Zoning Board Approves Housing Projects for Homeless

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday July 02, 2009 - 09:49:00 AM

The Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board on Thursday, June 25, approved use permits for two new residential projects that plan to make use of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus funds to provide affordable housing for homeless youth and low-income seniors. 

Berkeley-based nonprofit Affordable Housing Associates proposes to build a new four-story, mixed-use development for transition-age youth at 3240 Sacramento St., including 16 residential units and about 800 square feet of social services offices and meeting space. 

Named Harmon Gardens, the building will have 15 units to be rented to low-income tenants as studio apartments and 1 unit converted into a two-bedroom space for the apartment manager. 

The board unanimously voted to allow AHA to demolish an existing seismically unsafe two-story, low-income, seven-unit apartment building on the site and approved several variances to let the project move forward, including permission to have a 43-foot-high building in an area where the zoning code allows a maximum of 36 feet. 

Neighbors have complained about squatters in the existing building, something AHA representatives said they had taken steps to prevent in the future. 

Teresa Clarke of AHA said the nonprofit had collaborated with the Fred Finch Youth Center to provide on-site social services for 18- to 24-year-olds who are homeless or at risk for homelessness because of their transition from foster homes or rehabilitation centers. 

“There is a pressing need for this kind of use in the city,” Clarke said, adding that it was estimated that 350 youth were homeless at any given time in Alameda County. 

Some neighbors expressed concern that because the building would be constructed in a neighborhood often caught in the middle of drug violence, it might not be the best place for homeless youth. However, a few seniors from the adjacent Mabel Howard Apartments said they welcomed the opportunity to interact with young people, even volunteering to help them. 

“It’s not a highly violent type of population,” Clarke said. “It’s for people who are ready to live on their own, after being shuttled from one place to another.” 

Zoning chair and the city’s former housing commissioner Deborah Matthews praised the project, calling homeless youth a “community that has not been addressed.” 


1200 Ashby Ave. 

The Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board voted 7 to 1 to approve CityCentric Investment’s request for a use permit modification to convert a previously approved mixed-use building at 1200 Ashby Ave. into affordable senior housing. 

The original project approved by the zoning board would have built a five-story building, with 98 units—15 of them below market—and about 8,093 square feet of ground-floor commercial space. 

The new design would reduce the total floor area by 9,090 square feet, increase ground-floor commercial space by about 1,600 square feet and reduce the total number of parking spots from 114 to 44.  

Ali Kashani, who heads CityCentric, told the board that the current economic climate had forced his firm to develop the project as a low-income senior housing facility to take advantage of financing available through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program and the City of Berkeley’s Housing Trust Fund.  

CityCentric is requesting a Housing Trust Fund allocation of $1,381,450. The total project has a price tag of $30 million.   

“The city doesn’t have any more money,” Kashani said. “The project has a very tight budget.” 

Kashani described the current site, which was last used in 2005 as a service station, as a “dilapidated, vacant lot.” 

“It is trying in this deteriorating economy to fund the building project,” he said. “At least five parcels of land in Berkeley don’t have money to build their projects. I have been doing affordable housing for 20 years. Five years ago I left it, and I thought I would never do it again. But here I am.” 

The project would provide service-enriched below-market-rate housing to low-income seniors, Kashani said, adding that at least two Berkeley councilmembers had called for the original project to have affordable housing at the time it was approved by the City Council. 

Commissioner Terry Doran said he supported the project because “low-income housing was a necessity that can’t be met in the city.” 

Although some Berkeley residents voiced concerns about the decrease in parking, Kashani said that 44 parking spots would suffice. He explained that they were well in line with what traffic engineers recommended for senior housing. Although several commissioners suggested car share and free AC Transit passes, echoing a proposal from the city’s traffic department, Kashani requested that they not be made mandatory. 

Commissioner Sara Shumer, who voted against the project, said that she objected to the approval of a variance to waive the required 15-foot setbacks at Ashby and Carrison Street. 

If the proposed project receives the LIHTC funding, it will need to adhere to low-income affordability levels and other provisions under the program for 55 years.