Mayors of Berkeley, Emeryville, vice mayor of Albany discuss housing crisis at Thursday meeting

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A local chapter of the League of Women Voters, or LWV, hosted Mayor Jesse Arreguín of Berkeley, Vice Mayor Nick Pilch of Albany and Mayor Scott Donahue of Emeryville as part of a discussion panel on local housing issues.

The event — organized by LWV Berkeley Albany Emeryville — took place at the Berkeley Chinese Community Church on Thursday evening. Peggy McQuaid, mayor of Albany, was originally invited to join the panel, but was replaced by Pilch because of a family emergency.

“Berkeley and the entire state of California (are) facing an unprecedented housing crisis. Certainly in Berkeley, we are seeing low-income residents, students and even middle-income (residents) being priced out of the city due to rising housing costs,” Arreguín said at the event.

In addition to facing a housing crisis created by insufficient housing supply, Berkeley also maintains the highest wealth gap in the Bay Area, according to Arreguín.

The city’s high housing prices stem from the fact that Berkeley is home to a world-class university, a culturally attractive community as well as a good school district, Arreguín said at the event, adding that the tech boom in other parts of the Bay Area has created a massive demand on housing. The tech industry has not met its obligation in housing its employees, thus pushing populations into the East Bay, according to Arreguín.

“I was at a housing meeting where Google and Facebook were represented and these organizations are partly responsible for driving up the cost of housing,” Donahue said at the event. “And they’re sitting on oceans of capital.”

According to Pilch, Albany has built very little housing over the past few years and has just begun a plan to attract developers through density bonuses and other tools, aiming to provide for the city’s “younger folks who are just starting out.”

On the other hand, Berkeley has prioritized dense, market-rate development over the past 10 years, Arreguín said at the event. Even so, according to Arreguín, 85 percent of the housing built over the period was not affordable.

Regarding tools of combating the housing crisis and its resulting displacement, Arreguín said at the event that Berkeley has an affordable housing trust fund, which has supported more than 400 units of housing. Arreguín added that the city now plans to purchase existing housing to preserve its affordability.

The city also requires developers to either dedicate 20 percent of a new apartment building’s units to low-income residents or pay $34,000 to the city, according to Arreguín.

Concerning the development strategy of Emeryville, the city is willing to become much taller and more urban than it currently is, Donahue said at the event.

“Our city is not a NIMBY city; we have the highest growth rate proportional to our residents and population,” Donahue said at the event.

According to Pilch, however, cities such as Palo Alto, where many of the Bay Area’s tech companies are located, have “the worst housing policies” and are not allowing housing development. These cities’ policies force tech workers to commute to work from cities farther away, Pilch said at the event.

To resolve differences among Bay Area cities’ housing policies, Arreguín said at the event, a cap-and-trade system for housing should be implemented. In this system, according to Arreguín, cities that do not build enough housing must pay to a regional housing trust fund which enables other cities to alleviate the housing development burden.

Pilch said he understands that the community is often sensitive to the word “developer,” as there have been developers who merely seek to maximize profits irrespective of the community’s needs. According to Pilch, however, there are developers who wish to work with the community and build environmentally friendly projects.

Pamela Springer, an LWV member and landlord in Berkeley, said she felt Arreguín often frames landlords as the community’s enemy and raises taxes on these “small” property owners in hopes of resolving a much larger housing crisis.

Coming out of the event, however, Springer said she thought the mayors had brought up many interesting ways to address the housing issue across the three cities.

Charlene Jin is the lead business and economy reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @CharleneJin0327.