting described the history and context of Berkeley’s current rental market, the majority was spent grappling with what measures the city could potentially take, despite state and local limits on various rent-control measures.

In his presentation, Barton described his proposed increase on the business license tax on Berkeley’s residential rental properties, which he presented to the city council in a work session on November 17. The proposed 1.8% increase would bring the tax to a total of 2.88% for residential properties with three or more units—averaging about $30 to $50 per unit per month. Barton said the tax would come out of what he called “windfall profits” from rising rents. Approximately $5 million in revenue earned annually would go to the Berkeley Housing Trust Fund, which pools funds for affordable housing, he said. He noted the tax would be unprecedented in California.

(The city council plans to discuss Barton’s proposal further with an eye toward putting it on a future ballot. But the idea has already gotten some pushback. Chris Hudson, a developer with Hudson McDonald, told the council on Nov. 17 that it took his firm six years to get entitlement rights to build the New Californian, which houses Trader Joe’s and sits at the intersection of University Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr.  Street. The idea that his firm has made a “windfall profit,” from the project is absurd, Hudson said.)

Katherine Harr, a member of the Rent Stabilization Board, discusses housing issues. Photo: Kathleen Costanza

Katherine Harr, who is a member of the Berkeley Tenants Union, a representative to the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board and a landlord, emphasized the importance of protecting the still-remaining rent-controlled housing units, or any unit built before 1980. The Rent Stabilization Board controls how much landlords can increase these rents each year. But in Berkeley, any housing built after 1980 is considered “new construction” and is immune from rent ceilings.

Harr said one key to preserving the declining number of rent-controlled units is enforcing the city’s demolition ordinance, something she said “developers keep trying to get around.” (Harr also wrote an op-ed in Berkeleyside last week about the demolition ordinance.)

“I didn’t know [housing affordability] was such a large problem,” said Clifton Perry, a business manager who attended the meeting and was born and raised in Berkeley. “It’s one thing to talk about it, it’s another to see people doing something with it.”

Still, other audience members believe there’s a long way to go to make living and renting in Berkeley more affordable.

“We’re preaching to the choir,” said an attendee who goes by Harvey and declined to use his last name. Harvey said his rent is adjusted because he has a disability, and he has lived in a house in South Berkeley with three other people for the last seven years. He has looked for a new place to live for more than six months, and said he’d like to see people across the political spectrum in Berkeley organize for affordable housing. “To win, it can’t just be us.”

Frances Dinkelspiel contributed to this story.

Short-term rentals are squeezing out Berkeley renters (05.26.15)
City may boost affordable housing with density bonus (04.29.15)
“Explosive” downtown Berkeley building housing boom under way (01.14.14)

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Kathleen Costanza

Kathleen Costanza is a writer, photographer, and Bay Area transplant by way of Chicago. In the last year, she has interviewed affordable housing developers, professional potters, urban farmers and middle...