State Assembly passes housing tax that will possibly end up on November ballot

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Ciecie Chen/File

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A bill introduced by District 15 Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, that would allow the city of Berkeley to increase its sales tax by 0.5 percent to address homelessness passed through the state Assembly on Monday.

According to Igor Tregub, chair of the Housing Advisory Commission, the bill has now been sent to the Senate Rules Committee — the bill will have to go through the other Senate committees and the Senate floor and finally to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk before the Berkeley City Council can decide whether or not to put the bill on the November 2018 ballot.

According to Mayor Jesse Arreguín, the city will decide by June whether this bill will be on the ballot.

Arreguín said in an email that he wrote a letter of support for Thurmond’s bill partly because of Berkeley’s community survey of likely voters that was conducted in March. He added that the survey found that affordable housing and homelessness were ranked as the top two priorities.

“Homelessness is a state and national problem, so getting the state to help support solutions is really important,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “Berkeley spends millions of our own money to address homelessness, but it exists in cities all over the state.”

The bill only asks the state whether voters in the city of Berkeley can be allowed to vote on the increase, according to Tregub — the bill itself does not raise taxes.

According to Worthington, any bill involving money will be difficult to pass. He added, however, that it could be a bargaining chip to persuade Brown to put more funds into fighting homelessness.

Worthington mentioned that the bill started as an effort to raise the sales tax of the entire state — increasing the entire state’s taxes was thought to be too difficult to pass, and the effort was later scaled back to just Berkeley.

“While I’m excited for any increased resources to address … the homeless crisis, ultimately, our society has to move away from regressive taxation which hurts the people we are trying to help,” said Councilmember Ben Bartlett in an email.

The city’s current sales tax is 9.25 percent, or 2 percent above the statewide sales tax, according to Arreguín. He added that this bill would help generate enough revenue to provide funds to address public safety, homelessness and other issues.

In regard to public utilities, the bill would create more funding for a range of public facilities, from creating more permanent housing to creating more temporary support services, according to Worthington.

“Assemblymember Thurmond’s bill gives our community more flexibility and resources to address our homelessness crisis,” Tregub said. “It allows the City Council to put new revenue on the ballot, which ensures that Berkeley voters have the final say.”

Contact Yao Huang at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Yhoneplus.