Affordable housing project delayed due to new interpretation of state law

Photo of 1820 San Pablo Ave
Can Jozef Saul/Staff
Under a new interpretation of the California Density Bonus Law, affordable housing developers face challenges from having to pay affordable housing impact fees or provide additional low-income housing units.

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A local affordable and residential housing project at 1820 San Pablo Ave. has been delayed due to changing terms of the California Density Bonus Law.

Ton Robbins, a former resident of Berkeley, purchased the half-abandoned, two-story commercial building from a high school friend more than three years ago. According to Robbins, the property was an “eyesore” for the community because the building’s grocery store had not been open since the 1980s, and the upstairs cannabis club was allegedly a front for illegal activity in the neighborhood.

The property is Robbins’ first project in Berkeley and will likely be his last, he says, despite having owned houses in Berkeley since 1975.

“I wanted to come in and clean it up,” said Robbins.

Robbins hopes to integrate affordable housing in the building through the California Density Bonus Law, which grants additional market-rate units to developers building below-market-rate housing. These density bonus units allow for an increase of the current maximum residential density.

Robbins contracted Gunkel Architecture to design the building. The firm conducted a neighborhood outreach meeting which yielded overwhelming support for the project from the neighborhood.

The plan involves demolishing most of the two-story commercial building, restoring the facade and building four residential stories with 44 dwellings, which includes four units for tenants who earn 50% or less than the area’s median income.

“We do a lot of affordable housing projects, plus market-rate projects and certainly enjoy working on projects that incorporate both aspects into the fabric of the same development,” said Brad Gunkel, principal of Gunkel Architecture. “Serving the workforce of the Bay Area is certainly a priority of ours.”

However, during the summer of 2021, Robbins learned that under a new interpretation of city code, he would be obligated to pay an affordable housing impact fee or provide five affordable units in addition to those he was already planning to provide on-site.

According to Gunkel and Robbins, this code runs contrary to many surrounding jurisdictions that incentivize the development of inclusionary affordable housing by waiving or dramatically reducing impact fees for density bonus projects.

Furthermore, the city also mandated that Robbins, as the property owner, provide monthly bus passes to each tenant of the 44 units. This would cost approximately $60,000 per year.

Robbins noted he is is uncertain on how to move forward; with these requirements in place, the entire housing project could fall through. Nonetheless, Robbins said he hopes to reach a compromise with the city so affordable housing can still be developed.

The city did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“I believe I have the duty to help, but I can’t afford to give away 20% (of residential units) to low-income housing,” said Robbins. “Are policies in place helping affordable housing move forward or hurting people like myself?”

Contact Jeff Cai at [email protected].