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Berkeley seeks housing options for students

by Alex Madison

Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington. Photo: Courtesy YouTube
Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington. Photo: Courtesy YouTube  

The lack of affordable housing continues to cloud the lives of students at UC Berkeley, but gay Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington and other LGBT and allied commissioners and elected officials are fighting for them.

"The lack of housing, especially close to campus, is the number one thing students talk to me about," Worthington said in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "This is something that is undercutting these students' education."

Worthington introduced two action items at the May 1 Berkeley City Council meeting: the first to allow four temporary zoning amendments to increase student housing in the Southside area; the second, a recommendation to support Senate Bill 1227, which would eliminate parking ratio requirements for developers who are constructing units exclusively for full-time students.

The referral to the planning commission to allow four temporary zoning amendments, which is being referred to as a "Temporary Emergency Pilot Project," was passed with an adopted revision to refer only two zoning amendments to the city manager and planning commission: the conversion of existing commercial spaces for residential use between College Avenue and Fulton Street and Bancroft Way to Dwight Way.

The temporary program is being used to expedite zoning amendments to make way for projects laid out in the More Student Housing Now Resolution, which was passed unanimously by the City Council in January. The pilot project will take the place of immediate policy change to "deliver quick relief to those that need it most, the students," the referral states. The zoning amendments would be in effect for three years.

Worthington is the author of the More Student Housing Now Resolution, though he credits most of the work to Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board Commissioner James Chang and Planning Commissioner Ben Fong, both gay men.

Chang said in the current planning commission work plan, student housing zoning changes can take several years and the need for student housing has reached a critical point.

"UC Berkeley is seeing an increase in enrollment every year," Chang said in a recent phone interview with the B.A.R. "Freshmen are not even guaranteed housing for the first year. There is a real problem here in not having enough housing for students."

Other zoning amendments in the referral, which were not adopted at the City Council meeting, included the allowance of two tall buildings up to 12 stories and six projects to include a 20-foot height increase.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin, a straight ally, supports the adoption of the zoning amendments.

"The goal of this legislation is to make developers more inclined to build student housing and locking in affordability for students," Arreguin wrote in an email to the B.A.R.

Another win for advocates of more student housing at the City Council meeting was the recommendation to support SB 1227, which passed with six yes votes and three abstentions. The bill is authored by state Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and the recommendation to support it is sponsored by Worthington and Arreguin.

"I think Senator Skinner's bill has accomplished the right balance between availability and the affordability of housing," said Worthington. "We are working with the university to build more housing and we need to remove impediments from other policies."

The bill would remove vehicle parking ratio requirements for housing developments that house full-time college students throughout the state, a first for California.

The bill aims to amend the existing density bonus law, which allows developers who construct units offering housing to very low, low, and moderate-income households to opt out of the vehicle parking requirements. SB 1227 would give this option to developers building housing to be used by full-time students enrolled in an accredited university like UC Berkeley, including 20 percent dedicated for low-income students.

"I am glad that the Berkeley City Council is on record supporting SB 1227," Arreguin said. "Many students can't afford the region's high rents and are forced to commute far distances, live in substandard housing or crowded housing. It's simply unacceptable."

The unanimous passage of the More Student Housing Now Resolution in January was a strong testament to the critical need for student housing, said Chang.

"The issues of housing, especially when it comes to development, is controversial and is hard to get a unanimous vote, but [More Student Housing Now] passed unanimously on a Council that shares different views on housing," Chang said.

Fong said in a news release, "Addressing the urgent need for student housing is one of the primary building blocks for a sustainable housing solution in Berkeley."

The More Student Housing Now Resolution aims to increase market rate and low-income housing for students and other residents by addressing zoning barriers and other obstacles preventing housing from being built. It advocates that having more student housing close to campus "reduces air pollution and traffic congestion, and encourages pedestrian, transit, and bicycle travel."

The resolution proposes the same zoning amendments as that of the Temporary Emergency Pilot Project, along with the construction of high rises for students, modular and micro units, the expansion of the car-free overlay area between College Avenue and Fulton Street and Bancroft Way to Dwight Way, and allow non-commercial use on the ground floor in the Telegraph Commercial District, excluding Telegraph Avenue, among other projects.

The resolution is currently held up in the planning commission, which Worthington said was simply because it has many other proposals in the pipeline for consideration.

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