by Carol Denney
[dropcap]“I[/dropcap]f people have an exciting idea, certainly we can try and show community support so that we can encourage the property to move forward,” Worthington said. “Having a vacant lot sitting there is costing the city a lot in terms of lost vitality to Telegraph.” — Daily Californian, 10/4/2011
This quotation from Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington was a prominent part of the most recent story about the vacant lot at the corner of Haste and Telegraph in Berkeley, a space that is currently being demonized by public officials, press, residents, and students. The article in the Daily Californian describes University of California architecture students eagerly offering designs for projects-to-be in an atmosphere of urgency.
The article neglects to mention that the vacant lot at Haste and Telegraph was previously a single room occupancy (SRO) hotel which provided both retail space and 77 units of crucial low-income housing. The building was the victim of deliberate arson, as the previous residents know who received warning the night before one wing was set ablaze.
Berkeley has systematically destroyed its SRO housing, replacing it with high-end condos and “affordable” rental units which are only affordable to the $80,000 a year median income crowd. SRO units, which generally are the only option for the lowest income and homeless groups they often shelter, are becoming an endangered species.
It should matter to us as a community, if we care about helping low-income people and homeless people get off the streets, that we replace and protect such housing, which also offers important alternatives for migrant workers, seasonal workers, artists and musicians who come to town for brief periods, and people who need a starting point before they can contemplate saving the expensive first-month, last-month, and security deposit requirements of more permanent housing.
The Daily Californian also neglected to mention that current lot owner Ken Sarachan submitted a proposal for a combination retail and housing complex which was turned down by an earlier City Council. Sarachan is not quoted at all, which implies that he is somehow an obstacle to the lot’s development, despite the fact that his earlier proposal included affordable units and proposed that it be named for Bob Sparks, a beloved community housing activist.
A history-free story runs the risk of greasing the wheels for a proposal which may not replace the crucial 77 units of low-income housing Berkeley sorely needs. A vacant lot may be characterized as contributing little to the avenue, but a development there which precludes the replacement housing Sarachan once tried to build is a theft of potential housing which is irreplaceable.
Beware the atmosphere of urgency surrounding potential development of the lot at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street in Berkeley.
Putting up a building of some kind at that corner might seem urgent from some perspectives. But the need for single room occupancy housing is much, much, more urgent. Our community needs to insist that all 77 units of SRO housing be replaced as an integral part of any new development at Haste and Telegraph.