Column: The Public Eye: Defeat of Measure P Disguised Housing Crisis By ZELDA BRONSTEIN

Tuesday August 30, 2005

When 79 percent of Berkeley voters nixed Measure P, a.k.a. the Building Height Initiative, in November 2002, were they expressing satisfaction with the current state of planning and development in this city? That’s what some prominent individuals have been saying ever since that bitterly contested election.  

Earlier this month, the Daily Planet reported that developer and Piedmont resident Patrick Kennedy told the Aug. 3 meeting of a Zoning Adjustments Board subcommittee that “most people in Berkeley are happy with development, as exemplified by the four-to-one margin of defeat of Measure P.”  

But what else would you expect from one of the two most flagrant rogue builders—the other is San Franciscan Darryl de Tienne—to operate in Berkeley in recent years? The city is littered with outsized projects of dubious legality that were constructed by Kennedy’s Panoramic Interests. Of course he’s going to say that everybody’s happy with the status quo.  

The same goes for Kennedy’s biggest shill in the city’s planning department, Land Use Planning Manager Mark Rhoades. With Kennedy at his side, Rhoades told an audience at the September 2003 Santa Barbara conference of the California chapter of the American Planning Association: “We had a citizen initiative placed on the ballot last November that would have gutted the city’s ability to do infill development. Fortunately, that measure lost 80 percent to 20 percent … which sent in our minds a very strong message that we’re headed in the right direction.”  

This is self-serving hype. The real message sent by Measure P’s defeat was that a campaign bankrolled by big developer money can crush a poorly-conceived, underfunded initiative.  

Measure P was deeply flawed. The draconian limits it would have imposed on building heights were inconsistent with Berkeley’s new General Plan. Nevertheless, it was a sincere effort to grapple with a major municipal crisis that few of our civic officials are willing to acknowledge: Out-of-control development is violating city laws and policies, threatening the quality of life in adjacent neighborhoods and exacerbating gentrification. The curse of Measure P is that its overwhelming defeat has made it harder to recognize that this crisis exists, much less to deal with it. The post-election humbug put out by Rhoades, Kennedy and their ilk makes it harder yet.  

For those who would like to see the city deal with reality, the first task is to counter humbug with truth. To that end, I want to scrutinize the claim that got top billing in the anti-P campaign literature. Broadly stated, it goes like this: If Berkeleyans want new affordable housing, we have to accommodate the sort of mega-buildings that are going up downtown and on major transit corridors such as University and San Pablo.  

Surely this notion has captured many Berkeley hearts and minds. Everybody knows there’s a crying need for affordable housing. People may say to themselves: “I’m not crazy about the bulk or height of these big new developments but if that’s the only way we’re going to get housing for those in greatest need, so be it.”  

The trouble is, those in greatest need scarcely benefit from the big new developments. In July Planning Director Dan Marks charted Berkeley housing production between July 1, 1999 and June 30, 2005. He showed that during the past six years, 1,544 units of housing were approved by the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board, with 584 more pending approval, for a total of 2,128 units. In the planning director’s own words, Berkeley has undergone a “building boom.” (So much for the oft-heard developer complaint that it’s impossible to build in this town.)  

What Berkeley has not undergone is an affordable housing boom. The 2000 census reported that the median income of Berkeley’s 25,748 tenant households is $27,341 (for our 19,602 owner households, it’s $80,324). This means that half of our tenant households live on more than $27,341 a year, and half on less. Federal guidelines says that an affordable rent should consume no more than 30 percent of a household’s income. That means that a household with an annual income of $27,341 or less should pay no more than $683 monthly rent. How many of the 2,128 units approved or pending approval rent, or will rent, for $683 or less?  

Unfortunately, there’s no straightforward answer to that question, in part because, reasonably enough, housing officials rate affordability in terms of different income levels and the number of persons in a household.  

For the sake of illustration, consider the plight of a two-person household consisting of a single mother and her child living on or below the median annual income of Berkeley’s tenant households, $27,341 a year ($13.50 an hour in wages). By official standards, in our area (designated as Alameda and Contra Costa Counties), such a household falls just below the category of “Very Low Income” ($33,100 a year). The affordable rent level for a “Very Low Income,” two-person household is officially pegged at $828, $145 more than the $683 affordable rent for the median income of Berkeley tenant households.  

According to Planning Director Marks’ chart, only 378, or a paltry 18 percent, of the 2,128 new housing units approved in the past six years are slated for “Very Low Income” households.  

By contrast, 1,434, or 67 percent of new Berkeley housing is destined for households with “Above Moderate” incomes. “Above Moderate” means 121 percent or more of the area’s median income. The median income for our area is $82,200 a year, based on a four-person household. 121 percent of $82,200 is $99,462. So 2/3 of Berkeley’s new housing is for four-person households earning $99,462 a year or more. (The equivalent figure for a one-person household is $69,635, for a two-person household, $79,557.)  

One of Berkeley’s great strengths as a community is its middle-class character. There have always been and always will be people at either extreme. But now the extremes threaten to become the norm, and the biggest reason is the cost of housing.  

If the people of Berkeley realized that the building boom has mainly served the affluent, would they say, with Land Use Planning Manager Rhoades, that “we’re headed in the right direction”?