An Alameda County judge approved a motion Friday that could greenlight a small-scale Berkeley housing development. The project, led by community developer Christian Szilagy, would demolish an uninhabited house at 1310 Haskell St. and erect three residential dwellings in its place.
Judge Kimberly Colwell, who presided over the case, ruled that the city of Berkeley misused California housing law to deny a demolition permit. The case’s plaintiffs against the city — the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation, or SFBARF, and California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, or CaRLA — had already sued the city once before over the council’s verdict to stop the project.
“It is a ludicrous reading of the (Housing Accountability Act),” Brian Hanlon, a co-founder of CaRLA, said. “What (the city of Berkeley) is asserting here subverts … a whole host of state housing laws.”
According to Colwell’s motion, California’s Housing Accountability Act prohibits local agencies from rejecting housing projects unless the building plans do not comply with zoning standards or other compelling evidence is provided to illustrate why the project would be detrimental to the community. Colwell, however, found no such violations with Szilagy’s proposal.
Initially, the project was granted a use permit in March 2016 after the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board determined that the building plans met necessary criteria. Four months later, however, City Council overturned the approval and was subsequently sued by the plaintiffs.
City Councilmember Kriss Worthington voted to approve the Haskell development in the past. Szilagy proposal’s was “not perfect,” but it was “basically in compliance,” enough to approve it as was, Worthington said.
Case appellants — mostly Haskell Street residents — expressed concern that building three residential homes would impact available parking and threaten the neighborhood social dynamic, SFBARF founder and affordable housing advocate Sonja Trauss said.
Trauss added that some residents seemed to believe that “tearing down one house is equivalent to destroying their neighborhood.” She said, however, that the project is “development without displacement,” which is beneficial to the community and should become statewide practice.
Berkeley has been “under-developing for decades,” which is partially the reason for the local “housing crisis,” Hanlon said. 1310 Haskell St. is currently uninhabitable, but with development, “three households get housing,” he continued.
“This is a wakeup for cities all across the state that you can’t deny housing unless you have a really strong basis,” Worthington said.
Judge Colwell will either rule this week whether the case will be voted on by City Council for a third time or override the city, allowing development to proceed without a vote, City Attorney Zach Cowan said.
Mayor Jesse Arreguín declined to comment on pending litigation but will comply with Colwell’s ruling, according to Office of the Mayor spokesperson Karina Ioffee.