Is Berkeley Really an Oasis in the Bay Area?


We have 2 kids - our oldest is 4 - and we're considering either moving to Berkeley or leaving the Bay Area (currently in Mountain View). The primary reasons we're considering Berkeley is it seems like an oasis within the pressure cooker environment in the Bay Area (for both kids and parents). Specifically, we perceive it as an area that has two things that we don't see in the rest of the Bay Area:

1. Relatively relaxed/ balanced schools and students. There seems to be less pressure on academic success.

2. Berkeley families seems to be more diverse, in terms of race, wealth, occupations. In other words, unlike the South Bay, is seems like it's less of a techie monolith. 

Is Berkeley really different from the rest of the Bay Area in terms of balanced students/schools and diverse families? Are things changing? If so, how? Would love to hear any thoughts here.

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Berkeley has changed over the past 20 years that we've lived here and definitely since my university days.  It is going the way of SF and all other Bay Area locations---white and wealthy.  Poorer families can no longer afford to live here so diversity has declined.   Only those with money from tech or something else as lucrative can afford to live here.   I used to count Mercedes Benzes for fun; now, I don't bother because there are so many expensive cars around---Porshe SUVs, Tesla's, etc.   So I think that your image is one that is historical and unfortunately not current.   Berkeley High still seems to be a great place, however. 

We've lived all over the Bay Area, including Berkeley, and we expect to move again in the next year or two before our oldest starts middle school.  We need to stay in the Bay Area and want to find both real diversity and solid public schools, so we've been thinking about this a lot.  There is a lot to love about Berkeley and Alameda, but in both places it has become so expensive to find housing during the last 5 years, which clearly impacts socioeconomic diversity.  After spending a lot of time researching different school districts and real estate markets all over the Bay Area, we've decided to move to Castro Valley during the next year.  For us it seems to be the best balance of very solid (but not pressure cooker) public schools all the way from K-12, socioeconomic diversity, relatively affordable housing, access to nature, and workable/central location for our commutes. 

Berkeley is an oasis, but I would not consider it paradise.  Berkeley has the same issues the other cities in the Bay Area have.  Berkley's schools aren't much different from other schools in the Bay Area and might even be suffering more than others.  I attended the BSUD Board meeting last September where the principals where telling the board they were having a difficult time attracting and retaining teachers.  BUSD just isn't paying a competive wage.  One pricipal said at her school she started the year with 15 substitute teachers.  She tried to hire new teachers but once she told them what the salary was and benifits they delined the offer.  

Berkeley is a wonderful place to live but don't think it is not without problems.  Berkeley has the highest property taxes in the Bay Area.  Compared to surrounding cities Berkeley's property taxes are five to ten times what other cities are charging.  Berkeley has a very large homeless population which the city officials allocate a lot of tax dollars to support.  Berkeley is diverse but there's also a lot of racial tension.  Berkeley is still suffering from the "redlining" and racial descrimination of minorities which took place decades ago.  Berkely 

I think you will find Berkeley has all of the same issues as other cities in the Bay Area.  Berkeley is a Charter City which allows the city to do things other cites cannot.  Living in Berkeley can be maddening at times when you look at some of the laws Berkeley has enacted for home/property owners.  Rent control, allowing some tenants not to pay rent during COVID, very strict limitations on remolding and the best parking police in the country.  We pay over $25,000 in taxes.  A similar house in Oakland or Contra Costa County purchased at the same time is much less.  Don't expect the city to get things done quickly either.  Over 10 years ago the city was going to replace the sidewalk because the city planted trees lifted the sidewalk over a foot creating a trip hazard.  The city has other priorities than repairing sidewalks and filling pot holes.

With that said, I do own property in Berkeley and like Berkeley.   It will be interesting to see what other have to say.

I agree that Berkeley has changed. When I moved to the Bay Area in the 80's, it truly was paradise. It has changed so much, has become unaffordable, and the aggression, competition and stress of the Bay Area is here too. You might want to consider El Cerrito or Richmond Annex.

The responder who said Berkeley’s property taxes are 5 to 10x higher than surrounding cities is grossly incorrect. The property tax starts at 1.25% of the selling price plus some finite local add ins. For my home in Berkeley, having bought a small single family in 2015 for about 1 mill, the local add ins are less than 10% of my total bill. Property taxes are mostly a function of sale price. A million dollar home will cost you 12.5k a year minimum in property taxes anywhere you buy it. 

