City Council discusses emergency housing plan at special meeting

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At a special City Council meeting Tuesday, government officials and Berkeley residents voiced concerns over a Housing Action Plan, which aims to help mitigate the housing crisis within Berkeley.

The plan offers 23 items proposed by Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmembers Laurie Capitelli and Kriss Worthington. Aspects of the plan range from potentially revising building height limits to repurposing the West Berkeley Service Center​.

One concern — raised by Jacquelyn McCormick of the Berkeley Neighborhood Council is that the plan’s language is unclear. The BNC specifically drew issue with the plan’s use of broad terms in lieu of more specific directives, such as its references to “Berkeley staff” and “costs” without specifying what particular commissions or what type of costs.

“This proposal, while some of it is really good, needs to be more clearly defined before it can be an actionable item before council,” McCormick said.

Deborah Matthews, the Planning Commission vice chair, said she generally supports developing housing for all income levels, though she advised that the council should focus more on the urgent need in Berkeley to construct affordable units for lower income residents.

“We need to make sure we look at streamlining a process for developers who choose to embrace (affordable housing), making sure that we get these units into development as quickly as possible because there is such an urgent need,” Matthews said.

Eric Panzer, the chair of the Board of Directors at Livable Berkeley, also expressed concern over the urgency of creating affordable housing, given that the housing situation in Berkeley is drastically changing.

“The question is not whether Berkeley will evolve, but how,” Panzer said. “Refusing to build housing is not a path to affordability.”

According to UC Berkeley alumna Moni Law, there are 3,400 new units in the city pipeline that are “unaffordable by definition,” because most of these units are not rent controlled and have rents starting at $3,500. Law added that the California Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act allows vacant rent-controlled units to rise to market-level prices.

“Everyday as a Cal alum, I am saddened by (the crisis),” Law said. “Six, seven or eight students are living in one-bedroom and two-bedroom rent-controlled apartments, and landlords are making a lot of money with students’ suffering.”

According to Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, the current units being constructed are unaffordable to low-income or even middle-income people. He added that the council aims to address this concern through the plan.

“Building a lot of market-rate units is not going to solve the problem,” Arreguin said. “We built over 1,000 units of market rate (housing) in the past six years. It hasn’t lowered rents; rents are skyrocketing.”

Contact Brenna Smith at [email protected].