Op-ed: Kate Harrison makes false promises on housing affordability

Berkeley voters can’t trust City Council candidate Kate Harrison to deliver affordable housing because her approach is woefully unrealistic and ultimately hostile to new housing

By Eric Panzer

Eric Panzer is a UC Berkeley graduate with a background in environmental science and city planning. He works with Livable Berkeley and is volunteering as treasurer for Ben Gould’s campaign. The opinions expressed here are his own, however.

The Obama administration, the California Legislative Analyst’s office, and an overwhelming majority of housing experts agree: building housing at all income levels is the best way to address the affordability crisis. Kate Harrison, who is running for the District 4 Berkeley City Council seat, rejects this wealth of scholarship and policy analysis because, as she put it “I just simply think the research does not show that.”

When climate change deniers ignore data and research, we rightly call them out. Berkeley voters should reject Kate Harrison to prevent Berkeley from enacting housing policies based on a similar brand of willful ignorance.

Harrison’s own words and actions demonstrate startling inconsistency on housing issues.

At the Sept. 30, 2015 Zoning Adjustments Board meeting, Harrison stated, “I like tall buildings. I like development”— even as she actively fought a 300-unit LEED Gold project that will provide $10 million for affordable housing. Harrison continues to claim she wasn’t against the project itself. But just last month, at a League of Women Voters forum, Harrison explicitly stated that she is against tall buildings near BART. These are not the words or deeds of someone who we can trust to encourage the housing creation Berkeley so desperately needs.

Harrison has repeatedly mischaracterized and smeared her opponent through strawman attacks. At another recent candidates’ forum, Harrison repeatedly criticized the idea of “trickle-down housing” and “just building market-rate housing” — even though neither candidate supports this approach. The other candidate in the race, Ben Gould, has repeatedly called for more housing at all income levels and is a strong supporter of the City’s affordable housing requirements. By attacking positions that no one in the race actually supports, Harrison is trying to distract from the deficiencies of her own housing policies.

Harrison claims to agree with Gould on the importance of creating more affordable units, but Harrison’s approach offers no workable mechanism for achieving Berkeley’s affordable housing goals. To meet the city’s current goal for low-income housing, Berkeley would need to build a total of 974 low-income housing units over eight years. The total cost of developing this many units would be roughly $300 million dollars, or $38 million per year. Harrison points to the recent “landlord tax” as a solution, but this tax only brings in about $3 million to $4 million per year— a mere tenth of what’s needed. Even with federal and state funds, making up the difference would require a significant tax increase or a big hit to the rest of the City budget. Harrison’s policies cannot deliver on her promises.

Alternatively, by building housing at all income levels and applying existing affordability requirements, Berkeley could meet our targets for low-income units at no additional cost to Berkeley taxpayers. Harrison has made it clear, though, that she supports policies that would slow down housing creation — whether through impractical building standards, excessive project-by-project negotiation, or outright opposition to more housing.

Harrison has also relied on incorrect and cherry-picked data to back up her positions. For instance, Harrison claimed that Berkeley has “met 300% of the regional standard for market-rate housing.” This is simply not true: Berkeley is nowhere near completing 4,203 units since 2014 (we have permitted about 3,000 units in that time). Furthermore, Berkeley has added 5,500 jobs and hundreds of students over the past six years. We therefore have a considerable deficit to make up for both market-rate and affordable housing. If Harrison were truly pro-housing, she would celebrate the progress we’ve made toward addressing these deficits, instead of complaining that we’ve somehow built too much housing.

Harrison seems to believe that a “regional approach” to tackling these long-term housing deficits means that it’s the responsibility of every city but Berkeley to encourage housing at all income levels. This finger-pointing approach is precisely what got us into the housing crisis, as most Bay Area cities tried to pawn off their responsibility to build housing for their workforces. Harrison tries to make it sound like Berkeley is being asked to shoulder the housing burden of places like San Francisco. But building more housing in Berkeley isn’t about picking up slack for other cities; it’s about taking care of the people who already work right here in Berkeley. By the city’s own estimates, less than 20 percent of Berkeley’s workforce actually lives in Berkeley. Contrary to Harrison’s statements, building more housing in Berkeley isn’t about “new people coming in and saying we’re a transit corridor.” It’s about meeting our own basic ethical obligation to house the people who help make Berkeley such an exciting, diverse, and prosperous place.

In the end, Berkeley voters can’t trust Kate Harrison to deliver affordable housing because her approach is woefully unrealistic and ultimately hostile to new housing. I hope you will join me in supporting more housing at all income levels in Berkeley by voting for Ben Gould for City Council on or before March 7th.