Housing groups file petition of mandate against city’s development denial

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The SF Bay Area Renters’ Federation and California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund filed a petition for a writ of mandate against the city and its council members last week alleging that the city violated California’s Housing Accountability Act.

The mandate is in response to the council’s repeated denial of a demolition permit for a proposed three-unit housing project at 1310 Haskell St. in Southwest Berkeley.

“This is an example of the city bullying small developers,” said Brian Hanlon, co-executive director of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund.

According to Hanlon, the neighborhood in question is currently composed of mostly luxury single family homes. “There are just not enough homes to go around,” said Hanlon.

The land was originally zoned for properties with three stories and four units. The development project, by project sponsor and architect Matt Baran of Baran Studio Architecture, is proposed for two stories with three units.

“I don’t think it will have cataclysmic consequences one way or another,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, noting that while the city needs affordable housing, the three-unit proposal is not a major addition.

No other voting council members could be reached for a statement as of press time.

Sonja Trauss, founder of the SF Bay Area Renters’ Federation, argues that this mentality has contributed to the housing crisis as it stands in Berkeley and the Bay Area today.

“Every city wants to off load housing onto another city — these three houses aren’t going to solve the problem,” Trauss said.

The project, whose application was complete prior to zoning adjustment board approval, was first approved by the board in March 2016, the board determined that the project “would not be detrimental to neighboring parties,” according to the mandate. The board subsequently issued a permit, authorizing the project.

Neighbors of the proposed project appealed its approval. In July 2016, City Council voted to approve the appeal and denied its previously approved permit — five in favor, four abstentions.

Hanlon called City Council’s reneged permit approval “a completely novel interpretation of state law.”

“The history of zoning in Berkeley is all about racial and class oppression,” Hanlon said. “Today it still works in the same way; many advocates believe that they can use restrictive zoning to prevent gentrification, but it has the opposite effect.”

Under the Housing Accountability Act, or HAA, a city may not disapprove a housing development project if the project complies with the city’s general plan and zoning standards, according to the mandate. City Council’s findings stated that HAA does not apply to “discretionary portions of the project,” and therefore the zoning board’s approval was invalid.

According to Trauss, several of the project’s potential neighbors cited density as their concern.

Trauss responded, “The people that would live there — where are they going to live instead?”

Audrey McNamara is the executive news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @McNamaraAud.