The face of Berkeley is changing. Vacant lots, former gas stations, parking lots and one-story commercial buildings are being replaced with infill, housing projects, often above ground floor retail.
Construction sites are popping up all over on Berkeley’s major thoroughfares. On Shattuck, north and south; on University; on Telegraph, and on Bancroft.
Berkeley is in the midst of a housing boom. Housing is being produced at a more rapid pace than at any time since the passage of the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance (NPO) in 1973.
In the past two years, the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) has approved 17 housing projects that have at least 10 units of housing. Ranging in size from 15 units to 176 units, these projects include a total of 930 units. Almost all are located in the downtown and/or on major commercial corridors with transit service.
Berkeley’s current boom is far from over. Hundreds of additional units are working their way toward the ZAB for approval.
What kind of housing is being built?
• Two of the 17 projects have a majority of affordable units; 15 are market rate projects, but also include affordable “inclusionary” units.
• Altogether, 25 percent of the approved units are affordable to low- and very low-income households. A majority of Berkeley’s current tenants are low or very low income according to surveys. According to the 2000 Census, the median income of Berkeley’s tenant households was only $27,341 in 1999.
• Very few units, market rate or affordable, are being built for families. Only four out of 930 approved units are three-bedroom units.
• All but two projects are rental housing projects.
• All but one approved project is four or five stories in height.
The Zoning Board and the City Council have shown strong support for building housing on commercial corridors. How successful are developers in getting housing approved?
• Only one larger housing project was rejected by the ZAB while 17 were approved
More than two-thirds of housing projects approved by the ZAB are appealed, but appeals have been almost totally unsuccessful. Only one appeal was even partially successful.
• Opponents have turned to litigation to stop projects in four cases with no success.
• The ZAB and City Council have balked at only two projects. Both were located in the middle of residential blocks rather than on transit corridors, and both encountered widespread, well-organized neighborhood opposition.
• Developers are routinely receiving concessions that allow them to exceed what is permitted by development standards for the area. Reduced setbacks are common, while some projects get approved with reduced open space, reducing parking, increased lot coverage and, in four cases, an extra floor.
Some people seem to believe that until recently nothing had been built in Berkeley for decades. But while the pace has picked up sharply, construction of new housing has occurred steadily for the last 30 years.
The last major housing boom in the city occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s. More than 7,000 units of new housing were built between 1960 and 1974. On neighborhood streets, especially near the UC campus, single-family homes were torn down and replaced with apartment buildings, many of them ugly, motel-style eyesores. Many of these building are soft-story buildings, with parking at ground level, and are in need of seismic retrofit.
Much of the housing development in the 1950s and 1960s was in response to the post-war growth of UC. The university housed only a minority of its students. This continues to be the case. Today, about one-third of UC students live in dorms, fraternities, sororities and co-ops; the remaining two-thirds have to fend for themselves on the private housing market.
The NPO put a stop to the trend of demolishing housing on residential streets. Most of the housing built in the 1980s and 1990s was built on major streets; residentially zoned areas saw little change.
In the eighties, about 740 units were built; more than 60 percent of this housing were subsidized units built for low- and very low-income residents. Major affordable housing projects built in the 1980s include the Savo Island Co-operative Homes at Adeline and Stuart; the U/A Housing Co-op at University and Sacramento, and Redwood Gardens senior housing on Derby.
The city also built 61 units of scattered-site, low-income housing in the 1980s. The 61 units were located on 10 different sites and generated a lot of opposition. Berkeley Citizens Action (BCA) had an 8-1 majority on the City Council at the time and their decision to build this housing contributed to a political backlash that led to voter approval of district elections in Berkeley.
In the 1990s, the pace of housing production increased somewhat. Between 1990 and 2000, there was a net gain of 1,140 units. For-profit developers, notably Patrick Kennedy, became more active and the percentage of affordable, below-market units produced was lower than in the 1980s as a greater number of market-rate units were produced. For the first time in many years, housing was built in and near Berkeley's downtown.
Nonprofit developers encountered stiff resistance in several cases. Resources for Community Development (RCD), one of the city’s leading nonprofit developers, faced uphill battles as it attempted to build low-income housing at the Bel Air Hotel site on University, on Rose Street in North Berkeley and on the Berkeley Inn site at Telegraph and Haste.
In the first two cases, neighborhood opinion was divided, with active groups of neighborhood residents vigorously opposing the projects. RCD prevailed at the Bel Air site, where Erna P. Harris Court is now located. The Telegraph project generated no neighborhood opposition, but both it and the Rose Street project, which was slated for people with AIDS, were killed because they lacked the support of Mayor Shirley Dean and her allies who constituted a majority on the City Council at the time.