A New Calif. Housing Law Is Being Put to the Test in Berkeley

Developers can now bypass city oversight if half their units are affordable. 

(Credit: Blake Griggs) 

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California’s newest housing law is about to be tested.

Last week, developer West Berkeley Investments (a subsidiary of Blake Griggs) cited SB 35 when filing its application for a controversial project that’s been tied up in zoning and environmental review for the last half-decade. The law allows the developer to bypass local oversight in exchange for making 50 percent of the units affordable, Berkeleyside reports. It’s the first to cite the law since it was enacted in January, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

SB 35 is, in part, a reaction to California cities’ notorious noncompliance with state housing law. Much like laws in New Jersey and Washington, housing element law requires cities to plan for their “fair share” of housing in line with regional growth estimates. But many municipalities (around half, according to an Orange County Register story from 2013) just don’t update their housing elements, as Next City has covered, and the law doesn’t have any teeth. SB 35 says that any municipality not meeting its regional housing requirements needs to allow “over-the-counter approval” for a project that meets certain zoning requirements, according to Berkeleyside.

State senator Scott Weiner, who proposed the law, immediately sent out a congratulatory tweet.

But the local opposition to this particular developer — and this particular parcel — is complicated, and doesn’t fit the mold of wealthy, single-family neighborhood groups rallying against low-income units. The SF Chronicle reports:

Opponents to the project say the property is part of the West Berkeley Shellmound, a city landmark since 2000. Representatives of three autonomous Ohlone family bands — Confederated Villages of Lisjan, Himre-n-Ohlone, and Medina Family — spent years negotiating with the developer over the size and configuration of the development. Most recently Blake Griggs offered to give the American Indian family bands a quarter of the property in exchange for the Ohlone’s endorsement.

The Ohlone bands rejected the offer, stating that the bands “unanimously stand together to oppose the development of the West Berkeley Shellmound located at 1900 Fourth Street in Berkeley.”

“Our sacred sites were never given up by our families — not legally, nor in theory,” Vincent Medina, a spokesperson for the groups, told the paper. “They are not properties or parcel numbers that can be bought and sold. We did not stand in opposition when you developed other parts of our land. We do not get in the way when you put up apartment buildings or shopping malls. But where we draw the line is when you propose to dig up and desecrate the most sacred places where our ancestors are buried.”

The developer originally submitted a draft EIR in 2016, but it hadn’t yet been approved, in part due to the Ohlone controversy. The newly submitted project proposal doesn’t contain any acknowledgment of that issue, according to Berkeleyside.

The new law reportedly requires that the project be approved in 180 days, but it still has to be vetted by the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board. Meanwhile, according to the Chronicle, developers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Daly City are preparing applications to be submitted under SB 35.

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Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian

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Tags: affordable housingberkeley

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