Public Comment

Discriminating Against Discriminations

Steve Martinot
Sunday February 11, 2018 - 08:56:00 PM

Government ceases to be government when it falls prey to irresponsibility as a form of domination. When it does so, it exhibits a form of disability that one could call "parapolitical" disability. It is sometimes characterized by childishness, and by irrationality. It always reveals a failure to take responsibility for those people who depend on it. 

Disabilities exist among the people. There are the intellectually and developmentally disabled (IDD). There are the homeless who are economically disabled. There are those with physical disabilities or emotional issues. Mental illness and PTSD are terms thrown around concerning victims of social stress, or people abused by those they trusted. There used to be institutions run by the government that cared for such people. Some were communal, and others were simply large torture chambers, creating mental illness on a kind of medicated assembly line. One could associate "parapolitical" disability with official attitudes that accepted the latter as okay. 

What characterizes the condition of people with disabilities is a tendency to be shunned. The homeless are shunned because they are impoverished, and thus assumed to be thinking of larceny. The physically disabled are shunned, as are those with emotional issues because, in a society that abjures responsibility, they are seen as people who can’t “pull their weight.” There is a sanctity attributed to the idea that each must pull their own weight. Those unable to do so are thrust away, and discriminated against. Insofar as society is seen as a "weight" to pull, rather than as a communal place to live, the weight-pullers tend to take it out on those who don’t pull weight. 

IDD people have no natural community for themselves because of the nature of the care they need. It isolates and alienates them from social interaction. Some relate through advanced autism, inarticulateness, an inability to feed themselves. Some exhibit uncontrolled movement that would get them killed if allowed to cross streets unattended. Many people find them difficult to hang out with. Thus, there is a great need for community to overcome the loneliness. 

The homeless form communities as a primary way of surviving their shunning, the constancy with which they are shovelled out of the way by police raids. Community gives them the ability to take care of each other, and to withstand the political irresponsibility they face from government. The City Council of Berkeley has looked in the face of the homeless, as well as the face of IDD, and those with emotional issues, and seen nothing but its own rules. 

Those who “pull weight” also have a disability. Against the threat of impoverishment, they have to run like hell just to stay in the same place. And their disability is their inability to see a way off that treadmill. If they didn’t shun the homeless so much, they might see something about community that they could use. 

Space and place

Now, comes a man with a mission – to provide a community for those who need it. Rony Rolnizky steps up to do what political officials won’t, namely, create community for IDD. He does this because his own son is IDD, and he is dedicated to providing for him. 

He proposes a building that he himself will finance, a building of 6 stories, 63 living units of various sizes, 20% of which will be affordable units to be reserved for IDD people and their care-givers ("affordable" is a technical term meaning rent gets no greater than 30% of a tenant’s income). He will include all the affordable units on site – which is unusual for developers (they typically minimize the affordable units in case financial difficulty requires them to sell (aka re-capitalize) the building. Mr. Rolnizky even adds one more unit beyond what is required. That means he is serious. He is not planning on selling the building. But he petitions the city to waive certain equitability requirements (under the Federal Fair Housing Act) for renting to Section 8 and Shelter Plus Care people (those who are also shunned), in order to reserve those affordable housing units for IDD alone. And the city gives it to him. 

That’s when ideals clash with the grinding wheels of history. There are organizations that care for the economically and emotionally disabled. They work with Shelter Plus Care voucher holders, and object to them being excluded. “Shelter plus Care” is a program that gives vouchers to disabled people, giving them access to affordable housing. Shelter Plus Care voucher holders are people who are either homeless or would probably be homeless if it weren’t for that voucher. Some are disabled by impoverishment, others by the PTSD generated by their mere survival in a scornful society, or by physical or emotional issues. Many need care and community in order to function. Therein lies their paradigmatic similarity to the IDD. In their name, the waiver granted by the city to Mr. Rolnizky is appealed (City Council, January 23, 2018). 

Thus, a massive irony kicks in. Mr. Rolnizky finds himself acting in a political situation in which, to form the community he desires, he himself must shun. He excludes one shunned population in order to pay special attention to another. His building and his vision become a conflict zone between anti-discrimination movements, his own and the others. Seeking solutions, he becomes the poster-child for the problem. 

Where did they all come from, those who populate this problem? 

Back in the 1980s, the Reagan administration decided to stop contributing to mental hospitals and other institutions for people that society shunned. Many were thrown on the streets to fend for themselves. He also repealed certain real estate regulations that allowed land, housing and rent levels to rise sharply and without limit. Thus, the homeless were created, and mental illness given a presence on street corners and in places of business. It was done by policy and irresponsibility, justified by the pretended need to produce redundant armaments and warmaking machinery. Since then, the ethics of non-responsibility has become the norm. 

At the same time, industry was given subsidies to move off-shore. Jobs, and the ability to afford to survive, were lost. A variety of laws were then passed (like the Costa-Hawkins Act) to prevent renters from defending themselves against housing becoming unaffordable. And new groups of people to shun were created (those now known as “Section 8” and “Shelter Plus Care”). 

