Mayor Jesse Arreguín tours the Berkeley Way construction on Sept. 9, 2021.
Mayor Jesse Arreguín tours the Berkeley Way construction, one of two ongoing 100% affordable projects in Berkeley, on Sept. 9, 2021. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

The Berkeley City Council started a process to study two new approaches to affordable housing on Tuesday, taking steps toward a new incentive-based zoning format and a social housing model that could bring public homes to city lots.

The affordable housing overlay and the social housing proposal are two distinct proposals, both introduced by Councilmember Terry Taplin and supported by the rest of Council.

The affordable housing zoning overlay will factor into the ongoing, two-year General Plan and Housing Element discussion, whereas the social housing proposal is more of a standalone that contributes to the city’s housing landscape.

If the city created an affordable housing overlay in its zoning code (that would apply to the entire city), it could create automatic approval for projects that are 100% affordable and provide additional incentives to the developers who build them — like allowing for taller buildings with more units. It would also account for state laws like SB-35 that already do this, but have an expiration date.

These incentives would potentially layer with state density bonuses, exceeding their standards, according to Taplin’s proposal.

Parcels with landmarked buildings, high fire risk and existing demolition projects would be exempt from this type of zoning, and all projects will be assessed under design guidelines that the city is still developing.

The second proposal for social housing on city-owned land would be separate from zoning decisions and is designed to be an independent, supportive model that doesn’t rely on the housing market. Because as Taplin puts it, “you can’t zone for social housing.”

As an initial step, it asks that the city study the possibility of a mixed-income housing project at 1011 University Ave., a city-owned parcel, and eventually consider providing low-interest loans to people who want to convert existing units into affordable housing, among other similar subsidies and funding strategies.

This would tackle the regional homelessness crisis and further the city’s goals to undo its racist history of exclusionary housing, according to the proposal.

Both items were approved on the consent calendar and there’s no immediate action happening on either front, but the city will put $300,000 toward studying the social housing proposal and integrate the affordable housing overlay into the general plan discussion.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...