Suit times two

Renters’ group SFBARF sues City of Berkeley for halting housing development

City Terrain Urbanism West
The renters' group SFBARF has sued the city of Berkeley a second time for halting development on a multi-family housing project. (Courtesy Joe Parks)
The renters' group SFBARF has sued the city of Berkeley a second time for halting development on a multi-family housing project. (Courtesy Joe Parks)

The San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation (SFBARF) is suing the Berkeley, California City Council over allegations that the body has repeatedly violated California’s Housing Accountability Act (HAA), a 1982 piece of legislation that compels municipalities to “not reject or make infeasible” housing developments that help meeting housing needs.

As is well-documented, the San Francisco Bay area—and not to mention, pretty much the entire state of California—is suffering from a prolonged and detrimental housing affordability crisis, a phenomenon that has been compounded by the heavy-handed influence that single family homeowners wield over the approval of new housing projects in low-density neighborhoods.

The development at 1310 Haskell was halted due to contested reasoning behind a demolition permit. (Courtesy Berkeley City Planning Department.)

In a civil court filing with Alameda County, SFBARF—and the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education fund (CaRLA), a statewide nonprofit founded to ensure compliance with HAA that has joined SFBARF in the suit—alleges that the Berkeley City Council has violated HAA by rejecting the application for a new three-family development at 1310 Haskell Street.

The development aims to replace a dilapidated single family home with three new single family units. The R-2A zoned parcel, the suit alleges, was being developed in compliance with “all applicable, objective general plan and zoning standards and criteria, including design review standards” and even had a use permit issued for the new development. Problems arose when unhappy neighbors appealed the project to the City Council, which then voted to scuttle the project’s previous approvals. According to the suit,

Under the HAA, if a proposed housing project complies with a city’s general plan and zoning standards, the city may not disapprove or condition the project at a lower density unless it provides written findings supported by substantial evidence that the project would have a specific, adverse impact upon the ‘public health or safety’ that cannot be mitigated.

A later City Council meeting rescinded approvals for the project for good, as City Council members argued that because the project required a demolition permit to remove the existing residence, HAA did not apply. The demolition permit, the City Council argued, constituted a discretionary approval that voided the HAA “general plan and zoning standards” requirement mentioned above. The City Council then, the suit alleges, continued to pursue this course of action despite the Berkeley City Attorney’s opinion that approvals like demolition permits were in fact covered by HAA’s broad scope and authority. The suit alleges further that rather than enforce HAA legislation, the Berkeley City Council instead changed course on the project due to Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) outcry, a course of action HAA was explicitly designed to prevent.

The suit is the second attempt by SFBARF to “sue the suburbs” to comply with HAA legislation. A previous suit against the community of Lafayette was settled in May 2017.

For now, the case will continue to make it’s way through the court system unless the City Council changes course.

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