A South Berkeley credit union is saying goodbye to its longtime home near Ashby BART to make way for a 100% affordable housing project that includes units for tenants who were formerly homeless.
Cooperative Center Federal Credit Union (CCFCU) decided to sell its property at 2001 Ashby Ave., in large part, after seeing the neighborhood struggle with pressures related to gentrification and displacement, CEO Fadhila Holman told Berkeleyside in a recent interview. Cooperative Center is looking for a new site in Berkeley and plans to make an announcement about that soon.
“The biggest thing for us is that we’re watching people struggle to be able to live where they work or stay in their community,” she said. “The demographics in Berkeley are changing. You have to have a lot of money to be able to live here.”
The 2001 Ashby project won expedited approval under SB35, a state law that lets cities push affordable housing projects through the permitting process much faster because they are not subject to the typical zoning and design review process. It’s the third housing project the city has approved under SB35, after greenlighting projects on Berkeley Way and at 1601 Oxford St. last year.
The credit union chose Resources for Community Development (RCD), a Berkeley-based affordable housing agency, to develop and run the new building. The project will be named after Maudelle Shirek, a longtime CCFCU employee who went on to represent South Berkeley on the City Council for two decades. Shirek died in 2013 at the age of 101.
“There’s just really a critical need for sustainable, affordable housing,” said project manager Nicole Brown of RCD. “This ideally would serve as a place for large families who can no longer afford to live in that neighborhood who definitely would be displaced or folks who want to come back to South Berkeley.”
The new building is set to have 86 rental units that would be affordable to households earning between 20% and 60% AMI, as well as one manager’s unit.
“The units are a mix of studios, one-bedrooms, two-bedrooms, and three-bedrooms,” according to a report submitted to the City Council late last year. “Approximately half are two- or three-bedroom units, making the project well suited for families. Twelve units would be set aside for formerly homeless and disabled residents, consistent with the State’s No Place Like Home program.”
There is an urgent need for affordable housing in the area, noted RCD spokeswoman Lauren Lyon. After RCD’s recent rehabilitation of an SRO hotel in Oakland, 4,000 people applied for a chance to snag one of just 15 spots.
In addition to housing, commercial space has been set aside in the new building for the local nonprofit Healthy Black Families, “which would help keep their services in this historically African American neighborhood and alleviate concerns of the organization’s displacement due to rising costs,” according to the report.
Holman said the credit union plans to stay in Berkeley in a soon-to-be-announced location that will have a smaller footprint than its current operation. The board’s decision to sell the 2001 Ashby property was driven by a need to increase the credit union’s capital, she said, in addition to a strong desire to help the neighborhood.
As it considered the future of its property, the credit union board reviewed numerous applications. They included for-profit projects and those with a mix of affordable and market-rate units, Holman said, but ultimately chose the RCD proposal because of its commitment to 100% affordable units. Throughout its history, she added, social and economic justice have been central to the credit union’s mission, including with its efforts to combat redlining in the 1960s and ’70s through the creation of a home loan program.
Holman said the credit union aims to move out of 2001 Ashby next year.
Alicia Klein, associate director of housing development at RCD, said she thought the team’s proposal may have stood out from the others because of its “market-rate purchase price plus a mission-oriented development concept.”
RCD has rental properties throughout the Bay Area that provide “homes to 5,000 people in 24 cities in the region, about one third of which are reserved for people with special needs,” according to its website. In Berkeley, where the organization was founded in 1984, these include the 97-unit Oxford Plaza, which was developed in tandem with the David Brower Center next door; the 74-unit University Avenue Homes at 1040 University Ave.; and the 40-unit Mable Howard Senior Apartments at 1499 Alcatraz Ave.
The new Maudelle Miller Shirek Community building is set to include on-site services such as case management, educational and health and wellness programs and youth enrichment activities. There will be a community room with a full kitchen, a landscaped courtyard with play structures for children, on-site laundry, and space for 45 cars (in stackers) and indoor bike storage, according to project materials.
RCD is currently working on getting the project’s finances together. The next milestone will come this summer, the project team said, when it hears back about money it has requested from the state. The city has already provided some predevelopment funds, and the project has also asked Berkeley for $17 million in Measure O money.
