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State pressures city planners

Matthew Artz Daily Planet Staff
Saturday September 14, 2002

Berkeley must reduce barriers to development if it hopes to comply with the state’s housing law and retain control of its zoning ordinances, state regulators say. 

Last month the state rejected Berkeley’s plan to meet its quota of planned affordable housing – 1,269 units by 2007, saying the city is not on a track toward supplying enough housing. 

If Berkeley fails to lift development constraints, as the state is requiring, the city could be vulnerable to unwanted developments. 

City officials say that a Sept. 4 meeting between housing staff and state regulators helped bridge some of their gaps in the plan, called the housing element, but state representatives were not as optimistic. 

Cathy Creswell, deputy director for the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said that the city must simplify its approval process for housing projects, which developers say can stall housing projects for years. 

“We’re hearing that people trying to build housing are facing significant barriers,” she said. 

Unlike most California cities, which almost always approve legally-zoned affordable housing developments, Berkeley allows neighbors to petition developments they think would hinder their neighborhood or demolish historic structures.  

Developers say Berkeley residents have abused their right to influence development. 

“It’s a pity that the city has to spend thousands of hours because a few people want to stop an affordable housing project they say is unsuitable for a neighborhood,” developer Patrick Kennedy said. 

First a series of appeals delayed Kennedy’s proposed four story apartment complex and commercial space at 2700 San Pablo Ave. Now its a neighborhood group’s lawsuit. All told the project is several years behind, Kennedy said. 

But Berkeley refuses to consider changing its housing policy. 

At the recent meeting with Creswell, Berkeley Housing Director Steve Barton said that to offset the city’s arduous permit process, the city offers developers some perks. Berkeley requires only one parking space per new unit of housing, while most neighboring towns, including Albany, require two. 

Barton added that the primary obstacle to developing affordable housing in Berkeley was not the permit process, but city funding, which the city is now addressing. The City Council placed a measure on the November ballot to increase home sales tax. Proceeds from the tax will go to replenish the city’s housing trust fund, which subsidizes affordable housing developments.  

Although Barton said he was optimistic that the state department of Housing and Community Development will in the end sign off on the housing element, Creswell said changes are needed. 

Little public support exists for loosening zoning approval procedures. Residents recently criticized the housing policy, saying it is too lenient. 

Berkeley debated its housing element for three years before City Council approved it last December. Any policy changes would require more public hearings and could turn into months of additional debate. 

However, if the city’s housing plan is rejected again, it risks losing significant control over new development. Without a valid housing element, a developer has more leverage to sue the city over a rejected project by saying the city cannot reject affordable housing because it hasn’t met its quota. 

Lynda Hart is one developer threatening to sue the city over a rejected project. 

“Since they don’t have an approved housing element they don’t have a leg to stand on,” Hart said recently.