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Council Delays BRT Discussion, Extends Ashby Arts’ Housing Trust Funds

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday March 24, 2010 - 06:32:00 PM

The most controversial topic on the Berkeley City Council agenda was pushed to the end of the council meeting Tuesday, resulting in boos and angry calls for recalling the mayor. 

It was almost midnight when the council took up Bus Rapid Transit after dealing with a full agenda, but many who came to watch stayed to voice their support or displeasure. 

The anti-BRT slogans etched on the driveway of the Old City Hall 

were reminiscent of public opposition to another contentious issue—the UC Berkeley Memorial Stadium project. 

Although the council was scheduled to hear a presentation on Bus Rapid Transit from city staff and discuss whether to decide on which “Build” alternative if any to forward to AC Transit for environmental review, the item was re-scheduled to April 20, after the council returns from spring break. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington asked the council to extend the meeting till 12:30 p.m. to give community members in attendance a chance to speak. 

“Otherwise it will be grossly disrespectful to them,” he said. 

Some of the speakers who spoke at the very beginning of public comment criticized the two-way Telegraph plan. Some rooted for Rapid Bus Plus, an alternate proposal which does not require dedicated bus lanes, while some simply spoke to the need for an efficient transportation system. 

An overview of what the City Council is now expected to discuss at the April 20 meeting can be found here.  


Berkeley’s Remaining Affordable Housing Funding Might Still Go to Ashby Arts Project 

A proposal to extend the deadline for allocating the remainder of Berkeley’s Housing Trust Fund to Ashby Arts, a proposed project in West Berkeley whose backers are trying to add an affordable housing component, pitted one low-income housing project against another Tuesday. 

Although Councilmember Darryl Moore had originally proposed setting aside $1.4 million in HTF funds until a June 30 deadline to help developers for-profit CityCentric and non-profit Bridge Housing apply for $15 million in state bonds, the council learned that doing this would require foreclosing on Prince Hall Arms, another affordable housing project. The Prince Hall project as proposed would have supplied 42 affordable units, but the plan fell through when sponsors couldn’t raise enough money to fund it.  

Affordable housing developer Satellite Housing stepped in, telling the city they were interested in purchasing the property. At Tuesday’s meeting, supporters of Satellite Housing’s proposed project pleaded with the city to not kill this venture. 

Councilmember Max Anderson suggested that all proposed affordable housing projects should be allowed to compete for whatever Housing Trust Funds were still available this fiscal year, which would give Satellite Housing a chance. Moore then changed his motion to allocate Ashby Arts money from next year’s funds instead of the money that would have come from the Prince Hall foreclosure. 

Mayor Tom Bates said that the foreclosure decision would be postponed until fall. 

Satellite Housing is currently first in line to buy the vacant site of the Prince Hall project. The transaction must be completed by the end of June. 

Berkeley resident Steve Wollmer said he was opposed to having 87 project-based Section 8 vouchers being tied up in the Ashby Arts project when they could have instead been used by other affordable housing projects. 

“Ashby Arts is crowding out other projects,” Wollmer said. “Any of you involved with affordable housing knows how valuable these are. If this goes forward, you will not be able to leverage these funds for other projects. This is the last remaining allocation.” Having project-based Section 8 vouchers available makes it easier for would-be developers to borrow money. 

The $5 million worth of Section 8 vouchers allocated to Ashby Arts are set to expire June 30. Project developers are hoping to secure sufficient funding for the project to go forward before then. 

“We will try to start construction by the end of the year,” said Ali Kashani, who heads CityCentric. “Eighty percent of our construction documents are ready.” 

Brad Wiblin, vice president of Bridge Housing, said that without city support, the Ashby Arts project would be “doomed in some way.” He said that CityCentric and Bridge had finally entered into an agreement at 5 p.m., just before the 7 p.m. city council meeting, 

Although Kashani admitted that Ashby Arts’ application to the state bonds was not contingent on the council granting the extension for the housing trust fund allocation decision, the council approved it so that the developers could look for additional funds to cover a shortfall of more than a million dollars which still remains. 

“It’s a shovel-ready project,” Moore said. “At the end of the day we are talking about affordable housing for seniors.” 

Both Ashby Arts and Prince Hall have the relevant zoning permits, which is a rather arduous process for affordable housing projects. 

The City of Berkeley has currently received applications from 12 affordable housing projects totaling $10 million. About $4 million has been asked for rehabilitating old buildings and $6 million for building new ones. The city has only about $3.6 million remaining from its Housing Trust Fund. 

“The need for affordable housing is more important now than ever” said Jane Micallef, director of the city’s Housing Department. 

The city’s Housing Advisory Commission will be making a decision in May on whether to allocate that money for rehabilitation or new projects. The council is then expected to vote on the recommendation.