A lot has changed in Berkeley’s housing landscape since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Housing prices have increased, while residents have had to adapt to ongoing policy changes.
Meanwhile, many have faced financial hardships after losing their jobs or having their hours cut, according to Rachel Gonzales-Levine, acting executive director of the Berkeley Housing Authority, or BHA, which provides low-income households with rental assistance.
“We have been in a rolling housing crisis for years,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Sophie Hahn in an email. “It takes more than a few years to resolve a problem decades in the making, but we are on the right path.”
Political responses to the pandemic
Local and federal governments introduced programs to support those experiencing financial insecurity during the pandemic.
These programs, intended to curb the impact of the pandemic on financially vulnerable communities, have shifted the landscape of housing in Berkeley, according to Gonzales-Levine.
These efforts include an eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which prohibited landlords from removing tenants due to nonpayment of rent. The moratorium went into effect Sept. 4, 2020, and expired Aug. 1, 2021, according to CNN.
On Aug. 3, the CDC issued a moratorium for states with high COVID-19 transmission rates in light of the spread of the delta variant. The moratorium is set to expire Oct. 3.
CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky noted that preventing evictions is important in allowing residents to stay home and away from congregate settings where the virus can easily spread.
“It is imperative that public health authorities act quickly to mitigate such an increase of evictions, which could increase the likelihood of new spikes in SARS-CoV-2 transmission,” Walensky said in a press release. “Such mass evictions and the attendant public health consequences would be very difficult to reverse.”
A changing demographic
Personal choices to relocate have also played a role in individuals’ financial and housing security, according to Gonzales-Levine.
Hahn noted that many residents who moved to Berkeley and Oakland came from San Francisco. Some of these relocations have been driven by the increased availability of remote work during the pandemic.
This influx of residents has outpaced the development of new housing for years, Hahn added.
A UC San Diego study from this year found that while residents planning to leave the state did not increase during the pandemic, those looking to relocate within California increased by 5% compared to survey respondents from a 2019 UC Berkeley study.
In March, a California Policy Lab policy brief found that the number of exits from San Francisco increased by 31% since the previous year.
“People are also considering what it’s like to spend more of their time at home now and in the future,” Hahn said in an email. “Access to outdoor and green space is at a premium, and spending more time with family, rather than commuting, highly coveted.”
Hahn added that the construction of apartments was slowed by supply-chain and material cost increases caused by the pandemic.
The influx of residents to Berkeley from San Francisco is one reason why housing prices have recently “skyrocketed,” according to Anthony Carrasco, a member of the city’s Homeless Services Panel of Experts.
Carrasco noted that in 2015, 46% of single-family homes in Berkeley cost between $500,000 and $1 million. However, by 2020, only 14% of homes sold for less than $1 million.
For rental units, the median rent for studio and one-bedroom units increased slightly from the first quarter of 2020, when the pandemic began, to the first quarter of 2021 by less than 3% each. At the same time, the price of a two-bedroom unit decreased by 4.57%, and four-bedroom units decreased by 15.51%, according to a report from Matt Brown, acting executive director of Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board.
While the median rent for studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units increased from the first quarter of 2020 to the second quarter, rates began to decline by the third quarter of 2020.
In March 2021, the median rate for a studio was $1,638. For a one-bedroom, the median rent was $2,025 and for a two-bedroom, the rent was $2,550, each less than pre-pandemic rates, according to the report.
Challenges to finding and keeping housing
Amid the changing landscape, students and long-term residents of the city have had a difficult time finding a new place to live or staying in the place they call home.
Campus sophomore Shayla Eslampour said searching for an apartment required flexibility to meet the extra challenges that came with COVID-19 precautions, such as limited capacity for tours.
Eslampour added that while she was able to find adequate housing within her budget, some students are unhoused. A campus survey from 2017 found that 10% of respondents experienced homelessness at some point during their time at UC Berkeley.
“It’s hard to want something perfect in an apartment when it isn’t affordable,” Eslampour said in an email. “Housing in Berkeley is inaccessible and shows disparities in which students can pay 1800 for a room while others need to split a room 4 ways.”
For the BHA’s clients, 139 households contained members who either lost their jobs or had their hours cut. Gonzales-Levine said the BHA acted as a “safety net” by increasing its rent subsidy by an average of $581 per household, per month.
The BHA’s clients pay only 30% of their income toward rent, with the BHA contributing the remaining sum.
“There’s benefit in terms of participating landlords as well,” Gonzales-Levine said. “If they have renters not covered by a voucher — if that household is kind of in the open market, experiencing job loss or a decrease in hours, then they don’t have a safety net like the voucher program offers.”
Certain communities of renters faced heightened financial challenges throughout the pandemic. According to Gonzales-Levine, most of the increases in rent coverage the BHA paid were on behalf of working individuals.
She noted that renters relying on fixed incomes, such as social security, had to worry less about losing a job or having hours cut.
“There are going to be challenges for those communities that don’t have legal advocates or the funding system in place to support people who are behind on their rent,” Gonzales-Levine said.
Gonzales-Levine added that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued 51 emergency housing vouchers to the BHA as part of a nationwide effort to address houselessness.
Carrasco also noted that higher property taxes in Berkeley have increased the funds available to pay for services addressing houselessness, such as purchasing hotels in West Berkeley for transitional housing.
He added that demographic shifts in the Bay Area will depend partially on the future of remote work. However, Carrasco noted that even as companies reopen their offices, movement back to San Francisco may not happen quickly.
“Much of the erratic shifts in housing costs are related to consumer shifts as a result of the pandemic,” Carrasco said in an email. “Little has been done to restructure the housing market, but some action may be required in the future to address widespread socioeconomic displacement.”