City Council votes to place property transfer tax measure on November ballot

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Berkeley City Council voted at a special Tuesday meeting to place a measure on the November ballot that would increase the transfer tax on the top third of property sales.

If passed, each time property of a certain tier is sold or transferred, the transaction would be taxed at a higher rate, according to the meeting’s agenda. This increased tax would generate funds that would be used toward municipal services, including services for the homeless, but the measure does not specify how this revenue will be split up.

“Write your ballot language clearly,” Berkeley resident Bryce Nesbitt said during public comment. “It’s pretty fuzzy.”

One way the council hopes to increase public trust in the initiative is to include a panel of experts to handle how to distribute funds generated by the ballot measure. The panel for this measure would be composed of experts on homeless services, including those who have experienced homelessness themselves, according to Councilmember Cheryl Davila.

“There is a lot of mistrust in how we spend our money,” said Councilmember Susan Wengraf during the meeting. “We should do whatever we can do to ensure that people know that the money is well-spent.”

Council members debated amendments to the item that would create a “sunset clause,” which would have ended the transfer tax after 10 years and would raise the threshold to 1.25 times the median property transfer value for the previous year.

Council members also argued that the average home price is $1.1 million, so setting a high threshold and annually re-evaluating the level would ensure that this increase only apply to properties priced in the top third, according to Councilmember Sophie Hahn. One public commenter called these amendments a “watered-down” version of the original ballot measure.

The city also voted to finalize ballot language on the measure to create an affordable housing bond. In the list of “vulnerable populations” that the city hopes to serve by increasing access to affordable housing, Councilmember Kate Harrison noted one population that the council failed to account for — students.

“We left out an important population, which is students,” Harrison said during the meeting, eliciting a “thank you” yelled from the audience.

The revised language includes students as one of the populations that this bond will serve and sets a goal to have 10 percent affordable housing by 2030.

During public comment, community members expressed concerns about clarity in this measure as well. While there is a lot of information about the cost to voters, the ballot measure lacks concrete information about what housing will be created and how, one commenter said.

Multiple council members said they are considering many options for creating affordable housing, and hope to leverage money from this bond to get more funding from the county.

“We have this idea that nobody knows how to solve homelessness, that it’s so persistent and tragic, that we don’t know what to do. That is not true,” Hahn said at the meeting. “We do know how to do it. The only thing missing is the money to do it.”

Madeleine Gregory covers city government. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @mgregory_dc.