Proposed state bills could increase housing opportunities in Berkeley

Jennifer Xie/Staff

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A new housing package introduced Thursday by California Sen. Scott Wiener aims to continue to create more housing opportunities in California, which could affect the status of Berkeley’s housing crisis.

Included in the three bills that Wiener proposed are mandates to increase housing development near public transit, to ensure that housing development goals assigned to local communities are based accurately by population growth and to expand farmworker housing opportunities.

Greg Magofna, co-executive of East Bay for Everyone, an organization fighting against housing shortages in the area, said it was encouraging to see that Wiener is among others working to implement new policies to address the housing crisis.

“We are basically using the same legislative policies to combat housing shortage that we have been using for the last 30 to 40 years,” Magofna said.

Wiener’s proposal suggested that beginning with last year’s housing package, California legislation had pivoted from a “housing-last” policy to a “housing-first” policy, which prioritizes making housing development less expensive and less difficult in California.

With a “world-class university” in its backyard, Berkeley attracts a large student population along with faculty and staff, according to Igor Tregub, chair of Berkeley’s Housing Advisory Commission. The rise of the technology industry in San Francisco has further attracted workers to the East Bay and Berkeley. In addition to all of this, Tregub said, Berkeley is fairly “built-out,” meaning there are limited open lots still available for development.

“What makes it a somewhat difficult conversation in the community is what is the level of density that the community is willing to accept to provide for more housing and what percentage of that housing can be considered affordable for long-time Berkeley residents,” Tregub said.

Unlike other UC campuses, Berkeley does not provide enough housing to meet student demand, according to Tregub, and the campus only guarantees housing for first-year students.

While the campus has started building new housing for students, Helen Veazey, assistant chair of the ASUC Housing Commission, said in an email that there are still “important deficiencies” the university has not addressed in Berkeley, including where student housing is built.

“The campus has primarily focused on sites selected by a taskforce with zero student members. You cannot have any conversations about student housing without students at the table,” Veazey said in an email.

Veazey also said the campus needs to consider affordable housing for students. While Wiener has shown interest in housing that benefits for-profit developers, he has not shown a “real commitment” to ensuring that housing is affordable nor to stopping displacement, Veazey said.

“Students simply cannot afford to live in luxury housing, and any housing packages need to ensure the creation of significant amounts of below market rate housing,” Veazey said in an email.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said Wiener’s housing bill does “one small but important thing in terms of availability” but fails to address affordability. Worthington expects that amendments will be necessary in order for Wiener’s bill to pass.

Tax credits and incentives for cities to provide affordable housing are included in the list of “urgently important” ways needed to make housing both affordable and accessible, Worthington said.

“If you make lots of housing available and it’s really expensive, then that’s not really helpful,” Worthington said.

There are “much more important bills” regarding housing in the legislature currently, Worthington said, along with many legislators who have been working on improving housing for decades.

In the last two to three years, Berkeley has approved about 1,500 more units of housing, according to Tregub. It has also passed one of the “strongest affordable housing ordinances in the nation,” which mandates that at least 20 percent of the total number of units for residential projects with five or more units be inclusionary.

Tregub added, however, that the Berkeley housing market is “distorted,” and although Berkeley meets 100 percent of its need for market-rate housing, it falls “woefully short” of reaching the fair housing needs of lower-income workers and the “missing middle” income, in which workers are making 81 to 120 percent of the area’s median income.

I fully support the concept of what the bill is trying to do,” Tregub said. “But as with every legislation, the devil is always with the details.”

Contact Alicia Kim at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aliciackim.