Public Comment

New: State of Emergency 101

Steve Martinot
Saturday November 21, 2015 - 08:27:00 AM

A Report on Berkeley’s “Affordable Housing 101” session, Nov. 14, 2015

It all began with the admonishment that this was to be a “learning session.” Well and good. But the student doesn’t always learn what the teacher proposes to teach. That is the risk, the “double edged sword” lurking in all propaganda.

We learned the familiar scale of income levels, for whom "affordable" means paying no more than 30% of a family’s income for housing. We learned that half of Berkeley’s renters are low income (generally those people earning below 80% of Area Median Income). And we learned that, from 2000 to 2015, the percentage of income spent on rent for extremely low income families has gone from 60% to 80%. There’s not much left for food and clothes.

Then we learned about the difficulties of financing affordable housing. Since corporate developers don’t make enough money on low rent buildings, it is up to non-profits to provide them. And they need funding. While 1400 affordable units had been built in this city over the last 25 years, that rate has not been maintained because the federal government has cut funding for such enterprises.

Berkeley, as a city, seems to be proud of its "learning" processes. This meeting was one of a series, in which it complimented itself on providing these chances to participate to the people. Prior meetings, complete with “pop-up” tents and tables, were set up to poll and survey the neighborhood (the Adeline corridor), to find out what the residents wanted. There was money involved. The city’s “Idea Center” that ran these events did so on a $750,000 grant from ABAG and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The purpose was to give the "populace" a voice.

What was lacking was how that "voice" translated into actual plans for the development of the area. No mechanism was described whereby the people would gain a seat at the planning tables, at which they could actually shape the course of things to come. But still, it was called "participation." The issues involved, from the neighborhood’s perspective, in these prior meetings, were clear. Affordable housing, no dislocation, no evictions; at several meetings, that was summed up as a call for a moratorium on market rate housing until the need for affordable had been satisfied. 

Somehow, none of that appeared in this A-H 101 session. Instead, we learned that there are no protections against people being dislocated by rising rent levels. In a section entitled “Protections for tenants,” we found out that there were procedures that the city considered “protections,” but they served to make the dislocation process a little less painful (such as covering moving expenses) 

It was stunning. After a year of meeings organized by the city in which people demanded affordable housing and protection against dislocation, we learned there are no protections. For non-rent-controlled buildings, rent can be increased at will, beyond what tenants can afford. There are stories extant these days of rents doubling and tripling with the expiration of a lease. Such rent increases amount to running people out of their homes. That’s a felony if done by non-monetary means. 

Rent control had offered protection. It provided a cap on rent increases when a tenant moved out. Such protections were prohibited by the Costa-Hawkins Act. Now, rent controlled apartments come off control upon vacancy. When a tenant moves out, the rent can go up to market rate (today, $2,200 a month for two bedrooms). 

Supposedly, these apartments go back on control when a new tenant moves in, but “at market rate.” One detects an oxymoron lurking in that. Supposedly, ten years from now, re-control will have made that apartment seem "protected." If it is unaffordable now at market rate for anyone but high income people, then this looks like rent control for the rich. 

But for uncontrolled apartments (and the city lost 36% of its controlled apartments through vacancy in 2014), there are no protections against being subjected to impoverishment at a landlord’s whim. This is the primary cause of resident dislocation (which effectively means exile to another city). 

The speakers at the meeting did say, however, that the only real protection for tenants would be to build affordable housing. And that is true. Given that 50% of all renters are low income (including very low, and extrremely low), they are the ones who need protection. And the city will say it is providing affordable housing by permitting market rate buildings, because it requires 10% of the units in new buildings to be affordable. But that’s a scam. Developers can pay a mitigation fee in lieu of affordable units, and build all market rate units. So that is not protection. Only building affordable housing for low income families will protect against massive dislocation of old time residents from this city. 

Building affordable housing is the only protection people can have against dislocation by rent increases. That has been known and expressed in a full year’s worth of city organized meetings in South Berkeley. Otherwise, low income families get caught and impoverished by the general increase in market rate housing that will accompany market rate development (through the "natural" operation of “market forces”). Despite the "learning" process offered by the Idea Center, people already knew what they needed to protect themselves from dislocation. 

