Opinion: City Councilwoman Kate Harrison is hindering, not helping, the construction of affordable housing

She has led the charge for higher in-lieu fees and now wants developers to pay more in community benefits. Experts warn these plans might restrict the housing built in Berkeley.

When elected, Kate Harrison promised to lead on affordable housing. Less than a year in, her leadership is fundamentally counterproductive and is undermining our efforts as a city to provide affordable homes for everyone in Berkeley.

Harrison led the charge for higher in-lieu fees and affordability requirements, despite warnings from housing experts that these could be counterproductive by reducing the number of projects being built in Berkeley. This is no theoretical speculation: the very same thing happened in San Francisco where Proposition C had to be hastily amended after it caused a substantial drop in the number of projects and the number of new affordable units built.

Then Harrison had the chutzpah to cite the research of one of these experts, UC Berkeley’s Karen Chappel, as though it supported her position. She chose not to wait for an updated feasibility study or analysis of how to maximize the anti-displacement effect of the new homes developers wanted to build. Members of the City Council had Chappel’s letter right there and ultimately required a new feasibility study to happen.

Berkeley voters approved the Downtown Area Plan at the polls. Harrison has proposed a policy that would increase the levels of community benefits required for the tall buildings allowed in the downtown. She has injected uncertainty and delay into the process. When asked if she was concerned about the impact on projects actually being built and delivering affordable units, she said this was not a problem for Berkeley. This was at a specially scheduled 10 a.m. meeting, a time when anyone working or with small children at home couldn’t attend. When it comes to affordable housing, Harrison prioritizes the voices of millionaire property owners over those of working Berkeley families.

The City Council has repeatedly asked the planning commission to speed the creation of affordable housing by modifying the process to avoid the endless appeals one or two dissatisfied residents can launch for next to nothing. Harrison’s opposition op-ed in Berkeleyside made clear that she supports the current system as a way to keep criminals and brutalist architecture out of neighborhoods. For the retirees and working families who are struggling to afford rent, this is a slap in the face.

When it comes to fighting displacement there is one policy that is known to work: building homes. Whether market rate or affordable, all new units measurably reduce displacement. New market-rate units do so with only half the effectiveness of affordable units without using scarce affordable housing funds. A considered policy to meet our affordability goals for Berkeley would use market rate construction to subsidize units until we met our RHNA goals in all categories, instead of treating them as a cap.

In contrast, Harrison has repeatedly said that because we are meeting our market rate goals, we should slow down and build only affordable units. Unfortunately, she seems unaware that we do not have more affordable housing trust fund money to use for that. Inclusionary zoning and more market rate housing was the only strategy that could lead to Berkeley building enough affordable housing to meet our RHNA goals, as the other funding sources for affordable housing don’t go nearly far enough.

Harrison’s record demonstrates that she’s used affordability concerns as a smokescreen for her real goals of preserving the physical appearance of Berkeley, even as we lose the diversity, artistic creativity, and community spirit that made Berkeley great. Her policies are the failed ones of the past 40 years that have driven displacement in our city.

Watson Ladd is a UC Berkeley graduate student in math, a Berkeley resident, and a member of East Bay For Everyone, which is a "network of voices speaking up for housing abundancy."