City Council discusses Zoning Adjustments Board appeal, street behavior ordinances

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Ashish Samaddar/Staff

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On Tuesday, Berkeley City Council moved to return a permit to the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board temporarily halting contentious plans to demolish an 18-unit rent-controlled building on Durant Avenue.

In addition, several community members voiced their concerns about what they saw as unjust policies toward the city’s homeless population and responded to ordinances passed Nov. 18, which place stricter regulations on street behavior.

At the meeting, the council reviewed an appeal — filed by former Rent Stabilization Board chair Lisa Stephens and the ASUC — of a zoning permit, which was approved by ZAB in June.

Citing concerns over ZAB’s process when initially approving the permit, the council decided to refer the issue back to ZAB to assess city staff recommendations and potential detriments to the property, as well as consider the Rent Stabilization Board’s property analysis and public testimony from Tuesday’s meeting.

Had the council voted for approval, the permit would have authorized the demolition of the building located at 2631 Durant Ave. and the construction of a new five-story, 56-unit residential building.

“No one questions the need for this housing or the quality of the proposal. It’s modern, it’s safe, it’s accessible,” said Elisa Mikiten, a land-use planner who spoke during the project applicant’s presentation. “No one debates attributes or benefits of the project.”

Jay Kelekian, executive director of the Rent Stabilization Program, voiced worry with the original ZAB decision, which he said would first incentivize speculators to overpay for rental properties in Berkeley and neglect the properties before obtaining a permit for demolition to create a more profitable building with high-end market-rate units exempt from regulation.

After ZAB issued its own fair-return report in June, rent board commissioners criticized the zoning board’s fair return report for using information that conflicted with public records. In the report, the zoning board found that the building could be demolished under the demolition ordinance — which exists to preserve affordable housing units — provided that the units generate a fair return in today’s rental market.

“That’s not the standard they’re supposed to use under the demolition ordinance in deciding whether you allow something to be demolished that exists,” Kelekian said. “The demolition ordinance is to prevent the existing (rent-controlled) housing stock from being demolished.”

Several council members noted that regardless of whether the 18 current units are refurbished with a new certificate of occupancy or 56 new units are constructed, the units’ rent will rise to market rate. The project approved by ZAB included four below-market-rate units.

“We’re talking about 18 units of housing and instead going to 56 units of housing in a very dense area of Berkeley,” said Councilmember Laurie Capitelli at the meeting. “Whatever we do, the old units or the new units that are built will be rented at market rate.”

The ZAB fair return report used a standard based on rate of return on investment — likely to result in windfall profits — rather than the widely accepted standard of maintaining net operating income.

Discussion about the ZAB decision came directly after a special meeting earlier that day, during which the council talked extensively about the need for affordable housing in Berkeley.

“It has always been Berkeley’s policy not to tear down rent control unless we replace them with something better, permanently affordable housing,” said Katherine Harr, president of the Berkeley Tenants Union and Rent Stabilization Board commissioner. “If you let this project go forward, you’re throwing the demolition ordinance in the trash.”

At the same meeting Tuesday, more than 50 Berkeley residents took to the lectern to speak out against what they believe is the criminalization of homelessness. They referred to policies, such as the restriction of personal belongings during the day to 2 square feet and new rules against sleeping in planter beds, as punitive and dehumanizing.

Many spoke in support of more affordable housing in Berkeley to combat increasing market-rate housing prices and provide more homes for the homeless.

“It’s not affordable housing — (there needs to be) more housing we can afford,” said Christina Murphy, housing specialist for the Berkeley Drop-In Center. “We are not doing enough to provide space for people.”

After heated debate, the council voted to pass the ordinances without any additional amendments, despite a crowd that was strongly opposed to it. As the meeting adjourned, the crowd chanted, “We are unstoppable — a better world is possible.”

Because of a lack of time, the Police Review Commission’s investigative report on Berkeley Police Department’s actions during the December 2014 Black Lives Matter protests was not discussed.

The next City Council meeting will be Dec. 15, with a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the appeals of the 2211 Harold Way development.

Contact Alok Narahari and Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks at [email protected].