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City challenges state planning critics

By Matthew Artz
Monday October 07, 2002

After state regulators in August rejected Berkeley’s plan for producing its mandated share of affordable housing – a decision that could cost the city valuable state funds – city planners are insisting the state ruled incorrectly. 

“They were not looking at the bigger picture,” said Steve Barton, Berkeley housing director. “There are a lot of positive things about the Berkeley housing process.” 

Last month Barton issued Berkeley’s official response to the state rejection, arguing that the city’s housing plan, known as the housing element, meets state requirements and should be approved without alterations. 

State regulators failed the housing element because they claim too many obstacles exist in city codes for developers wishing to build housing. Berkeley is required by the state to plan for 1,269 new affordable housing units by the end of 2006, and the state’s rejection casts doubt on the city’s ability to do this. 

Linda Wheaton of the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) refused to comment on Berkeley’s response, but said the HCD would issue a decision by Nov. 26. 

Without a valid housing element Berkeley risks qualifying for state affordable housing grants and could find itself more vulnerable to lawsuits by developers who want to push though an unpopular project. 

Unlike many California cities which give precise specifications for building height, size and number of units for new developments, Berkeley gives few specific development guidelines. Instead, the city allows local decision makers and residents discretion in regulating and approving housing projects.  

In making the decision about the city’s housing element, state regulators heard arguments from local developers who claimed Berkeley residents had abused their voice in the city’s permitting process. Consequently, housing was being blocked and delayed, and the city would be unable to meet it’s state-mandated housing quota, they alleged. 

Developers explained that residents have been able to continually appeal rulings by the city’s Zoning Adjustment Board, because without precise development specifications, there is no clear basis for ZAB rulings. Such appeals can stall housing projects for years and place constraints on the development of new housing in Berkeley, developers said. 

Barton disagreed.  

He said that if the city implements detailed, but strict requirements for development, many housing projects that are currently approved, albeit after a lengthy period of debate, would never be permitted. 

“The very flexibility that HCD identifies as a constraint (because it can create uncertainty) also functions to remove constraints,” he wrote to the state. “It is understandable that developers would complain about the problems, but they fail to credit the positive benefits of the process.” 

Barton also argued that Berkeley had taken actions to mitigate the effects of its lengthy permit process for new developments. 

He noted that in 1990 the city created a housing trust fund to acquire and rehabilitate properties in return for a guarantee that the owners would maintain affordable rents. Additionally the city charges lower fees to housing developers for impacts to schools and infrastructure than most Bay Area cities, he said. 

Barton claimed that current development statistics support the case for maintaining Berkeley’s system. “We have a good pipeline of projects,” he said, adding that if one-half to two-thirds of the current projects are accepted, Berkeley will be on target to meet it’s affordable housing quota. 

Barton thinks this fact alone should persuade the state to accept Berkeley’s housing element, but state regulators are on record as wanting more from the city. 

If the city remains obstinate, the state would have the option to consider punishments. Barton mentioned that the state could conceivably prevent Berkeley from receiving money from a state housing bond which is on the ballot this November. 

“It’s ironic that the state says we don’t like barriers to affordable housing but then creates barriers [by not allowing Berkeley to apply for housing money],” he said. 


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