Affordable Housing Guide

An illustration in muted tones of the search for housing with a group of people, some rolling suitcases, walking toward a block of houses and apartments

How to find affordable housing in Oakland and Berkeley

Illustration of the sort of paper ticket you pull to get help at a grocery counter. The numbers 510 (local area code) and a home icon are drawn on the ticket.

Oakland and Berkeley are at the center of a historic crisis, with some of the highest-priced housing in the country. For many residents, that means a safe, affordable place to live is hard to come by. At Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside, we often hear from readers wondering how to apply for affordable housing or find available apartments in Alameda County. Many people face challenges because there’s no single site or resource to answer every question.  

In this guide, we aim to share a lot of that information in one place. We focus on Berkeley and Oakland, but many of the resources can help you find housing throughout Alameda County. 

We’ve answered some of your most pressing questions, listed resources to programs offering affordable housing and shared tips on how to apply. 

Read the success stories of people who’ve secured housing to hear how they did it. They’ll tell you that it’s not easy. Even when you follow all the right steps, finding an affordable apartment that fits your budget could take months and even years. 

The best advice we can give is to apply to as many buildings as possible, as often as possible.

What do we mean when we say “affordable housing”?

“Affordable housing” can mean different things depending on who you ask. In this guide, that term refers to subsidized housing where the government or a nonprofit organization pays part of the rent, making it less expensive for low-income residents.

How do I know if I qualify for affordable housing?

Affordable housing apartments are reserved for renters who earn below a certain amount of income. 

How is that decided? The federal government determines the “area median income,” or AMI, for the region, including Oakland and Berkeley. If you listed the annual incomes of everyone in this region, the AMI would be the amount in the middle of the list. The AMI in the Alameda County region is currently $103,550 for a one-person household and $118,300 for a two-person household.

When apartments become available, you are given the maximum and sometimes the minimum  amount of income you can earn to qualify to live there. For example, you might have to make under 50% of the AMI — less than $51,800 for a one-person household and less than $59,200 for a two-person household.  

Here’s how to determine your family’s income level: Current income limits chart

In addition to income, some apartments have other qualifications. For example, some buildings are reserved for seniors.

How I found housing

Brenetta Fisher indoors with slight smile and blinds behind her

Call from a property manager

Brenetta Fisher, 72, had been living with her daughter in East Oakland for several years when she finally got the call from a property manager at the newly opened Jordan Court apartments in North Berkeley.

Read Brenetta’s full story

How much will I pay for rent?

At most affordable housing apartments, renters are required to pay 30% of their household income each month. Income refers to the wages you get at work or government benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Stimulus checks, like those sent to residents during the pandemic, are not counted as income. So if you get a $900 SSI check each month, you’ll pay about $300 in rent monthly. If you bring home $3,000 from work each month, you’ll pay $1,000.

Abstract illustration of housing and trees

How does the application process work?

Most affordable housing complexes have waitlists for apartments. Occasionally, the waitlist will open and you can apply by providing information about your household and income. Some waitlists are limited to certain income levels or specific groups, like seniors ages 55 and older. You could remain on the waitlist for a few months to several years. After you have applied, you should call the housing organization offering the apartment you applied for to find out what position you are on the list. 

The organization will start calling people on the waitlist when apartments become available. If you get a call, you’ll have to submit a more detailed application for an apartment.  You’ll need your tax and job documents at this stage.

How I found housing

Leila outdoors with placid expression

Through a social worker

Leila M. recently moved into her own one-bedroom apartment in Walnut Creek, with access to a pool and a gym. But it was a long, and often difficult, path to her new place, and along the way she experienced quite a few of the types of affordable housing that Alameda County has to offer.

Read Leila’s full story

Where can I find housing?

Look on county websites

Alameda County runs two websites listing affordable housing buildings that are currently accepting waitlist applications: 

AC Housing Choices: 

On this website, you can search for apartment complexes that meet your needs. If you find one you want to apply to, you’ll have to call the number listed on the site, or, in some cases, it will lead you to another website to fill out an application.  

