The plan to build apartments on what is now a parking lot at the North Berkeley BART station is a key issue in the race to represent the City Council district that includes the stop and its surrounding neighborhoods. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Once again, Berkeley’s housing debate is playing out on yard signs.

When neighbors near the North Berkeley BART station began planting signs in front of their homes in support of efforts to build apartments at the site several years ago, their call for “paradise instead of a parking lot” looked like a symbol of the city’s changing attitudes toward housing.

The Yes In My Backyard movement, which pushed cities to build more housing to ease the Bay Area’s affordability crisis, was on the rise in Berkeley — candidates backed by pro-density groups won three City Council seats in 2018, and unseated an incumbent two years later to claim a fourth. The city’s apparent embrace of development and density became one of the biggest storylines in the Bay Area’s housing debate.

That new direction faces a test at the ballot box this November.

Two seats currently held by councilmembers who drew support from pro-density groups — Lori Droste and Rashi Kesarwani, whose district includes the North Berkeley BART station — are up for grabs in contested elections, while a housing activist who had planned to challenge for another City Council district instead dropped out of the race.

And new crops of yard signs have emerged around the North Berkeley BART station.

The first appeared last summer as the City Council considered zoning rules that could have allowed high-rise apartments at the station. They called for “neighbors, not new towers” and came from a group that wanted Berkeley to adopt a seven-story height limit for the property, the smallest cap allowed under state housing law. Many of those signs now appear in tandem with ones backing Elisa Mikiten, the chair of the city’s Planning Commission who has made her support for the lower height cap a centerpiece of her campaign challenging Kesarwani for the seat representing Northwest Berkeley.

Mary Lawrence Hicks, one of several BART station neighbors who has planted the two signs in her yard, said she supports efforts to build more housing, but prefers Mikiten’s “vision for developing Berkeley.”

Although Kesarwani voted for the seven-story limit, she frustrated Hicks and many other station neighbors by not declaring her support for the concept ahead of the vote. Many pro-density advocates that have supported Kesarwani were pushing for a taller height limit.

“What [we] want is development that is done in a way that is beautiful and neighborly,” Hicks said, “not towers full of people.”

Housing is only one of several issues, from crime and policing to the quality of local streets, that are likely to shape how people vote in the four districts where City Council seats will be on the ballot this fall. Still, housing advocates like Darrell Owens acknowledged the YIMBY movement could lose ground this year in what he described as “a political backlash by homeowners.”

When the Berkeley City Council considered setting zoning rules to allow for high-rise apartments atop the North Berkeley BART station, dozens of nearby residents opposed to the idea planted signs calling for “neighbors not new towers” in front of their homes. Now many of those neighbors are backing City Council candidate Elisa Mikiten, who has made her opposition to the high-rise proposal a centerpiece of her campaign. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Incumbent Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani voted in favor of the lower height limits many neighbors wanted Berkeley to adopt for the station project. But she frustrated some residents by not declaring her support for the lower limits ahead of the vote. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

“That’s what’s happening in North Berkeley now,” Owens said.

Mikiten stridently denies that her election would be a step away from efforts to build more housing. An affordable housing planner whose firm, Mikiten Architecture, has designed several developments throughout Berkeley and the Bay Area, she supports building more apartments near UC Berkeley and downtown, and calls for loosening zoning rules to spur more construction along major streets such as University Avenue.

“We need to build housing at increased densities and more quickly,” Mikiten said.

But she also expresses reservations about efforts to add density to residential neighborhoods, and emphasized in a campaign mailer that growth should happen “in harmony with existing residents.”

“My guess is a lot of people who support Elisa would like to see a council that is a little more centrist, and is asking some hard questions about what we’re doing with housing,” said Larry Orman, a member of the North Berkeley Neighborhood Alliance, a group pushing for a smaller development at the BART station that is now backing Mikiten.

