Berkeley moves forward on building micro-units for the homeless

The modular MicroPAD, designed by Panoramic Interests with homeless people in mind, comprises a pair of fully furnished units with corridor space in the middle. Rendering: Panoramic Interests

Where others cities will not venture, Berkeley dares to go. That’s how City Councilman Ben Bartlett views council’s unanimous vote Tuesday night to move ahead and explore the possibility of building tiny housing units aimed at the homeless and those on very low incomes.

“We have agreed to fast-track the creation of new forms of supportive housing using new construction methods and new financing methods,” Bartlett said the day after the vote, stressing how pleased he was that his first major council item had been so roundly supported. (Bartlett joined council representing South Berkeley’s District 3 in December.)

“We worked together to craft a beneficial program that will benefit the community and the homeless and create a new market,” he said. “I am not willing to sit by and watch people die in the street.” Bartlett was referring to the recent deaths of homeless people in Berkeley.

Bartlett’s item, which was co-sponsored by Councilwomen Lori Droste and Linda Maio, recommends that the city solicit proposals to build the units, find city-owned land on which to build them, fast-track the necessary permits and allocate the money necessary to pay the monthly leases.


The template for the housing units, as well the business model underpinning them, has been provided by local developer Patrick Kennedy of Panoramic Interests, who showcased his 160-square-foot MicroPAD in downtown Berkeley last month. However, the city said it will choose a developer through a competitive bidding process.

“The city calls on all innovators to come to Berkeley,” Bartlett said. “We are looking for parties that can rapidly and efficiently provide below-market-rate housing and supportive care.” He added that prefab micro units of the kind made by Panoramic Interests will be considered.

The housing units would be privately built, operated by a nonprofit, and would cost $1,000 a month to rent. Berkeley estimates that conventionally constructed buildings cost the city an average of $429,400 per unit. With a private developer assuming the construction costs — anywhere between $20-25 million according to Kennedy — the city would only be responsible for making sure the rent got paid. Bartlett foresees the rent being covered partly by the tenants, using their SSI check, partly by a nonprofit, and partly by the city who provides a backstop.

San Francisco recently rejected Panoramic Interests’ micro-unit proposal. The fact the units are made overseas, in China, and not by U.S. unionized labor, was a deal breaker. The city also said there were already too many demands being made on scarce public property.

Kennedy said that if he gets the go-ahead for Berkeley, he will use unionized labor for the on-site buildout which, he said, accounts for 66% of the project costs. He has joined forces with Berkeley architect David Trachtenberg to design the buildings locally.

Kennedy is taking his concept to other cities, including Oakland and Los Angeles. He says his goal is to provide housing for 5,000 Bay Area homeless people in the next five years.

The idea of small modular housing units for those without homes is finding some traction. American Family Housing, a homeless and housing nonprofit in Orange County, LA, last week unveiled an apartment building built with recycled shipping containers that will house homeless veterans.

The interior of a MicroPAD. Photo: Panoramic Interests

Even once it has settled on a builder, there are several hurdles to clear for Berkeley: firstly finding a site, or sites, on which to build the stackable housing units. The approved council item recommends that the city initially obtain zoning and permitting approval for a 4-story, 100-unit building to be built on public land. Kennedy himself has identified several potential sites: the former Berkeley High tennis courts, now a parking lot; the Berkeley Way parking lot downtown (parking would be preserved under the building); and the rear of the main Berkeley Post Office at 2000 Alston Way, although this is landmarked making it difficult if not impossible.

City staff presented a report Tuesday about the availability of public land for this purpose and every parcel described faces challenges. Staff evaluated 119 publicly owned parcels and narrowed the ones that looked promising to six, according to a staff report. Only two met all the criteria: 1) To be located within zones allowing multifamily development; 2) Larger than 15,000 square feet; 3) Not protected under Measure L, the Berkeley Public Parks and Open Space Preservation Ordinance.; and 4) Have no existing structures.

The two were the Berkeley Way parking lot at 2012 Berkeley Way and the Elmwood parking lot behind College Avenue stores at 2642 Russell St. But Berkeley already has a disposition and development agreement with Bridge Housing to build a homeless service center and apartments on the Berkeley Way lot. The Elmwood lot is narrow and would need rezoning. The other four lots met fewer of the criteria and also had some challenges.

Equally tough, perhaps, will be the need to establish criteria for selecting individuals and determining eligibility. The city estimates there are currently between 900 and 1,200 homeless people in Berkeley. The council said need-based criteria will take into account seniors, disabled people and Berkeley natives who have become homeless.

Editors’ note: This article was updated after publication to include details about the city staff report on vacant property in Berkeley.