Page One

Council Weighs Condo Conversion Changes, W. Berkeley Auto Sales

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday December 11, 2007

Like spinning straw into gold, turning apartment buildings into individually owned condominiums could be a dream come true. But the law, intended to benefit property owners, renters-turned homeowners and the city’s affordable housing fund, has yet to turn into anything but a headache, people on various sides of the issue say.  

The City Council is holding a workshop tonight (Tuesday), 5-7 p.m. before the regular council meeting, to look at proposed changes in the conversion law. 

At the regular meeting, which begins at 7 p.m., the council will hold a public hearing on changes to the West Berkeley Plan that would permit automobile sales in parts of West Berkeley now zoned for manufacturing, inspections for alcohol outlets, measuring electromagnetic fields and more. 


Condo conversion 

To date, the Condominium Conversion Ordinance has not met any of its goals. It was supposed to allow home ownership for those who might otherwise not be able to afford it, fill the city’s low-income housing coffers with conversion fees, and give property owners a hefty profit. 

Tonight’s workshop panelists, in addition to city staff, will include Michael St. John representing the Berkeley Property Owners Association—property owners complained they had been left out of the discussion during an October council workshop—and former Housing Director Stephen Barton who helped write the 2005 ordinance revision.  

No Housing Advisory Commission members or elected Rent Board Members were asked to sit on tonight’s panel. “We have some pretty good ideas—I think we should be given more than three minutes [for public comment],” said Jesse Arreguin, who serves both on the HAC and the Rent Board. 

Both the HAC and property owners say they would like to modify the part of the law that says the units to be converted must be completely up to code. 

The HAC voted Dec. 6 to ask the council to consider a two-tiered approach. First, there would be a pre-application inspection in which all code violations and health and safety issues would be identified in the unit. And there would be “full disclosure of all problems in the entire building,” Arreguin said.  

Prior to conversion, applicants would have to correct all health and safety violations. Other code violations would be disclosed but not necessarily corrected.  

HAC is also proposing a 15 percent rather than 20 percent administrative fee—funds that would be diverted from the Housing Trust Fund—as proposed by city staff. 

Attorney David Wilson, who helped author the failed Condominium Conversion Ordinance on the 2006 ballot, said that property owners want a better-written law that clearly defines code compliance issues. “People can’t understand it,” Wilson said. 

Wilson said that the lack of clarity can result in high costs and wasted time: one inspector may ask for certain changes to comply with codes; when the property owner completes construction, a different inspector may ask for additional changes, Wilson said. 

Another problem in the law is that the 12.5 percent fee, based on sales price, is too high, Wilson said, noting that the property owner is required to pay that fee, the transfer tax and code compliance costs. 


West Berkeley auto zone 

Fearing that automobile dealers will flee the city—along with the $1.2 million sales tax they provide—city staff is proposing changes in West Berkeley zoning to allow automobile sales where only manufacturing is now permitted. 

“If [the dealers] are unable to relocate in Berkeley, it is possible they could eventually close or locate in another city,” the staff report says. 

If the new zoning is approved, the city’s solid waste transfer station at Second and Gilman streets could be impacted. The Planning Commission did not remove the transfer station property from the draft zoning changes, as a number of people—including those from the Ecology Center and West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies—had requested. 

When the Planning Commission voted in favor of the new zoning, however, it added a caution that any project there should not materially interfere with the activities of the city-owned solid waste center. 

While earlier iterations of the proposal threatened to impact the Urban Ore and Ashby Lumber sites in southwest Berkeley, these properties are no longer part of the proposed zoning changes.  


The council will also consider: 

• The second reading of the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative. 

• Inspections for alcohol outlets. 

• Reclassifications of an assistant traffic engineer whose salary would be $6,600–$8,000 per month and a watershed resources specialist at about $5,300–$6,500 per month. 

• Policies to address foreclosures and subprime lending. 

• Measuring electromagnetic field levels. 

• A first quarter budget update.