Public Comment

On the relationship between attacks on the homeless and the drive to gentrify Berkeley

Steve Martinot
Wednesday November 11, 2015 - 01:55:00 PM

The new laws assaulting the homeless will be presented at City Council next Tuesday, Nov. 17.

There are three connections between the criminalization of the homeless and the processes of gentrification that are now in progress in Berkeley (and the process of gentrification here includes the Harold Way building).

First, ethically and juridically they are both violations of human rights.

Second, economically they represent a failure on the part of city government to protect the people from impoverishment at the hands of real estate profitability.

Third, politically the criminalization of the homeless is a tactic for which the promulgation of gentrification is the strategy. That is, they are intimately linked, the one being part of the process of fostering the other. 

The concatenation of these three elements has erupted with the re-proposal in city council of laws by which to harass the homeless (which we will call “Linda’s laws,” in vague reference to some obscure authorial function). It comes on the heels of commissions affirming the Harold Way building plans, and a spate of proposals for large densifying market rate housing projects that will drive multitudes of low income residents out of the city through gentrification – and against which various neighborhood movements are demanding protection. 

Before outlining the content of Linda’s laws, and the nature of gentrification, a word about human rights. 

The essence of human rights is the protection of honor for people as human beings. To grant people their human rights is to honor them. Human rights are more fundamental than law or legality. To violate human rights is to deny a person standing, and thus render law and legality irrelevant. The violation of human rights by government always does two things. It dishonors people, and it proposes to drive them out of existence (politically, demographically, culturally, and even physically). Racial discrimination is the form of human rights violation that sits most emphatically at the center of the entire history of the US. So are vagrancy laws, the arrest of unemployed people, patriarchal hierarchy, and a general discrimination against the poor that have graced the history of the US and all industrial nations. 

To criminalize or to harass people because of their homelessness or their poverty is to violate their human rights. To gentrify a city without involving those who will be affected by the process in a participatory fashion in every stage of proposal and planning is to impose a situation on them which will destroy their culture and their ability to live in the area. It is to violate their human rights. In this respect, the attack on the homeless is paradigmatic of gentrification, precisely because housing is a human right. In both cases, there is a massive political withholding of honor from those who today live in this city, and who, tomorrow, will be forced to leave. 

For city government to ignore the fact that people are homeless by simply neglecting to provide housing, or services, is to commit and to affirm a violation of human rights. To refuse to address the social process whereby people are deprived of housing is to compound the violation. 

In considering these new laws now before city council, we must first ask, were the homeless consulted or made party to the writing of laws that will affect them? The answer is no. The city is now engaged in getting thousands of new housing units built. Will any of these housing units be for the homeless? No. Will many of them be for the low income residents of the city, families that in many cases are paying over 50% of their income for rent? Again, the answer is no. 

The city is supposed to require that 20% to 30% of these new housing units will be affordable. "Affordable" means that one pays no more than 30% of income for rent. Living in these units thus assumes that one has an income. The vast majority of homeless people have no income. Yet they are the ones who need housing most. On top of that, the city actually gives developers an escape hatch. They can pay a fee, and then not have to include affordable units among their market rate units. Market rate housing fits the corporate purpose better than affordable housing, so developers will tend to buy their way out of it. The 18 story building on Harold Way will have no affordable units among the over 300 units it will contain. 

What is the content of Linda’s laws? They refer in general to petty issues. A person’s property should take up no more than two square feet of space. People should not sleep in flower pots. One must betray one’s mammalian nature because the city provides no facilities to honor that nature. And one can sleep on the street only between the hours of 10pm and 6 am. 

These may look like minor regulations of behavior, and of the use of public space. Well, here’s how the criminalization works. 

Linda’s laws require the police to pay increased attention to the homeless as their implicit theme – for instance, to measure the use of space, or whether one is sleeping, or leaning against a tree. The police will ticket anyone who transgresses these regulations. No big thing; its just a ticket. Except that the ticket requires a court appearance. If the person doesn’t show up, a bench warrant is issued. The next time that person is ID-ed, s/he is found to have a bench warrant, and is arrested. Swept off the street, s/he loses the property s/he needs to survive on the street (the police trash it while arrestees are doing their month in Santa Rita). They come back to the street with a record, and a lower chance of survival because deprived of what had accumulated for the purpose of surviving homelessness. Such persons face being driven out of existence physically. 

