On June 13, a petition to build housing on the Ashby BART parking lots will be delivered to the BART Board of Directors meeting with over 1000 signatures.
The petition started last summer, after a group of neighbors in South Berkeley (the region of Berkeley South of Dwight Way) joined together under a shared concern for Berkeley’s housing crisis, climate crisis and growing incidence of traffic accidents. The group coined itself South Berkeley Now!, and today consists of over 120 Berkeley and Oakland resident volunteers.
The focal point of the petition is a request that BART’s Board of Directors and the City of Berkeley prioritize the Ashby BART’s 6.3 acre parking lot for a portion of the 7,000 affordable housing units that BART intends to create by 2040. To do this, the petition asks that BART and the City assign district staff to develop a Request for Proposals that would advance four overarching goals:
1. Maximize housing for all, especially lower income and homeless.
2. Ensure equity and diversity by funding anti-displacement programs.
3. Create public open space with a permanent place for the Flea Market.
4. Build safer streets and better transit for all.
While BART’s 2016 Affordable Housing Policy instituted a cumulative goal of 20 percent affordable housing units per station, South Berkeley Now!’s petition requests 40 percent. This is in part to offset Berkeley’s 20 percent poverty rate and the effects of gentrification, displacement and predatory lending following the crash of the real estate market in 2008. Deborah Matthews, a real estate broker, Berkeley resident since the late 1970’s, and co-founder of South Berkeley Now!, has seen firsthand the effects of the housing crisis on South Berkeley.
“In our South Berkeley community there has been very little housing created in the last 30-40 years, and the need for it is tremendous,” Matthews said. “Many long-term residents have been displaced and relocated to Oakland, Antioch, Brentwood or out-of-state entirely. Families now have daily commutes that are more than two hours to work and back home. Providing affordable, income-based housing at the Ashby BART would be an opportunity for low-income, working families, seniors, service workers, and displaced residents to return to our community.”
The percentage of affordable units and the depth of unit affordability is based on a place’s Area Median Income (AMI), which is assessed by the District. Extremely low, very low and low-income households that qualify for affordable housing are those with incomes below 80 percent of the AMI.
A former Berkeley zoning commissioner of 24 years, Matthews feels strongly that the need for housing on the Ashby BART parking lot must prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“We want housing on our transit corridors that is for everyone and supports the needs of our local community,” Matthews said. “We want to make sure that we address all income levels in the petition, promote equity, inclusion, diversity through policies and ensure an anti-displacement program based-on metrics, data and impact studies.”
With this in mind, it was important to Matthews that the petition’s language be relatable to and easily understood by all. Even so, she found in collecting signatures that people at times made snap judgments about it.
“People look at what’s happening in New York City, San Francisco, and Oakland and apply it to the Ashby BART,” Matthews said. “They say that they built all market-rate housing and none of it became affordable. That’s a misunderstanding of the Ashby BART petition, because it focuses on the South Berkeley community and ensuring housing for all income levels.”
More specifically, the petition commits $50 million in Measure O funds to build a minimum of 250 units of non-profit sponsored housing for low, very low and extremely low-income people, including those who are homeless. It also seeks to encourage market-rate housing and below-market-rate units for households with 120 percent AMIs and under.
Climate, energy, and urban policy consultant, Matthew Lewis, who is also a member of South Berkeley Now!’s Steering Committee, feels that in the past the petition’s progress has been delayed by those who do not represent Berkeley values.
“If you have time to go to City Hall community meetings and say ‘don't build affordable housing that blocks my sunlight or takes away my parking,’ it doesn’t mean that you’re in the majority or represent Berkeley values, it just means that you have the loudest voice,” Lewis said. “A lot of us have jobs and don't have time to do that.”
Libby Lee-Egan, a Berkeley homeowner involved in a similar housing development debate at the North Berkeley BART station noticed a strong shift in neighborhood sentiment around housing development in Berkeley over the past year.
“People realized that things are going to be built in these lots, and now everyone wants a say,” Lee-Egan said. “The question went from will we build something there to what should we build there.”
Despite all the noise, both Matthews and Lewis agree that the biggest challenge is getting people to understand the need for their voices to be heard and the importance of continued community engagement.
“The issues around housing and homelessness are so overwhelming and faced for so many years that people have begun to feel hopeless,” Matthew said. “When we are signing petitions, people ask if their signing it will make a difference. I tell them that it’s important for their voice to be heard and that uniting together is where our power lies.”
“Everyone has a role to play in making these agreements happen,” Lewis said, “because we are the generation that’s going to inherit these problems.”