Only a handful of people came to the City Council's special meeting on housing. Photo: Lance Knobel
Only a handful of people came to the City Council’s May 17 special meeting on housing, the agenda for which was posted on May 12. Photo: Lance Knobel
Only a handful of people came to the City Council’s May 17 special meeting on housing, the agenda for which was posted on May 12. Photo: Lance Knobel

There were unusual happenings at Tuesday night’s special City Council meeting on housing. Comity broke out in a series of unanimous votes, and public comment was civil and largely complimentary to the council’s actions.

The council passed unanimously an ambitious list of items for a city housing action plan. The list consolidated proposals from Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Laurie Capitelli and Mayor Tom Bates. It also passed unanimously proposals on the “housing emergency” from Councilmember Jesse Arreguín. And Councilmember Lori Droste’s proposal on workforce housing also passed unanimously.

When the council tried to discuss housing on April 5, chaos ensued, with a raucous crowd, disputes among councilmembers and lengthy arguments over the order of the agenda. At that meeting, it took nearly three hours for the council to reach the action items on the agenda.

On Tuesday night, in contrast, even when some in the small crowd hissed Livable Berkeley’s Eric Panzer, they were quickly disarmed by his quip, “Hissing is just applause from snakes.” (Droste recognized it as a RuPaul allusion, something that flew over the head of Berkeleyside and many others during the meeting.)

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Lori Droste: ‘We can be for both low-income and median-income housing.’ Photo: Emilie Raguso
Lori Droste: ‘We can be for both low-income and median-income housing.’ Photo: Emilie Raguso

But agreement does not come naturally to the council. Worthington complained that the consolidated proposals were being referred to as the Bates/Capitelli plan, but “98% of the policy proposals came from my office.”

“I appreciate the efforts of my three colleagues on the dais who will not be named,” joked Councilmember Darryl Moore.

All of the items passed were referred to the City Manager to prepare detailed plans. But in light of past splits on the council — and hostility to the usual council majority from public attendees — Tuesday’s relatively hitch-free discussion and votes were notable.

The major item, the consolidated list for a city housing action plan, requires the City Manager to report back to the council on Sept. 27 with a strategy for the plan. The idea is to follow a process similar to the one that led to Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan, with public participation and a resulting policy document.

Among the items agreed for the forthcoming housing action plan were a regular review of the housing mitigation fee, consideration of waiving inspection fees and other city fees on units rented to Section 8 tenants, a review of the density bonus to allow developers of multi-family housing to add additional density, and a review of city development fees on new construction.

Among the issues in Arreguín’s proposals are the development of an Affordable Housing Funding Plan, exploring the creation of a Speculation Tax, expanding funding for eviction defense services, and looking into ways to capture vacant units for housing.

“We’re not in danger of becoming the Tenderloin. We’re in danger of becoming Palo Alto”

In the midst of all of Tuesday’s agreement, one of the few fissures on the council was over whether housing for the poor should be a priority over housing for middle income residents, such as teachers and city staff.

“We’re not in danger of becoming the Tenderloin,” said Councilmember Max Anderson. “We’re in danger of becoming Palo Alto.”

Worthington argued for — and won agreement on — specific proposals for people at 10%, 20% and 30% of area median income.

“We can’t simplify this problem as you’re either for low-income housing or you’re for median-income housing,” said Droste. “We can be for both. We’re only meeting 4% of our regional housing need for our median earners.”

“When was the last time we built units for school teachers?” asked Capitelli. Several times, he said he knew a Berkeley High School teacher who had recently resigned because they could not find affordable housing anywhere near Berkeley.

Droste also successfully argued for the city staff to look into how Berkeley zoning affects affordability, income disparity and racial segregation. City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said that report would likely take longer than the end-September deadline for the housing action plan.

Berkeley council votes to increase inclusionary housing (04.06.16)
Chaos ensues after changes at Berkeley City Council (04.06.16)
City Council to focus on creation of more housing (04.05.16)

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...