This website has fewer property listings. It may be easier to use, however, because you can fill out an application directly on the site.

Check individual housing nonprofit websites

Sometimes, housing opportunities are not added to the county websites, but you can find them by checking the websites of nonprofit organizations that develop and manage affordable housing.

Some of the most active organizations in Berkeley and Oakland offering affordable rentals include:

The Oakland Housing Authority also operates some public housing.

Apply for a Section 8 voucher

Oakland and Berkeley have government agencies known as a housing authority that offers Section 8 vouchers, also called Housing Choice Vouchers. To use the voucher, a renter has to contribute 30% to 40% of their income to rent and utilities, and the housing authority pays the rest. If you receive a voucher, you can use it to rent any apartment on the market. 

It can be challenging and exhausting to find a place, however. Although landlords are required by law to accept applications from Section 8 voucher-holders, they’re also not under any obligation to select them as tenants. 

Waiting lists to apply for Section 8 vouchers are closed in Oakland and Berkeley and likely will be for a long time. In July 2022, Berkeley briefly opened its waitlist for the first time in a decade, and over 21,000 people applied for 2,000 spots. Check the housing authority websites for more information on when the lists will reopen.

Housing authorities have also received a limited number of emergency vouchers to distribute during the pandemic. Clients can get a referral for these vouchers from social workers, but they can’t apply directly.

Check out a land trust

Land trusts are organizations that often buy properties and rent or sell them to residents with the guarantee that they’ll stay affordably priced forever. Often the buildings operate as cooperatives, where residents share household duties and make decisions together about the future of the property. Several land trusts are active in the East Bay, and while most only own a handful of buildings, sometimes rooms or units in the properties become available for rent or purchase. 

Check out the following websites to see if any housing applications are open. 

Bay Area Community Land Trust
Oakland Community Land Trust 
Northern California Land Trust

How I found housing

Betty Gray smiling with fingers to chin looking into the distance

In a renovated church co-op

Betty Gray, owner of Alice’s Relaxing Gift and Bath in Berkeley, suffered an injury early in 2022 at her apartment that left her unable to leave her home. She looked for an accessible apartment for months, and finally got lucky at the newly refurbished McGee Avenue Baptist Church property, Stuart Street Co-op, that opened in mid-September. 

Read Betty’s full story

Where should I look for emergency housing if I’m currently homeless?

Illustration of a phone with the numbers 211

If you are experiencing homelessness, connect to resources through Alameda County’s “coordinated entry system.” You can call 2-1-1 or contact one of the “housing resource centers” on this list (look for your location) to begin. Berkeley and Oakland also have outreach teams, along with nonprofits, that provide intake services on the ground and at encampments.

These services may be able to help you find an emergency shelter or start the intake process to connect you with case workers and longer-term housing support. Often the housing provided through this system is temporary and designed to be a transitional step toward permanent housing.

How long will it take me to find housing?

Illustration of a clock with a house in the background

When you put your name on a waitlist for an affordable housing property, you may get a call back within weeks saying you’re eligible to apply for a unit. Some residents get a key soon after. 

When that building fills up, everyone who’s still on the waitlist will then have to wait for additional openings — for example, if a tenant moves somewhere else. However, it could take years to get a call. 

Because it can take a long time to land an apartment, it’s best to apply for as many waitlists as possible.

Get the print version

We have created an abbreviated print version of this guide and will be distributing copies to sites throughout Berkeley and Oakland. Please email if you would like a copy or a batch to distribute.

Download the PDF

Download a printable one-page PDF version of the guide.

Reporters: Supriya Yelimeli, Berkeleyside and Natalie Orenstein, The Oaklandside. Editors: Pamela Turntine, Berkeleyside, and Darwin BondGraham, The Oaklandside. Designer: Doug Ng, Cityside
Illustrator: John Thomas