So the Idea Center assures its audience that operations are starting for the building of affordable housing. So what? Given that funds must be raised to build affordable housing for low income families, which will take time, and given that the construction of such buildings will take time, what will protect low income families from being dislocated and exiled from the city while this is going on. Nothing. There are no protections. 

The only thing that will protect low income families was not mentioned in the presentations. That would be a moratorium on rent increses until affordable housing could be built. 

A moratorium on rent increases!! 

Otherwise, while affordable housing is being built, masses of low income people will be exiled by the natural market forces unleashed by development plans. 

But such a moratorium would be illegal under state law (Costa-Hawkins). 

This is an outrage. It is outrageous that there is an extant threat to the well-being of multitudes, of city constituents, of innocent human beings who pay taxes, work and contribute to society, and neither city nor county government can defend them against destruction of their life-styles and living situations. It is outrageous that cities do not have the right to defend their own residents against so-called market forces that are driving people out of their homes. (I say “so-called” because the housing development market is monopolized by corporations that will only build buildings they can profit from. Affordable housing buildings, with controlled rent levels, are “off the market.”) To "obey" market forces is to abandon low income families. Their needs don’t even appear in the market. 

That’s what we learned in Affordable Housing 101. 

"Subjected" to "market" forces, rents are rising so rapidly that it is creating a crisis situation. Even the city referred to this situation as a "crisis." Even the city knows that "crisis" is the proper word for what we face. 

Then to face this crisis, we need a declaration of a state of emergency, so that a moratorium can be imposed on rent increases, and the residents of Berkeley not subjected to massive dislocation and exile. And it turns out that such a thing is possible. On Nov. 16, 2015, Los Angeles declared a state of emergency around homelessness. 

But there is more. Let me say this as baldly as possible. State law prohibits city governments from protecting their own residents and constituents from being victimized or impoverished by market forces. But it is not just state law. There are state agencies that prevent city governments from defending their own constituents against this threat. ABAG is one such agency. It demands that cities build a certain number of market rate housing units. And it is this requirement, before any construction is begun, that is leading to the unconscionable (impoverishing) rise in rent levels. 

For the state to do anything to prevent cities from controlling the rent levels in the interests of their constituents against what the state is imposing is nothing but a form of autocracy – an institutional autocracy. 

Beyond plain autocracy, the kind exercised by a person with autocratic power, it is autocracy imposed by the very same institutions to which the victims of its impositions and impoverishments (local residents) also pay taxes. They pay taxes to an institution that prohibits them from defending themselves against threats to their well-being and their living situation. 

But it gets worse. It is a form of institutional autocracy that can result in the death of innocent people, or in a lesser case, their imprisonment. To be driven out of one’s home by so-called market forces, having done nothing wrong, is to be placed in severe jeopardy of being rendered homeless. On top of this, the city is taking measures to exile homeless people from the city by jailing or threatening to jail them. The jailing occurs because a ticket is written, the person fails to appear in court because they have no funds for the fine, and a bench warrant is issued. 

Living on the street is injurious to one’s health. Today, the homeless have no protection against their own criminalization, against processes that simply drive them into prison because they are poor and homeless. 

For an ordinary resident, though one may have paid one’s bills, paid one’s rent, repaid one’s debts, and paid one’s taxes, to be then driven out of one’s home signifies that all those payments were not honestly accepted. They were stolen rather than collected in good faith. Even though one has paid one’s debts and one’s bills, to be driven out of the safety of one’s home into possible homelessness and possible death from exposure or starvation signifies that those to whom one paid that money were stealing it. The city is one of those recipients. 

Berkeley is now involved in a process of criminalizing homelessness. It is intent on passing new ordinances that will allow the police to harass or arrest or expel homeless people. It accuses homeless people of soiling the sidewalks and streets, though it refuses to provide toilets. It accuses homeless people of smelling bad without providing showers, and of sleeping on the sidewalk without providing shelters or housing. Homeless people do not want to soil the streets. It is an embarassment. But the city refuses to provide toilets in order to accuse them of soiling the streets (yes, it has to be looked at as intentional). 

And the failure of the city to protect rental residents from so-called market forces will create more homelessness. And that means that the city is doubly involved in criminal victimization of its own constituents and residents. The homeless and low income residents are now being subjected to the same kind of institutional autocracy. 

It means that the people in each neighborhood are going to have to figure out how to defend themselves. Self-defense is a human right.