Businesses and individuals have contributed about $200,000 to support the Pathways STAIR project on Second Street and its programming for the homeless. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

A little-known fund to help Berkeley’s homeless has attracted $230,000 in private donations, with the majority coming from developers, some with business before the city.

In October 2017, the City Council voted to set up The Berkeley Homeless Fund to accept donations for “major council initiatives and priorities” surrounding those experiencing homelessness. The bulk of the donations have gone to support Berkeley’s Navigation Center on Second Street, known as the Pathways STAIR project, and some of its programs.

The STAIR center became a legislative priority for the City Council after Mayor Jesse Arreguín and City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn introduced a measure in 2017 to create a San Francisco-style navigation center. Unlike most shelters, which just offer overnight beds, the STAIR center is open 24 hours a day and provides wrap-around social services to people who have been identified as particularly resistant to accepting help. The center, which can accommodate 49 people at a time, allows people to stay for six months. People can bring their pets and couples can sleep together.

Berkeley says 45 people from the STAIR Center have been placed in permanent housing since it opened seven months ago.

But when the City Council adopted a measure to create the center, which cost $2.4 million to build and operate, it could only find guaranteed funding for one year. So to help support the initiative, Arreguín and Hahn made appeals for tax-deductible contributions.

“We welcome donations from any member of the community to help our homeless community,” Arreguín said at the October 2017 meeting where the council established the Berkeley Homeless Fund.

Arreguín and Hahn went to visit individuals, businesses and foundations to tell them about Pathways and enlist their support, Arreguín said in an email to Berkeleyside. San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles have created similar private-public partnerships, he said.

“Today, when cities are facing major challenges around issues like housing and homelessness, mayors are partnering with the private sector to make change,” Arreguín said in an email. “Just like Mayors Schaaf in Oakland, Breed in San Francisco, and Garcetti in Los Angeles, I have been working with our local business community to address the challenge of homelessness. Many of these businesses are directly impacted by homelessness and want to help.”

About $100,000 in donations from businesses and individuals were critical to getting the STAIR Center open on June 26. Trachtenberg Architects donated $14,500 in architectural expertise to design the center, which is made up of a line of trailers interspersed with small parklets and a vegetable garden. Garden Architecture, run by Robert Trachtenberg, donated $22,500 in in-kind landscaping services. A $10,000 contribution helped to partially pay for an on-site laundry room, and $40,000 in other funds were used to create programs, according to city documents.

A small pocket garden at the STAIR center in West Berkeley. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Starting around the time the STAIR center opened, a number of major developers and companies have stepped up. Many companies regard homelessness as not just a social issue but as a business problem, since the sight of unhoused people sleeping in encampments along the freeways, creeks and sidewalks impacts the attractiveness of doing business in Berkeley.

“We want to make certain demands on the city to try and contain the impact of the homeless,” said Denny Abrams, whose firm Abrams Millikan was the original developer of the Fourth Street shopping district. “We can’t ask for that without being generous and trying to do something about it at the same time.”

Abrams/Millikan donated $50,000 to the fund for the Pathways project, which Abrams said, “was an idea that could help people in West Berkeley and help contain the problem.”

Other developers that have donated include Jamestown, the firm that created a new spur of Fourth Street by the old Spenger’s restaurant ($25,000), and R&S Investments, owned by Morgan Read (former owner of Grocery Outlet) and Kasey Stevens ($50,000). The two principals of Wareham Development, Richard Robbins and Chris Barlow, each gave $7,000.

Berkeley Patients Group donated $6,800. Some individuals donated too, including a Berkeley couple that asked the city to be anonymous ($50,000), Ellen Hahn ($100) and Suzanne B. Reiss ($100), among others.

“The STAIR center is making life-changing resources accessible to some of the most vulnerable members of the Berkeley community,” said Michael Phillips, president of Jamestown, in a statement. “We are proud to support this important mission and are thankful for our neighbors Denny Abrams and Mayor Arreguín who helped make this a reality.”

Robbins of Wareham wrote in an email: “We have been supporting Jesse’s efforts on the homeless fund and other efforts to create good policy for some time, including serious support for measures O and P, as well as the navigation center. We have also been involved in the same efforts in other cities in which we develop and own property. The issue grows more ominous every day as we await Dee and the Council giving clear direction to the police as well as social services, in order to balance the needs of all citizens, balancing the social and security issues, and not just the homeless.”

Read said that his company’s donation came from a new charitable arm of his company set up “to address the growing housing epidemic in Berkeley and throughout the state of California.” In addition to the Pathways donation, Aquatic Cares helped crowdsource a $10,000 donation to Berkeley Food and Housing and an $18,500 donation to the California Wildfire Relief Fund.

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Some of the companies that donated to the Berkeley Homeless Fund are among the most generous and philanthropic in Berkeley. Wareham regularly helps underwrite community events, such as the Chamber of Commerce’s Visionary Awards, Berkeley Film Foundation’s “A Night in Berkeleywood,” and others. Abrams/Millikan has contributed to the Berkeley Community Fund, which provides college scholarships to Berkeley High students. (Full disclosure: Abrams/Millikan, Wareham and the anonymous Berkeley couple have either invested in Berkeleyside’s Direct Public Offering or have sponsored Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas.)

Donations made while development projects were in the pipeline

Two of the developer donations came while the companies were seeking city approval for projects.

