Op-ed: Berkeley should endorse, not oppose, Governor Brown’s housing proposal

Twice now, Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin has introduced legislation asking Berkeley to issue a resolution opposing an important state affordable housing bill proposed by Governor Brown. City resolutions on state matters are of course non-binding, but if Berkeley and its councilmembers, especially those with aspirations of becoming mayor, are interested in solving the housing crisis, then they should welcome Governor Brown’s proposal with open arms.

The governor’s proposal, referred to as budget trailer bill 707, would allow multi-family infill developments that meet local zoning and design requirements and include a certain percentage of below market rate units of affordable housing to be built as-of-right. Also called by-right zoning, this means that Berkeley’s extra layers of discretionary review (which were used just last week in a depressing display of NIMBYism to prevent replacing a single family home on Haskell Street with a fully zoning-compliant triplex) could no longer be used to continue to exacerbate the housing crisis. If a multi-family housing project includes a certain percentage of affordable units (the exact percentage depends on the level of affordability, but ranges from 5% to 20%) and meets the city’s zoning laws, the city must grant the permit.

Obviously, the existing extra layers of discretionary review slow down the housing construction process. The extra delays and the variability of the length of these delays make project financing less viable. Project review takes 30% longer in California than in other states, and research by eminent UC Berkeley economist John Quigley showed that, within the Bay Area, cities with extra layers of approval requirements had higher housing costs. This is why credible affordable housing developers such as BRIDGE Housing, and policy experts such as Carol Galante, the I. Donald Terner Distinguished Professor in Affordable Housing and Urban Policy at UC Berkeley, support the governor’s proposal. The state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office also supports the bill, but said it didn’t go far enough! Given the explicitly racist historical origins of Berkeley’s zoning laws, as well as research showing that restrictive zoning is likely to worsen segregation, it is truly baffling to me why anyone who calls themselves a progressive is opposed to the governor’s proposal.

At best, Arreguin’s concerns about the bill are based on outdated information. For instance, he expressed concern that the bill would override local inclusionary requirements, allowing the state to force approval of a 5% inclusionary project instead of Berkeley’s normal 20% inclusionary requirement. However, the latest version of the bill (June 10, 2016) quite clearly states that by-right approval only comes when projects meet “objective zoning standards” and “Such standards may be embodied in alternate objective land-use standards adopted by a locality, and may include but are not limited to housing overlay zones , specific plans, inclusionary zoning ordinances, and density bonus ordinances.”

Arreguin is also worried that the bill could be used to demolish existing rent-controlled units. However, the bill clearly states that a project doesn’t get by-right approval unless it “replaces units at a level of affordability equal to or greater than the level of a previous affordability restriction.” The bill already very clearly does not preempt local zoning requirements, and includes a no-net-loss requirement. Importantly, the governor already included $400 million in state funding for affordable housing projects in the budget he passed, but spending that money is contingent on passing the by-right bill. Opposing the by-right bill is opposing badly needed state funding for affordable housing.

There is some environmental opposition to the bill as well, since infill developments including the requisite amount of affordable housing would be exempt from CEQA review. However, these concerns are misplaced, since any honest accounting shows much lower carbon and water impact from allowing people to live in a denser, transit-rich city like Berkeley instead of making them commute from a far-flung car dependent suburb. (Sadly, thanks to local opposition to housing, we’re at the point of calling places like Stockton or even Reno “suburbs” of San Francisco.) The bill explicitly has language that specifically excludes development on wetlands, earthquake fault zones, hazardous waste sites, high risk fire areas, and other such environmentally sensitive areas from qualifying for by-right approval.

We are in a housing crisis. The governor has proposed a very sensible way to speed up the production of multi-family housing projects that include affordable units. Anyone who actually wants to solve the Bay Area’s housing crisis should support the proposal.

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Garret Christensen is a Berkeley resident and an economics researcher at UC Berkeley’s Berkeley Institute for Data Science.