Opinion: City Councilwoman Kate Harrison champions affordable housing

Smart, specifically affordable infill development has been Kate’s focus. She has gotten developers to raise the fees they pay the city and increase the number of affordable units they build.

In her short tenure on the City Council, Kate Harrison has been a bold champion for affordable, green housing, one of the main reasons the Sierra Club, the Alameda County Democratic Party, the Alameda County Labor Council, East Bay Young Dems and the Berkeley Tenants’ Union, among others, have endorsed her for reelection.

Smart, specifically affordable infill development has been Kate’s focus.  In a recent East Bay Express article, U.C. Berkeley Professor Karen Chapple describes how development near transit can lead to gentrification unless necessary steps are taken. These steps include building dense housing but “with an affordable component, and with strong protections for renters, “ according to the article. Having non-profits buy buildings to make them permanently affordable is a good policy, as is “strong protection for renters … to preserve affordable housing and prevent its sale to new owners seeking to raise prices as rent-controlled tenants move out.”

Kate has done these things. She helped get the affordable housing mitigation fee, the amount developers pay for not building affordable units on site, increased in 2017 from $34,000 to $37,000.  She also got the number of affordable units required in a building raised from just 20% of the market rate units to 20% of all the units. She introduced a measure to have nonprofits buy buildings to make them permanently affordable (Kate helped secure $1 million in funding for this initiative). Kate supports Prop. 10, which would allow Berkeley to return to the voter-approved rent control of units when they are vacated. Even before her election, Kate helped lead the successful Measure U1 campaign to provide $3 million a year for affordable housing.

Kate has also worked on figuring out where to put housing. She supported legislation to make it easier for homeowners to develop “in-law units” that could add upwards of 3,000 new inclusive and affordable housing units (equivalent to ten downtown high-rises) with a minimal environmental footprint.  She is fighting for a path for amnesty for illegally constructed in-law units to make sure they are safe. She also struck provisions from recent legislation, introduced by another councilmember, that would have protected views at the cost of allowing in-law units.

Berkeley has built more than its fair share of market-rate housing

Berkeley has already built or permitted 165% of its regional share of new market-rate housing, half of which is located in District 4. In contrast, the rest of the Bay Area has done little to create such housing. Kate has not stood in the way of these efforts. The entire Bay Area is experiencing an affordability crisis.  One can walk past the “move-in today” signs in front of Stonefire or Parker Place to see that housing is available, provided one can afford $3,000 to $4,000 a month for rent. Now it is time for Berkeley to build affordable units for the majority of middle and working class families that desperately need them.

But the “build at any cost” policy of the other candidates in the race, relying on discredited theories of trickle-down economics, ignores that housing is not just a product like any other. When the price of beef increases, we can eat more tofu. When the price of housing increases, those who have to live here – because their kids are in our schools or to be reasonably near to jobs – have no choice but to pay more and more of their incomes for housing. Professor Chappelle indicates it may take up to 50 years for an increased supply of market-rate housing to filter down into lower prices overall.

The op-ed penned in Berkeleyside on Oct. 10th attacking Kate’s housing record highlights this build at all cost approach. To justify its hyperbole, the Op-Ed is internally inconsistent. First, it complains that raising the affordable housing fee (which passed 8-1) was opposed by an unnamed “bevy of experts.” The study the increase was based on had been commissioned from David Shiver of BAE Economics under the former mayoral administration. The op-ed claims these fees will make it “impossible” to build in Berkeley, yet the study found the increase would not deter construction. One example given is the Zoning Adjustment Board’s 7-2 vote against a South Berkeley apartment at 3000 Shattuck Ave. after the developer(a $50 contributor to Ben Gould’s campaign) sought to reduce its obligated housing fees by $1 million. The op-ed appears to conclude that somehow not collecting affordable housing fees actually increases our supply of affordable housing. To paraphrase General Westmoreland (of Vietnam war infamy), these efforts will destroy Berkeley in order to save it.

Kate Harrison Trusts the Voters

Last week, Kate led her colleagues in passing legislation to register lobbyists who work to influence city decision-makers, the most powerful of whom appear before the city on land use decisions. Berkeley deserves the transparency Kate demands from city officials and lobbyists and the leadership she has provided on many issues confronting our city. We should demand no less from those asking for our votes.

Editor’s note, Oct. 24: This editorial was first published stating that the Sierra Club endorsed Harrison. Some readers pointed out that it was the San Franciso Bay chapter that endorsed her, so the editorial was changed. Then the Sierra club sent Berkeleyside the guidelines for endorsements and appears that any endorsement made by any chapter should just read “Sierra Club.” So the editorial has been changed again to reflect that.

Donald Goldmacher is a retired doctor and a documentary filmmaker.