Opinion: By rejecting 1310 Haskell, Berkeley loses more than housing

By rejecting this housing development, Berkeley loses out on the economic benefit of housing construction and long-term environmental gains. It wastes financial resources, too.

In February, Mayor Jesse Arreguín led the City Council in voting to reject a three-unit development at 1310 Haskell Street. In response, housing advocates sued the Council on the grounds that its decision violates California’s Housing Accountability Act. That act, passed in 1982, was intended to address the housing shortage in California. In passing the act, the Legislature explicitly affirmed the economic, environmental and social benefits new housing provides.

Because of the Council’s decision, Berkeley loses out on the immediate economic benefit of housing construction and long-term environmental gains from expanding the availability of greener dwellings. Beyond the economic and environmental loss, the process surrounding the Haskell decision is a precedent that undercuts many of the aspirational values of good governance and creates conditions where any housing project will be difficult to initiate.

A “Beacon” of Good Governance?

Good governance derives from decision-making that is characterized by process transparency, predictable application of law and public participation. In advocating for votes to reject the project, the mayor argued that the approved building permit for the Haskell project did not extend to the demolition of the existing structure on the property – yes, you are allowed to plant a tree but not dig a hole.

Arreguin’s argument contradicted the advice offered by the City Manager and City Attorney. They determined the project to be in compliance with legal requirements. Arreguin’s tortured misinterpretation of applicable law became the basis for a workaround of the Housing Accountability Act thus enabling the Council to vote down the project. It is ironic that Mayor Arreguín aspires for Berkeley to be a “beacon in this national darkness,” but yet he uses executive fiat to circumvent the law and subject the city to court challenges.

Inclusivity Lost?

During the February council meeting, it was also disheartening to hear comments in opposition to the project focused on the perceived risk of new housing. Speakers suggested the project would “destroy the character” of the neighborhood. Others implored the Council to “protect and defend our community.” I found this disheartening because living on a block where a nearly identical project in scale (two story dwellings) and scope (three units) was recently built, I can attest to the potential for neighborhood enhancement. Our new neighbors are enthusiastic participants on our CERT Team and generous contributors to neighborhood potlucks. Understandably, in the context of a public hearing, passions may run high.  However, if our mayor tacitly stands by while concepts of risk and threat become ingrained in the discourse surrounding even the most modest of developments, then it is hard to conceive how any new housing comes about, particularly affordable housing – and Berkeley simply becomes more exclusive.

1310 Haskell is a loss for Berkeley both literally and figuratively. First, the City Attorney’s Office must defend a position that contradicts its own previous legal determination. Further, city resources that might be utilized for pressing problems, like the delays and overruns in major infrastructure projects, are bogged down in litigation. Circumventing the rule of law by executive fiat undermines good governance and creates an any-argument-goes attitude at City Hall. Ultimately, the mayor is creating conditions where new housing opportunities are colored by a narrative of risk rather than an opportunity – further exacerbating the problems of supply and affordability. At this rate, our beacon may be fading fast.

Geoffrey Lomax is Berkeley resident and career public and environmental health professional/ advocate.