From fighting housing to ‘build, build, build’

Pedestrians walk through the intersection of Shattuck Avenue and Channing Way, where workers are building the Identity Logan Park apartment complex. It’s one of several housing projects under construction in Berkeley. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Berkeley once waged legal battles to block development and essentially banned apartment buildings for decades. Some of the current City Council’s actions continue to draw scrutiny from YIMBY groups — like an effort earlier this year to limit density in the Berkeley Hills, which regulators in Sacramento said violated state housing law.

On several other fronts, though, Berkeley leaders are making significant changes to spur new housing construction.

The City Council has launched efforts to loosen zoning rules throughout practically every neighborhood in the city, from its downtown core and major streets to low-density residential areas. It moved ahead of the state Legislature to eliminate single-family zoning and end minimum parking requirements for new development. Whereas other cities have fought California’s housing mandates, Berkeley’s leaders talk about wanting to exceed their requirement to approve nearly 9,000 new homes by 2031.

And the city is on the precipice of more changes to its housing policies. Whoever is elected in this fall’s City Council races will see through the zoning changes that are now being developed, and shape policies affecting everything from how many tall buildings can be built downtown to design standards for new housing, which could be crafted in ways that make the city more permissive or restrictive to development.

“It’s really a question of, is the city going to be a willing partner in solving its housing shortage?” said Matt Lewis, a YIMBY activist with South Berkeley Now. “Or is it just going to have to take direction from the state on this?

“The era of being able to get elected on an anti-housing platform, and then successfully blocking housing — that’s over, the state has ended that,” Lewis added.

Droste, who led the efforts to end single-family zoning and parking minimums, and Kesarwani, who wrote regulations that streamline permitting for backyard cottages and in-law units, have been key figures in Berkeley’s current direction.

“I trust our voters to make the right choice for what their vision is for the future of the city,” Kesarwani said.

Their moves have plenty of critics, though.

Some charge that Berkeley’s current construction boom won’t do enough in the near term to help residents struggling with high housing costs, and point to data tracked by the planning department shows that the city has fallen far short of production goals for affordable housing. Others argue the city has gone too far in its embrace of housing density and has opened the door for developers to build projects some consider out of scale with existing neighborhoods.

“Development has to respect the people around [it],” said Dean Metzger of the Berkeley Neighborhoods Council.

Pro-density advocates contend that kind of attitude — and a project approval process that prioritized it — led Berkeley, like California as a whole, to build far too few homes for decades and helped create the current housing crisis.

According to Metzger, though, the impediment was that “the developers refused to build to what I call a reasonable standard.”

“Now we have this change, and it’s build, build, build,” he said.

Housing a hot issue in two districts

Libby Lee-Egan, a co-founder of the pro-density group East Bay for Everyone, has long advocated for building more housing in North Berkeley. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

In District 1, Kesarwani is facing challenges from Mikiten and holistic health and disability advocate Tamar Michai Freeman, who says the city is not adequately listening to the concerns existing residents have about new development.

On her campaign website, Mikiten echoes the criticism that building more market-rate housing will only ease shortages “for some,” and writes that Berkeley can meet its housing goals “without radically up-zoning residential neighborhoods.”

To Libby Lee-Egan, a District 1 resident and co-founder of the pro-density group East Bay for Everyone, Mikiten’s rhetoric sounds like an appeal to voters who are upset with how Berkeley is changing.

“She really is just trying to get the NIMBY vote,” Lee-Egan said. “She is saying exactly what the NIMBYs are saying about larger housing developments.”

Mikiten rejects that charge, calling it an attempt to shut down legitimate debate about the city’s future.

“If NIMBYism were the motivation here, I wouldn’t be the candidate,” she said. “It’s good that people are demanding housing and density — that’s a good thing — but you can’t dismiss every other concern or consideration. You can’t dismiss the complexity of getting it right.”

