Even if they can’t change the fact that the federal government gives inadequate money for affordable housing, people can fight at the local level to determine where housing money is spent, Sean Heron, executive director for East Bay Housing Organizations, told some 20 people gathered Monday evening at the North Berkeley Senior Center.
“Affordable housing is necessary to preserve your community,” said Heron, whose organization is an East Bay umbrella group for various organizations which lobby and advocate for affordable housing.
“Being able to preserve the fabric that allows your community to exist, if the market provided it, it would be simple. But it’s not,” Heron said.
The forum was held to educate low-income housing residents on how they can become advocates for affordable housing. It was sponsored by the Affordable Housing Advocacy Project, a city-sponsored low-income housing advocacy organization.
The discussion comes at a critical time for Berkeley’s low and fixed-income residents. Federal funds for Section 8 housing vouchers and affordable housing projects have failed to keep pace with the skyrocketing costs of land and housing in the Bay Area, said Ruth Nazario, associate management analyst for the housing department. Because of the high cost of land and construction, “they haven’t increased vouchers. They haven’t built new public housing,” she said referring to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The economic boom that’s sending housing prices sky high doesn’t affect everyone’s incomes equally. Rents increased by 40 percent in Berkeley last year, said Patrick Kehoe, a member of the city’s Housing Authority Resident Advisory Board. Rents increased by 30 percent in Oakland, Heron noted.
At the same time, Heron said, the real income of low-wage workers with children decreased by 20 percent.
In addition to funding, the major issue blocking low-income housing projects is community resistance, said Heron. He told the group that the “Not-In-My-Backyard” attitude must be combated with education.
“If you don’t know what affordable housing looks like, you can’t articulate the need for affordable housing,” he said.
Many of the fears and misconceptions of affordable housing – that it is poorly designed and crime-ridden – can be attributed to early public housing projects.
The huge block buildings with apartments off one central hallway were too crowded, and made it hard for people to take responsibility for the building. Instead, people only took responsibility for the area starting at their front door.
Developers have learned from these errors. Many of the worst projects have been torn down.
Now the trend is to create smaller units, each with its own entrance, such as the 60 units of Berkeley’s scattered-site low income housing.
A slide show of affordable housing – clean white houses with peaked roofs or salmon-colored square buildings – showed them indistinguishable from the other houses in the neighborhood.
According to developers, affordable housing also meets neighborhood resistance, because of the stigma attached to low-income individuals.
One audience member described her search for housing: “They didn’t want to rent to me because they thought I was going to trash the place because I’m Section 8,” she said, referring to her subsidized housing voucher.
Heron talked about confronting these negative associations with facts.
He listed the occupations of low-income housing residents: secretary, student, postal worker, physical therapist, interpreter, and IRS examiner, among others.
The idea that these people receive too many subsidies from the government, approximately $26.7 billion a year, ignores the fact that homeowners receive $99.5 billion dollars in “subsidies” in tax breaks, he said.
“You’ve made it if you’re a homeowner, but if you’re a tenant you’re a second class citizen.”
Laurie Wonnell, of the Berkeley-based nonprofit developer Affordable Housing Associates, said a low-income housing development agency, gaining community acceptance can make a significant impact on the development process.
When neighbors protest a development, “it can really slow down the process...where your design constantly gets reviewed,” she said.
Construction prices can increase 10 percent in a year, so any delay means higher design and construction costs.
“It can take a long time to get a project through. If there’s no opposition you can get more projects through,” she said.
With increased local advocacy and education, members of the Affordable Housing Advocacy Project hope they can help move affordable housing projects more quickly through the city’s approval process.