Rising rents

Displacement and density amid dizzying costs

December 13, 2021
card illustration
William Bennett | File

Why’s the rent so high?

Following the passage of the Rent Stabilization and Eviction for Good Cause Ordinance in 1980, Berkeley became a very affordable place to live. In part, this was due to the fact that the board could enact vacancy control, according to Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board chair Leah Simon-Weisberg.

Vacancy control allows the board to prohibit or limit rent increases while a unit is vacant, Simon-Weisberg said. The board no longer has that power, however, when the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act was passed in 1995, prohibiting vacancy control.

“Every time a tenant moves out, the landlords can raise the rent or whatever they want,” Simon-Weisberg said. “Ever since then, it just goes up and up.”


Visualizing rising rent prices


Gross median rent in Berkeley by year



Gross median rent in Alameda County by year


From 2010 to 2019, gross median rents grew yearly in Alameda County and in the city of Berkeley. Across units of all sizes, gross median rents increased 65% in Alameda County, and median rents in Berkeley increased 63% between 2010 and 2019.

Aside from Costa-Hawkins, Simon-Weisberg also attributes rising median rents to student housing prices.

UC Berkeley yearly housing prices, which range from $9,830 per academic year for a quad in Clark Kerr to $20,020 per academic year for a single room and bath in the New Sequoia Apartments, which can supersede the cost of in-state attendance at $14,226 for the 2020-21 school year.

“For 20 years, (the regents have) considered housing as a way of making a profit instead of it as a service to the students,” Simon-Weisberg alleged. “They create the top of the market, and then everybody else gets to match it, and that's the problem. … They can charge whatever they want.”


Effects of high rent costs in Berkeley

According to both Simon-Weisberg and Rent Stabilization Board commissioner John Selawsky, rising rents largely displace communities of color and the working class or leave them without shelter.

The decline in the percentage of Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, students participating in California’s free or reduced-priced meals program may be a result of this displacement.

Percent of students in free and reduced-price meals program


In the 2009-10 school year, 41.2% of BUSD students received free or reduced-price meals. By the 2020-21 school year, it sank to 25.8%. In contrast, the percent of students in the free or reduced-priced meals program across Alameda County show less of a trend. Across 11 years, the percentage has remained fairly consistent.

The trend we see in Berkeley suggests low-income families are being priced out of the city and moving elsewhere. Both Selawsky and Simon-Weisberg claim that now, minimum- to low-wage workers in Berkeley must relocate to farther-flung, more accessible suburbs such as Vallejo. This displacement distances workers from their jobs in Berkeley, making them face longer commutes.

Aside from displacement to other cities, the data suggest that there is an association between rising rents and the increasing homeless population.

Point-in-Time counts of homeless population in Berkeley


Point-in-Time counts of homeless population in Alameda County


In biennial counts from 2015 to 2019, the recorded number of individuals experiencing homelessness without shelter in Berkeley has consistently risen. However, the number of people in transitional or emergency housing has stayed fairly consistent, suggesting that more people are facing homelessness but just as many people are afforded temporary shelter.

Across nine years of data, the number of people experiencing homelessness was on an even keel from 2010 to 2016. However, the count nearly doubled between 2016 and 2019.

Executive director Chelsea Andrews of EveryOne Home, an organization dedicated to aiding homeless communities in Alameda County, said rising rents are “absolutely” related to rising homelessness.

“There is a direct correlation between individuals experiencing housing instability and the inability to pay for rent or own a home and the rising homeless counts,” Andrews said in an email. “People unable to pay rent without other housing options with family or friends ultimately seek shelter in homeless shelter facilities, sleep in their cars, RVs or sleep outdoors.”

In order to combat this growing crisis, the city of Berkeley has created tax revenues to establish new homeless shelters, transitional housing, safe lots for people to park their RVs and more affordable housing units, according to Andrews. The state has also pitched in to provide hotel rooms to the unhoused through Project Roomkey and Safer Ground. The goal is to transition those people from hotels to permanent housing, Andrews added.

Other prevention efforts that have proved useful include the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, according to Andrews. The program provides individuals or families with financial assistance to keep them sheltered.

Rapid rehousing also provides individuals who are homeless or at-risk of being so with transitional housing and subsidies to pay rent. Andrews noted that this method, along with others, has been successful in preventing and ending homelessness.


What is the rent board doing?

Though Costa-Hawkins takes away some of their rent control power, Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board serves as an educational tool for both tenants and landlords.

“The main thing is that we really invest in the counseling part, so any tenant or landlord can call and get their questions answered immediately,” Simon-Weisberg said. “Landlords really trust the rent board and they call in and get information so they're not making errors.”

Landlords are required to run rent increases by the Rent Board for review, Simon-Weisberg added. If the board finds that a notice served to a tenant, such as a rent increase or eviction notice, is inaccurate or unlawful, they reach out to tenants to inform them and ensure that no one self-evicts.

The board is also working on a Tenant Habitability Plan, or THP, with Berkeley City Council members.

According to a presentation created by Simon-Weisberg, many tenants are choosing to stay in their rentals long term as a result of vacancy decontrol because if they move out, landlords can raise their rent. Therefore, any repairs have to be made while a unit is occupied unless the tenant temporarily moves out.

Under this practice, it is difficult to monitor and mitigate unsafe construction practices. The issue has become more pressing with the city of Berkeley’s recent decision to outlaw single-family zoning and allow for higher-density zoning, Simon-Weisberg said, as the city may see an increase in housing supply and construction.

For example, she referenced a landlord in Berkeley who built an accessory dwelling unit from the ground up in front of an apartment building without giving notice to the tenants or surrounding neighbors. According to Simon-Weisberg, that shouldn’t happen.

The THP would require landlords to notify tenants about when construction or repairs will start and end, what type of work will be done, how it will affect them, options for temporary relocation, and provide a summary of the THP.

Ultimately, this effort will help to protect tenants who reside in a unit during construction and ensure landlords properly manage potential dangers and disturbances that may result.

“​Building with more density is in no way anti-tenant, but building without protections for the tenants who are there is a problem,” Simon-Weisberg said. “We really tried to make sure that the tenant protections that are there match this kind of new phase of density construction.”

According to Selawsky, another one of the initiatives the board focuses on is maintaining the rent controlled units the city has, given that they can’t add new ones due to Costa-Hawkins.


Going forward

Despite efforts to maintain emergency shelters, ensure tenant protections, build with higher density and enact rent control where possible, rising rents, displacement and homelessness are still looming issues for Berkeley, Alameda County and beyond.

“Most major metropolitan cities struggle with the same challenges: high unemployment rates, high cost of living, low wages, rising rental and home prices,” Andrews said in the email. “This is an issue throughout our nation that requires creative solutions, dedicated resources and an ‘all hands-on deck’ approach to significantly reduce the number of people becoming homeless and providing more affordable housing.”