Understanding Affordable Housing

What is ‘Affordable’?

Image of mult-family apartemtnt building with text in front

Housing is affordable if it costs no more than 30% of one’s income. People who pay more than this are considered “cost burdened”; those who pay more than 50% are “severely cost burdened.” Affordable housing generally means affordable to lower-income people with incomes at or below 80% of area median income (AMI). Most affordable rental housing programs target lower-income people, while affordable homeownership programs increasingly target people making up to 120% of AMI. (See the chart below for income and rent limits).

A chart of who qualifies for affordable housing based on income limits in 2021
Income levels data from California Department of Housing and Community Development, March 2021: http://www.hcd.ca.gov/grants-funding/income-limits/state-and-federal-income-limits.shtml. Income limits may be higher than exact percentage of median in high housing cost areas like the East Bay.

A Crisis Years in the Making

image of a woman taping an orange protest sign on the side of a car.

The Bay Area is facing an enormous housing crisis. Working and middle-income families can no longer afford to own a home, renters face rising costs that force them to move further from their jobs and communities, and growing numbers of unhoused people live on our streets. Public opinion polls show that most Bay Area residents are concerned about their own housing stability as well as that of their families, friends and neighbors. A majority report that they’ve considered moving out of the area and even out of state because of the housing situation.

This crisis did not happen overnight. It’s been building for decades and has spread from poor and low-income families to moderate-income households. The harshest impacts are felt by Black residents, communities of color, people with disabilities, formerly incarcerated people, low-wage immigrants, transgender and gender-non-conforming people, and those with the lowest incomes.

Image of a spreadsheet chart showing the difference between annual median wage of various occupations such as dishwasher, receptionist, etc. and the percentage those families would need to pay of their income to afford a market rate apartment.
Based on HUD 2020 Fair Market Rent of $1,808 for a one-bedroom apartment in Alameda or Contra Costa counties. (https://www.huduser.gov/portal/datasets/fmr.html)
Note that actual rents are often much higher, especially for newly built apartments.
Wage information from California Economic Development Department for 1st Quarter 2020 (www.labormarketinfo.edd.ca.gov)

There is no single cause of the housing crisis – many factors have made housing unavailable and unaffordable. These include a lack of construction to match rapid employment growth; local resistance to new development in some communities; high costs for land, labor and materials; time-consuming and often costly processes for review and approval of projects; insufficient renter protection laws and legal representation, and inadequate financial resources for affordable housing.

How We Fight for Affordable Housing

The fight for housing justice is inextricably linked to the fight for racial and economic justice. EBHO focuses on expanding housing opportunities for low-, very low- and extremely low-income people. 

There is no “magic bullet” that will suddenly solve these problems. The solution lies in a comprehensive approach that includes the “Three P’s”: producing new market-rate and affordable homes; preserving existing housing that’s currently affordable; and protecting tenants from unaffordable rent increases and unfair evictions. EBHO leads and supports campaigns to address all three of these.


  • Requiring that all cities – particularly those that historically have blocked new housing – establish zoning for higher-density housing to accommodate their fair share of the region’s housing needs. In 2020, EBHO will advocate for a Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RNHA) that promotes an equitable distribution of new housing and furthers fair housing.
  • Expanding funding for affordable housing at the local, county, regional and state levels. In 2020, EBHO will support ballot measures and local ordinances that create and expand dedicated funding sources for affordable housing.
  • Using surplus public land to develop affordable housing. In 2020, EBHO will work for full implementation of the amendments we secured to the State’s Surplus Land Act, and to maximize the amount of affordable housing developed on BART-owned land.
  • Ensuring that public actions that increase land values are coupled with requirements for affordable housing. In 2020, EBHO will push for “land value capture” strategies in local plans like the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan.


  • Acquiring and preserving existing housing as permanently affordable. In 2020, EBHO will continue working with tenant and community organizations and affordable housing developers to implement local acquisition/rehabilitation programs.
  • Preventing the loss of existing housing from condo conversion, demolition or use as short-term rental housing. In 2020, EBHO will continue to fight for stronger protections.


