Betty Gray waters plants in her new apartment in Berkeley on Sept. 14, 2022. She is a resident of the newly renovated Stuart Street Co-Op Apartments funded by Berkeley's Small Sites Program. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Betty Gray couldn’t leave her apartment for seven months after a fall left her injured and needing a wheelchair. Gray developed agoraphobia due to her confinement and sometimes needed as many as nine people to get down the stairs. So she was relieved when she heard about a new apartment that had an accessible entrance.
“There's just not enough apartments that you can just slide on in,” Gray said. “I feel very humbled and blessed to be here, when there's so many out there that aren't.”
Today, she’s a proud resident of the newly renovated Stuart Street Co-Op Apartments, which sit next door to the 100-year-old McGee Avenue Baptist Church in South Berkeley. The building was vacant for 20 years, but is now home to eight families.
Each of the apartments is wheelchair-accessible and has its own in-unit washer and dryer. The building also comes with an electric vehicle for all the residents to share.
“To come to this is nothing short of a miracle. It really is. It has changed my perspective on life because I had just about given up hope,” Gray said. She heard of the apartments by word of mouth, and another resident encouraged her to apply.
The Stuart Street Co-Op Apartments are the first project funded by Berkeley’s Small Sites Program, which the city council approved in 2018 to create more affordable housing and slow displacement. Instead of building a large new housing complex from scratch, the small-sites model buys and transforms existing buildings that are vacant or run-down.
It’s one way to help meet the huge demand for affordable housing in Berkeley, where waitlists can stretch for years, according to Berkeley City Council Member Ben Bartlett.
“These small sites ... exist on the marketplace right now, that are everywhere, and sort of underutilized,” Bartlett said.
The small sites also fit in better with the surrounding communities than larger housing developments, said Tracy Parent, director of the Bay Area Community Land Trust, which partnered on the project.
“Mostly it's about location, being in diverse neighborhoods spread out across the city, not just all built in one neighborhood,” said Parent. “And that is the key. It's about preserving the existing social fabric, not just the housing units.”
The Bay Area Community Land Trust will continue to manage the project, and maintain it as a permanently affordable housing co-op. The land trust owns other projects in Berkeley and Oakland that are home to nearly 100 people.
“For people to go out of their way to be kind to help you … it's new, and it makes you feel wanted and not hopeless,” Gray said. She said she feels a sense of community with her neighbors. The proximity of the church has allowed her to benefit from church services, like food and plant drives.
Stuart Street provides affordable housing to those making 80% of the average income in Berkeley. Rents in the building are below market for Berkeley at $1,300 a month for a studio and $1,900 for a one-bedroom.
Derrin Jourdan is chair of the McGee Baptist Board of Trustees, and led the effort from the church’s side in hopes of providing an affordable place for people of color.
“I focus a lot of my unspoken attention on being able to provide a space that people who look like me could afford to stay,” Jourdan said. He said the finished product is more “amazing than I could have imagined.”
McGee Avenue Baptist Church hopes to provide resources for other churches in the Bay Area interested in creating similar programs.
“Churches are some of the last, I think, property owners of color throughout Berkeley,” Jourdan said. “If we don't find ways of leveraging our support, we're going to find it enormously difficult to hold on to the property.”
The project has a long list of funders, including the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, The Bay’s Future Fund, the San Francisco Foundation and the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The total cost was $3.3 million, according to the city, or $415,000 per unit. That’s 40% lower than what it costs to build new lower-income housing in the Bay Area, according to figures from the Bay Area Council Economic Institute.
The Bay Area Community Land Trust plans to open its second small-site building on Solano Avenue in North Berkeley later this month. The building still houses residents who were facing eviction under the Ellis Act.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said the city has financed over 800 affordable housing units in the last three years but the city is still in need of more housing. This November, Berkeley residents will have the opportunity to vote on Measure M to tax vacant properties, which Arreguín said could continue to fund the Small Sites Program.
“If we don't act soon enough, there's going to be more families that are going to be pushed out of Berkeley,” Arreguín said.
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