New: Berkeley's Progressives: Fighting to Make Gentrification Even Worse

Thomas Lord
Wednesday August 26, 2015 - 03:57:00 PM

Berkeley has an affordable housing crisis.

Berkeley's progressive politicians are making gentrification worse and setting the city up for a dismal future.

We need new and much better thinking than affordable unit requirements and in lieu fees. 

A Case of Gentrification Gone Wrong 

Once upon a time there was a very successful cultural center next to a major university. 

Theater, music, cinema, museums, and an excellent public library were all present. Working class family residences surrounded the core: closely packed but of good quality. 

Jane Jacobs described this special place, the Oakland district of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, in 1961: 

"Oakland contains the Pittsburgh symphony, the civic light opera, the little-theater group, the most fashionable restaurant, the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, two other major clubs, the main Carnegie library, museum and art galleries, the Historical Society, the Shriner's Mosque, the Mellon Institute, a favorite hotel for parties, the Y.M.H.A., headquarters of the Board of Education, and all the major hospitals." 

In the years that followed, the University of Pittsburgh sought to greatly expand both its footprint and its enrollment. 

As in Berkeley's downtown, a wave of speculation drowned the Oakland district of Pittsburgh. The working class was driven out and one by one, so were most of the cultural amenities. 

There, in that Oakland across the country, gentrification produced student overcrowding in a degraded housing stock: highly profitable stuff with a permanent set of guaranteed renters with little choice but to squeeze in and pay through the nose. 

Here is how one commenter on city-data.com aptly described the scene by 2013: 

"[T]ake a stable, lower-middle class neighborhood which is on the fringes of an expanding university. Students begin to trickle in. Over time, nuisance student rentals cause more and more regular people to leave. Historic housing is chopped up into apartments by slumlords. Any sense of community vanishes, as people only live there for a few years. The local commercial district has a brief flourishing, but everyone over the age of 22 realizes they have better places to hang, meaning it's nothing but cruddy restaurants catering to undergrads and a few shady liquor stores. 

Even given the transformation into a student slum, the housing prices are much higher. Rental prices, on a square foot basis, are far higher as well. But in every other way, this "desirable" neighborhood is a worse place now." 

Gentrification is only about increasing rents, not making nice places to live. 

What is Gentrification? 

Very simply, gentrification is the process of shoving the working class aside: breaking up working class communities in order to make room for real estate speculation. 

The middle class and the poor are forced out through evictions, mortgage resets, skyrocketing rents, and the loss of viable economic opportunity. 

In the case of Berkeley: a once-diverse and entrepreneurial local economy of trades and crafts gives way to a sterile and homogenized culture of increasingly corporate restaurants and chain-stores. 

Non-rich senior citizens lose social networks of support and housing security. 

Young people find no perch to raise a family. 

The promise of easy speculation drives the process. The razing and rebuilding, the redevelopment, the flipping: all of these catch fire. The promise of easy returns give land owners and mortgage lenders every incentive to move the people along. 

What Gentrification is Not 

In popular imagination gentrification creates a kind of utopia, albeit an expensive one. 

Yes, less wealthy people may be displaced as it is sometimes put with exaggerated gentleness. Nevertheless, the story goes: new investment improves the housing stock and an influx of wealthy residents naturally produces a vibrant street-level economy to serve the new masters. 

Alas, that's a bunch of malarkey. 

The promise of easy, speculative returns leads landlords to cast aside the working class for a quick buck. Nothing says the quick buck has to leave behind a playground for the rich. Gentrifiers can just as easily build the next student ghetto. 

Remember that Library Gardens, to name one example, actively fought against affordable housing requirements. By the time the dust cleared everyone believed, however briefly, that Berkeley had gained 176 units of modern posh. What a surprise to learn, tragically, of poor maintenance, over-packed students, and unsafe conditions. 

How Berkeley Progressives Make Things Worse 

I take it as a given that Berkeley's more progressive politicians (think, Anderson, Worthington, and Arreguin) generally wish to resist and oppose the negative aspects of gentrification. 

Progressives believe communities should not be swept aside; the working class should not be forced out of their homes; a diverse and robust economy should be preserved. These are progressive values. 

It's too bad, then, that our progressives all call for new development, all call for a limited number of set-aside "affordable units", and all want to see a few extra dollars go into the housing trust fund. 

The Progressive platform in Berkeley is a recipe for accelerating gentrification, not curing it. 

How so? It's simple: 

First, even the highest proposals for in lieu fees or affordable units are hopelessly low. With each new building under these terms, the proportion of affordable housing in Berkeley falls. 

Second, this disastrous platform puts progressive politicians in the position of wanting and cheering on speculative development - for in no other way can these politicians claim to have done anything for affordable housing. 

Instead of protecting individuals and communities threatened by gentrification, instead of protecting the economic and cultural fabric of the city, our progressive politicians have put themselves in the business of selling permission slips to gentrifying speculators! 

What is to be done? 

See part 2 of this article.