Household-Income-DistributionOn Wednesday February 18 the Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the Housing Element of Berkeley’s General Plan. The hearing is at 7 PM at the North Berkeley Senior Center. BTU needs tenants to come speak out!

Berkeley’s 2015-2023 Housing Element is the basis for housing goals and policies for the next eight years. It is important that renters comment on this draft now, in order to maintain tenant protects and expand development of actual affordable housing.

Your Berkeley Tenants Union has written an extensive critique of the draft, linked below. We hope you will attend the hearing or write the Planning Commission right away supporting our goals:

  1. Demo Ordinance: Rent controlled housing must remain protected from demolitions.
  2. The Affordable Housing Mitigation Fee charged to developers should be high enough to actually mitigate the lower-income housing needs created by new development.
  3. “Illegal” Units: City should provide path to legalize 4,000 rent controlled units which do not have permits – San Francisco’s program could be our model.
  4. Code Enforcement / Habitability: Increase proactive inspections; allow anonymous complaints.
  5. Better monitoring of Below Market Rate “Inclusionary” Rentals

Write to planning:;

Full BTU Letter to Planning
2015.Planning Commission Feb 18.BTU

Article on first Housing Element hearing:

Draft Housing Element itself:

Screen shot 2015-03-09 at 7.55.51 PMThis is from John’s letter to the Planning Commission for the February 18 hearing:

It is clear from the Draft Berkeley Housing Element document that Berkeley is falling short of providing a mix of affordable housing for lower income AND middle income residents. I will focus on middle income residents, and particularly in my view an acute need for additional family housing within the City of Berkeley. Recent projects within the City have included a limited mix of primarily studio rentals and high-end rentals and condos, but units falling in the middle of these two extremes are, in comparison, few. I cite Table 1-1 as an example, which indicates that between the years 2000 and 2006 Berkeley provided only 4% of the Regional Housing Needs Determination as set by ABAG for moderate-income residents. Further, Table 2-14 indicates a lack of Renter Occupied 3 and 4 bedroom units, units which could be utilized by moderate to large size families.

I quote from the Objectives section of the Draft: “Berkeley residents should have access to quality housing at a range of prices and rents.Housing is least affordable for people at the lowest income levels, and City resources should focus on this area of need.

I do not argue with the egalitarian goal of this statement, but in reviewing the documentation in this Draft it is clear to me that the middle class, and particularly moderate-income residents with children (i.e., families) are the ones primarily being squeezed for housing in Berkeley. I do not see that trend reversing without an emphasis on strategies and programs to address this essential need.

John T. Selawsky
Member, Berkeley Tenants Union
Commissioner, Rent Stabilization Board

Because of the appeal of the Zoning Board ruling, tenants who lost almost everything in the 2012 fire at 2227 Dwight Way will be given relocation benefits and the units, once rebuilt, will remain under rent control. City Council voted to uphold the ZAB ruling, but “clarified” that previous tenants have the right to reoccupy the apartments at the previous rent-controlled rates. The units will remain under rent control, but if the old tenants don’t move back in, new rents can be set at market.

The appeal challenged the ZAB decision that the owners, the infamous Lakireddy family, would not have to pay the affordable housing mitigation fee. At issue was the possibility that the owners were at fault for the extend of the fire damage because smoke detectors and fire alarms may not have sounded, and the fire may have been caused by a faulty water heater.

Because of the appeal, the City Council also plans to clarify what constitutes “fault” when properties destroyed by fire are exempt from city fees like the affordable housing mitigation fee. In the appeal, it was suggested that city staff only looks for arson and does not consider negligence when determining fault.

Several BTU members wrote to the City Council in support of the appeal, and many tenant advocates spoke at the meeting.

According to Inside Bay Area, Council also voted to make rental housing inspection safety reports from the Dwight property public documents.

Inside Bay Area

Daily Californian


Daily Planet–By-Marcia-Poole

Tenants from the building on Dwight partly destroyed by fire are asking for support on October 29. Renters and friends from 2227 Dwight, owned by Lakireddy Bali Reddy, the famous Berkeley landlord who plead guilty to federal charges about immigration fraud, transporting a minor for sex and tax evasion, are appealing the Zoning Board ruling that allows the owner to rebuild without paying mitigation fees. At issue is whether the owner was at fault for the extent of the fire because the smoke alarms may have been disconnected.

