Berkeley City Council unanimously passes “Step Up Housing” initiative

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Berkeley City Council unanimously passed the “Step Up Housing” initiative Tuesday night in an effort to address the homelessness crisis with plans to create up to 100 units of supportive housing.

The Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Homelessness is responsible for identifying areas of city-owned land fit for the creation of the units and amending the city permitting process to expedite the development of below-market-rate housing. The city will soon be reviewing both for and nonprofit developers for the construction of the project.

Councilmember Ben Bartlett was inspired to introduce the item in part because of a past experience seeing a homeless, elderly and disabled Oakland woman fall from her wheelchair into the street while trying to accept some offered change.

“It was the first time I had come face to face with the really tragic reality that there are senior citizens that are homeless,” Bartlett said at the meeting. “She was 83 years old, disabled and homeless. There was no help.”

In 2015, an official count estimated that about 830 homeless residents were living in Berkeley. Residency in the new units will be determined on a need-based criteria, with a focus given to seniors, the disabled and former Berkeley residents who have become homeless.

The item stipulates that the city partner with a housing nonprofit and work alongside federally qualified healthcare centers to manage and operate the final project. The initiative’s “cooperative model” aims to encourage tenants and their neighbors to actively work together in supporting one another, according to a press release issued by Bartlett’s office.

Homeless advocate Guy “Mike” Lee said he has concerns about the project, but that it is a step in the right direction.

“A solution is on the table instead of words and well-meaning gestures,” Lee said at the meeting. “I’d like to thank each and every one of you for daring to embrace a new vision for a new future … I only have one question for you. When do I move in?”

Additionally, City Council denied a revision to an item adopted last year that further regulated short-term rentals. The revision would have prohibited any owner who rented their property for a period longer than 14 days within the past 10 years from short-term renting their units.

Councilmember Susan Wengraf expressed concern that the revision would spark unintended consequences for families who use short-term rentals to supplement their mortgages. Councilmember Lori Droste also noted that the regulations may impact owners who typically rely on short-term rentals as a source of income, but who have rented out a unit for more than 14 days in the past to address an extenuating circumstance — such as a displaced family member.

“It’s an evolving landscape and we’re going to have to keep adjusting,” Councilmember Kriss Worthington said. “We’ve been trying to get language in place for three years.”

Contact Edward Booth and Ani Vahradyan at [email protected].