Nevertheless, laws against discrimination of any kind exist – discrimination on the basis of race, sex, creed, color, national origin, or disability, whether physical, intellectual, emotional, or developmental. Susan Henderson, who works in the community of physically and emotionally disabled, giving care to them through oganizational ability and community, argued (in City Council, Jan. 23) that the city had no right to pick and choose to which disabled community to grant housing affordability. When she does, she is not speaking about the waiver but about the real issue, the underlying evil for which shunning is one of its expressions. Racism, racial segregation, impoverishment, exclusion of the "unwanted," those are the real issues. 

She reads from a letter written on May 11, 2017, by Mr. Rolnizky’s lawyers in response to her own appeal. In it, they accuse the disabled population of Shelter plus Care people of having a tendency to violence. The lawyers don’t generalize. They simply say that among the Shelter plus Care people there are those who have a violent past, and are addicted to drugs. They don’t specify who has violence or drugs in their past. By implication, then, it could be anybody. Non-specification become a form of generalizing. Against the Shelter plus Care people, it becomes an accusation and a warning. “Rather than find out later, shun now.” This was the tactic of white supremacy when it built Jim Crow against black and brown people during the 1870s and 80s. 

The lawyers argue further that the “IDD population is … largely invisible to the able bodied community owing to their requirement of 24/7 care and assistance.” They do “not fit the stereotype of ‘people with disabilities,’” often needing devices to be able to speak or communicate. For this reason, they are singularly vulnerable, defenseless, and fragile, requiring special environments. But that means all the others are a stereotype. His generalization about Shelter plus Care people sets them in conflict with the IDD. Giving them equal opportunity to housing along with the IDD “may expose IDD persons on a daily basis to fellow residents with known history of violence or severe mental issues which could create potential life safety issues and legal liability.” It is an expectation of violence, generalizing in the same fashion as do the structures of racialization. 

Henderson responds, using the lawyers’ own argument, that members of the general public should be barred as well. Given that this is a violent society (with police killing unarmed people in the streets every day), by renting the other 50 units to "ordinary" people, he is placing his IDD community under similar threat, far beyond the sterilized environment he desires for them. 

City Council, with its parapolitical disability, cannot hear her. They affirm the waiver, granting Mr. Rolnizky’s exception from federal law, thereby waiving their own ethics. They cannot see that the violence against which the lawyers warn has already occurred, twice over. The first violence lies in the discriminatory exclusion and assault on the homeless and on those needing Shelter plus Care. It is an assault that turns away from its own generation of that form of suffering, and says, “get away from me,” “go somewhere else,” “you don’t belong here,” “I’m going to call the police.” The second form of violence is contained in the lawyer’s letter. It is the economically and emotionally disabled who are to be seen as the violent ones, precisely to disguise their having been subjected to primary violence. It is a paradigm of this society. When a cop hits a man with his nightstick, it is the victim of that violence who is arrested for assaulting the officer. 

To pit one form of disability against others through discursive derogation makes this case a “poster image” of the problem of discrimination itself. 

But all City Council can do is play with Mr. Rolnizky’s waiver like children. They ask him if he could split his 12 affordable units among the other categories of disability, in accord with the Fair Housing Act. For him, that is unacceptible. So the council turns to discussing windows and room sizes and how to name studios. 

The alternative

In other words, the City Council, with its own disability, could not see beyond the hierarchy of disabilities it created. Yet it had clear alternatives, which Mr. Rolnizky had himself shown them. They themselves shunned looking at the human condition as it arrayed itself before them. They could not even see the man with whom they were dealing, nor guage his dedication to this building. 

The zoning requirement that a development provide 20% affordable housing units is a minimum, not a maximum. The developer does not have to restrict himself to 20% affordable units. He could make it 40%, or 80% – and should, given the affordable housing crisis this area is suffering. Mr. Rolnizky wanted 20% of the units for the IDD people. But he could have easily added another 20% for Shelter plus Care people, and another for Section 8. He wouldn’t lose anything because the affordable units would be subsidized by HUD. He wasn’t going to sell the building because his intention, his unremitting desire, was to provide space for the IDD people (in order to provide it for his son). 

There is a good chance that, had the City Council made such a proposal, he would have jumped at it. He would have become a local hero in the struggle against homelessness, discrimination against the disabled, and the struggle for affordable housing in general. Here was a man seeking to pioneer in the development of community against the overarching alienation of this entire society. He would have provided a precedent for the city of Berkeley by including more affordable housing units than is required by the city’s own inclusionary zoning ordinance. 

The city does not need more market rate units. It has fulfilled twice over its requirement for market rate housing as established in Plan Bay Area. We see “Now Leasing” signs all over town for those who can afford $4000 a month. The council should be looking for alternatives in its every waking moment. Instead, it gives lip service to programs and studies, but does nothing to affect the actual building of affordable housing units. Instead, it talks about windows in bedrooms and how to name studio apartments. Therein lies the parapolitical disability of the City Council. Unable to imagine transcending the developmental barrier that is destroying the city’s neighborhoods, they chose to break federal anti-discrimination law.