Rising rents, home prices in Berkeley and the Bay Area displacing thousands

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Berkeleyside – By Janis Mara

At first blush, Happy Skywalker would seem like just the kind of person who makes Berkeley distinctive. As a homeless teenager, she taught herself web-development skills using the free computer in the library, and she once ran for City Council.

But, like so many Berkeley residents, she found herself on the wrong end of an eviction notice in 2017. She fought the eviction, but after six months, worn out, she stopped fighting, cashed in her life savings and bought a motorhome to live in. She now travels from state to state working web assignments remotely, though disabling health issues limit how much she can work and hence earn.

While Skywalker’s case is an extreme example, social workers and other experts say rising rents and home prices in Berkeley and the Bay Area have displaced thousands of people in recent years.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and representing tenants in Berkeley. It’s amazing the number of people who have had to move away,” said Laura Lane, who was director of the housing practice at the East Bay Community Law Center for 20 years. The center’s housing program focuses on defending eviction lawsuits brought against low-income tenants, emphasizing defense of long-term tenancies to preserve the value of rent-controlled units.

In the 12 months between April 2017 and April 2018, Lane said, the housing program has assisted 1,539 people in Oakland and Berkeley with eviction cases or rent increases.

“Since the spikes in rent and the surge in the rental market over the last six years, we have seen an increasing number of people who are either unable to afford new units if they are displaced, or extremely concerned about being displaced based on their ability to remain in the central Bay Area if they are evicted,” said Brendan Darrow, a staff attorney with Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board.

More jobs but not enough housing

It’s easy to see what’s behind the skyrocketing rents. As of early 2016, the Bay Area economy had added 480,000 private-sector jobs over the previous five years, but only 50,000 housing units, according to the San Francisco Planning Urban Research Association.

“Much of price growth is driven by scarcity,” Alex Casey, a policy adviser for Zillow, told Berkeleyside earlier this year. “What the data show, when you look at the community as a whole, if you are not adding new units, then you are going to see existing units become more and more pricey and unable to sustain the current community members.”

Though rent growth has eased in recent months, the median rent in Berkeley was $3,500 as of April 30, according to real-estate site Zillow.

In the San Francisco metro area, which includes Berkeley, the median rent now requires almost half of the median income – 42% – according to Zillow. From 1985 to 2000, the median rent required 31% of the median income.

For these reasons, Skywalker said, she was willing to live in what she described as a run-down apartment.

“It was a complete shithole, but I could afford it,” she said.

African Americans affected more

While Skywalker is white, there is considerable evidence that the African-American population of Bay Area cities has been disproportionately affected.

“Absolutely the bulk of people served by the Law Center are African-American,” Lane said.

Between April 2017 and April 2018, 802 of the 1,539 Berkeley and Oakland residents who contacted the Law Center for help, 52%,  were African-American, Lane said. Of the remaining clients, 12% were Hispanic, 3% were white and the rest encompassed a number of different demographics, according to Lane.

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