R&S Investments, the LLC behind five mixed-use housing projects in Berkeley named The Aquatic, made its $50,000 donation on Feb. 5, 2018. Since then, two projects backed by Read and Stevens have gone before the city: 1200 San Pablo Ave., a six-story, 67-unit mixed-use building that the Zoning Adjustments Board approved on Oct. 11, and 2628 Shattuck Ave., a six-story, mixed use building with 78 units that ZAB approved on Jan 24. None of the projects have come before the City Council.

Wareham Development will be building a medical office complex for Kaiser. The main entrance to Kaiser would be on 10th Street, with pedestrian access from San Pablo Avenue. Image: Gould Evans

Wareham has been trying for a few years to build a medical office facility on a parcel it owns at 1050 Parker St. and at 2126 Tenth St. The lot had been split-zoned with the portion facing San Pablo Avenue zoned C-W, or West Berkeley commercial, and the portion facing Tenth Street zoned MULI, or mixed-use light industrial. Wareham originally proposed building an office for doctors, dentists and other medical professionals on the C-W portion of the lot and building a research and development facility on the back part of the lot. It received city approval.

But after the proposed tenant, Kaiser Permanente, expressed interest in using the entire lot for medical offices, Wareham went back to the city and asked that the back part of the lot be rezoned C-W so it could accommodate offices. The MULI designation does not permit offices. (Kaiser also contributed $50,000 to the Yes on Measures O and P in the Nov. 2018 election, making it the biggest donor. Arreguín and Hahn served on the measures’ executive committee).

The request alarmed some people who thought it would violate the spirit of the West Berkeley Plan, which was crafted over a 10-year period and which carefully zoned each block to create a balance between homes, offices, manufacturing and industrial uses. There has been continued pressure on West Berkeley to convert some of its lands to residential uses, which can yield a higher profit for developers, most notably the city-wide referendum in 2012 known as Measure T, which would have allowed six large planned developments that included housing in West Berkeley. It failed.

While many City Council members and community activists think having a medical facility in West Berkeley is a good idea, some expressed concern at a Dec. 4 hearing that rezoning the back portion of the lot from MULI to CW would enable Wareham at some point to convert that section to housing, a much more lucrative endeavor.

“To give them the zoning change is an enormous economic benefit to them,” Rick Auerbach, a West Berkeley artisan and a member of WEIBAC, told the council in December. “It’s (worth) millions to go from MULI to C-W. You are probably tripling the value of this property. When developers get that from cities, developers are required to give back some benefits in a community benefits package.”

The council voted 6-3 to approve the rezoning. City Councilwomen Hahn, Cheryl Davila and Kate Harrison voted against the measure. They had been in favor of doing a zoning overlay.

Two weeks later, the Wareham principles donated into the Homeless Fund.

Arreguín said the Wareham donation did not influence his vote.

“Ultimately my decisions are always and only based on what I think is right for the people of our city,” wrote Arreguín. “I certainly appreciate companies that contribute to solving our homelessness crisis — but it doesn’t ever make it into my thought process around legislation.”

Robbins said he and Wareham have long supported projects in Berkeley and its recent donation was nothing unusual  — and it came after the City Council vote on Dec. 11.

“No offense, but do you really think we need to curry favor after developing and managing our properties in Berkeley since 1978?” he wrote.

Donations to the fund are reported to the state

Arreguín pointed out that he conferred with the city attorney about soliciting individuals for charitable purposes. He was told that whenever a council member or mayor asks and gets a donation, the city must fill out state form 803, which discloses the source and amount of the donation. (State law requires the form to be filed only for contributions of $5,000 or more). The city clerk told Arreguín that no one had ever filed form 803 in Berkeley before.

“I cannot recall an elected official in Berkeley ever doing so before, and we know that prior Mayors and Councilmembers actively raised funding for nonprofit organizations from businesses and citizens,” wrote Arreguín. “As Mayor it is our responsibility to support important community programs and initiatives, whether they may be the Berkeley Public Schools Fund or the Berkeley Homeless Fund. Homelessness is a growing crisis that impacts all of us, and we all need to pitch in.”

Berkeleyside filed a public records act request for the 803 forms and was initially provided some of the amounts given, without donor names, but only from February to August 2018. Then some of the donor names were provided. Then city officials said that donations to the Berkeley Homeless Fund did not need to be registered with the state form if no specific request had been made by a city official.

“In general though, donations without a specific request from a councilmember would not be disclosed (depending on a donation amount),” wrote Lester Valderas, a paralegal in the city attorney’s office.

Berkeley officials then referred Berkeleyside to its online records portal, saying said all donations over $1,000 must be formally accepted by the City Council. A search did not turn up any donations after July.

However, the city clerk’s office does have a binder on file in the public room with all the 803 forms.

Berkeley gets $4 million in one-time state funding for homeless services

Funding for the second year of the Pathways STAIR project has been secured. California’s SB 850 (the California Homeless Emergency Aid Program, or HEAP) will funnel $4 million in one-time emergency funding for homeless initiatives to Berkeley in 2019. City staff is recommending that $2 million of that go to the STAIR center for operations.

The Dorothy Day House Shelter would get $620,000, the city would set aside $880,000 for two years of encampment trash/debris removal and sanitation efforts and $100,000 would be used to create a second locker site, according to a staff report.

Update 2/11: Kaiser Permanente Northern California Community Benefit program donated $150,000 to the Pathways/Stair project after this article was published.

Berkeleyside senior reporter Emilie Raguso assisted in the reporting of this story.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...