Opinion: Making a case for the 9,000 new home allocation

To keep up with population growth in Berkeley, it makes sense to build more housing according to the Regional Housing Needs Allocation.

Whenever a law is passed to make America more equitable, there are endless cries of corruption and sedition from its opponents, and this recent Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) cycle is no exception. A recent Berkeleside op-ed pieces together out of context, largely irrelevant quotes and speculation to act as though state laws are part of a giant conspiracy to take away your suburbia. I will explain how these laws work. 

The RHNA allocation of 9,000 new homes over eight years is completely appropriate for Berkeley simply by looking at census data. Berkeley added 2,877 housing units while adding 11,741 people in the last 10 years. Note that population number is an underestimate because Cal students had largely vacated Berkeley during the survey. That’s a 10.4% increase in residents but only a 5.8% increase in housing. Elementary math says that if the number of homes is directly proportional to population growth, then that percentage should be identical, or 5,143 homes, but it’s not. In the 2000s, Berkeley’s population increased by 9.6%, while housing increased by 5.5%. So the pattern is virtually identical: for two decades, we have added half as much housing as we need relative to our population growth — hence we have a housing crisis. That’s not including all the people who could live in Berkeley but don’t because they can’t afford to.

Let’s presume Berkeley maintains the same population growth it’s consistently had for the last 20 years of 10% for the 2020s. The city would need to add 5,233 homes. Just to make up for the deficit of this current century, Berkeley would need to add on top of 5,233 homes, 1,921 missing homes from the 2000s, plus 2,266 missing homes for the 2010s, which means 9,420 homes just to appropriately house our existing population. The Association of Bay Area Governments’ (ABAG) methodology uncovered a very similar number of 8,934. There’s nothing “artificial” about it; it’s quite simple. 

Next, there’s nothing mysterious or corrupt about SB 828. In the past, the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) would hand regions a housing requirement, and then those regions would divvy up the allocation however they liked, which in turn meant the usually busybodies from affluent segregated suburbs would allocate themselves virtually no housing and put the requirements on poorer communities. This opposed the principles of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, an Obama/Biden anti-segregation policy, and was appropriately fixed by SB 828 so that the state set equity standards for how cities divided up housing. So places like Beverly Hills, which went from being required to build three homes in the last eight years to now being requested to build 3,000. 

Predictably, the Bay Area’s most white and segregated community — Marin County — lined up to appeal, but ABAG denied it since its arguments were meritless. SB 828 isn’t all that mysterious or covert either, it simply did the following: mandate that anything lower than 5% for a city’s vacancy rate was indicative of a housing shortage; that communities with high rates of household overcrowding and massive home price increases compared to low wages increases get more housing; that communities must make room in their zoning maps for at least twice their allocations so that unfeasible sites have backups; that previous deficits in housing requirements are added onto their next population growth forecasts rather than ignored; that data on housing needs would derive from the census. 

That’s it; it’s not complicated or mysterious at all. 

And this line that “cities don’t build housing, developers do” is some of the worst playing dumb I have ever seen. For the last 30 years, new, accessible housing has been exclusively built in downtown and San Pablo Avenue because that’s where Berkeley zones for it. Also, expedited approval is not the same as ministerial approval by-right. Under a fairly old law called the Housing Accountability Act, any housing proposal that follows the city’s zoning, affordability and environmental rules must be approved ministerially by law,  a.k.a. “by-right.” The usual length of time to go through the process is 1 1/2 to two years, in which the developer works with various city commissions to consider voluntary changes to their housing projects. Expedited approval, which the op-ed refers to as ministerial, merely shortens the length of by-right development. So instead of getting a permit in 1 1/2 to two years, a developer gets it in roughly three months by simply getting a permit from the planning department if it’s determined to have followed all the city’s rules, affordability and environmental laws. But expedited only kicks in for the income category you’re short on after a several-year report and the city has always satisfied its market-rate goals, which are just one-fourth of the total housing requirement.

The theory that developers, anyone from an average homeowner to a big builder, would all take a pledge and wait more than two years, longer than the average time to get a by-right permit to build housing just so that a ministerial 90-day permit kicks in at the end of it in a highly competitive market where everyone wants to build and lease out as soon as possible seems absolutely insane. The ministerial law has been in place for a half-decade now. Why haven’t they done this yet?

Let’s be honest: nobody really cares about fourplexes, SB 9, housing affordability or RHNA. This is about American culture. There are a lot of people who grew up in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when the American Dream was a big single-family home, with a huge, water-guzzling lawn, and big driveway, freeways and supermarkets far away from where they live. Logically they codified their lifestyles into law as if everyone wanted to live that way, even if according to Cool Climate Network, the lowest density parts of our city disproportionately emit greater carbon emissions per household than the dense areas.

And then they see these younger people that don’t want any of that. They move into houses, build ADUs, and live low carbon lifestyles with bikes and public transit rather than owning a car; they put up signs in front of their homes saying they want more neighbors and walk to the grocery store instead of parking. Then the Democratic Party and the White House are calling single-family zoning racist, and then Nobel prize-winning climate researchers are endorsing multifamily housing in Berkeley, all of a sudden Berkeley High school kids are writing about how bad R-1 neighborhoods are, Cal students support housing projects — and it’s all so much, so fast, so antithetical to everything they know! So it must be a corporation or a lobbyist or a secret group, they reason.

As a YIMBY, I admit I have a lot of sympathy for the NIMBYs. For I, too, grew up in a single-family home with a white picket fence and a big car in Berkeley. To be told that your way of life you’ve been taught to chase after for decades isn’t actually the way everyone wants to live or should live is certainly painful. Change is hard because it reminds us that we’re getting old and there will be new experiences we won’t be a part of, so in fear of change, many fight anything to make the city livable if it means the city looks slightly different tomorrow, but time’s linear whether you like it or not. 

Freezing Berkeley in time may have preserved some old houses, but we paid for it by shedding our working class, clogging our streets with out-of-town workers who can’t afford to live here, stranding thousands of elderly people in fire zones, pricing out that youthful spirit from the city, and now many children of Berkeley can’t afford to live here. Berkeley ain’t much of a city anymore, just a town of housing insecure students and retirees who bought decades ago and everybody else who commutes in to keep it running. 

It’s not just population growth we need to house either — someday, the Berkeley Hills will burn down. And if you paid any attention to Chico, it’s wise for a city to have a lot of available housing; otherwise, you’re going to exponentially increase homelessness. 

Multifamily housing, streets with bicycles, walkable stores, decent transit, pedestrian plazas, accessibility for seniors and the disabled, low carbon living — it’s not just a fantasy you see on a trip to Europe or Japan. It speaks to Berkeley’s original heritage as an urban suburb. I live in a North Berkeley neighborhood of good public transit sustained by a mildly dense population of fourplexes, single-family homes and ADUs, small corner markets, bike routes, parks and trees. Here are photos of what this kind of density in Berkeley looks like, a collage of three, four and five-plexes.

It’s nothing to be afraid of.

Update: This opinion piece has been updated to correct the use of ministerial and by-right approval.

Darrell Owens is a lifelong resident of Berkeley, a data analyst at California YIMBY, a pro-housing organization, a former associate project manager at Resources for Community Development, an affordable housing builder and a member of East Bay for Everyone.