Public Comment

Berkeley Central – You Can’t Afford It

By Carol Denney
Friday March 22, 2013 - 02:39:00 PM
Carol Denney
Carol Denney
Carol Denney

It’s safe to say to 95% of the Bay Area goes to sleep every night with the secure knowledge that easily between 100 to 1,000 people within a five to ten mile radius are asleep nearby behind dumpsters and under bushes.

It’s safe to say that by now most of them have realized that every trip to the grocery store and the BART Station will necessitate walking past between two and twenty people with outstretched hands, shadowed by at least twice that number in severe, specific, and immediate need.

This isn’t the full picture. This is just their picture, the picture that colors their neighborhood, their day, their sense of community and fairness, and whether or not the world is a good place to be.

It’s safe to say most of them have hit the breaking point and can no longer imagine that handing out dollars and dimes represents any kind of solution to poverty. It’s safe to say that most of them recognize that a radical change in housing policy is not just a civic, but also a moral obligation.

None of them were protesting the policy of building housing specifically for the out-of-town Prada/Lexus crowd in front of the opening of Berkeley Central’s new luxury apartments on Thursday, March 21, 2013. They don’t believe homelessness can happen to them, or that squandering scarce square footage on pied-a-terre techies plays any role in the housing crisis. 

On Berkeley Central’s ribbon-cutting Thursday, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a cover page story about the 264 homeless families hoping for shelter in San Francisco. The East Bay Express and the Oakland Tribune ran stories on the nine percent increase in rents in one year as Berkeley renters engaged in bidding wars over a limited supply of housing. 

The crowd at the opening was full of wry comments about the few who could manage both the cost of the penthouse, one and two-bedroom apartments and studios currently available for lease and the lack of space for the stuff which would make actually living in them feasible. 

Nobody was allowed to see the studio apartments. Both the public and the media tour excluded the studios, presumably because they are even more shockingly space-resistant than the one-bedrooms. The one-bedrooms are perfect for people who have no books, no instruments, no hobbies, and fervently wish to have no friends or parties ever in their lives. 

Perhaps I am being harsh. But I live in a very small place. And I don’t really play the banjo, at least not very well. And I have four banjos. My CD collection alone would barrel out the door of these space-free units with their special staged-home beds, bedswhich knowledgeable eyes know would accommodate only part of a sleeping human being but help give the impression of more space in a staged home for sale. “Don’t worry,” said one of the women on the tour. “The people who’ll be living here are on their second homes. 

I’m not saying that to embarrass the hard-working, friendly, gorgeous crowd of young, mostly white women who shepherded the crowd through the tour with casual authority and aplomb. They were smart, responsive, engaging, and very patient with a crowd that grew more raucous with each of at least three alcohol stops. 

There is no question that something is wrong with a hiring policy that manifests such racial and gender singularity, but those whom I met were talented, dedicated, and sincerely capable of both fielding critical questions and guiding drunks out of the shrubbery. 

The officials, planners, and developers who pushed for the project are only partially at fault for plucking the ripe cherry that is – surprise – another luxury housing development in Berkeley, the city with the largest gap between rich and poor in the entire Bay Area. 

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, representative for downtown Berkeley’s district four, was there beaming along with Downtown Berkeley Association members, Chamber of Commerce representatives, and of course the Mayor Tom Bates for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. 

I’m noting the second home theory to honor the theme represented by nearly every speaker at the ribbon-cutting ceremony and most of the literature as well. The 143 units at Berkeley Central were specifically designed to attract people from out of town. 

I would have no problem with this if we weren’t in a housing crisis. Build for the rich, I would say. Build crazy stuff with gold-plated toilets and let them buy it. 

But we are in a housing crisis. The Downtown Berkeley Association tried to outlaw sitting down on the sidewalk, for Christ’s sake. The money spent on that campaign would have funded a drop-in homeless center for at least three years. 

It’s safe to say that using Berkeley’s precious square footage to accommodate the needs of the uber-class: the high-end tech workers priced out of San Francisco who can afford as many storage units as it takes to make sure they don’t have to live with their boxes of Christmas decorations or their old Occupy banners next to their beds is – dare I say it --- unfair. 

They may be making up apps by the thousands over in Silicon Valley, but ain’t nobody making any new land. We either build with an eye toward addressing the obvious need for low-income housing, or we sidestep acknowledging a housing crisis so obvious that perfectly sane, arguably intelligent people sit around board room tables discussing which of the array of attributes describing homeless or nomadic people would be best to criminalize next. 

We, the taxpayers of Berkeley, pay for the City Council’s and the planners’ salaries. Why aren’t they building housing to accommodate our existing housing needs? Rich people, lovely though they may be, are just not at a loss for housing options. You should have seen the high-end bicycle in the bike rack in one of the staged rooms at Berkeley Central. This is not your father’s IT worker. 

But oh, how well this policy works for politicians whose larger agenda is to simply eliminate poverty by eliminating poor people from the community entirely. Polly Armstrong of the Chamber of Commerce said it, Mayor Tom Bates said it, Councilmember Jesse Arreguin said it, and even the official literature echoes the obvious policy of addressing Berkeley’s income gap by tilting housing in the direction of rich techie youngsters who hopefully will never know that homes used to, as a practical matter of course, have pantries, linen closets, attics, basements, parlors, porches, etc. 

Developers win when mini apartments get fondled and crowed over as “green” for having no place to put the basketball. But then, developers always win. 

You’ll want to know, so I’ll tell you; $2,575 to $3,000 for a one bedroom, 3,775 to 3,900 for a two-bedroom, $5,350 to $6,300 for the penthouses. Door to door trash service (a mandatory $30 fee) and proximity to the BART Station. Entirely smokefree, except that somebody was smoking on the penthouse floor. 

But those two and twenty people with outstretched hands are right outside wondering how long they have to wait until we can have a ribbon cutting ceremony for the majority, the poor, who have somehow become wallpaper to the people who wandered through Berkeley Central’s luxury apartments sipping wine.