“Apparently I’m a writer now. I didn’t really think that’s what I’d be doing, but life hits you.”
26-year-old Darrell Owens didn’t plan on becoming a housing activist. But growing up in Berkeley, he couldn’t watch idly while the city’s homelessness crisis worsened.
Owens is a software engineer by trade, and is also passionate about transit activism. But while in high school, Owens said he was one of the few students who was interested in housing policy and research.
“When my family had to leave Berkeley because they couldn’t afford to live there anymore, that’s when I started to get involved,” Owens said. “I was really more involved in transportation.”
Owens alleged Berkeley was unique in its issue of houselessness because of how long the issue has been prevalent and because it’s treated as “an immovable static trait of the city.”
He added that many in the city have become complacent or blame houselessness on factors like drug addiction and laziness instead of a lack of available units, adding to the culture of inaction on the issue.
“As a kid you’re always taught to shrug and move on,” Owens said. “The longer the shortage persists the more people have become divorced from what the issue actually is.”
Owens said that pre-1970, Berkeley was adding between 500-600 new units of housing per year. He noted that there was a hiatus in this construction from 1970-1990, what he alleged as the city’s “prohibition on housing.” Today, Berkeley adds approximately 250 new housing units a year, still less than half the pre-1970 era, according to Owens.
He said the university is not to blame, stating that they have an obligation to provide public education to as many students as possible and pointing to housing shortages in the rest of the Bay Area as well as the longstanding nature of Berkeley’s shortage.
“I agree that the UC probably should have built student housing but the UC is absolutely not the reason why Berkeley is so unaffordable,” Owens alleged. “The big obstacle is the fake liberal progressive that is really just a small city conservative intent on stopping a lot of this.”
Owens stressed that misplaced environmental activism and NIMBYism are to blame for Berkeley’s housing shortage, alleging that some progressive policy is “so left it’s right.”
Currently, Owens works as a policy analyst for California YIMBY, a nonprofit organization that works to create legislative solutions to California’s housing crisis. His first job in housing was at the nonprofit Resources for Community Development.
One of the first projects he worked on was a low-income development in a segregated neighborhood of North Berkeley, which he said took five years to accomplish. Another notable project that he is working on is pushing for the construction of apartments near the North Berkeley BART station.
“It’s really unbelievable how long this has taken because it’s just such a contentious battle,” Owens said. “When people are subsidized into a lifestyle of extravagant parking, surplus streets, roads and single family homes for so long, when somebody proposes a change it’s just very difficult.”