Public Comment

Sb 827 Is Wrong... So What Is Right?

Russ Tilleman
Friday March 02, 2018 - 11:18:00 AM
Russ Tilleman
Russ Tilleman

Unlike Scott Wiener and Nancy Skinner, I have personally increased the housing available in Berkeley, and I have done it in a way that hasn’t destroyed my neighborhood. All with building permits and all within the existing zoning. While I was at it, I made my house earthquake-safe, upgraded the utilities and systems, and added off-street parking. 

My project has taken quite a while because I did a lot of the work myself to save money. And it isn't perfect, if I did it again, I would do some things differently. But it can serve as an important example of the right way to add housing in a crowded urban environment. 

A Century Is A Long Time 

My house was built in 1906, and when I bought it in 2002, it still had the original crumbling brick foundation. The house was so structurally- unsound that I could feel it swaying back and forth in high winds. A small earthquake produced loud banging and splintering noises. 

Living a few blocks from the Hayward Fault, which is expected to produce a huge quake any day now, I decided something should be done. 

Don't Tear It Down! 

The house had no off-street parking, which near College Avenue is a real problem. The washer/drier and water heater were blocking off the back hallway. There was also asbestos, and ancient wiring and pipes. 

But other than that, it was a nice old Berkeley house. Properly maintained, it could have centuries more of life, protecting people from the elements and giving them a place to live their lives. I didn’t want to see all the natural resources and human exertion that went into it thrown away.‘ 

Major Surgery 

After much thought, I decided to jack up the house and build another story underneath it. That would fix the foundation problem, provide off-street parking for two cars, and add two new bedrooms, a full bathroom and a laundry room. Abate the asbestos, rewire, plumb, bolt it all down for when the big one hits. 

No doubt about it, this was a big project. But it made a lot of sense. 

It would preserve a building whose carbon footprint had long since been paid for with 100 years of daily use. It would preserve the character of the neighborhood. And I could live in the house throughout the project. Except when my water heater broke, I never had day without hot water and electricity. 

"A House You Build Yourself Is Never Finished” 

My project is still ongoing, but it is finally nearing completion after many years. The house is earthquake-safe, it has gone through several small ones with no damage and little noise. It has new wiring, the asbestos has been dealt with. I have off-street parking. Soon I will have my laundry room. 

This has all been done fairly inexpensively. And with a fairly small carbon footprint compared to tearing it all down and building something new. Walking down the street, the house looks like it was built this way originally. 

This Could Be Done Instead Of SB 827 

One of the reasons I did my project was as an experiment. It was clear that housing was in short supply here, and I felt that if I could add space to my house this way, other people could as well. 

Adding another story under every house in Berkeley would increase housing here by close to 50 percent. I chose to keep my house single-family and just add more rooms, but the same construction could create a separate apartment if desired. 

A Big Opportunity 

I think most houses in Berkeley could easily be expanded like this. Tens of thousands of new residences could be built without significantly impacting neighborhood quality of life. Or wasting the carbon that is embodied in Berkeley's existing housing stock. 

If the State of California really wants to increase housing in cities like Berkeley, and do it in a carbon-efficient way, it can provide low-interest loans to homeowners to build apartments under their existing structures. In doing so, it can help create healthy, comfortable condominiums or rental units owned by the middle class. Not tenements owned by the rich venture capitalists who are backing SB827. 

Who Does The Legislature Work For? 

Our elected officials have a clear choice in this issue. They can create green, socially conscious housing owned by the people of California who voted them into office, or they can create unhealthy, ugly planet-roasting warrens owned by their super-rich campaign donors. 

Which do you think is going to happen?