The new council needs creative thinking about homelessness

Becky O'Malley
Friday November 25, 2016 - 10:01:00 PM

As the furor over the outcome of the national election starts to subside a bit, it’s time to start thinking about what can be done locally. It appears that Berkeley has elected a solid new City Council majority, composed of people who promise to be more receptive to local voices and more suspicious of out-of-town speculators and their various paid shills, including the faux renters à la SFBarf and the revolving door lobbyists like Mark Rhoades. How did this happen, and what will come of it? 

Over the holiday a newly elected city councilmember from Santa Cruz (full disclosure: my son-in-law Chris Krohn) looked through a shopping bag full of expensive mail pieces from Berkeley candidates which I collected during the last election. As a recent campaigner himself, he was fully aware of how much money those glossy doorhangers and mail pieces represented, especially when he heard that the national real estate lobby had dropped a cool $100k on a couple of candidates, one for mayor and another for city council, and they both lost—badly. 

Santa Cruz, where we’ve had family members for a half-century or more, faces many of the same problems as Berkeley. Notably, both are home to branches of the University of California with its attendant blessings and problems. They are also both increasingly destinations of choice for attractive spillover housing for the newly rich from the technical sphere who can afford long commutes to their job sites or are allowed to work from home if they’re important enough. Since many university employees in campus service jobs are not well paid, the housing markets in both cities are being artificially jacked up beyond the reach of a sizable percentage of the long-term residents, especially renters. 

However, as far as can be determined at the moment, the real estate industry did not drop a bundle in Santa Cruz as they did in Berkeley. The building boom hasn’t yet gotten off the ground there, or at least to the extent it has in Berkeley, though their less-than-progressive city council majority has started to put forward zoning changes to facilitate it. Nonetheless, on November 8 two of the four “Brand New Coucil” slate were elected on a platform which included affordable housing with restrictions on speculative development, very similar to the candidates elected in Berkeley. 

The main difference in the two races, the reason that candidates backed by the Berkeley Progressive Alliance and similar groups swept the Berkeley election while only two of four BNC progressives won in Santa Cruz, seems to be that the unsightly results of the luxury speculation boom backed here by the previous council majority are now numerously in-your-face, especially along and near Shattuck in downtown Berkeley. The outrageous overreaching represented by the plan to demolish the Landmark Cinema for an eighteen-story Trump-like tower got some public attention, even though its permits were rammed through by the city council and eventually upheld at the trial court level. A lot of the volunteers whose work won this election had been shouted down by the mayor during council meetings. 

Also in-your-face downtown are the living consequences of ignoring the need for affordable housing—the homeless residents of the street who are apparent on many corners. Students, another group especially burdened by skyrocketing rents, voted in great numbers for the new slate (and they were probably also impressed by Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Jesse Arreguin.) 

The city of Berkeley’s spongy response to complaints about inappropriate policing was especially effective influencing voters in West Berkeley in addition to development issues. The incumbent councilmember, who had chosen to be identified with the mayor’s majority, lost to one of two strong challengers--and both did better than he did. The general deterioration of public facilities in South Berkeley, especially the closure of Willard Pool, was another obvious catalyst of the voters' desire for change. 

Now the opportunity for the newly-elected mayor and councilmembers is huge. They should probably start with a general housecleaning, identifying which staff members have devoted themselves to advancing the developer-dominated agendas of the last incumbents rather than the common good for all citizens. 

Civil service laws do protect genuinely impartial city servants, but some official notice must be taken of why, with a lame duck mayor and council, some city staff have spent the last couple of weeks chasing homeless campers around town and confiscating their possessions. 

Mentioned in one activist’s account of the rout where much camper property was illegally seized was the same bully on the city staff who I remember tried to illegally get rid of newsstands when the Planet was in print. It’s past time to ask that guy to move on, or at least to take away his power to harass people. 

There will soon be another opening on the City Council, for the District 4 seat which Mayor-elect Jesse Arreguin will vacate. It will mandate a special election, probably sometime in early March. The law says, approximately, that a special election must be called within ten days of a vacancy occurring, and then must take place between 60 and 90 days later. The special meeting for the new council to call the election will be on December 8. 

Arreguin has endorsed Kate Harrison, who has held a number of public policy positions, including working in San Francisco in the auditor’s office. She’s been active as a citizen in Berkeley, serving on several commissions, and is a founding member of the Berkeley Progressive Alliance, which backed Arreguin and other successful candidates in the recent election. 

Her announced opponents so far are students Ben Gould and Brianna Rogers. Gould was an unsuccessful candidate for Mayor,winning only 2.8% of first choice votes, but he has been endorsed by councilmembers Lori Droste and Susan Wengraf, who can now be expected to constitute the council minority, along with Linda Maio, who was originally elected as a progressive but has sided with the former majority often in recent years. 

What can the new majority do? It would be great if they could tackle the plight of people now living outside as their first problem to solve. 

Two or three of the losing candidates for Mayor suggested that the city should sponsor building “tiny houses”, those twee little special structures much beloved of architecture students. This is a silly idea, considering that many excellent small dwellings are already manufactured, including, for example, the tents brought out in cases of disaster, or old-fashioned mobile homes, the kind that we used to call trailers. 

I lived in a trailer for a summer in Indiana, a very small one, along with a tall husband and a two-year old, and I was hugely pregnant to boot. The temperature reached 110 some days, with no air conditioning, and it rained a lot. But there was a bathroom with a shower, and we had a couple of lawn chairs, and we made out fine. Used trailers like these could be acquired at a reasonable price to use as temporary shelters parked on city property during the rainy season, movable on their included wheels when necessary. One suggested site is the alley behind 2211 Harold Way, at least until demolition begins. 

Or how about turning the almost abandoned Maudelle Shirek Building, Old City Hall, into a winter shelter with mattresses and sleeping bags? It has bathrooms and plenty of floor space. People now living outside, a sizable percentage of them at least, do need some social services, which they could get more easily if there were a central place for them to stay. 

These are just a couple of the many creative ideas for dealing with homelessness that could be adopted if local government had the will to do it, and of course the money. Will the new city council be willing and able to try some of them? I hope so.