Berkeley City Council to discuss affordable housing, homeless shelters at Tuesday meeting

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Berkeley City Council will reconvene Tuesday to discuss various agenda items, including increasing city affordable housing, expanding city homeless shelters and public campaign financing.

Continuing from City Council’s Feb. 23 meeting, an item regarding the potential revision of the city’s Affordable Housing Mitigation Fee — one of the main mechanisms the city uses to increase the supply of affordable housing — will be discussed. The changes to the fee, if passed, would include boosting the percentage of below-market-rate units in the city, increasing the monetary fee and offering a $6,000 discount if paid early when a building permit is issued.

Housing developers can opt to pay the fee in lieu of including affordable housing units in new buildings. Revenue from the fee goes toward the Housing Trust Fund, which provides funding to developers to promote building below-market-rate units, along with renovation and rehabilitation projects in affordable housing units.

“The mayor’s proposal raises the Affordable Housing Mitigation Fee by a very small amount, and the offer of a discounted rate if the fee is paid upon issuance of the permit is, in my view, a mistake,” said Bren Darrow, chair of the city’s Housing Advisory Commission, in an email.

Citing San Francisco’s policy as an example, Darrow said the current fee is too low and the payment should be required at the issuing of a building permit before construction begins.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said the $6,000 discount for paying the fee early at the time of issuing the permit is too high and should be lowered to $1,000 or $2,000.

He added that the increase in percentage of below-market-rate units and the relatively low cost of the fee disincentivizes building affordable housing.

“It permanently eliminates anyone building below-market-rate units by doubling the amount of affordable units you have to build, but only increasing the fee a little bit if at all,” Worthington said.

Worthington has proposed to add a “sunset clause” to the existing fee program, which would include a future economic analysis to determine the right balance between percentage of units and amount for the fee.

Another affordable housing item on Tuesday’s agenda includes creating a comprehensive city housing action plan.

“We have five nonprofits who have told the city they want to build affordable units and we need to prioritize funding what they said they needed,” Worthington said. “We need, right away, to put a whole bunch of money into predevelopment.”

Carol Galante, campus professor in the department of city and regional planning, commended the city for looking at the affordable housing in a comprehensive way.

“(Without affordable housing), you’re going to continue to see the prices of what is available go up or certainly not stabilize and that’s going to be a challenge for everyone who is already living here,” Galante said.

Another item that City Council will review, proposed by Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, aims to expand resources for city homeless shelters and to mitigate the effects of a homeless shelter crisis declared at the council’s Jan. 19 meeting.

The item’s recommendations include providing new spaces for warming centers and emergency shelters, allocating funding to provide services to homeless individuals and increasing bathroom accessibility for the homeless.

Donald Frazier, executive director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency — an organization that operates homeless service centers in Berkeley — said the City Council’s efforts to solve the homeless shelter crisis are well-intentioned. He said, however, that the answer to homelessness is permanent, more supportive housing.

“It’s really about working smarter, not harder, and getting to the things that are going to solve the problem, rather than to create an emergency fix that effectively keeps people in this place, to a large degree, homeless,” Frazier said.

City Council will also further discuss public campaign financing amendments that include limiting positions eligible for funding to mayor and City Council candidates and restricting public matching funds to donations from Berkeley residents.

Contact Alex Fang at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @alexfang_DC.