Q & A with Councilmember Kate Harrison on Berkeley’s Complex Housing Crisis

Negeene and Elana sat down with Councilmember Kate Harrison (District 4) to get a better understanding of the complex housing situation in our city. This is part one of a two part series.

Q1: How was the determination made that Berkeley must produce 9,000 more housing units, 60% at market rate and 40% below market rate by 2031?

A1: Cities do not have exclusive control over housing policy.

Councilmember Kate Harrison

State Housing and Community Development (HCD) sets how many new units the Bay Area should develop. HCD is saying that 441,000 new housing units need to be permitted in the region in eight years. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) is charged with allocating those between cities in what’s known as the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA).

The real driver is HCD’s questionable 2030 population assumptions — the Bay Area will grow from 7.2 to 9.2 million people in nine years. By 2031, San Francisco is expected to grow from 883,000 to 1.45 million and Berkeley from 120,000 to 141,000. Is that feasible or even desirable? I don’t think so.

HCD’s 2020 population projections exceed the recently released 2020 Census, yet their 2030 estimate relies on that 2020 projection. These estimates predate COVID and do not reflect trends in outmigration, working from home, and the lessened need (or desire) to live in the inner core.

How ABAG distributes those numbers has also changed. It assumes a slight increase in Berkeley’s share (from 1.5% to 1.7%) of Bay Area units. In contrast to the last RHNA cycle, existing density and local building costs play less of a role. Berkeley’s high density and high construction costs are not adequately considered. Instead, criteria such as being in a “high opportunity zone” or near a University are emphasized.

Also, RHNA focuses only on traditional housing units and doesn’t account for Berkeley’s alternative housing models, for example many Group Living Accommodations, where several bedrooms share a kitchen, or U.C.’s dormitories. This is particularly imbalanced, since much of our population increase is University related. Thousands of existing unpermitted units are also uncounted. We also get no credit for exceeding the numbers in the last eight years.

We are asked to build more without credit for all that we have and are building.

These factors lead to a determination that, by 2031, Berkeley should permit 9,000 more units, an almost 20% increase over Berkeley’s existing 51,000 units. This is a 200% increase over the numbers we were expected to meet — and met — in the last eight years.

What’s behind these high expectations? The flawed methodology discussed above plays a part. For some, there is a sincere belief that by just pushing harder we can accommodate huge growth quickly. This does not account for how growth should be funded (the burden will be on local government), the proportion of affordable housing or the impacts on the local environment.

But I also believe that, in some quarters, these numbers are set artificially high, knowing cities will fail. Senator Weiner’s SB 35 requires all units in cities that don’t meet their overall target for permitting housing to be approved by staff without an opportunity for community input. This would happen even if the city approved adequate housing that developers never completed.

SB35 mirrors the misperception that local discretion is the biggest impediment to housing, not broader economic trends. Berkeley’s housing pipeline report shows that the average project spans 63 months from start to finish, only five of which are at the Zoning Adjustment Board and/or City Council, if appealed. Most of the 63 months is developers acquiring building permits and actually building. (I want to thank our Planning Department for working to make our permit process more efficient). In addition, many projects don’t get underway even when they have been approved but cities are held responsible under SB 35 for the number of fully permitted projects, even if we don’t control that.

The demand that we forfeit local discretion also relies on the myth that housing appeals are common. Very few projects are appealed, and most of these appeals are rejected by the Council. The uncommon appeal that the Council approves would have had real impacts on the fabric of our city. I am happy that our Council retained discretion in its recent upzoning legislation but Weiner’s SB 35 will override that.

Even with projects currently underway for teachers and at BART stations and local churches and others, aided by generous Berkeley taxpayers supporting Measure O in 2018, more and more people are left behind as land prices and median incomes increase in the Bay Area. Between 2015 and 2019, Berkeley met only 11% of our housing targets for low-income housing and none for moderate. Innovations like the Carpenters’ Union manufactured housing facility on Mare Island will help bring down the cost of construction. But increasing land competition makes it harder for affordable housing developers or tenants to purchase properties; displacement pressures are driving out residents faster than we can build replacement housing. High RHNA targets of mostly market-rate housing don’t change these material realities.

What happens when those homes aren’t built? More people become homeless or displaced, live in overcrowded conditions or move away, driving incredible distances to work here. Their lives will be immeasurably harder, communities will be disrupted, and everyone’s transportation problems will get worse. Imbalanced housing combined with State failures to fund transportation hurt people, the planet and disrupt our labor market.

Q2: Is San Francisco challenging their RHNA numbers?

A2: I believe San Francisco is challenging the distribution of the Bay Area’s numbers and whether more units should be allocated to the Peninsula closer to jobs. If we look at where people have not built housing, let’s be frank — it’s not here; we have exceeded past targets. It’s not Oakland. It’s not San Francisco. So why are such a large number of units being required here and we’re not getting credit for what we already have? I am looking forward to Berkeley joining in asking these questions.

to be continued…

This was first published in the Berkeley Times on May 6, 2021. Reimagining Berkeley is co-edited by Negeene Mosaed and Elana Auerbach, two longtime residents who invite the community to envision an equitable Berkeley where everyone thrives. Please share your dreams and visions of Berkeley could be at reimaginingberkeley@gmail.com.

This series, Reimagining Berkeley, was first published in the Berkeley Times. We want to create a genuine community of caring for all who live in Berkeley, CA.