  • Preventing excessive rent increases and unjust evictions. In 2020, EBHO will work to make the new state rent caps and eviction controls fully accessible to lower-income tenants.
  • Providing counseling and legal assistance to tenants facing eviction. In 2020, EBHO will advocate for state and local funding that effectively keeps people in their homes.

-By Jeff Levin, EBHO Policy Director

Embark Apartments Gray & tan multi-family apartment building.
Embark Apartments, Oakland

A Virtual Tour of Affordable Housing

Play the video below and you will take a virtual tour of three exemplary East Bay affordable housing communities. Visiting the places and meeting the faces of affordable housing is one of the most successful approaches to advocacy. Beautiful design, inclusive neighborhood planning, energy efficiency, accessibility, and committed residents and management are just some of the things that make affordable housing successful in the East Bay. Meet residents, architects, developers and others in three affordable housing communities, each created by EBHO member organizations:

Shisei Gardens
Alameda, CA
Developer: Resources for Community Development (RCD)
Architect: Mikiten Architecture
Sunset Creek
Fairfield, CA
Developer: Mid-Pen Housing
Architect: Pyatok Architects

Rivertown Place
Antioch, CA
Developer: Eden Housing
Architect: Van Meter Williams Pollack, LLP

Who Lives in Affordable Housing?

Who lives in affordable housing?  Seniors, families with children, people facing health challenges or disabilities, or those who simply are starting a new phase of life – in short, people of all backgrounds. Meet a few of the inspiring individuals and families who live in affordable homes.  For more stories about people living in affordable homes created with community-investment read The People in our educational tool, the Study Room.


Image of a mother and her three children smiling and looking at the camera.
Tyishea Collins and her children.

Tyishea Collins, like many others in the East Bay, faced adversity in her life that made it difficult to find housing at a price she could afford that would accommodate her family. Due to circumstances that left her nephew orphaned and the father of her son deceased, Tyishea was raising not only her own son Melvin, but her nephew DaWauntea and Tonisha, the sister of her son’s father. “The challenge was making sure that I could afford to take care of all of them and this place has given me all the opportunity to be able to do it and save at the same time.”

Tyishea was determined to find a home that was safe, clean, and big enough for her to be able to raise the three kids she loved in the healthy environment they all deserved.  Tyishea has lived at the Oaks Apartments with her family for five years now. She works ten minutes away in Concord at Bank of America, and is happy to be close to her children’s schools. The stability and easier commute enabled her to focus on work and earn a promotion. Thanks to the affordable rent, Tyishea is now able to pay for 9-year-old Melvin and 10-year-old DaWauntea to participate in organized sports as well as save for their futures. Tonisha, Tyishea says, has completely changed since living here, and is now a mature 17-year-old, studying at Treasure Island Job Corps. “It’s a tight community – It’s like a village,” Tyishea said of the Oaks Apartments, “We’re all raising each other’s kids.”


Mr. Zhang is a retired English Literature professor from Northern China. He moved to California with his wife a few years ago to be closer to their two children. “When I came to America I was as poor as a church mouse!” Mr. Zhang said  After living with their children, Mr. and Mrs. Zhang decided to begin applying for low-income housing so that they could live independently. In 2010 Mr. and Mrs. Zhang were accepted into St. Mary’s Gardens, where they have been living happily ever since.

“When we go to Chinatown we can walk. It is very convenient,” Mr. Zhang said. “We can walk in the courtyard in the gardens, and that is very important for us.”   As an active and friendly resident, Mr. Zhang was elected to be the Resident Representative for St.Mary’s Gardens. Mr. Zhang’s leadership reflects his support for affordable housing. “If there was no such kind of apartments for low income people, I could not live here. I would go back to China,” Mr. Zhang said. St. Mary’s Gardens has enabled him “to live in America with my children and see my grandchildren.”

The Study Room

Image of a rainbow painted tiny h ouse & the study room

To learn more about affordable housing terms, advocacy strategies, and the history of housing inequity, visit our educational tool, the Study Room!