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ABAG: Berkeley Must Double New Housing

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday December 05, 2006

The presence of BART and the invisible hand of UC Berkeley have prompted a powerful but little-known regional government to demand that Berkeley more than double the number of new housing units built in the city. 

Under the guidelines now being proposed by the Associa-tion of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), Berkeley would have a quota of 2,712 new housing units by 2014, up from a goal of 1,269 for the previous seven years, 1999-2006. 

The new figure works out to more than 387 new housing units a year. 

“That would mean we have to find a place to put almost 3,000 new housing units, and remove any policy barriers to that housing being produced,” said city Planning and Development Direc-tor Dan Marks. 

“The result of the pressure is that downtown Berkeley is becoming the dumping ground for new housing in the city,” said Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman. 

A further complication is the presence of UC Berkeley, the city’s major employer and the source of a student body whose low income further skews the city’s demographics. 

ABAG—the layer of government between Bay Area city and county governments and the state—is finalizing its latest housing needs survey, one that could transform the face of Berkeley. 

If the city wants to be assured of receiving government funds for affordable housing, Berkeley must adopt a new housing element for its General Plan that calls for fulfilling the ABAG quotas. 

The proposed draft of the ABAG housing quotas was adopted by the agencies in November, and local agencies and the public has until Jan. 17 to comment on the document, which is available online at 

“One of the problems is that the cities that don’t want affordable housing won’t adopt the quotas and the only penalty is that the state tells them they won’t give them any money for affordable housing,” said city Housing Director Steve Barton. 

“I think the penalty ought to be that if they can find a non-profit that wants to build affordable housing in that city, the state should give them all the money they need,” he said. 

“ABAG’s penalties are largely smoke and mirrors,” said Poschman. “People like me in Berkeley took the quotas seriously and tried to meet them, but others in other cities didn’t and the penalties are almost zilch.” 

While ABAG’s quotas nominally only affect state affordable housing funds, Barton noted that many programs—including tax credit funding—are dispensed through state governments. 

Two factors make the proposed new quotas especially onerous for the city. One is that ABAG has changed its methods of determining which cities should be assigned the highest quotas. The other is the presence of UC Berkeley. 


ABAG impact 

ABAG, the state’s first council of regional governments, was formed in 1961, followed four years later by its Los Angeles-based counterpart, the Southern California Association of Governments, SCAG. 

The two organizations have evolved into powerful entities with the power to impose mandates on member governments. 

ABAG is the primary source of the enormous pressure on Berkeley’s city government to build large numbers of new apartments and condominiums, even though the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the city’s 2005 population to be 90,432, or 23,559 fewer than in 1970, the first census conducted after ABAG’s creation. 

State law requires periodic elements of city and county plan housing elements, and in the Bay Area, it is ABAG that sets the quotas that governments must approve to win state approval. 

The basis of the quotas is set by ABAG’s Housing Methodology Committee, which Poschman said “is totally dominated by the outer rim” of communities outside the region’s urban core. 

“ABAG’s stakeholders (in the committeee include) the Green Belt Alliance, which believes that if you build studio apartments in Berkeley, people will not want three-bedroom homes in Antioch,” he said. 

ABAG also determined that new housing should be built near rail transit, further increasing the impact on Berkeley, and effectively “railroading” the city, the commissioner agreed. 

The net impact is to more than double the demand on the city for new housing. 

By comparison, the figures have dropped from peripheral jurisdictions like Antioch (4,459 to 2,300), Dublin (5,436 to 3,437), Pleasant Hill (714 to 592), Pleasanton (5,059 to 3,685) and San Rafael (2,090 to 1,490). 

Oakland saw the largest increase in actual numbers, (7,733 to 17,088), and San Leandro also more than doubled, from 870 to 1,903. 

“The only place we can put those new units is downtown and on the city’s major transit corridors,” Marks said, citing Shattuck Avenue, San Pablo Avenue, Telegraph Avenue and University Avenue, “among others.” 

Marks said that in a city already suffering “significant anxiety and difficulty over new development,” the increased quotas are bound to cause still more. 

Barton said another factor that may complicate quota fulfillment is the cooling housing market. “We expect a major investment downcycle during the first part of the next period,” he said. 

The gradual collapse of the inflationary housing bubble and the declining dollar have been cited as causes in the financial press. 


Denial hard 

As the law currently stands, the city has little ability to deny housing projects or grant developers density bonuses that lead to more massive projects than otherwise allowed by city zoning ordinances. 

“The laws are complex and unclear,” Barton said, “and we’ll have to wait for a court decision to clarify them.” 

Neighborhood opposition has virtually guaranteed that new projects will focus on the downtown, itself currently subject of a recently mandated new area planning process. 

Marks, who sits on the ABAG Housing Methodology panel, has consistently fought to lower the city’s quotas, which he said will cause the city “a significant challenge finding opportunities and locations for this level of development in its 2009 Housing Element update.” 

Poschman said one result may be more buildings like the high-density, five-story project planned for the northwest corner of the University Avenue/Martin Luther King Jr. intersection. 

“It’s a humongous project,” Poschman said, “and the first of its kind to be built by a residential neighborhood.” 

And while state law doesn’t mandate that the city build the units, it does declare that for those who want to build them, the way must be paved. 

Barton said all that state law requires that the city prove to the state’s satisfaction “that it is zoned such that the private sector could build that many units. There are enough places downtown and on the commercial corridors where one-story buildings could be torn down and replaced with multi-story housing,” he said. 

“It’s like a Sword of Damocles hanging over the city,” said Poschman. “It may be a blunt sword, but it’s still there.” 


University complications 

Another complication is the university’s impact on the city. Many of the thousands of people employed at UC Berkeley don’t live in the city, either because they can’t afford the relatively high rents and housing prices or because they want to live elsewhere. 

And the students, most of whom have either no jobs or part-time jobs, further skew the city’s income picture. 

“We’re asking them to take that into account,” Marks said. 

ABAG has responded favorably to repeated city requests that it incorporate methodology that recognizes that many students live in groups, rather than the typical two people or less who otherwise inhabit the city’s apartments. 

Still, no matter how much new housing is added, it’s unlikely that many additional university employees will live in the city, though ABAG counts them in its methodology because of their jobs, Marks said. 

Under the formula used by ABAG, jobs count for half of the projection numbers, with other half consisting of projected household growth and the proximity of housing to mass transit. 

The exact formula weights projected household growth at 40 percent, 20 percent on existing employment, projected employment growth at 20 percent, 10 percent to the projected growth of jobs near mass transit and 10 percent to housing growth near transit.