Opinion: Berkeley has done a bait and switch by using housing funds to buy new Council chambers

Despite the claims that funds raised from Measure U1 would be used for housing, the money goes into Berkeley’s General Fund where the Council can use it however it likes.

City Council has lied to the public. They’ve taken away money to fund affordable housing and keep the homeless off the streets and instead, bought comfy new digs for themselves. Last November, they told Berkeley voters that Measure U1 would “tax the windfall profits of large landlords” and generate money to “increase affordable housing and protect Berkeley residents from homelessness.” But on Tuesday night, they approved an “emergency” ordinance to buy the old Premier Cru building complex on University Avenue for $6.65 million. They want to use the site for future City Council chambers and maybe later, for affordable housing.

The Council intends to borrow against their future earnings to pay for this “emergency” purchase. The immediate purchase will happen by borrowing funds from the city’s Workers’ Compensation Fund 875, with the intention to pay the loan back by money generated from excess property transfer taxes and Measure U1 (a proposition that raised the business license tax 166% on landlords who own five or more units).

Sound a little fishy to you? It certainly does to us. That’s because the city crafted Measure U1 so that money went directly into the General Fund – not into the Housing Trust Fund. When money is put towards the General Fund it means City Council can use it for whatever they want. They’ve repeatedly claimed that housing our homeless community members was the emergency, but it appears instead, purchasing real estate for themselves is the real emergency.

And just to note, the $6.65 million only accounts for the purchase of the existing land and buildings which currently include a warehouse space, culinary school, wine showroom and a parking lot. It does not consider the cost to convert the space into Council chambers nor the cost to add livable units. And it doesn’t even promise new housing units but rather “provides the long-term potential to be redeveloped into substantially below market rate housing.”

At the end of the day, the voters have been played by the City once more. They tugged on your heart strings to get you to “tax the rich to pay the poor” and instead, got themselves a comfy seat to sit on during City Council meetings. How’s that for helping the homeless?

Krista C. Gulbransen is the executive director of the Berkeley Rental Housing Coalition, the political and legal arm of the Berkeley Property Owners' Association.