Berkeley's Housing Crisis: An Open Letter to the Berkeley City Council

Charlene M. Woodcock
Saturday October 27, 2018 - 05:38:00 PM

h Dear Mayor Arreguín and city council members,

If we’re serious about reversing the loss of diversity in Berkeley due to gentrification and new housing only for those above median income, the city needs to act decisively. That’s why the majority of us rejected the real estate man for mayor in 2016, and elected Kate Harrison instead of Ben Gould for district 4. However, some council members and city staff continue to support the interests of developers over the concerns of Berkeley residents. Instead of continuing to approve market-rate projects, you need to demand projects that include low-income and family units and apply this demand to all those market-rate projects now in the pipeline. If those projects are granted use permits without having to include low-income units, the current housing crisis will be greatly exacerbated. The inadequate current in-lieu fee does not begin to solve the problem. If you’re serious about this crisis, raise the required low-income units to 50% and the in-lieu fee to $100,000 per unit. This would address the problem. We do not need more housing for the well-off in Berkeley. The developers of such housing and their investors need our locations. 

At their October 25 meeting, the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board voted to permit a 194-foot monument to real estate investment profits. In doing so, they approved this building's failure to aim for a LEED Platinum certification. Its LEED Gold goal, obsolete in this time of rapid climate change, would be achieved primarily simply by its location at BART Plaza. They approved the loss of the view of the Bay and Golden Gate from Campanile Way prized by students, residents, and visitors to the UC campus for more than 100 years. The justification for approving this architecturally undistinguished, environmentally inadequate project is the tired demand for more housing. The problem is, we don’t need more housing for the wealthy, those who can afford $4,000 or $5,000 a month for a studio or 1-bedroom apartment. We now have filled 150% of our ABAG quota for above-median income, but only a paltry 4 or 5% of the quota for low-income residents. We need housing that students, low-income residents, and families can afford. But this project, with 274 units, includes only 64 with two bedrooms, inadequate for a family even
were it priced for less-than-affluent renters.

Given the fact that Berkeley voters elected progressives rather than heavily-funded pro-development candidates in the 2016 election, it was a sad display of disregard for the will of the people. Only John Selawsky and Patrick Sheahan voted against granting the use permit for this project. Kriss Worthington’s student appointee showed her lack of understanding of the housing market in Berkeley by interrupting to second the motion to demonstrate how strongly she felt about student housing needs. She didn't see that helping to approve one more market-rate project devoid of any low-income units—the promised $10 million in-lieu fee won’t materialize for years—fails the urgent low-income, student, and family housing needs in Berkeley. In fact by taking a site for high-income housing that should be used for inclusionary housing to maintain the downtown demographics, it is in direct conflct with the DAP. But Charles Kahn made a point of stating that staff and ZAB decisions transcend the decisions of Berkeley voters. "The Council does land use policy; the public can be overruled." Democracy in Berkeley??

Patrick Sheahan asked why the project does not aim for LEED Platinum energy efficiency standards. The developer quite lamely blamed the wonderful roof gardens (who will use them at 180 feet up in the wind and cold?) for taking up the space where photo-voltaic cells could have been placed. Sheahan said the project is a dinosaur, not state-of-the-art, and ignores the will of the people that downtown heights be no taller than the Wells Fargo and Chase buildings. He then asked staff how it was that that height got translated into 180 feet, since those buildings don’t reach that height even with all roof appurtenances included. This building will be 194 feet including elevator housing etc. He asked how it came to be that the height limit was measured to the parapet instead of total height? The previous standard would put this building 20-25 feet above allowed height. He noted that this discrepancy had been ignored in the Harold Way process but said he was not going to ignore it. The question was dismissed.

And as with Harold Way, the Significant Community Benefits are a joke: 677 square feet of “community space” to be included in the building and a labor contract (that I understand the city requires anyway). The contractor tried to say that their $37K in-lieu fee was a community benefit, but someone pointed out that that was required of all the five tall buildings (except Tom Bates’ discounted fee for Harold Way).

Five or six people spoke against the project and about the same number for, including one middle-aged man identified as a private citizen whom I saw in conversation with Mark Rhoades at the break. Mr. Rhoades, as City Planning Director for ten years, laid the groundwork for his current work as front man for developers, pushing through oversized projects whether residents of Berkeley want them or not.

Altogether a very discouraging display of short-term thinking by the Board majority—incredibly ill-informed and irresponsible with regard to climate change as well as the willingness to block permanently a much-admired public view and turn it into a private profit source—those views of the Bay translate into high rents.