Planning Commission chair and City Council candidate Elisa Mikiten campaigns at the Solano Stroll. Mikiten supports efforts to build more housing in Berkeley, particularly downtown and near the Cal campus, but expresses reservations about allowing more development in less-dense residential neighborhoods. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

In District 8, which covers Southeast Berkeley, Droste opted not to seek a third term and has endorsed attorney Mark Humbert to succeed her in the seat.

Humbert says he supports efforts to increase housing density throughout Berkeley and within the well-off neighborhoods that make up much of the district. The race’s other leading candidate, Rent Board Commissioner Mari Mendonca, has questioned state mandates to increase housing production and opposes efforts to rezone wealthy neighborhoods, saying she believes such changes won’t make those areas more affordable.

The housing-focused race that wasn’t

Pro-density groups had hoped to play offense this year in the race to represent Council District 4, which covers Central Berkeley. Greg Magofña, another East Bay for Everyone co-founder and the director of development and outreach for the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, planned to challenge for the seat with a campaign that put housing front and center.

“It was really going to be about building housing for people at all stages of their lives,” Magofña said.

But Magofña shut down his campaign in June because he is leaving the Bay Area — driven out, he said, by high housing prices.

The race’s incumbent, Councilmember Kate Harrison, has drawn the ire of pro-density groups by advocating for policies they argued would limit housing production.

Density advocate Greg Magofña was going to make housing a central issue in his planned campaign for a Berkeley City Council seat. But he dropped out of the race earlier this year, saying he could no longer afford to live in the Bay Area. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Harrison rejects the narrative that councilmembers are split into “camps” based on their housing politics, she said, or “the idea that the council itself was against housing” in the past. She said she scrutinizes strategies for addressing the housing crisis that mainly focus on making it easier to build pricey new apartments, calling it a “trickle down” approach that has been a windfall for developers without delivering enough affordable homes or relief to renters.

“It’s really important that we keep this focus on affordability,” said Harrison, who is heading unopposed to re-election.

Will YIMBY movement’s ascent stall?

City Council candidate Elisa Mikiten shows a message left by a supporter during a campaign event held at the Solano Stroll. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Even if their movement takes a setback on Election Day, Owens and some other YIMBYs say they don’t think that means Berkeley is bound for a return to its past of tightly restricting development. That’s because the politics around building housing in Berkeley and many other cities have changed, he said.

“It wasn’t too long ago, like five years ago, that if you said anything positive about housing you would get shouted down at City Council meetings,” Owens said. Now, he said, “It’s not popular to do that NIMBY stuff anymore.”

While the District 1 race is shaping up to be competitive, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín — whose own approach to housing has shifted to be more supportive of development — said he believes Humbert is in “a strong position to win” his campaign for the District 8 seat. Humbert has picked up endorsements from Arreguín, as well as seven of Berkeley’s eight councilmembers, and has opened up a major lead in fundraising.

Meanwhile, Rigel Robinson, another council member supported by pro-density groups, appears a safe bet to retain his seat representing the student-heavy District 7, which covers the Southside neighborhood near UC Berkeley. Activist Aidan Hill is campaigning for the seat, but did not qualify for the ballot.

“There are some big land-use decisions coming up, so who’s on the City Council really matters,” Arreguín said. “But I don’t think that … flipping one seat, potentially, is going to [make] that big of a change in terms of the politics of the council on housing issues.”

Surveying Berkeley’s political future, though, Magofña said he is concerned the next council may not make the kinds of dramatic changes to housing policy he feels are necessary, such as opening up historically wealthy neighborhoods to much denser development. He plans to move out of Berkeley in the spring.

“Where I see the City Council going is kind of a status quo,” Magofña said. “I hope they’ll have the courage to do more than just nibble around the edges.”

The deadline to register to vote online or by mail in Alameda County is Oct. 24, and the election is Tuesday, Nov. 8. We put together a guide to the essentials of how to register and vote, what’s on the ballot, voters’ rights and more.

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See complete 2022 election coverage on Berkeleyside.

Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then,...