Opinion: Berkeley could be about to unleash a disaster regarding ADUs

Council will vote tonight to give purview over the tenant/landlord relationship for ADUs to the Rent Board. This would stop ADU development being built for rentals in its tracks.

I have been involved in the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Task Force since its very beginning. First, as an enthusiastic participant, then as a cynical observer, recently back as an enthusiastic participant, and now as a completely demoralized resident of the City of Berkeley upon realizing the disaster the City Council is prepared to unleash.

During the nearly two years that the task force has been in existence, I have been fortunate to observe some of the most passionate people in our community working selflessly and tirelessly to advance the cause of ADUs in our city.

As a builder, I can’t make the claim that my involvement was selfless, as it has led to new professional relationships from which I have benefited.

This task force was called to order by Councilmember Ben Bartlett, at the encouragement of many community members, including Kathleen Crandall, former city planning manager Deb Sanderson, Loni Gray, Greg San Martin and many others. Thankfully, their enthusiasm trumped my cynicism about the ability of the council to get out of its own way and put the necessary policies in place to encourage ADU development. These folks have spent thousands of hours coming up with suggestions for policy to increase ADU production, thereby doing some small part to ease the housing crisis in the Bay Area.

I had a feeling this was going to go sideways at that very first meeting when I realized political expediency rather than grounded economic arguments were more important to many members of the city council (shocker, right? I know!).

Councilmembers eliminated the Short Term Rental option for Accessory Dwelling Units, which insures that only wealthy people will be able to build them when their primary motivation is to house a family member. (STR is ideal to subsidize construction costs and increased taxes when grandma travels.)

They eliminated the most likely segment of the market to build ADUs for long-term rental use by not allowing the non-owner-occupied segment of the market to participate. Most owner-occupied homes do not want a stranger in their back yard, whereas owners of rented single family homes have proven their willingness to rent to the long-term market. So, 0 for 2 in the economic reality check.

I attended the next few meetings, but quickly became disillusioned by the writing on the wall that the council, in the process of sprinting to be a leader in ADU innovation, was going to shoot itself in both feet trying to get out of the gate.

The only remaining bastion of sense seemed to be that the council was going to keep the Rent Board out of the ADU market completely. This claim was made on Sept. 28 at councilmember Ben Bartlett’s town hall; on Nov. 16 at councilmember Lori Droste’s town hall; on Nov. 29 at councilmember Kate Harrison’s town hall; and on Jan. 25t  at Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s town hall.

These politicians made claims that the ADU market would be treated as golden duplexes, and owners of units with ADUs and future owner-developers of ADUs would enjoy the property rights that come with the golden duplex designation.

At the mayor’s town hall, and at Kate Harrison’s town hall, there were members of the Berkeley Rent Board who also stated that ADUs would be treated as golden duplexes. Now, just a few months after these proclamations, made in front of more than 200 community members, some of whom have made significant outlays in time and money to start planning their ADU development, City Council is set to vote tonight, July 24 to give purview over the tenant/landlord relationship for ADUs (both existing and new units) to the Rent Board.

This would stop most, if not all, ADU development that was getting constructed for the rental market in its tracks. I don’t care who you are or what your politics are, it is very unlikely that you will go through the effort and expense to construct a new ADU and allow the Rent Board to govern the relationship you have with your tenant (be it in the ADU or the main dwelling). Unless you really hate yourself, you just would not do it.

So, I have to ask the council, will they be 0 for 3 for setting policy that can spur housing supply? Or will they do the right thing and stand by the claims that they made to the community at large on four different occasions in the last 12 months?

Dan McDunn is a Berkeley resident, builder and youth sports coach. He has built five ADUs in the past 12 months and has five presently under construction.