But where is city council’s outrage that there are people sleeping on the street in the first place? Where is their outrage that there are no public toilets so that people can be more civil about their mammalian nature? Where is their outrage at being asked to violate the human rights of so many individuals by the proposed laws? Not only is poverty and homelessness criminalized, but these people are further impoverished by laws against their poverty. That is, their impoverishment is intentional. 

And that is the nature of gentrification, also. Here’s how gentrification works. 

With the construction of high income housing units, rented or sold at market rate (which is way beyond most people’s means now), the economic character of the city will change. Its social environment will be one tailored to the wealthy, the elite. Housing values will be too high for moderate income people. Rents will go far beyond moderate income levels. This is already beginning to happen. We see it in full swing in SF. Shops and restaurants that cater to high income clientele – boutiques and fancy salons – will replace the stores that low income people need for their survival. Those low priced businesses will be forced to close by landlords raising rents. 

With the construction of hundreds of market rate housing units, other landlords will raise their rents to keep up. Development establishes a situation in which it is profitable for landlords to chase current tenants out, and attract tenants who can pay more. Only the construction of affordable housing will prevent this process. But it would have to be built first. Building new market rate units will not bring rents down until it gets to a state of glut (that is, over-saturation of the housing and rental market). But development corporations will have ceased building in the area long before such saturation occurs. 

What the construction of market rate housing will do is raise the market rate for housing. As the market rate climbs with each proposed new building, the general increase in rents will result in many families having to move out of the area. They will be driven from their housing without any protection from the city government. They will cease to be residents of this city, if not rendered homeless. And the city will beg off, saying rent control would be against state law. 

It is a human right to be secure in your living situation. Just as the city offers no protection to homeless people while opening them to assault by the police, it offers no protection to long time neighborhood residents, but will leave them open to assault by unconscionable disruption of neighborhood economies. Like the homeless, low income families are without protection. 

Have the neighborhoods that will be affected in this way been made party to the planning process of which gentrification will be the result, so that they can protect themselves from its detrimental effects? No. They have been called to meetings to express what they fear and want protection from. The long litany of their hapless monologues become the totality of their participation in the political process. They have no part to play in the process of planning. 

The Harold Way building is the beginning of gentrification, along with the building at Russell and Adeline, the Higby building, the building at 1500 San Pablo, etc. Those who seek to prevent the construction of the Godzilla building at Harold Way are demanding that developers honor the neighborhoods that they will be changing by enabling the people of those neighborhoods to participate in planning what those buildings will be (as to size, style, content, income level, and benefits for those already living in that neighborhood). To refuse that is to dishonor those who have lived a long time in those neighborhoods. To refuse them a place at the planning tables will be a violation of human rights. And the imposition of the Harold Way building, which nobody voted on, since it was not specified in Measure R, will be just such a violation. 

If the purpose of harassing the homeless is to jail them or to force them to leave town, the purpose of gentrification is to drive low income families out of town. In both cases, it is to create these groups as unwanted in order to drive them out of existence with respect to this city. They are driven out of the city because the city does not honor them as people. In refusing to honor them, the city commits massive human rights violations. 

But there is another political purpose at work. It is to make gentrification palatable to those who will be eventually victimized by it (driven out of town). The city launches a campaign to “clean up the city,” and provide “new housing for everyone,” focusing on getting the homeless out of the way. It is a perfect ploy, presenting itself in the political equation that gentrification will clean up and revivify the city. The campaign against the homeless is to convince moderate income people that the city has their interest at heart, and that they will be able to stay in the gentrified city and even enjoy its benefits. They will then support the gentrifying process by believing it will provide them with a better place to live – never suspecting that eventually, if they can’t rise above their moderate income level, they too will be forced to relocate. 

To stop gentrification, we must demand the human rights of the homeless. To stop the criminalization and further impoverishment of the homeless, we must demand that the neighborhoods have a place at the planning tables, so that they can defend themselves and their neighborhood cultures against dishonor and violation of their human rights.