Strawberry Creek Lodge is among the city’s recent efforts to invest in affordable housing. A November 2018 bond measure could provide more chances to support similar projects. Photo: Nicholas Bruno
Strawberry Creek Lodge is among the city’s recent efforts to invest in affordable housing. A November 2018 bond measure could provide more chances to support similar projects. Photo: Nicholas Bruno

Berkeley voters may have a chance in November to approve a bond measure to help pay for affordable and workforce housing, according to new survey results released by the city this week.

A parcel tax to help address homelessness scored well on the survey, too, but it remains to be seen whether it could garner the two-thirds majority necessary to pass.

Also of note, the number of respondents who said the city is “going in the right direction” dropped from 64% in 2016 to 51% this year. Twenty-five percent of those questioned said the city is on the “wrong track,” up from 19% in 2016.

Each election year, the city surveys hundreds of likely voters to decide what to put on the upcoming ballot and what language to use. Consultant Lake Research Partners conducted this year’s community survey of 500 likely voters last week, from March 12-15.

Tuesday night, the Berkeley City Council is set to review the results, then decide how to proceed.

The plunge in confidence likely voters expressed about the city’s direction was not the only indication of trouble. The survey also found that a diminishing number of residents say they are happy with city services. The number who described “the job Berkeley is doing providing city services” as excellent or good has fallen from a high of 70% in 2014, to 62% in 2016, to 55% this year.

Likely voters ranked building affordable housing and addressing homelessness as the most pressing concerns the city faces. Improving education and city infrastructure were in somewhat distant fourth and fifth place. Crime reduction was next on the list but scored low.

A whopping 84% ranked affordable housing as “important,” and 83% ranked homeless services as important. “Improving neighborhood and community safety” was described as important by 63% of those surveyed, and “Improving infrastructure like streets, parks and stormwater” was seen as important by 56%.

As to the need to improve parks and playgrounds, however, a resounding 75% of respondents said it fell into the “not important” category, according to Lake Research Partners. It was the only area in which the “not important” designation came out ahead. (Worth noting that the “not important” finding is composed of those who answered either “Somewhat important” or “Not too important” on what is essentially a four-point scale. Responses of “Extremely important” or “Very important,” on the other hand, appear to be grouped into the “Important” classification.)

Potential 2018 ballot measures

The survey asked likely voters about two possible versions of an affordable housing bond measure, one at the $50 million level, and one at $100 million. The goal of the bond would be “To finance the development and preservation of affordable housing to extremely low, very low, low, and moderate-income households, including homes for seniors, people with disabilities, and working families such as teachers.”

Sixty-one percent indicated support for each proposal. Staff says the consultant was asked in the survey to look only at special taxes, in all cases, so all the measures would need a two-thirds majority to pass. (A general tax would only require a simple majority.)

The survey also asked about support for a parcel tax to generate $5 million each year, on either a temporary or permanent basis, for “homeless services, such as preserving and expanding existing services, supporting rapid re-housing programs, and providing navigation centers and emergency shelter for the homeless.” The tax was proposed at 6 cents per square foot, or $107 per year for a 1,900-square-foot “average” Berkeley home.

The permanent measure garnered slightly more support, with 63% in favor and 16% undecided. The 12-year version saw 60% in favor and 15% undecided. The parcel tax would need a two-thirds majority, or 67%, to succeed.

Fifty-four percent of respondents said they are likely to support a new half-percent city sales tax “with the revenue going toward community safety, including enhanced community policing, increased recruitment and retention of police officers, increased mental health services, and providing ambulance transport for mental health incidents.” Another 18% said they are undecided. It too would need a two-thirds majority to pass as a special tax.

A simple majority of likely voters (57%) said they would support a change to the transfer tax assessed when property changes hands. The tax is currently set at 1.5%. The proposed measure would create a “tiered” tax, at the 2% level for property sales over $750,000, and 3% for sales over $2 million.

According to the survey, the change would bring in about $9 million each year “with the revenue going toward a variety of strategies for affordable housing, such as building and preserving affordable housing for extremely low to moderate-income people, including homes for seniors, people with disabilities and working families such as teachers.”

According to the survey, 65% of respondents said they are also likely to support an Alameda County measure to create a 30-year, half-percent sales tax focused on funding for child care and youth support services. That measure, estimated to raise $140 million annually, could come before voters in June.

Most common local news sources. Source: Lake Research Partners

Berkeleyside was identified as the primary local news source for most respondents. Twenty-six percent said Berkeleyside is their main source (up from 18% in 2016), followed by “other” online news sites at 12% and the San Francisco Chronicle and TV news at 11%.

Respondent demographics didn’t change too much from 2016 to 2018. Homeowners were slightly more represented in the survey results this time around (53% compared to 48% in 2016), with renters making up just 41% in 2018, compared to 47% in 2016. There were also fewer white respondents (55% down from 62%), and more black respondents (14% up from 10%), in this year’s sample as compared to 2016.

Tuesday night, the Berkeley City Council will consider whether to conduct a second survey to dig into the results. (That has been common practice in past years.) The cost for two surveys would be about $60,000, the city says.

When council voted earlier this year to have the surveys conducted, the scope of work allowed for two surveys. That’s in part because they serve difference purposes, staff wrote: “the first is used to get a broad sense of community preferences and to test potential ballot measures,” while the second “is used to test a more narrow set of specific ballot measures or to test the proposed measures in more nuanced ways.”

If the city elects to do another survey, it would be conducted in early April. Results would be presented at the May 15 council meeting, staff wrote.

“Actual ballot language would still need to be developed by staff for consideration by the Council in June, in order to meet the deadlines in the Elections Code,” according to the staff report.

In the staff report prepared for Tuesday night’s meeting, city staff also noted that Berkeley election costs have risen dramatically year over year in the past decade, up from $224,576 in November 2008 to $888,855 in November 2016.

Election costs have been on the rise. Source: City of Berkeley

According to the city, some of that increase, in 2012 and 2014, was “due primarily to general year-over-year increases, and the addition of two more required languages (Vietnamese and Tagalog).” More recently, “The cost increase in 2016 is due to a surcharge from the Registrar of Voters to pay for replacement of the voting machines in 2020 or 2022. This surcharge will continue for several more election cycles.”

Update, March 27, 2018: An earlier version of this story incorrectly explained that some of the ballot measures would need a simple majority to succeed. City staff says, in fact, all of the questions were presented in the survey as special taxes, and would thus need a two-thirds majority to be approved.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...