A rendering of the 1900 Fourth site in Berkeley. (Courtesy Blake Griggs Properties)

California housing legislation proving to be effective

While California continues to battle a statewide housing shortage, glimmers of hope have emerged in the form of legislation aimed at increasing housing supply and affordability. Critics decried last year’s Senate Bill 35, which allows for new housing projects to gain over-the-counter approval if they fit the existing zoning and dedicate 50 percent of the homes as affordable. Now, they’re gearing up to battle new legislation, such as Senate Bill 827, which upzones areas around transit stops, including bus stops and light-rail stations.

“Upzoning” commonly refers to increasing the allowed density in an area, and specifically increasing how high buildings can be built. Critics of these bills are fighting to retain local control but miss the positive effects of well-written, specific legislation — the biggest example of this, to date, occurring in Berkeley. Berkeley is a poster child for missed housing production goals and zucchini-wielding NIMBYs. One of the projects that could close the gap in production goals is 1900 Fourth. It has sat in the planning stages since early 2014 but may soon become a story of success for SB 35.

The project at 1900 Fourth St., which is slated to replace a surface parking lot in a neighborhood with median home sale prices at $1.16 million, has been in the planning stage for more than four years. This includes one year dedicated to intense archaeological study of the land slated for development. The project site — currently a paved parking lot serving cars more than people — was once, like most of the Bay Area, inhabited by the Ohlone people. Modern residents of Berkeley care about the sanctity of indigenous peoples’ land, but not enough to prevent the parking lot currently occupying the site or vacate their own land to raise monuments to those who came here first.

The joint owners and developers of this site, Ruegg & Ellsworth and Blake Griggs Properties, cared, too, and hired local firm Archeo-Tec to confirm the presence of a sacred Ohlone site: a shellmound. Shellmounds were areas where the Ohlone people discarded bones and shells from their food, and they also served as burial grounds. Shellmounds exist in the Bay Area but not on this site. After the intense dig, they concluded the shellmound in question was not present during the time of the Ohlone people, due to the area under the parking lot being marshland. While Ohlone remains and intact shellmound have been found on adjacent land, the paved parking lot contained only pieces of shellmounds that had been redistributed to this plot of land by development in the 19th and 20th century.

This took a little more than a year, at which point, the owners of the property submitted their project application to build their vision. However, the project languished in City Hall, passing between the Zoning Approval Board, the Landmarks Commission and the hands of city planners. In November 2016, the project cleared another hurdle: submission of an exhaustive document known as the Environmental Impact Report. While the project’s EIR awaited dissection and questioning by the city, a new bill was formed in Sacramento that would eventually become the lifeline to this project.

While 1900 Fourth sat in one of the circles of approval hell, newly elected state Sen. Scott Weiner crafted SB 35. The bill requires cities like Berkeley to approve housing development projects over-the-counter if they are falling short of their Regional Housing Needs Assessment goals, set by the state in partnership with area councils of government. Projects would also need to fall into current zoning laws and meet other criteria. One criteria required projects to dedicate 50 percent of the units to families making 80 percent of the Area Median Income. The bill, and its prescriptions, was just what 1900 Fourth needed to jump off the planning paper and become a reality.

SB 35 went into effect in January 2018. In their improvement of their own project, Blake Griggs Properties added additional homes bringing the total to 260. Half of these will be dedicated to those earning less than 80 percent of the area median income. A family of four making less than $80,400 would qualify for these homes. Examples of those who would qualify include firefighters, teachers, nurses and other similar occupations considered vital for a city.

The resurrection of a project from a five-year coma is nothing short of miraculous. Bureaucratic city planning has reduced California’s focus to protecting any and all affordable housing, including tent encampments. The power of the state inflicted through local control has led to fighting for these scraps of affordable housing. It leaves many watching helplessly as friends and family are pushed out, leaving behind what seems to be only co-conspirators bent on keeping out anyone who was not living in a city before them. When every ounce of energy is poured into protecting what little affordable housing exists and grieving the loss of neighbors to other states, or even our streets, there’s no chance of increasing affordability. This struggle shows the need for state legislation that allows for those willing to build to provide housing for those who so desperately need it. Legislation like SB 35 helps restore power to people, not governments. Projects like 1900 Fourth are the power delivered: more housing, near more job opportunities and another choice for those seeking a home.

The yearslong saga of this project now comes down to the next 180 days. It’s the legal maximum time the city of Berkeley has to approve the project. In the face of the severe housing shortage that sees Berkeley residents living in RVs, students stacking together in 36-person co-ops and homelessness becoming overly criminalized, the city of Berkeley should expediently approve the project. Builders and citizens, in the meantime, should look to the next opportunity to build more homes where they did not exist before.

Martha is a Hillsdale College graduate with a BA in Political Economy. Originally from Florida, she has lived in Michigan, California, Illinois and Virginia.

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