Berkeley City Council provides feedback on Housing Element Update

Photo of houses in Berkeley
Ganesh Pimpale/Staff
The Berkeley Housing Element Update, which will cover an eight-year period, aims to take the city’s housing needs, funding and resource constraints and policy priorities into account.

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The Berkeley City Council discussed updates to the Berkeley Housing Element Update during a special meeting Dec. 9.

Discussion focused on the process of identifying sites for redevelopment, where the city should focus rezoning efforts as well as the implementation of objective standards for streamlining development.

The Housing Element Update will cover an eight-year period from 2023-31, taking into account the city’s housing needs, funding and resource constraints and policy priorities.

“We’re at a critical juncture in our city’s history,” said City Councilmember Lori Droste at the meeting. “It’s important that we get this right.”

Following a presentation by Grace Wu, the senior planner of the city’s Land Use Planning Division, and Ron Whitmore, a consultant at Raimi and Associates, the council members provided feedback and received public comment.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín emphasized the need to protect existing affordable housing from redevelopment, noting that older rental properties in the city are often some of the most affordable. Several council members echoed his concerns.

“Our older housing stock is one of the greatest benefits we have here in Berkeley,” said Councilmember Sophie Hahn at the meeting.

Several council members agreed that all commercial corridors in the city should be targets for rezoning during this planning cycle.

Members also singled out older, one-story commercial buildings and vacant ground-floor commercial space as areas where the city could add residential units.

“Retail is dying,” said Councilmember Kate Harrison at the meeting. “This is an opportunity for housing. We shouldn’t let it go by.”

California’s Department of Housing and Community Development requires each jurisdiction in the state to build a threshold number of new units during each eight-year planning cycle. In November, the Association of Bay Area Governments issued Berkeley a target of approximately 9,000 units.

City planning staff is also considering objective development and design standards for multi-unit residential projects in the city. These standards would provide guidelines for projects eligible for a streamlined development process.

Council members disagreed on the addition of objective standards for “daylight planes” meant to protect rooftop solar installations as neighboring buildings increase in height and density.

“Site inventory won’t be valid if we turn around and adopt aesthetic design standards that discourage housing,” Droste said at the meeting.

In response, Harrison argued that protecting access to rooftop solar would not impede efforts to increase density through rezoning.

At the end of the meeting, Arreguín affirmed his support for exploring a public housing program in Berkeley to improve the city’s offering of affordable housing.

“We just have to be really creative and really want to ask our team to think outside of the box,” Arreguín said. “I think it’s going to take all of these different strategies.”

Contact Alexander Wohl at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @dc_arwohl.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the Department of Housing and Community Development requires cities to build a target number of housing units. In fact, the state agency requires cities to plan for a target number of units.