Where should Berkeley allow 9,000 new homes to be built? City will start trying to figure that out

Latest News
March 26, 2021

By Sarah Ravani for San Francisco Chronicle

Like most Bay Area cities, Berkeley has seen very little new housing built for decades. Now, the city needs to figure where nearly 9,000 new units of housing might go to meet state mandates.

On Thursday, the City Council voted to start that process. The council directed the city manager to spend 18 months creating a plan that includes exploring allowing multi-unit buildings in certain parts of Berkeley, building middle-income housing and prioritizing transit corridors like the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations for new homes. The city doesn’t have to ensure that the new homes are built by 2030, but it needs to zone for them by the deadline.

The vote, which was unanimous, comes nearly a month after the City Council vowed to end single-family zoning by 2022. Thursday’s decision directs city staff to look at allowing duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in neighborhoods that once had single-family zoning.

“To address the housing crises and root out systematic racial and economic segregation, we literally can no longer afford to prop up arbitrary walls of exclusion,” Vice Mayor Lori Droste told The Chronicle. “We must build bridges and homes for our next generation.”

Droste said the process would focus on equity, community engagement, affordability, tenant and anti-displacement protections and public safety. She acknowledged that while it may be “easy to zone for that many homes,” seeing it come to fruition “is another question.” With high construction costs and difficult approvals, both affordable and market-rate developers have struggled to build in Berkeley and elsewhere.

Voting to update zoning is just the first step in a long process, including hiring a consultant, that city staff will have to undertake.

“The Berkeley City Council has really taken the biggest step, which is demonstrating the political will to take on such a contentious issue,” said David Garcia, policy director of UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation.

Many Bay Area cities will likely go through a similar process. Every eight years, the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development kicks off a process that outlines housing development goals, but those goals are seldom actually met. This year, the state determined that the Bay Area must allow for about 441,100 units of housing from 2022 to 2030 — an enormous jump from the past cycle, when the Bay Area had to plan for roughly 188,000 units.

The Association of Bay Area Governments then determines how 441,176 units are divided among different cities, said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín in his newsletter.

Berkeley’s goal is 8,934 units of housing by 2030, nearly 6,000 more units than the past cycle — an ambitious plan that experts and advocates say must focus on equity and protections of existing units. The state determines how many units should be very low-income, low-income, moderate and above moderate.

Garcia said the next part of the process is more technical and includes analyzing current zoning to see what design elements need to be modified. It requires spending a lot of time to understand which existing rules might make allowing more housing difficult.

The project — funded by state, county and city funds — will cost $540,000.

Any changes to zoning plans should prioritize the creation of units for low-income and very low-income people, said Jay Kim, co-deputy director at East Bay Community Law Center. Kim encouraged Berkeley to involve community land trusts to preserve affordable homes.

In addition, the city also must engage the communities that will be impacted the most by the changes, she said.

“You have to center the communities that have been impacted the most and in Berkeley, it’s longtime Black residents and Black community members,” Kim said, adding that strong tenant protections are key in preventing displacement.

Her sentiment was echoed by the Rev. Sophia DeWitt, a program director at the East Bay Housing Organizations. DeWitt said during Thursday’s public comment that focusing development on transit corridors will be good for affordable housing and climate change goals.

DeWitt said the city should allow for more in-law units and use a recent $135 million affordable housing bond to help more projects.

In addition, DeWitt said Berkeley should move forward with an ordinance Arreguín introduced in 2020 called the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, which would give tenants the first right of refusal to purchase the home they live in if it goes up for sale.

DeWitt was among 250 people who spoke during public comment.

Leah Simon-Weisberg, chair of the city’s rent board, said the board believes any upzoning proposal must include protections to prevent the demolition of rent controlled or deed-restricted housing and anti-displacement measures.

Other speakers endorsed the move, recounting the difficulty of trying to find housing in Berkeley. Barnali Ghosh said she was frustrated that some of her friends have been priced out of the city.

“We need options for all kinds of families and people,” Ghosh said.

The council is expected to vote on a new zoning plan by December 2022.

“This is the beginning of a long process and I think the fact that so many people are coming forward bodes very well for the future of the process,” said council member Sophie Hahn. “The more people who participate, the better it’s going to be.”

Read this article at the San Francisco Chronicle here.