Tuesday, July 13, 2004 - BERKELEY -- The "Raging Grannies" donned straw hats and stockings, furs and frocks and stood up for affordable housing and the rights of senior citizens with unwavering spunk Monday afternoon.
The grannies and their supporters, including two Berkeley City Council members, held a rally at the corner of Sacramento and Blake streets in South-Central Berkeley. They were there to support plans to build 40 units of affordable senior housing on the site that is currently tied up by a pending lawsuit.
Senior citizens say more Section 8 housing -- in which seniors pay no more than 30 percent of their income -- is badly needed because of the graying of America. But opponents, including a Berkeley housing commissioner, claim the project has too many units, is too tall and too dense.
Neighbors for Sensible Development, the group that filed the lawsuit, also claims the city did not properly declare environmental hazards when considering the project. They have concerns about parking, noise and an overabundance of affordable housing in the area.
On Monday, to get their message out about peace, justice and the need for more affordable housing, the Raging Grannies sang "When we make peace instead of war" to the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching In."
They chanted "have a heart, build it now," with Councilmember Linda Maio leading the chorus. And they waved signs pleading with their opponents to abandon the fight to scale back the housing project.
"This is our way of protesting what’s going on in our world right now," said "granny" Julie Bidou.
The project is called Sacramento Senior Homes, a mixed-use development that includes 3,300 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor.
Affordable Housing Associates, a Berkeley nonprofit that has built 16 affordable housing projects in Berkeley, Oakland and Walnut Creek, is the developer. Executive Director Ali Kashani said the need for more units for seniors is great.
There is a long waiting list at a 27-unit project on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. In downtown Oakland, a 40-unit senior housing project is seeing five times that many applications, Kashani said.
But neighbors, including Berkeley housing Commissioner Maria Bowman, said said they filed suit against the city and the developer as a good-faith environmental challenge. Bowman said it "is in no way an attempt to bar affordable housing from the site."
"The neighborhood hasn’t said we don’t want affordable housing. What we want is the right project that conforms with city, state and federal law," Bowman said, adding the group wants no more than eight units on the site.
Formerly a clothing factory outlet abutting a gas station, Bowman said the city violated Berkeley planning codes and the California Environmental Quality Act in approving the project two years ago.
The former gas station contained leaking underground tanks, and environmental cleanup isn’t complete. MTBE, a gas additive known to cause some types of cancers, along with other chemicals remain and must be properly removed to protect the health and well-being of future residents, according to a statement from Bowman’s group.
Last year, a trial court found the lawsuit without merit, but neighbors appealed. Oral arguments in the California Court of Appeal in San Francisco are set for next Tuesday, although a ruling isn’t expected for weeks.
Whatever happens, the city has already spent $750,000 and is poised to spend up to $1.2 million fighting the suit, Maio said.
"Do you know what we could do with that money?" Maio said at the rally. "We could build another building. This is precious money that should be spend where it is critically needed."