“RCD’s proposed financing includes a bank loan, California HCD Multifamily Housing Program funds, California HCD No Place Like Home funds, California HCD Infill Infrastructure Grant funds, FHLB Affordable Housing Program funds, and 4% tax credits,” according to the 2019 report to council.
The benefits of SB35
Before SB35, a project like 2001 Ashby would have taken an estimated 1.5 years to get through the city’s permitting process, according to RCD. With SB35, it took less than 90 days. That let RCD move faster to seek state funding and other financing, getting into the pipeline now rather than waiting another year.
If all goes well, work could begin at the site in summer 2021, with construction expected to take about 20 months, RCD said.
SB35 also lets affordable housing developers save money “that would have been spent on an environmental review to confirm what was already pretty clear: that there was no environmental impact,” said Brown, the project manager.
“City staff did a great job,” Klein said, of how the city handled the SB35 application. “It saved at least a year if not two.”
And that year could mean savings of more than $1 million in the construction budget, Brown said.
“Saving a year is huge,” she said, particularly as construction costs have skyrocketed in the Bay Area. In the past five years, there has been an annual increase of 10% in those costs, according to RCD.
The Maudelle Shirek building is projected to cost $46 million to construct, with a total project cost of $74 million, which includes financing and site acquisition, RCD said.
The way SB35 cuts down the planning process means the community has less time to weigh in and shape projects. But RCD said the feedback it got at its two community meetings about the Maudelle Miller Shirek Community building was positive.
Brown said the building is right in line with what many neighbors who have participated in the Adeline Corridor planning process have said they would like to see built in South Berkeley. RCD has followed that community process closely, she said. The Adeline plan is still in draft form, but the new building follows it “in terms of affordability and scale and community-oriented ground-floor spaces,” Brown added.
“An imprint we can do in other parts of the city”
RCD said South Berkeley Councilman Ben Bartlett had been an “avid supporter” of the project from the very beginning. He helped move the project through the city process and advocated for allocating “predevelopment” money to RCD so it could get to work.
Bartlett told Berkeleyside the new building would be a boon to the neighborhood in more ways than one.
“We have multiple crises happening here in terms of housing: housing scarcity and displacement and isolation. Family housing is one. Homelessness is another one. Access via transit is one. This sort of touches on all of them,” he said. “Those components all together in one building is really wonderful and quite rare. Hopefully it’s an imprint we can do in other parts of the city.”
Bartlett said he was also touched that the building would have Shirek’s name, not only because of her major contributions to the city but also because she was his godmother.
“She’s baked into the spirit of that community and helped create that credit union as well,” Bartlett said. “The fact that it’s honoring her memory as a progressive icon for the community is heartwarming.”
A historical plaque about Shirek will be on display in the new building, RCD said.
In an email to RCD, Shirek’s nephew Ron Bridgeforth said he had discussed the idea of the building name with Shirek’s sister, his one surviving aunt, Lennie Jean Draughan.
“Needless to say she was very excited and supportive of the idea of honoring her sister Maudelle, in the name of this community,” he wrote. “On behalf of the Family I would like to say that, we are grateful and appreciative that our Sister and Aunt, who was such a pioneer in the struggle for social justice is being remembered and honored by her Community.”
Bridgeforth told Berkeleyside that Shirek became the second full-time employee at the credit union when she was hired in 1943. She would later become known as the “Conscience of Berkeley City Council” as well as “the godmother of East Bay progressive politics.” Shirek was instrumental in leading Berkeley to become the first city to divest from companies like Shell that were involved in apartheid South Africa. She was an outspoken supporter of many union battles, including campaigns at the Port of Oakland and at the Claremont Hotel.
At one point, Bridgeforth said, Congresswoman Barbara Lee had tried to get the Berkeley Post Office named after Shirek, whom she has described as one of her mentors. Bridgeforth said another representative, who had made it known he did not support radical politics, blocked the attempt. So Berkeley named “Old City Hall” after Shirek instead.
Bridgeforth said family members had been amazed and heartened to see how RCD plans to price the new units to make them truly affordable for those in the community who need housing most.
“It’s what Maudelle would have wanted. She spent her life fighting for the underdog and supporting fair housing,” he said. “This is what she worked for, what she lived for. I can’t think of anything more fitting.”