Seated in her living room on Wednesday morning, Betty Gray greeted the neighbors, local politicians and housing advocates who streamed in to greet her at her new home in the Stuart Street Co-op in South Berkeley.
“The first day I got here, I went outside and I looked at the sun and the trees, and I watched monarch butterflies,” said Gray, who owns Alice’s Relaxing Bath and Gift shop on Alcatraz Avenue. “Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your neighborhood.”
Gray, 73, was among the first residents of the refurbished eight-unit building at 1638 Stuart St., a partnership between the 100-year-old McGee Avenue Baptist Church and the Bay Area Community Land Trust, or BACLT, which typically purchases existing buildings to turn them into affordable housing.
It’s the first project of its kind in Berkeley, with another BACLT building coming soon on Solano Avenue. The land trust collaborated with the church to refurbish an existing, dilapidated building on Stuart Street and create eight affordable units, now fully occupied.
Derrick Jourdan, former chair of the board of trustees for the church, was overjoyed at the opening of the project Wednesday morning, attended by Mayor Jesse Arreguín, District 3 Councilmember Ben Bartlett, other members of the council and local housing funders and developers.
Jourdan recalled the history of the building — once a single-family home and later an apartment building for church members before it fell into disrepair. As the building sat unused, the church saw the Black population in Berkeley plummet from over 20% to 8%, and many of its congregants were priced out of Berkeley into the outskirts of the Bay Area.
“Berkeley is quite honestly the jewel of Alameda County. Berkeley has everything,” Jourdan said, referring to the city’s nature, culture and entertainment. “The frustration for me, that saddens me deeply, is that people of color who were once a vital part of that are disappearing.”
He said the Stuart Street Co-op doesn’t directly address the church congregation’s housing needs, but working with BACLT helped him expand his thinking to understand how an intentional housing community could serve the neighborhood and enrich its culture.
“What I see now as most important is not just a specific community of individuals moving in, but people who care enough … about breathing life into a community, rather than just living in an apartment.
Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national financial backer for community projects, funded the project, in addition to a $1 million loan from Berkeley’s Small Sites program as its inaugural project. The land trust said each unit costs about $415,000 to preserve, compared to the regional standard cost of $726,469 for newly built units, according to a Bay Area Council Economic Institute analysis of data from the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee.
The project went over cost due to inflation, and the land trust is currently fundraising online to complete parts of the project, like a newly landscaped community garden.
“This project is really an example of what can be done through the Small Sites program,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said Wednesday. “We know how expensive it is to construct affordable housing … but to preserve these once-uninhabitable units with less than 40% of what it costs to build a [new] project is really incredible.”
South Berkeley residents at the Stuart Street Co-op will live in an intentional community
The land trust sent applications through its nonprofit partners and groups like the Berkeley Housing Authority several months ago and began sorting through potential residents. Tracey Parent, organizational director at the land trust, said they received 20 applications for the eight units, and residents were selected through a lottery.
Residents range in age from their 20s to seniors like Gray. Part of the selection process included an orientation for residents to be aware of the responsibilities in the co-op, such as maintenance of the property and shared use of resources. At this property, for example, the Berkeley Rotary Club donated an electric vehicle and charging station to be used by all residents.
Monthly rents range from $1,300 for a studio to $1,900 for a one-bedroom, and they are designed to be “permanently affordable” below market rate units.
They aren’t rent-controlled but have to abide by Berkeley’s affordable housing rules. That means they need to be “affordable,” with a maximum rent of 30% of a resident’s income for anyone making 80% of the area median income. These rents can only increase with inflation, Parents said.
Gray, initially 13th on the waitlist, learned that she would get an apartment at the property at the end of July after months of searching for a new home that would accept her Section 8 voucher. She was housebound at her old apartment off Sacramento Street since an injury early this year. She was hoping for a ground-level apartment to start anew and return to working at her longtime business.
Family, community members and local business owners helped her move at the beginning of September into her new home — an open and airy ADA-accessible one-bedroom with a wheelchair ramp, in-unit laundry and space for the (downsized) collection of art and memories she’s accumulated over the years in the Bay Area.
She’s still processing the move and the intense emotions of being out and about after being stuck in her apartment for so long. She hopes to return to her business (a 10-minute bus ride away) for a celebratory re-opening on Sept. 20.
“For 50 years, I’ve taken care of something or somebody,” Gray said. “This conjunction of the life is for me, and what a wonderful place for new beginnings.”