‘Do that yesterday’: Berkeley City Council to drop build height limits

Photo of houses in Berkeley
Gavin Sagastume/Staff
As part of the city’s goal to work toward its Housing Element, the Berkeley City Council met to discuss the future of the city’s housing policies, with many at the meeting urging affordability.

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Berkeley City Council members agreed to build affordable housing, remove construction height limits and address exclusionary zoning at a meeting to discuss the future of housing policy Tuesday.

The meeting was one of several aimed at refining the city’s Housing Element update, which is required of every city in California every eight years. Council members and residents present at the meeting said they want the city to design Berkeley’s plan with affordability in mind.

Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani said as a mom, she knows young Berkeley parents who struggle to imagine a future in the city due to its high cost of living.

“Right now when housing is scarce, housing becomes expensive and that prices out many people,” said Councilmember Lori Droste during the meeting.

Housing Element project manager Grace Wu said Berkeley is identifying sites for additional housing. Ideal sites, according to city staff, will be zoned appropriately already, available for residential use and have the capacity to provide units by income level. Likely sites are vacant lots, nonresidential buildings built before 1992 and newly constructed additional dwelling units.

City staff suggested zoning amendments to increase maximum heights and increasing coverage per lot. Many council members expressed interest in increasing maximum heights on Southside and in West Berkeley.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said Downtown is an appropriate location for dense housing, adding that he’d like to see an 18-story building Downtown soon.

“Hundreds of seniors and families hanging by a thread in my district will thank you,” said Ben Bartlett, a Southside district council member. “Do that yesterday, please.”

Bartlett and Kesarwani also want the Housing Element to address exclusionary zoning. Councilmember Terry Taplin argued subsidized housing should be built in every district, not just in South and West Berkeley.

Sarah Moore, a city planner, presented positive impacts higher density housing will have on climate to the council. In respect to Berkeley’s decarbonization efforts, Moore pointed to the fact that 60% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions are the result of transportation. She argued infrastructure proximity and new construction standards will work to bring emissions down.

Berkeley resident Matthew Lewis voiced support for higher-density housing during public comment. He said the most important thing the city can do to reach its climate goals is to allow more people to live in town and cut their commutes.

A needs assessment, past performance evaluation, housing sites inventory and constraints analysis are all necessary before staff can complete the housing element, according to Wu.

Arreguín called housing a human right in his closing statements.

“A lot of people are looking at what we are doing here,” Arreguín said. “We are demonstrating leadership. We recognize that we have a regional responsibility to build more housing.”

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