City Council discusses housing issues at first meeting of 2017

Michael Wan/Staff

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The new City Council tackled housing in Berkeley at its first meeting of the year, winning approval from the homeless community and Berkeley residents.

The council revised an ordinance to abolish the two square-foot size limitation for homeless individuals’ possessions and amended the Short-Term Rentals Regulations ordinance to allow temporary rentals in Berkeley, such as Airbnb. The council also voted to increase the General Reserve Fund from 8 percent of the city’s revenue to 16.7 percent and to strive to reach 30 percent in 10 years.

During public comment, members and advocates of the homeless community had a range of suggestions for City Council to consider in addition to abolishing the size limitation. The suggestions included requests for free laundry services, showers and sanctioned encampments.

At the meeting, Mayor Jesse Arreguin said he wanted to outlaw the regulation on homeless possessions because he believed it criminalized homeless individuals for having personal property. The council unanimously voted to overturn the regulation.

Homeless advocate Christine Schwartz, who was homeless as a child, attended the meeting and expressed her concerns regarding the ordinance during public comment.

“I keep going back on my experience,” Schwartz said at the meeting. “People who are homeless need a place to be and two square feet are not going to make it.”

Both Arreguin and District 5 Councilmember Sophie Hahn submitted individual amendments to the Short-Term Rentals Regulations Ordinance. The ordinance concerns the legality of temporary rentals, which are for 14 days or less.

Some Berkeley residents said renting out rooms in their houses through Airbnb has helped them pay their mortgages and keep their homes, especially in light of the city’s housing crisis. But others disagreed, encouraging City Council to prioritize rent-controlled apartments for the city’s homeless population.

The council unanimously approved both Hahn and Arreguin’s amendments and decided that as long as a host is living in the primary building, or the “Accessory Dwelling Unit” of a residence, short-term rentals are allowed.

“This is a new kind of activity, and I just commend the Planning Commission,” Hahn said at the meeting regarding the short-term rentals. “This is a huge leap forward for Berkeley.”

To commemorate those who were lost this winter, the homeless community set up a small vigil in front of City Hall before the meeting. Guy “Mike” Lee, a member of the Homeless Commission, said it intends to tour Berkeley with this vigil to raise awareness about homelessness issues.

The meeting began with a dedication to Laura Jadwin, a member of the homeless community who died on the streets recently. The council also honored an unidentified man who died Sunday, who is suspected to be a member of the homeless community.

Also on the agenda was the city’s tiny homes program, but District 3 Councilmember Ben Bartlett requested to continue discussion of the measure until Feb. 14. Bartlett said key stakeholders in the program were missing from the meeting, adding that he wanted to wait for their input before the council voted on the measure.

“I felt bad that I couldn’t pass (the tiny homes program) tonight because I tell you, every time someone dies here in my city due to lack of shelter, it just breaks my heart,” Bartlett said. “So my job here is provide shelter whenever I can as soon as I can.”

Malini Ramaiyer is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @malinisramaiyer.