This is from BTU member Luis Amezcua:

The tenants of 2227 Dwight Way, on March 8, 2013, lost most, if not all, their personal possessions due to the fire that happened that night. The Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) approved a use permit to reconstruct the building, but there are some uncertainties that need to be addressed before the reconstruction can begin. For clarification, the appeal does not object to the reconstruction to the building, since it would remove a blight from the neighborhood and provide needed housing.

The ZAB was not fully informed of 2227 Dwight, and were unsure as to whether the fee and other mitigations applied. Even with the testimony of one tenant about the fire and the owner’s negligence, Staff determined that, because the fire was not arson, it was accidental. Staff failed to fully analyze the issue of fault, and restricted themselves between two possibilities (either arson or accidental) when making their determination; however, there is evidence that suggests that the landlord is fault due to negligence. The fire report states that “the building’s fire alarm system was not sounding when fire units arrived at the scene and was not heard sounding by firefighters at any point during the incident”, and that “the full circumstances surrounding the failure of the fire alarm system are still under investigation”. Tenants testify that the landlord disabled the fire alarm system due to false alarms, and it is a factor that needs to be considered when determining fault. Furthermore, there is still pending litigation between some of the former tenants and the property owner, with the question of who’s at fault being key. A few of the former tenants received settlement payments from the property owners – something that wouldn’t happen if this was an open and shut case where the property owner clearly was not at fault.

The ZAB’s decision on 2227 Dwight Way encourages owners of older housing to not adequately maintain their properties by creating unsafe housing which result in fire incidents. When a building is burned down, the owner can put the new units at market rate, lowering the amount of affordable housing in Berkeley, and allowing owners to avoid the Affordable Housing Mitigation Fee. All we ask is that the Council either require affordable housing to be built on site, an in-lieu payment be made to the Housing Trust Fund, or staff thoroughly investigate the issue of fault and remand this project back to the Zoning Adjustments Board with sufficient information so that they can make the proper findings (including the determination of fault).

City Council hears the appeal on October 29 and the tenants are asking for support at the meeting.

This 81-unit building should have 13 low-income units.
This 81-unit building should have 13 low-income units.

July 16, the Berkeley City Council received a report about how city staff are monitoring “inclusionary units” – the Affordable units developers have created to date as part of the requirement to mitigate the impact of fancy new condos and apartments. And get this – only three of the 58 properties have been inspected to date, even though the monitoring program costs the city $226,248 each year!

This is important not only for the safety of the low-income tenants who live in Berkeley’s 306 inclusionary units, but also because many landlords with new buildings under development are opting to provide inclusionary housing instead of paying into the Housing Trust Fund. The program, operated by the Housing Department, is supposed to make sure inclusionary units go to verifiably low-income folks, and check repair and maintenance of the properties.

The report says that in 2011 the department checked 58 units at three properties, but will check the remaining 248 units by this time next year. We shall see!

Report on Monitoring Inclusionary Housing: Monitoring Inclusionary Housing 2013-07-16

On the same day, the City Council’s final meeting before summer break, Council also reviewed a joint proposal from Council members Arreguin and Capitelli requesting that staff explore how the Affordable Housing Mitigation Fee is implemented, particularly in relation to developers who claim paying the fee is not economically feasible.

Some of the requests would probably be supported by Berkeley housing activists, like the idea that the fee should increase with inflation each year. Activists may also support establishing a city-maintained wait list of eligible low income households, since right now developers choose their own tenants and the Housing Department doesn’t seem to be checking up on them like their staff are supposed to do.

Other aspects of the proposed changes may cause controversy, like the idea that developers should be encouraged to pay the $20,000 fee rather than providing units on-site, perhaps by allowing developers to pay the fee over time instead of all at once.

The most interesting part of the proposal is that the income levels of tenants allowed to live in affordable units could be changed, as could the number of units that must be provided in place of the mitigation fee. Currently, inclusionary units are rented to households that make less than 50% of the Area Median Income, which is about $31,000 for a one-person household and $44,000 for a family of four.

About two years ago, the City Council set the fee at $28,000 after a Nexus study showed the costs to mitigate a unit of expensive housing could be as much as $34,000. But last year, the Council voted to lower the fee to $20,000 for the next several years – at a time when Berkeley is seeing record development – with over 1,000 units expected to be built while the fee is lower.

Affordable Housing Changes: Affordable Housing Fee waivers 2013-07-16