Berkeley City Council talks future of affordable housing

photo of houses in Berkeley
Andrew Huang/Staff
Berkeley City Council discussed the Housing Element update, which will be due to the state by 2023, with an intent to focus on housing development, protection for existing affordable housing and displacement prevention at its meeting Tuesday.

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Berkeley City Council began its discussion of an update that will determine the future of Berkeley housing policy at a work session meeting Tuesday.

The Housing Element update, which is required of every city in California every eight years to show its plans to address the statewide housing crisis, is due to the state by 2023. According to project manager Grace Wu, one of the Housing Element’s main goals is to encourage cities to provide affordable housing and support services for their “most vulnerable.”

The council’s discussion Tuesday came on the heels of Gov. Gavin Newsom signing SB 9 and SB 10 into law. Both bills seek to alleviate the state’s affordable housing crisis by dropping barriers to multiunit housing. At the meeting, Mayor Jesse Arreguín said Berkeley’s updated Housing Element will focus on housing development, protection for existing affordable housing and displacement prevention.

From 2015 to 2023, Berkeley is state-mandated to zone for 2,959 residential units. In the upcoming cycle, from 2023 to 2031, Berkeley is expected to zone for 8,943 new units. The Housing Element also mandates the type of housing a city must create. Berkeley is on track to meet its goal number of new residential units with above-average rents but is currently not meeting its goal numbers for moderate, low and very low-income housing.

“This is an opportunity for Berkeley to demonstrate leadership,” Arreguín said at the meeting. “People who grew up in Berkeley can’t afford to live in Berkeley. People who work here can’t afford to live here.”

He added that Berkeley is not immune to the Bay Area’s history of racial and economic exclusion in zoning laws, so it is important to address those issues directly during the planning process.

With that in mind, Ron Whitmore of Raimi and Associates, a private consulting firm that is helping the city draft the Housing Element update, said at the meeting the firm’s aim is to make the 2023-2031 “more comprehensive than ever.”

In a presentation to the council, Whitmore listed access, demographics, tenant protections, public safety, diverse housing types, environmental equity, geographic equity and affordability as some of the team’s considerations.

During public comment, residents shared concerns about existing vacancies, population growth and stagnant water supply, especially given California’s relationship with droughts. Others commented that the city must consider the consequences of sea-level rise when planning new developments and evacuation routes in case of wildfires.

ASUC Housing Commission Chair Brandon Yung, who previously served as a reporter for The Daily Californian, advocated in favor of rezoning Southside and including student voices in the discussion. He added that students have faced the brunt of housing policy failure in the past and highlighted that about 40% of UC Berkeley students are not able to live in the city.

In response to public comment, Arreguín and City Councilmember Sophie Hahn emphasized the council’s commitment to creating housing policy according to the community’s direction. According to Wu, the team leading the Housing Element update process will host two additional city council work sessions, interviews, a citywide survey and stakeholder meetings to gather additional feedback.

“On the one hand, we’ll meet people where they are,” Whitmore said at the meeting. “But on the other, we’ll cast a very wide net.”

Rachel Barber is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @rachelbarber_.