SQUEAKY WHEEL: Housing Ups and Downs

Toni Mester
Friday May 05, 2017 - 12:53:00 PM
Narrow streets in the hills
Narrow streets in the hills

­­­ With the final approval of the 2902 Adeline Street project by the City Council on Tuesday night, Berkeley is 50 units closer to meeting our RHNA goals (pronounced ree-na: Regional Housing Needs Allocation). It was a thumbs-up night with approvals from all the Council members except Cheryl Davila, who abstained. 

Mayor Jesse Arreguin praised architect David Trachtenberg for his building design, although I would have preferred another step-down terrace towards the neighborhood to avoid shadowing nearby homes. Councilmember Ben Bartlett got credit for negotiating the community benefit and the below-market rate (BMR) units: 4 for very-low income, 4 for low-income, and one for moderate income. 

Nobody on the dais thanked Robert Lauriston and the 29 other appellants who helped to squeeze more affordable units out of this project. It takes courage and hard work to appeal, as I know from personal experience, a bruising effort not lightly undertaken to “impose capricious requirements” as one of the support form letters insinuated. One of the tactics used against neighbors is to impugn their motives. Personal attack didn’t work in this case because critics of the project were not acting out of selfish reasons but hoping to increase affordable housing, which is the top citizen concern according to the 2016 surveys

More affordable housing was the subject of two petitions, one from Friends of Adeline that gathered 400 signatures, demanding 20% affordable units and another from Move-on with 251 signatures wanting 40% affordable units, 85% parking spaces, and other unrealistic expectations that show a woeful ignorance of the costs and risks involved in developing housing. The density bonus has blurred the distinction between subsidized and for-profit housing projects. Instead of insulting the confused, the development community should educate the public about the business of building housing, as presentations at ZAB and the design review board are clearly inadequate methods of informing the broader community. 

The approval took a year from the initial application, not the worst case for Berkeley, although the new Council should strive for improvement. The causes of such delays in the process should be evaluated, as they add to the overall costs. To avoid appeals, the City needs to institute design standards that protect the adjacent property owners, as so many other cities including San Francisco, Albany, El Cerrito, Palo Alto, and Menlo Park, have done in adopting the daylight plane. 

Reading the correspondence in the administrative record reveals the usual suspects: form letters from Real Tex and Livable Berkeley full of urgency and contempt for the neighbors and emails and the petitions from skeptical residents, full of pie-in-the-sky expectations and distrust of developers and their motives. The pattern is predictable. 

Everybody is to blame and nobody. Berkeley has an insufficient and antiquated zoning code, leaving density and design parameters to subjective interpretation rather than robust standards. With so much flexibility, even angels would come to blows. 

It should be obvious by now that the density bonus is an inadequate tool for producing the affordable housing needed: too much effort and expense for a handful of BMRs in each project. In addition to expanded and often intrusive building envelopes, the City pays for the monitoring of the affordable units, as occupancy is means tested. At least two full-time staffers are required to verify and enforce the tenants’ eligibility to reside in the subsidized units. 

New reports on the affordable housing crisis show the dimensions of the current deficiency. According to the California Housing Partnership, Alameda County needs over 60,000 rental homes. “Renters must earn nearly 4 times local minimum wage to afford the median asking rent of $2,593 in Alameda County,” they reveal. “Alameda County’s lowest-income renters spend 56% of income on rent, leaving little left for food, transportation, health expenses, and other needs.” 

Come on people, let’s get together …right now. 

Berkeley loses another planning chief 

The process of getting to yes has just been complicated by the resignation of Carol Johnson as Director of Planning and Development. She will return to Phoenix, Arizona to become the Director of Community Development for Maricopa County. It’s a big job, and we wish her all the best. She will be missed for her professional demeanor, depth of knowledge, and accessibility. I was hoping to work with her on the San Pablo Avenue Plan. 

Hers was a short term of office, taking over in May last year after the resignation of Eric Angstadt, who is now the chief deputy administrator for Contra Costa County. He lasted as Berkeley’s planning chief for four years. 

