But while officials are trying to address the region’s housing and homelessness crisis by pushing density and all kinds of housing, the city has struggled to get homes built. Its challenges underscore what cities throughout the region face in generating housing even when they have the political will.
Berkeley’s mayor is an example of the shift among city leaders. Mayor Jesse Arreguín said his “perspective has evolved over the years from being skeptical of supporting market-rate development to now embracing housing for all income levels because I recognize that we have a shortage of housing for everyone.”
David Garcia, a policy director at UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, said the city has gone through a “dramatic” shift in a relatively short time from having a “skeptical viewpoint of pro-housing policies to embracing” more progressive zoning and land use changes.
“That shift in attitude is necessary before you would see a significant change in production,” Garcia said.
Council Member Lori Droste, who authored the resolution to eventually end single-family zoning, said since her election in 2014, more council members are pushing for pro-housing policies.
Still, it’s difficult to tell how much progress has been made. There are two main measures of the city’s progress: how many units have been approved and how many have been built.
From 2015 to 2020, Berkeley issued permits for 2,943 units, city staff said. Data from 2021 was not yet available, said Jordan Klein, the director of the city’s planning department. Klein said when permits from last year, this year and next year are factored in, Berkeley will “far exceed” the state mandated goal for total units permitted for 2015-2023.
But while Berkeley might be permitting more units, those units don’t do any good if they don’t get built. Experts say skyrocketing construction costs and slow approvals are big reasons housing doesn’t get built — which Arreguín said he wants to find solutions for.
Officials said data on how many homes have been built in the city since 2015 was not readily available. There was data on a limited area. Two areas where the city allowed more density over the last decade —downtown and San Pablo Avenue — saw more new housing. From 2018 to 2020, 242 housing units on San Pablo Avenue and 316 units in the downtown area were completed, said Jordan Klein, the director of the city’s planning department. While that’s almost as much as was built from 1970 to 2000 in the entire city, the city needs to be producing an average of a thousand of units a year to meet their state goals.
To meet state mandates, Berkeley needs to plan for nearly 9,000 more units over the next decade, which Garcia said would be tough to pull off. City staff is exploring allowing multi-unit buildings in certain areas, building middle-income housing and prioritizing transit corridors for new homes.
To that end, Berkeley officials are now working on two potentially large projects at the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations that could generate 1,200 new units at each station — with the council’s backing. That’s a shift. In 2018, the council voted to oppose a state law, AB2923, to make it easier to build housing at BART stations.
The council is also considering a $500 million bond to put on the November ballot to fund affordable housing and infrastructure.
In addition, a Georgia-based developer has proposed a 25-story project downtown with 326 units and 33 affordable units that would be the tallest building in Berkeley. Jason Overman, a spokesman for the project who has previously worked on housing in Berkeley, said the city has “impressed a lot of people” with its shift in attitude to be more welcoming to housing.
The problem is that the deficit of housing is decades in the making and it will take many years to undo. In 1973, Berkeley voters passed the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, which established restrictions on new housing. The policy stalled massive housing development for years, said Councilmember Ben Bartlett. From about 1970 to 2000, only about 600 new housing units were built in the city, Bartlett said.
The city’s housing crisis has also been exacerbated by the university as enrollment numbers have increased and the university’s housing production hasn’t kept up. UC Berkeley houses just 23% of its students, the lowest of all UC campuses. In September, UC Berkeley approved a controversial $312 million plan to build housing on the historic People’s Park. This week, UC Berkeley asked the state Supreme Court to block a judge’s order that resulted in a win for neighborhood groups. The order required the university to cap enrollment and stop a $126 million project to build classrooms and housing for professors.
But rent-burdened residents are still struggling. More than half of renters are paying more than 30% of their income on rent. In the city of 124,000 people, more than 57% of residents are renters, city staff said.
Darrell Owens, an activist with East Bay for Everyone, a pro-housing nonprofit organization, said while “Berkeley’s attitudes have changed pretty drastically in the last five years,” it’s not clear if the shift will result in more housing.
And despite its advances, neighborhood opposition can still sway policy. For example, the City Council voted on Jan. 26 to limit construction of the accessory dwelling unit in the Berkeley hills, citing fire danger. ADUs are small dwellings located on the same lot as an existing home.
Council Member Rashi Kesarwani, who was elected in 2018, said she is focusing this year on plans to build at the North Berkeley BART Station. Kesarwani said some residents support the project, but others have expressed concern because they worry it will be too dense.
In the past, some council members would cave to neighborhood pressure, but Kesarwani said while she’s willing to listen to neighbor’s concerns and discuss alternatives, she’s not going to say “that we are not going to have housing at this site or that it’s going to be so limited (that it) wastes the opportunity there.”
The council is also focused on affordable housing. It voted in December to allocate $67.5 million from a 2018 voter-approved bond toward 406 new affordable and permanent supportive housing units, as well as the renovation of 66 affordable units.
Dan Sawislak, the executive director of Resources for Community Development, an affordable housing nonprofit, received some funds to help finance a 119-unit supportive housing project at People’s Park. Sawislak said that voters’ concerns around homelessness and affordability have escalated in the past decade, prompting them to approve affordable housing funding measures.
Newly elected Council Member Terry Taplin said housing is a big reason why he decided to run for council. Taplin, elected in 2021, introduced legislation to speed up permits for affordable housing projects. And his staff is studying a social housing program.
“Change is really hard, especially in Berkeley where we have people who are very comfortable and very familiar with how to game the process to keep housing out of their neighborhoods,” Taplin said. “We have to be on the lookout for that.”
Sarah Ravani is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @SarRavani