Berkeley needs affordable housing: Not here for the views

Samantha Patten/Staff

There’s a fantastic view from the west steps of the Campanile. On a clear day, you can see all the way down to the Bay and even get a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is a breathtaking view, but not when it gets in the way of building affordable housing.

In September, Berkeley City Council voted on whether or not to designate that view a landmark to provide clarity, that would mean designating as a landmark the air particles in the east-west view between the Campanile and the Golden Gate. This vote came after the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, or LPC, voted in April to designate the Campanile Way view as protected. If the LPC’s decision had been upheld, this could have prevented development of taller buildings because of the impact their height would have had on the protected view. The City Council overturned the LPC’s decision by a 5-3 vote. Mayor Jesse Arreguín, along with Councilmembers Linda Maio, Susan Wengraf, Kriss Worthington and Lori Droste, voted to reverse the previous decision. In contrast, Councilmembers Cheryl Davila, Kate Harrison and Sophie Hahn opposed the motion. Harrison, who represents Downtown Berkeley, tried to make an alternative motion that would have maintained the landmark designation of Campanile Way without including the view — which failed.

This isn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last time that the LPC brings the sanctity of this particular view into public debate. The first attempt to designate the view a landmark in 2015 was unsuccessful. The move was prompted by possible development Downtown that the LPC was opposed to. The chair of the LPC recently said the commission wants Berkeley City Council to consider ordinances in the future to “address historic and public views and view corridors.” While the LPC’s mission is commendable and the commission’s functions bring great value to Berkeley, we also cannot think about history without considering the impact of these actions on the present and future of Berkeley residents.

I’m all here for aesthetic, local heritage and panoramic views, but as Mayor Arreguín said in the September meeting, “The crux of this decision, the intent, was to use this decision as a means to put in place land-use regulations — and that concerns me.” It concerns me, too.

In the past few years, we have seen the housing crisis in Berkeley and the greater Bay Area balloon with no signs of demand dwindling or cost of living decreasing in sight. Berkeley already has convoluted zoning laws and very specific height requirements that make any development complicated, and the development of affordable housing is especially difficult. We are experiencing a supply deficit, a demand boom and price inflation all at the same time. According to UC Berkeley’s housing survey taken in 2016, 52 percent of transfer students and more than 40 percent of freshmen were either “concerned” or “very concerned” about finding affordable housing while studying at UC Berkeley. Some students are moving to Oakland and Richmond, while others are living in their cars.

The university, the city and the state all need to work in tandem to counter and reverse the housing crisis. This work is ongoing and addresses both short-term and long-term solutions. The university is planning to build on all nine sites listed in the January 2017 Housing Master Plan Task Force report. Local legislation such as More Student Housing Now seeks to adjust zoning laws on the south side of campus to allow for denser development. Measures O and P will allow for greater local spending on affordable housing through a general bond and a transfer tax, respectively. State legislation such as SB 1227 aims to create avenues for the building of more affordable housing for students and other Berkeley residents by providing “density bonuses” for building low-income student housing. AB 2923 aims to set transit-oriented development standards that may lead to development on vacant parking lots. Steps such as these attempt to address both the supply deficit of and ever-increasing demand for affordable housing.

When faced with the city’s current levels of housing insecurity, it should not be difficult to understand the need to prioritize the very real, immediate, basic needs of Berkeley community members — including students, because make no mistake, UC Berkeley students are Berkeley community members, too — over superfluous proposals to designate corridors of air as landmarks. We cannot continue to have debates about views and zucchini gardens when Berkeley residents are being pushed out of their homes, students are homeless and current proposed solutions are still in their initial steps. As we continue to take more decisive and community-oriented steps to address the housing crisis in Berkeley, I call on City Council to continue to prioritize housing over aesthetics. I call on students to push back when the Council fails to do so, and I call on our neighbors to work with student leaders, the city and the state to support these initiatives. Our community will only be strengthened if we work together to find the most effective way forward. Collaborate with students on finding solutions and compromises that benefit the entire Berkeley community. Let’s chat; my calendar is always open.

Nuha Khalfay is a senior at UC Berkeley studying public health and French. She serves as the ASUC external affairs vice president, UC Student Association University Affairs Committee vice chair and city of Berkeley Community Health Commission chair.