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SQUEAKY WHEEL: Shelter with Care

Toni Mester
Sunday January 21, 2018 - 08:02:00 PM
2527 San Pablo Avenue
2527 San Pablo Avenue

The appeal of the first six-story apartment building on San Pablo Avenue will be heard at the City Council meeting on Tuesday January 23, which starts at 6 pm; it’s the first item on the action calendar. The project is a 63-unit density bonus venture designed and sponsored by Rony Rolnizky, the architect of Hillside Village at 1797 and 1801 Shattuck Avenue and 3001 Telegraph Avenue, across from Whole Foods. In many ways, this is “just an apartment building” to quote the applicant, but he has added a twist in requesting that the 12 below market rate units (BMRs) – six for very low income and six for low income – be set aside for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DDs) and has requested a waiver of the City’s Section 8 and Shelter+Care requirements: 40% of the six very low income (VLI) apartments for each category. In this case, that would amount to 2 Section 8 and 2 Shelter+Care units. 

The waiver created controversy at the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) meeting of July 27, 2017 with three members voting against the project because of the waiver and design issues, and prompted an appeal by Susan Henderson, the CEO of the Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) located at the Ed Roberts Campus, who feels that the waiver pits one group of disabled against another, and that Rolnizky and his lawyers stereotype homeless people. 

I joined the appeal to ensure the BMR allotment met the new mitigation fee rules, passed by the Council on June 27 but not effective until September, and to make a plea for City wide density standards, now on the Planning Commission’s work schedule. Other appellants include merchants across the street from the project. 

The Waiver

The new Shelter+Care program provides subsidies for the chronically homeless, using funds from HUD administered by the Berkeley housing department in collaboration with several community agencies. Participants pay approximately 30% of their income towards rent and receive ongoing supportive services. To qualify, an individual must be chronically homeless and disabled, physically or mentally. Rolnizky doesn’t want such people in his building because he says they may have “a past history of violence, drug/substance abuse and severe mental issues” and pose a risk to the I/DDs who are “vulnerable, defenseless, and fragile” and require “an integrated safe, supportive housing community.” 

Henderson claims his are “prejudicial ideas about people with low incomes or mental health disabilities” and that “local law must promote fair housing opportunities and cannot act as a constraint.” It’s hard to imagine that the inhabitants of two units out of 63 would significantly alter the safety of another small minority in the building, but this conflict indicates how the disadvantaged compete for limited resources. A few apartments in one building represent a drop in the bucket of housing needs for the homeless and disabled. People who pass for normal might pose more dangers than those whose troubles are known. 

Several elements of the interior design create more logistical problems for the disabled than any formerly homeless person could; these include the single elevator, a cramped laundry room on the top floor, narrow studios, dim corridors, limited indoor common areas, and a shady roof deck. One elevator in a tall building is especially risky, as failure forces tenants to stay home or navigate up many flights of stairs during repairs. This is a common complaint from disabled tenants in such situations, like the elevator outage at Acton Court in November 2015. 

The interior corridors on four floors have no natural light, which means the building must operate on an emergency generator during power outages, and no common space other than the stairwells. Thirteen of the studio apartments are exceedingly narrow, about 12 feet wide, and a disproportionate number of the smaller apartments have been designated as the BMRs despite Berkeley’s rules that state, “All inclusionary units shall be reasonably dispersed throughout the project, be of the same size and contain, on the average, the same number of bedrooms as the non-inclusionary units…and be comparable with the design or use….” Presumably, the housing department will correct size differentials in designating the BMRs. 

Private decks consume almost half the usable open space, and huge inequities exist between apartments with spacious decks and those with small balconies or none at all. Of the 18 units with private outdoor space, only one BMR has a balcony. For those without, the available open space is a large roof deck located on the northeast corner and surrounded by walls and the mechanical penthouse. The deck will have spectacular views of the hills but only receive direct sunlight on midsummer mornings. Roof decks have become a popular way of providing required open space because they allow a developer to maximize the lot coverage and residential square footage, especially with the density bonus. But the City has never studied the use of roof decks to fine-tune the standards such as the preferred placement for sun access. 

The desirable southeast corner of the top floor is occupied by the owner’s apartment, a 1,165 square foot master suite with three bedrooms and 502 square feet of deck on the east and south sides. It’s the only three-bedroom apartment in the building and enjoys most of the available sun. Sharing the sixth floor are five two-bedroom units, a studio, a small common room off the deck, a laundry room with eight washers and dryers, and an accessible toilet. 

Ronizky likes laundry rooms rather than washer/dryer stackers in each apartment that provide convenience and reduced laundry costs for the tenants. For example, 3001 Telegraph has a coin-operated laundry that has prompted bad reviews, while buildings by other developers contain a W/D in each apartment. The top floor laundry room at 2527 San Pablo Avenue prompted comments from ZAB member Patrick Sheahan, an architect who asked how caretakers would manage the laundry. Would they leave their charges unattended? Will the laundry facilities be included in the rent or be coin operated? Tenants will not have convenient laundry machines in their apartments, but they shouldn’t be burdened with extra costs. 

There is no ground floor leasing office. The common room at the entrance will serve as a meeting area for people coming and going. The sixth floor common room space probably will probably be used as a lounge for people doing their laundry. Neither is large enough for programmed activities like classes and parties. 

It is obvious that design review, a subcommittee of the zoning board, and the ZAB itself are not addressing the interests of tenants, especially those with special needs. Design review tends to look at exterior features, while the zoning board evaluates a building’s adherence to the code, and state law has begun to limit their discretion. The City should improve objective building standards to protect tenant needs and comforts. 

Contradictions of Integrative Housing

The request for the waiver and the design problems of 2527 San Pablo Avenue originate with the developer’s desire to provide for his disabled 20 year-old son Simon. Those who have heard his impassioned pleas for a building where developmentally disabled people can mingle with the heterogeneous population have been moved by his drive. But his attempt to privately fund integrative housing for the disabled through the mechanism of the density bonus displays a fundamental contradiction. He has asked for a waiver of a handful of units based on the assertion that the I/DDs are “very vulnerable defenseless and fragile” while expecting them to thrive in a densely packed six-story building with one elevator, a laundry on the top floor, little access to sunshine, and where they will be a small minority. 

Perhaps the community and the Council can convince Rolnizky to follow the example of the Spirit Residential developers who abandoned their density bonus apartment project at 2100 San Pablo Avenue to build instead a facility serving the elderly including memory care. Like Belmont Village assisted living in Albany, it will be filled to capacity upon opening; the need is so great. The developer of 2527 could build a similarly successful facility for the developmentally disabled and their families that would house three times their number than his proposed project. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.