City Council discusses problems, solutions for affordable housing crisis at work session Tuesday

Francesca Ledesma/Staff

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Berkeley City Council held a special work session Tuesday — with presentations by regional researchers, city staff, developers, housing authority officials and campus city planning professors — where it discussed possible strategies to mitigate and resolve the city’s affordable housing crisis.

Speakers at the meeting agreed that affordable housing issues in Berkeley are a result of factors on both the supply and demand sides. A surge in demand for housing in the Bay Area and largely stagnant wages are coupled with an inadequate supply of housing and a lack of growth in new developments.

Some speakers identified a scarcity of suitable building sites, high development costs, zoning restrictions and a lack of consistent funding for the Housing Trust Fund in Berkeley as factors that contribute to the lack of development.

Regarding demand, Association of Bay Area Governments chief economist Cynthia Kroll said that while Berkeley’s population has grown faster than the Bay Area as a whole, the rate of housing growth has been slower, thus creating shortages in housing in the city.

This is evident as there are currently no open waiting lists for affordable housing in Berkeley, according to Susan Friedland, executive director of Satellite Affordable Housing Associates. She added that there is an “incredible mismatch between supply and demand” concerning housing in the city.

Whereas Carol Galante, campus professor of affordable housing and urban policy, suggested a reduction of restrictive zoning to address these issues, former Berkeley housing director Steve Barton stressed that the city should increase business license taxes on real estate with certain exemptions for small landlords, inclusionary units and long-term landlords to increase funding to the Housing Trust Fund.

In a report from Dee Williams-Ridley, interim city manager, to the council, the estimated market rent in Berkeley has increased 12 percent in the past year and the median sale price has increased 15 percent.

Karen Chapple, a campus city and regional planning professor, explained that the issue is not just about gentrification but also the loss of affordable housing over time. Her goal involves a multidimensional approach, which seeks to preserve old units and build new housing instead of pursuing one over the other.

Councilmember Susan Wengraf noted that a need for development lies at the core of the city’s crisis, which is exacerbated by some residents’ unwillingness to support building in Berkeley.

“In this town, developers are demonized,” Wengraf said. “I can’t think of a single project that’s been approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board that hasn’t been appealed, and all of this adds tremendous time to the project.”

In light of these presentations, Mayor Tom Bates issued four proposals to consider at the council’s next meeting Feb. 23, which would increase the share of affordable housing units from 10 percent to 20 percent, expand public housing eligibility, increase building fees and incentivize the creation of middle-income housing.

According to Bates, the council will further address and vote upon affordable housing issues discussed at the work session at its Apr. 5 meeting.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, however, stressed that in order to address the crisis in a timely manner, the council must expedite the processing of housing proposals.

“We have very excellent policy ideas that could be done as initiatives or ballot measures, and in order to get them on the ballot, we need to make a decision in a pretty prompt way,” Worthington said.

City Council will reconvene at both a special and regular meeting Feb. 23.

Contact Jessica Lynn and Alok Narahari at [email protected].