An Open Letter to the Mayor and City Council Regarding Property of Low-Income Homeowners

Mary Behm-Steinberg, candidate for City Council in District 1, co-signed by 1); Igor Tregub (also a candidate for City Council in District 1); Aidan Hill (Candidate for Berkeley City Council District 7) and Alfred Twu (Candidate for Berkeley City Council
Saturday October 27, 2018 - 04:56:00 PM

We, the undersigned leaders and candidates for public office representing Berkeley, call on you to curtail the power of the City Manager’s Office, the Department of Zoning, and City Planning to take over the property of long-term low-income homeowners over zoning issues. While we are sure that these actions are intended to expand the availability of housing to more people, we question how forcing out some of our most vulnerable long-term residents, many of them African Americans living in South and West Berkeley, will in any way benefit the city’s stated goal of maintaining diversity and affordability in housing. 

Specifically, we have been made aware of situations where the Zoning often makes it impossible for people to comply and keep their properties up to code, first through exorbitant fees that are often far outside what a low-income homeowner could pay, and second, by requiring that every last thing be brought up to code (rather than grandfathered in in cases where little to no significant risk exists) when longstanding unpermitted violations are found. 

According to the Berkeley Housing Element’s figures, 22.9% of Berkeley’s homeowners are low income or below, and of those, 4% are extremely low income (that’s over 1000 people in that narrow category alone). Fear of zoning inspectors mandating costly additional repairs drive an increasing number of people to rely on under-the-table work on their properties and make them prey to shoddy construction and sometimes to “fixes” that could trigger a level of repairs necessitating that a house be rebuilt from the ground up. Coupled with an insufficient number of inspectors, all this does is to create less building safety, and when property changes hands, sometimes work has been done that the new owner isn’t even aware of. 


Adoptable resolutions to specific issues that we have been made aware of from recent enforcement actions should include: 


Items that are non-conforming but essentially safe, like a step up into a bathroom or a staggered staircase, should be grandfathered in, since those are changes that would be prohibitively expensive for many current residents and, in some cases, would force the unit to move into a higher rental price bracket or a homeowner to be forced out entirely.
  • In cases where a house or condo is too close to the property line and changes have been made that alter the footprint, the homeowner should be allowed to upgrade the unit, with permits, to ensure that a one-hour firewall is present all along the borders instead of having to rebuild the entire unit six feet from the property line.
  • Earthquake upgrade funds should be made available first to people who are either low income, or to people who are using these funds to create an affordable rental unit. Even with current assistance, these repairs are far too expensive for many low income homeowners, so we should start from a place of complete overage and work our way down as income levels rise.
  • Require multi-unit properties that were converted to single family homes be reconverted back into multi-unit building only after they are sold. All newly sold duplexes and multi-unit properties would have a required disclosure that taking units off the market without prior permission would result in the consequences being doled out to current homeowners now, while there would be an amnesty for those who are currently residents and raised their families or took people in years ago.
  • Create limited equity programs for tenants in median income categories or below to acquire homes through limited equity community land trust schemes and make them forever affordable while retaining the essential character of the neighborhood. Every effort should be made to retain current residents, be they homeowners or renters, and eminent domain should be avoided.
Excessive permitting fees weigh disproportionately on the 22.9% of Berkeley’s low-income homeowners. Mary Behm-Steinberg’s former partner was a handyman, and was constantly being approached by people of modest means who couldn’t afford city fees to get essential maintenance done on their houses, so they went with unlicensed contractors and were constantly looking for new ones to fix the messes the old ones made. If we had reasonable fees, we could eliminate at least part of this problem. 

It’s difficult for some people to imagine how anyone who owns a home in a hot real estate market could ever be poor or disadvantaged. Many simply bought when housing was less expensive or inherited their homes, and are simply running out of money through old age or disability. We need to protect people like them, who, being on fixed incomes, can’t afford the permitting and fixes the City has traditionally required, because even if they have paid off their mortgage, rising insurance rates, property tax bills from added parcel taxes and bond measures, and medical costs can quickly consume and exceed a limited income. The fixes suggested here are one way that the City can positively impact the devastating effects of income inequality that are decimating the middle class and growing the ranks of the destitute. 

We recently read about Mr. Leonard Powell, a retired veteran, low income, African American, person with disabilities and a caregiver for other family members with disabilities. Mr. Powell was targeted after police accused his (non-resident) grandson of being in possession of cocaine and got a search warrant and an alleged confession which Mr. Powell had no knowledge of. In the process, the City discovered that Mr. Powell had, some 40 years prior, turned a duplex into a single-family home for himself, his wife, and their six children, well within the density that the building would have had as a duplex. They required it to be brought back to a duplex and for numerous fixes to be made, which Mr. Powell was unable to do in the time period required. The City offered him a no-interest loan, then failed to disburse it because of a catch-22: the house was no longer a duplex, so the loan couldn’t be used on it until it was. That house is now in receivership. http://berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2018-05-19/article/46739


The City has become a dysfunctional battleground in an era of income inequality, where the people who are hit hardest by proposed “solutions” are often those with the most to lose. A more nuanced approach that takes into consideration the needs of current residents at least as much as the desires of those who make up the “demand” for housing and don’t already live here is essential. Only then can we have a just peace in our community and convert our discord into a model for responsible growth. We hope that in embracing this model, we can go forward together and build community rather than continue fighting over scraps. There is a Planning Department Customer Service Study currently underway, and these proposals could be neatly folded into that framework and adopted that way, with further seizures by the City suspended until the study is completed and appropriate changes are implemented. 

The job of the city government is to work first and foremost for the benefit of its current citizens and to advocate for them when painful top down changes are mandated from the state, such as for an increased number of housing units. We can’t allow such mandates to dictate forcing cruel sets of hardships on some of our longest-standing citizens, who are also among our most vulnerable housed people. A new approach is long past due. Let’s start here.