A lawsuit filed by the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation (SFBARF) accuses the Berkeley City Council of violating California’s Housing Accountability Act (HAA) in recent years.
The HAA was created in 1982 and prohibits the dismissal of housing projects that follow a city or county’s zoning laws and lack evidence that it will harm public safety or health. This acts as an attempt to limit the feasibility of local officials denying housing based on social or moral influences. In 2011, the policy was expanded to include not only affordable housing developments, but all housing developments as well. Berkeley City Council is believed to have withdrawn previously approved zoning permits based off of community members’ complaints.
The lawsuit pertains to a specific violation of the HAA, involving a housing development project at 1310 Haskell Street in Berkeley’s district two. The site’s owner and architects proposed increasing the lot from a single residential unit into a triple residential unit, an expansion that complied with the Zoning Ordinance and General Plan. Soon after Berkeley City Council approved the permit, neighbors of Haskell street demonstrated opposition and disapproval for the housing development in May and June of 2016. Eventually, a mediation took place between the architect of the housing project and the neighbors, facilitated by SEEDS, a community resolution center in Berkeley.
After repeated efforts in favor of revoking the approval regarding 1310 Haskell, their wishes were granted by the Berkeley City Council. Reasons for opposition included concerns of limited parking, privacy, light and view access, and crowding. Neighbors made sure their voices were heard by sending emails and making phone calls, and a petition was also signed by around 150 people to clarify their objection to the project.
When SFBARF became aware of this decision, they felt that it was wrong. Sonja Trauss, the founder of the federation said, “If you have 150 people against something, it’s easy to vote no on it, but that’s against state laws. That’s what the point of zoning is.” Zoning Ordinance creates guidelines for which architectural projects or functions a certain property within the City of Berkeley, as well as other cities and counties, can hold. These rules restrict and regulate a building’s privilege to be commercial or residential, be multiple united or single united, and be used varyingly by property owners.
Berkeley City Council was not aware of the Housing Accountability Act, according to Kriss Worthington, a Berkeley City Council member. “I see no evidence that any Council members were trying to do anything immoral or illegal, rather they just did not know about this,” he said. Berkeley City Council did not consider the act following the 2011 amendment and appears to have violated the HAA multiple times in the past.
SFBARF has organized lawsuits in the past. According to Trauss, the federation is an “Unincorporated club of pro-density renters” who began as organizing to support housing on a more intimate level and is currently in the process of suing the Berkeley City Council for a claimed violation of California’s HAA. The lawsuit began with a writ petition, a petition that calls for an order for a court to review a case, and was finally signed on November 10.
Trauss believes that we need to be increasing the amount of housing in our neighborhoods. “There’s a lot of current citizens who don’t need really see any upside in building new housing, and the future citizens who should be the counterbalance aren’t there yet,” said Trauss, “we are trying to be proxies for those people.” Trauss also believes that new housing decreases rent, and doesn’t promote gentrification in neighborhoods. “When people oppose building for gentrification reasons, they’re fighting a symptom, not a cause.”
Worthington agrees that the rate of housing development progression can be increased due to the HAA. “The potential impact of the Housing Accountability Act is immense, but Haskell Street is only one small case. It could make it much easier to build housing in Berkeley and many other California cities,” said Worthington.
A hearing will soon be scheduled for the Berkeley Planning Commission to review the case. The commission will either decide to allow for the housing project to continue or leave the decision as previously determined by the City Council.