City officials and residents attend the opening of a renovated South Berkeley affordable apartment building in 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The descendants of Berkeley families whose homes were cleared to make way for BART, as well as those who lived in redlined neighborhoods or lost their homes to foreclosure, will be at the front of the line for affordable housing under a policy adopted by the City Council this week.

City officials say the new policy is meant to stem the tide of displacement from Berkeley, which has lost about two-thirds of its Black population over the past half-century amid soaring housing costs, and to provide opportunities for residents who have moved elsewhere to return.

The policy, which was approved by the City Council on Tuesday, does not explicitly make Black renters a higher priority for affordable housing. But supporters described it as a step to address housing policies and practices — from overt discrimination in the 20th century to foreclosures during the Great Recession to evictions and gentrification in more recent years — that have disproportionately pushed Black residents out of Berkeley.

In 1970, the city’s 27,421 Black residents made up about a quarter of its population; by 2020, there were fewer than 10,000 Black Berkeleyans, who accounted for 8% of the population.

“Our country and more particularly our city carry deep legacies of redlining, eminent domain seizures and predatory lending that have inflicted harm upon the Black community here; this includes many African Americans being displaced due to the inability to afford skyrocketing rents,” Jasmine Sozi, a project manager with the East Bay Community Law Center, told the City Council at Tuesday’s meeting. “The preference policy plays a crucial role in advancing racial equity in Berkeley, as it directly confronts the historical injustices experienced by the Black community and communities of color.”

The law center was one of several organizations that worked on a multi-year effort to develop the policy, along with Berkeley’s Department of Health, Housing and Community Services, the nonprofit Healthy Black Families and the Housing Advisory Commission.

The policy will shape who lives in “below market-rate” units in new apartment buildings and affordable developments funded by the city’s Housing Trust Fund, such as those at the North Berkeley and Ashby BART stations. Waitlists for those and other affordable housing opportunities can stretch on for years.

Applicants whose families were displaced by BART construction — which involved clearing several city blocks to build stations, parking lots and the system’s right of way — are considered the “top priority” for housing under the policy. City staff wrote that families who had to sell their homes to BART in the 1960s and 70s, or whose properties were claimed by eminent domain, were deprived of an opportunity to build inter-generational wealth over the ensuing decades.

From there, the policy prioritizes:

  • Those who lost a home in Berkeley to foreclosure since 2005.
  • Renters who lost a home in Berkeley because of a “no-fault” eviction, or who were evicted for failing to pay rent, within the past seven years.
  • Families with children under 17.
  • Unhoused residents who are not eligible for permanent supportive housing, or residents who have a current or former address in Berkeley and are at risk of becoming homeless.
  • Current and former residents, as well as descendants of residents, of South and West Berkeley neighborhoods that were once deemed “hazardous” by federal housing officials in the practice known as redlining. Gentrification in those areas has driven dramatic increases in housing costs, and steep declines in their share of Black residents.

Renters will list those priorities when they apply for affordable housing, and must provide documentation to support their eligibility.

City officials said they plan to contract with a community organization to get the word out about the new policy to current and former residents, and will report back to the City Council each year on its effectiveness. The prioritization system will apply to a proportion of affordable units, not all of them; a process to determine what share of homes will be distributed based on the policy is underway now.

Members of Berkeley’s Housing Advisory Commission had hoped to create a policy that would explicitly prioritize Black residents for affordable homes, but were warned that such a race-conscious system may not withstand a legal challenge unless it was backed up by data.

To that end, the commission put forward and the City Council approved a separate item Tuesday commissioning a study of how government action contributed to housing discrimination in Berkeley and its effects on Black residents. City staff wrote that the study would “document past discriminatory housing policies to support more explicitly race-based restorative housing initiatives in the future.”

Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then,...