Parking lots at the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations are slated to make way for housing in the coming years. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

The Berkeley City Council set aside millions of dollars to ensure that at least 35% of the hundreds of apartments slated to be built at the city’s BART stations qualify as affordable.

See past coverage on Berkeleyside about housing at Berkeley BART stations

Mayor Jesse Arreguín described the $53 million earmark, which council approved unanimously Tuesday night, as “the largest investment ever in an affordable housing project in the city’s history.”

The money, a combination of Measure O tax revenue and development fees, is a strong signal to BART and the community that Berkeley sees affordable housing as central to the projects slated to be built one day at the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations where parking lots now exist.

“This vote is the culmination of years of community planning,” Arreguín said in a prepared statement that, in part, thanked voters for approving his Measure O affordable housing bond in 2018. “It’s the wisdom of Berkeley’s voters that made this possible.”

Planning efforts related to BART housing in Berkeley began several years ago following decisions in 2018 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown to ramp up housing requirements within a half-mile of the Bay Area’s BART stations. The Berkeley projects are still in the early stages, with project designs not expected until the winter of 2023, according to the current timeline.

Council members said Tuesday night that they see the current 35% target as the floor, not the ceiling, for the inclusion of below-market-rate units in the city’s BART projects. Councilmember Sophie Hahn said she would like to see Berkeley find a way to get to 100%.

“I like to dream big,” Hahn said.

Arreguín pointed out that the city has already set 100% as the goal for affordable units at Ashby BART — but Berkeley still needs to find a way to pay for it. Arreguín said creative thinking would be required to reach the goal.

“We’re looking under every mattress, every rock,” Arreguín said. “We’re not done looking.”

To aid in the hunt for that money, council asked staff Tuesday night to explore a November 2022 bond measure focused on affordable housing, street paving and other failing infrastructure in Berkeley. The goal of the analysis, according to the referral from the mayor’s office, will be to “maximize and leverage city bonding capacity” to stop the deterioration of the city’s infrastructure and fund more affordable units around town.

Tuesday’s council vote established that one goal of the bond would be to fund up to 100% affordable housing “at either or both BART sites.”

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On Tuesday night, BART Board Director Rebecca Saltzman told officials their vote would ensure that Berkeley’s BART housing is “truly transformative.” And that will be critical amid the Bay Area’s ongoing housing crisis, she said.

To help tackle the problem, BART has set a goal of building 7,000 affordable homes on its property by 2040, Saltzman said, adding, “We can’t do that alone.”

BART Board Director Lateefah Simon attended Tuesday’s meeting as well, and gave a special shoutout to South Berkeley Councilmember Ben Bartlett for his efforts to move the projects forward by seeking every resource he could find.

Berkeley must build 9,000 units by 2031

Berkeley’s BART housing projects are still in the conceptual stage, with many important decisions still to come. Officials plan to choose a developer or developers by early next year, at which point more specific details will begin to become available for public review and input.

See the current income limits for different affordability standards

As per the city’s agreement with BART, Berkeley had to “set aside sufficient funding to assure BART, in its sole discretion, that at least 35% of the housing units proposed to be constructed at the BART properties would be deed-restricted to low, very low and/or extremely low affordable housing.”

The current designs, according to Tuesday’s staff report, use “a 7-story building height at each BART site (estimated at 850 apartments at Ashby and 775 apartments at North Berkeley).” Projections from consultant Street Level Advisors “indicate development at this scale would require approximately $53 million in City subsidy for 35% affordable housing (estimated at 298 affordable units at Ashby and 271 at North Berkeley).”

Any units that get built will play a significant role in helping Berkeley meet its regional housing requirement, just updated in February, to come up with a plan to allow for the construction of 9,000 new units by 2031.

“This is the best opportunity in Berkeley to get us to those numbers,” said Lars Skjerping, Mayor Arreguín’s deputy chief of staff. “We have to be compliant with state law. That’s why this is so important.”

Those following developments related to Berkeley’s BART housing projects may want to tune in Thursday to the next community meeting about the plans. The focus that night will be on station access, including what sort of replacement parking options might ultimately be on the table.

After Thursday’s discussion by the Community Advisory Group, the city’s Planning Commission will pick up the parking topic, which is currently slated to come to the City Council for a vote in October.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...