Management turnover is a big problem in Berkeley. The City needs the stability of a planning director to achieve some progress toward upgrading our antiquated master plan and zoning code by creating realistic specific plans and workable modern standards. An interim planning director has not yet been named. 

Word has it that the City Manager has failed to find a replacement for City attorney Zach Cowan, who is retiring. None of the first round candidates were suitable, and we can only wonder at the skills being sought, such as expertise in the complexities of current land-use law, as well as a tolerance for late-night meetings. 

These openings present an opportunity for Mayor Jesse Arreguin and his majority to renew the direction of the City by hiring land-use experts who will help update Berkeley’s master plan and zoning code like Richmond’s elegant and inspirational new 2030 General Plan and form-based code. 

The Council should hire a consultant and get on with the work. In the process maybe we can learn a common language if not agree on a vision. 

Hey, do you ADU? 

Hidden in the consent calendar on Tuesday night was another accessory dwelling unit program, called the junior ADU, an invention of a Novato builder and allowed by a law initiated by State Assemblyman Tony Thurmond. The JADU allows for an extra unit in R-1 zones, but within the existing home, and having an exterior door as well as an interior entry to the main living quarters. The junior ADU -­­ up to 500 square feet - would have a separate bedroom and kitchenette, but a toilet is not required. The Council consent item referred the ordinance to the planning commission. 

The junior ADU is another housing option, and the unit would count towards the City’s RHNA. However, it may not appeal to many homeowners who are used to a private bathroom. For the cost of a small bathroom, a regular attached ADU can be constructed up to 750 square feet. 

The junior ADU is another diversion from implementing Berkeley’s ADU program that has yet to take-off. The ADU has the potential to house low to moderate-income singles, couples, and small families who together comprise 80% of coastal East Bay households. According to census data of household characteristics of the six cities from Richmond to Alameda, 30% of households are one person, 33% are two, and 17% are three persons. Only 20% of coastal East Bay households are 4 persons or more. An ample supply of ADUs could house many small households; a clever floor plan of 750 square feet can contain up to two bedrooms. The ADU is one of the least costly units to build, as the land is already available, and the permit process is streamlined. 

Other benefits like the safety of a backyard and first floor access for children, the disabled and elderly should make building ADUs a primary goal for housing creation. And yet Berkeley has thrown several roadblocks in the way of this potential. 

The first was the City Council’s decision in January to prohibit their use for short-term rentals, which is probably the fastest way for an owner to pay back the cost of construction. The anti-Air BnB argument is seductive, but it’s more important to get those ADUs built. I was at the Council the night this restriction was imposed, and I found myself speaking against Air BnB because it’s such an easy target. But as soon as I sat down, I began to question my agreement with politically correct thinking. The City could instead allow a few years grace period for renting them short–term, or limit short-term rental to the weeks or months each year would make construction more feasible. The short-term rental restriction is unnecessary and should be revisited as it may impede the construction of ADUs. 

A second roadblock, literally, is the prohibition on building an ADU on lots “with access from a roadway with a minimum 26 feet in pavement width, unless an AUP is approved.” I’m not yet clear why this restriction was imposed or what conditions would allow the administrative use permit, but a fire map provided by staff shows a large labyrinth of roads in the hills overlay area that are under 26 feet wide. They are shown in red. There must be thousands of parcels affected by this prohibition, and many of their owners may want to build an ADU. 

If the flatlands are the choice area for building ADUs, the planning staff is not cooperating with this vision, as they are advantaging large backyard houses over the compact ADUs. This conflict, which has produced appeals throughout West Berkeley, will be the subject of a continued public hearing at the Planning Commission on Wednesday May 17. Please mark your calendars because this is a crucial debate that pits affordable compact urban housing forms (the duplex and the ADU) against the lucrative business of building suburban size houses stuffed into small backyards. At stake are the definition and implementation of infill housing. More about this next week. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley