Mayoral candidates discuss housing crisis at Berkeley City College forum

Audrey McNamara/Senior Staff

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Six of the nine Berkeley mayoral candidates attended a forum Thursday night at Berkeley City College to discuss, among other issues, Berkeley’s housing crisis.

During the forum, which was hosted by the nonpartisan political organization League of Women Voters, candidates were asked how they would increase housing as mayor. All candidates agreed that there is a lack of housing in Berkeley but disagreed on the way to approach the issue.

Councilmember Laurie Capitelli promoted the acquisition of unused housing. Homeless mayoral candidate Mike Lee also described the potential rehabilitation of unused properties.

Noting the three- to five-year delay in new construction, Lee insisted that the city cannot afford to wait on housing. In response to the same question, Councilmember Kriss Worthington addressed the delay in new construction, blaming the zoning ordinance as the ultimate hurdle for efficient proposal approval.

“First and foremost, we need to rezone the zoning ordinance,” Worthington said. “Going through the bureaucracy and having the staff figure out which part of the contradictory ordinance applies and which does not, when they say opposite things — those kinds of delays actually cause more delay than the entire public process put together.”

In response to a question regarding Berkeley’s stance on the proliferation of short term rentals, or STRs, such as those offered through Airbnb, the candidates once again deliberated over limited housing stock.

“I think STRs are an exciting opportunity to welcome visitors to our city,” said mayoral candidate Ben Gould. “I don’t think it should be forbidden in any case specifically, but I do think it should be restricted so that we don’t have people renting out units consistently.”

While candidate Naomi D. Pete expressed concern that STRs are not contributing to “a better Berkeley,” Capitelli noted that the practice is not legal.

“Short term rentals are already illegal in Berkeley, we just don’t enforce the law,” Capitelli said. “They are enforced on a complaint-driven basis.”

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin said STR regulations remain weak because Berkeley has not taken any final action on the ordinance, as Airbnb increases pressure on cities in the Bay Area to ease regulations on STRs. Without legalizing short term rentals, the city is unable to strictly regulate the practice, Arreguin said.

In addition to questions regarding housing and homelessness, the candidates also discussed the city’s presently unfunded retirement pension program.

Worthington wants to meet 100 percent of the current need for pensions. Capitelli, however, asserted that funding pensions is impossible within the limits of the current budget.

“My solution is to broaden the tax base,” Capitelli said. “Finding 14 million to set aside to pay off that fund (is) not possible — that’s 10 percent of the budget.”

After the debate, former Berkeley City College student president and current UC Berkeley student Brianna Rogers said she was pleased with the forum’s location at BCC.

“Voting is coming up, I’m smack dab in the middle of midterms,” Rogers said. “I appreciate that I could be here and hear them in person and feel connected to them.”

Contact Audrey McNamara at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @McNamaraAud.