Investigations of Berkeley’s affordable housing crisis and the rapidly-rising cost of all Berkeley housing have so far not publicly addressed two interesting questions: who’s been buying our newly-expensive single-family homes, and why have they chosen Berkeley? My conclusion may surprise you: even if they may seem to be rich, they’re probably not the enemy of the people.

I’ll start by nominating a media-friendly term to describe many of these new Berkeleyans.  Berkeley gained notoriety in earlier decades for housing hippies, yippies and yuppies, and it’s now time to add a new cohort. Enter the “Berkeley Happies.”  The description that follows comes from anecdotal observation and discussion, not formal research, but I hope it will be credible enough to spark community conversations.  One disclaimer:  this opinion piece is NOT an analysis or critique of gentrification as a collective socioeconomic process, just a look at some new residents who share some characteristics.

Today it takes considerably more than a typical Berkeley income ($82 to $90,000 per tax filer in the central flatland zipcodes, according to a recent Berkeleyside article), or similarly elevated net financial assets, to afford an “ordinary” Berkeley house in those neighborhoods. Three-bedroom homes there often sell quickly for well over a million dollars. (The income range in the wealthier hills is $190-$257,000). However, economics is only half the story.

When we meet new neighbors in the flatlands these days, one dual measure stands out: compared to the prior residents, the newcomers are usually BOTH wealthier AND more progressive, seemingly having succeeded at modern urban life without losing all their leftish ideals along the way. And most have chosen Berkeley for very conscious reasons.

“HAPPIES” are High-Achieving Progressive Professionals.

So let me fill out the new acronym:  many of our new Berkeleyans are HAPPIES: High-Achieving Progressive Professionals.  They typically hold (either on their own or in addition to a spouse or partner) higher-level technical, legal or mid-management jobs at which they quickly excelled. Unlike the yuppies made notorious in the 80s and 90s (young upwardly-mobile professionals who were content to spend years working their way slowly up through a large organization), today’s Happies typically leaped upward to middle- and high-level jobs in more-entrepreneurial companies of smaller sizes and with flatter org charts.

Credit Silicon Valley for establishing this triple paradigm of well-funded small-company formation, rapid company growth for some, and discontinuous employee advancement. This now has become a norm well beyond the South Bay. A local competent and educated young worker can almost rationally hope that just one job change or early-stage investment or IPO could advance him or her economically by multiple traditional steps, without all the yuppie patience required a generation ago.

Along the way up, many Happies also acquired or retained some “Berkeley values” that qualify them to be called politically progressive even by most of our old-timers. They are hardly the politically inert and ardent consumers of the yuppie years, nor usually the vague liberal democrats of typical suburbia. And that is what makes their arrival so interesting.

For example, most new Happies deeply value walkable neighborhoods and dismiss the kind of suburban auto dependence they often were no longer enjoying. They favor the sort of transit-oriented development that Berkeley fought to approve for a decade in the downtown, and can even be found riding buses (too often dismissed as for poor or old people only).  They are pleased to meet their human neighbors; one recent arrival (in this case a retiree) told us that he’s met more neighbors in three months here than he had in 30 years prior in the Montclair district of Oaklad.

And many Happies soon get involved in very local practical political issues and neighborhood-scale task groups more than they do electoral campaigns. For example, my street is working to install a four-way stop to end a rash of preventable collisions and improve an overloaded intersection. Our District 1 houses the North Berkeley BART station that will be adding hundreds of housing units guided by a series of public meetings, a good introduction to “Berkeley process.”  The homeless and motorized-homeless are not totally ignored here; quite the opposite. The range of hyper-local small scale issues is enough to challenge even the most enthusiastic new arrivals, especially after they realize that almost every decision requires multiple late evening meetings of the council and commissions.”

What to do about our Berkeley Happie neighbors, then?  Here are my recommendations:

  1. Welcome them. While we may be suspicious of such relatively well-off immigrants from perhaps-less-progressive places than the town we enjoy, it will at least be educational to learn their stories and motives. In return, we can share the wisdom and frustrations we’ve gained from our years here.
  2. Challenge them. Tell them how best to learn about the mixed blessings of life in Berkeley as they continue exploring. Ask them to sign a petition, come to a neighborhood meeting, contribute to a gofundme campaign (as some did to help relocate a local florist’s business at Gilman and Cornell), meet a cop for coffee or their council member in a cafe, and ask their own questions.
  3. Engage their skills. These new Berkeleyans didn’t become Happies through blind luck. Their ability to be productive and imaginative may be helpful in their new town.  What special talent or training can they contribute to your street or district?

Of course, we should not treat our Happies as saviors or paragons.  People of privilege in general, and not very racially diverse as a group, many will need to recalibrate some habits and attitudes to appropriately fit in.  But so did many of us old-timers who chose this town to make our own.

Alan Tobey, a retired technologist and current housing, transportation and health advocate, has lived in Berkeley since 1970. 
Alan Tobey, a retired technologist and current housing, transportation and health advocate, has lived in Berkeley since 1970.