Some of Berkeley’s oldest residents came out in force Monday to rally on behalf of the city’s long-delayed affordable housing project.
Construction has been postponed on the five-story, 40-unit Sacramento Senior Homes project at the former Outback clothing store at Sacramento and Blake streets pending the resolution of a lawsuit filed by opponents two years ago after the City Council first approved the project.
Next Tuesday, a three judge Appeals Court panel will hear oral arguments on the appeal of a case that the city won in Alameda County Superior Court last year.
The opponents, led by nearby resident Marie Bowman and six other plaintiffs, argue that the city approved the project without adequate parking and without a report detailing the environmental impact of the proposed development.
Their charge is common among critics of Berkeley development projects, but their ability to stave off construction by sustaining a legal challenge in Superior Court and now in the Court of Appeals is rare. Bowman said she has been funded by "supporters," but that she didn’t expect to mount a further appeal if she lost this round.
About two dozen seniors and their supporters said they want Bowman to give up immediately. Led by the grey-haired a cappella outfit, the Raging Grannies, seniors argued the wait for construction to start at Sacramento Street was mirrored by their wait to get a slot in one of Berkeley’s ten senior homes.
"This has been in the works for five years, but it keeps getting held up by a small group of people," said Margot Smith of the Berkeley Gray Panthers. Although the political debate on the project has long ended, Smith defended the rally as a way to publicize the conflict and put pressure on the opponents.
Councilmember Linda Maio, who organized the event, said it was necessary to highlight construction delays that have already added an extra $750,000 in carrying costs, construction costs, and legal fees to the project’s $10.5 million price tag. Since the project is being developed by the non-profit Affordable Housing Associates, most of the added costs will come from the city’s Housing Trust fund.
"We could have used that money to finance a new housing project," Maio said.
Outgoing AHA Executive Director Ali Kashani said that, assuming the appeals panel rules in the city’s favor, he hopes to start construction in September. Should opponents win, or file an appeal with the California Supreme Court, however, Kashani said construction would be delayed until at least next spring, adding an additional $450,000 to the cost of the project.
Jaye Scott, a 69-year-old former video store owner who pays $750 rent on a monthly fixed income of $930, said the shortage of affordable senior housing had made it tough for her to get by.
"I’m barely making it," she said. She has placed her name on waiting lists at some senior housing facilities but has been told the average wait for an available unit is two years.
Berkeley has 642 units of affordable senior housing to accommodate just under 1,500 elderly low income renters, said Housing Director Steve Barton.
Most of the city’s senior housing stock is financed through the federal Section 8 housing program, which requires that tenants pay 30 percent of their income towards their rent. Under the rules of a Section 8, when the buildings were constructed, the Section 8 vouchers and waiting lists are managed by the developer and not the Berkeley Housing Authority.
The project on Sacramento Street is one of the first of a new type of Section 8 vouchers that are tied to the building, but managed by the Housing Authority. Barton said the Housing Authority already has about 200 Berkeley seniors on its waiting list for the proposed project.
Bowman said that despite what she views as attempts to demonize her, she isn’t opposed to affordable senior housing, but to what she sees as the city’s refusal to follow it’s own rules for development.
"The design doesn’t fit into the neighborhood," she said.
The proposal would cover 90 percent of the lot, more than double the normal coverage, she said. It would also stand 15 feet above the 35-foot height limit and the proposed 13-car parking lot necessitated a parking waiver, which Bowman said municipal code outlaws for Sacramento Street.
Bowman maintained the concerns opponents raised required the developer to perform an Environmental Impact Report for the project, which the city has maintained is not needed. She further claims that the city has acted in bad faith throughout the process.
When the Council first approved the project in 2002, Kashani and opponents were in the midst of mediation.
Superior Court Judge Bonnie Sabraw invalidated the project’s use permit and forced the council to approve the project a second time.
"As a resident if the city has a general plan you want it to administered it correctly so you have a sense of what to expect," Bowman said. "We believe the city needs to comply with it municipal ordinance and state law."