We made that move -- from Mountain View to Berkeley three years ago.  We got more house for our money in Berkeley than in Mountain View, but it is really true that the property taxes in Berkeley are significantly higher than what we paid in MV. So if you plan to buy a home factor that in. It is more diverse in Berkeley than MV, and you will tend to get to know people better as families do not move as frequently, and spend more time at home and in their communities. Our neighborhood in MV was silent in the week as everyone was working -- but here many people work in healthcare, academia etc and tend to be home for dinner in the early evenings. We visited Berkeley for long weekends, holidays etc for a long while before making the switch. Come spend some time here and see if it is a good fit for your family. (There is a LOT less pressure on academic success, but that can be a mixed blessing, depending on your child. Expectations at Berkeley high school are extremely low, in our experience.) Good luck -- it was a great move for us.

Hello, I feel inspired to comment as our family moved to Berkeley from the South Bay/Peninsula three years ago for similar reasons.

Berkeley is far from perfect. The response that describes the high property taxes and onerous bureaucracy of the city is accurate, and this has surprised and disappointed us. As the same responder mentions, homelessness is a massive problem without real creative solutions as of yet.

But in terms of diversity, I do find living in Berkeley to be refreshing/relieving after the South Bay (we lived in Mountain View and Emerald Hills, part of Redwood City). We live in northwest Berkeley and our immediate neighbors are Black, Asian-American and Mexican. People's occupations in our neighborhood are very diverse, and so are their ages. Some are families, some are single, some are gay/transgender, some are extended families living together.

We are a multilingual family, and we frequently hear different languages than English when walking around. I love that when I meet someone I can't easily guess their background or occupation based on how they look, whereas in the South Bay the stereotypes more often apply and therefore persist (either consciously or unconsciously). 

Regarding your question about academic pressure, I don't have much experience with the schools as my son is still young. We are considering an independent school that fosters children's innate joy of learning and discourages filling their schedules with activities, but would also like a school that is more diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, socioeconomics, etc. 

On the whole, people in Berkeley feel more open-minded and supportive of differences than in other places I have lived (in the U.S. and Europe). In our neighborhood people are often helping each other with projects, lending tools, etc., even during our current situation. In some ways Covid has brought us closer as a community, and parts of life have slowed down (I wish some of these side effects could continue). Most kids play together without considering their different backgrounds or skin color, though I do see exceptions to this, usually when their parents tend to keep separate.

Of course, there is no question that racism and discrimination are deeply rooted in Berkeley as well, and it is certainly harder and harder for lower-income families to live here. But compared to my experience living in the South Bay/Peninsula I still feel like Berkeley is an oasis. When I wonder what other places we could live where our son would grow up in a multicultural and "lower-pressure" environment, I do not come up with a lot of options. In fact, I'd be curious to hear what other places you are considering! 

Your question reminds me how much those of us who live in Berkeley (and who value diversity and a balanced life) have a responsibility to do what we can to keep bringing the values/attitudes/pace of life we wish for our kids to grow up with. I would love to have more families like yours here. :)

Good luck on your decision -- it is not an easy one to make! We debated for a good 6 months-1 year before we decided to move from SF to Berkeley, and decided to for some of the reasons you delineate. Other posters have said what I would have about diversity and such, but I wanted to chime in on the taxes comment.

Yes, property taxes are slightly higher here, but I believe it is because the community believes in investing in the city. The extra taxes go towards schools, libraries, and parks. One of the parcel taxes is the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program, which keeps class sizes lower and pays for the wonderful visual and performing arts programs at the public schools, among other things. It allows the district to spend an average of $2,000 per pupil more than other similar districts. This is a tax that the residents have passed every time it is brought to the voters -- most recently in 2016 by 89% of the voters. We also just passed another parcel tax for teacher retention and recruitment. Again, it passed by a large margin because most people living here value education and want to keep quality teachers here. To me, that says a lot about the kinds of people you'll find here.

Agreed with all the above-- the bay area is so very expensive (but compared to the south bay, the east bay is a good deal, and the housing stock is much more beautiful!), Berkeley taxes are higher but perhaps not as dramatic as 5-10x, it is a few tenths of a % more which adds up with how expensive houses are these days. There are problems with how city funds are allocated, that is not special to Berkeley. My brother lived in the south bay for many years and we both relocated here in the last decade -- I know what you mean about the tech monolith. There are a lot of tech people moving to the east bay for all the reasons people have described, but they do not make of the whole of berkeley at all. The university provides a steady flow of academics and support staff who are infinitely fun and interesting community members. A byproduct of both Berkeley's long cultural/food history, and the university, are a host of arts and theater venues for music and such. Berkeley is not the town of the 60s or the 80s, but it is still such a special place, especially in contrast to those issues that you noted in many of the other parts of the Bay. I think you can find wonderful enclaves elsewhere in the east bay (I wouldn't really want to live in another part of the bay), but Berkeley is worth a look!