Lawsuit alleges Berkeley City Council illegally revoked housing development permit

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The Berkeley City Council has unknowingly violated a state housing development law for years, as alleged by an Oct. 7 lawsuit filed by the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation, or SFBARF.

The lawsuit alleges that the council violated California’s Housing Accountability Act, or HAA, when it revoked the approved zoning permit for a housing development at 1310 Haskell St. after neighbors complained that the proposed project would not fit into the character of their neighborhood.

The law states that a city or county cannot deny the approval of a housing project that complies with its general plan and zoning ordinance without substantial evidence that it will negatively impact public health or safety.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he and his fellow council members were aware that the HAA existed but were not aware of a 2011 court decision that clarified that the act applies to all housing developments, rather than exclusively to affordable housing developments, as previously thought. He said the council had not been considering this precedent in its decisions.

“I’m sure that they didn’t know,” said Sonja Trauss, a petitioner on the suit, the founder of SFBARF and cofounder of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, or CaRLA. “They are not professionals — the point is that we have a citizen-led government. … They don’t know the law a lot of times.”

As of press time, city spokesperson Matthai Chakko and Baran Studio Architecture — a real party in interest in the case — had not responded to interview requests. CS Development and Construction Inc., another real party in interest, declined to comment.

On July 12, City Council held a public hearing at which neighbors voiced their concerns about the project, after which the council voted — with five yes votes, zero no votes and four abstentions — to revoke the permit for the project.

The Zoning Adjustments Board had previously approved the permit for the proposed development in March because it complied with the neighborhood’s R-2A zoning standards and would not be detrimental to neighboring properties.

“We have not been given adequate access to the materials that we would need to always make the best decision,” said Sophie Hahn, ZAB member and candidate for the City Council District 5 seat. “This may not be the only law that is brought to our attention — I don’t think it’s unusual or a unique outlier.”

SFBARF is an unincorporated club organizing for density renters in the Bay Area. CaRLA is an incorporated nonprofit that funds SFBARF’s efforts in enforcing the HAA, which, according to Trauss, the group found out about last year.

“Everything is really cut and dry. No harm, no foul,” Trauss said. “I don’t feel like anyone’s taking it personally.”

Trauss said the issue is resolved to an extent — the council admits wrongdoing and, according to Trauss, agreed that the planning staff will from now on include a section on the law in staff reports.

Worthington said the law requires the approval of virtually all applications for housing developments, only allowing City Council to force a modification or reject a proposal under extreme circumstances.

“If we consider (the HAA) in relation to every project, it will change the whole development process in Berkeley,” Worthington said. “This is going to change the nature of Berkeley’s consideration of zoning cases.”

Contact Aleah Jennings-Newhouse at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ajn_dc.