Public Comment

Political Impoverishment

Steve Martinot
Saturday December 08, 2018 - 12:52:00 PM

The corporate economy is an impoverishment machine. When prices go up, the people who have to pay those prices get poorer. When rent levels rise, renters are impoverished. The corporate economy inherits this from capitalism. In capitalism, profit levels depended on keeping wage levels low. Today, inflation, which has become an economic norm, amounts to a pay cut. Those who organize unions in order to make up for their loss of pay are called greedy, but they are only fighting to stay in the same place. Those who build more market rate housing are acclaimed for meeting a need in a so-called housing crisis. But the real crisis is that those who need housing can’t afford market rate. There is only an affordable housing crisis, as more people are impoverished by corporate economics. 


A travesty on Ashby  

After 5 years of neighborhoods going to city council explaining that they need affordable housing (which, according to HUD, should be no more than 30% of one’s income), City Council votes to allow more market rate housing to be built. Their latest is on one of the most absurd corners of the city. At Ashby and Shattuck, some developer now will build 7 stories of bedrooms. Each bedroom, 6 to an apartment, will be rented separately, starting at $1300 a month. That comes to $7800 a month. Just another impoverishment machine. It has nothing to do with a housing crisis, but only with what the banks think will give them the greatest return. 

And Ashby, by the way, is the site of the oldest traffic jam in the city of Berkeley. There will be no parking in the building. To deliver a package, a truck will block an entire lane of traffic. The gurus of our local impoverishment process actually think that maybe, or perhaps, or who knows, this will coax some people out of using cars. Then the city can pat itself on the back for having done its bit to slow global warming. Meanwhile, a line of idling engines a mile long sit waiting for a light somewhere to change. 

What is more de-mazing (aka negative amazement) is that ZAB (Zoning Adjustment Board), traditionally the developer’s friend, had actually turned the project down, having heard what the neighborhood said about it. When City Council approved the developer’s appeal (Nov. 27, 2018), they were in effect flipping the bird at their own local regulatory agency. Apparently, after ZAB had taken off their anti-democratic blinders, council stooped to pick them up and put them on. 



Well, yeah. Seventy percent (70%) of residents in Berkeley are renters, but our elected body can’t seem to represent them. Every time ZAB approved a developer’s market rate project, it was acting against the majority of residents. In this case, when ZAB heard those of the neighborhood, and rejected the project, the City Council stepped in and reinstated the developer in controlling position. 

As an elected body, when the City Council acts for the tiny minority (developers) against the majority (renters), it affirms (or refuses to countermand) the process that leads to higher rent levels. In other words, the economic is not the only domain of impoverishment. We have only to look at Berkeley City Council to see political impoverishment. 

City Council has no power over market rent level. They are determined by a real estate industry that announces such levels through its glossy publications, telling landlords what they can expect to get away with – that is, what they can gain by booting out their present tenant and raising their rents. That is the source of the displacement crisis that no one talks about any more. People simply get moved out of the city – by “the market.” 

Those glossy magazines forget to count all the “For Rent” and “Now Leasing” signs that one sees on so many new buildings. Even as vacancies accrue (with people still looking for housing), the rent levels don’t come down. A little bird whispers in our ear, saying “they never will.” It is an impoverishment machine. 

The Costa-Hawkins Act is a state law that bars cities from regulating rents (we’re not even talking about “rent control” here, just regulation). Seventy percent (70%) of residents in Berkeley are renters. That means that city government cannot act in the interest of its majority (on rents). Its de-mazing how a supposedly "democratic" state government could have passed laws that make democracy impossible. It is further de-mazing that somehow, Californians failed to repeal that law, which Prop 10 would have done. In short, we sit here on our hands. 


Take it out on the homeless  

This council is not thinking any better about how to shelter the homeless. They had a beuatiful chance (to set up a "shelter" in Old City Hall), and couldn’t do it. There were nay-sayers. So against them, City Council opened it for inclement weather nights only (for 45 days). That will take it to the middle of January. Only 30 beds are provided (though 90 were promised), in a city with 1000 homeless. That is seriously impoverished thinking about how to meet the crisis of real people who remain unhoused and thus deprived of that human right. 

But the City Council will use this as an excuse to close down encampments, which are how the homeless survive in a hostile and impoverishing political landscape. The encampment at Aquatic Park is attacked because it is messy. The city could send some people down to help keep it clean. For the city to do so would be humanitarian, and even democratic (taking responsibility for residents), but it would countermand the impoverishment. And it would eliminate a reason to raid. 

But it won’t use its power to close down developers, to leave economic and political room for non-profits to build affordable housing. At present, in its zoning regulations, it gets a mere pittance from developments for the Housing Trust Fund. And it has done nothing to stop developers from buying their way out of providing affordable housing (mitigation fees). 

You know what it would take? Zoning regulations requiring 80% affordable housing units in new developments, and a mitigation fee of $200,000 per non-affordable unit. The for-profit (impoverishing) developers would leave, and the non-profits could come in and build for the people. 

This impoverishment of political thought goes even further. This City Council refuses to divorce the city from the surveillence state (Federal Fusion Centers, Urban Shield, automated license plate readers, street corner advertising kiosks with cameras, and police lapel cameras that are blurred and uncommunicative when the cop is in motion, like running or punching someone or just pulling his gun. There was this clip shown on evening news of a cop running down a crowded street with his hands in front of him holding his gun, which then went off a few time, and some unidentifiable person in a blurred distance doing something unidentifiable in the clip ended up dead. The council could not even bring the issue of police accountability to the voters. It refused to put a perfectly good measure giving the Police Review Commission some teeth on the ballot in the last election. 

We have no voice. That is political impoverishment. Democracy means that those who will be affected by a policy should be the ones who make the policy. That means that people, those who will be affected by a policy, get to define and articulate the issues, as well as participate in a final decision on it. That principle has long ago been thrown out by representationism. 


We need to restructure City Council  

Yet people keep going to the City Council meetings, and speaking, trying to get the council to think affirmatively about what real people need. It is the way we are taught to think about politics. Council endures this, ignores it, and votes as it already had decided to vote. Lost in our monologues, we have no structural means of entering real dialogue with those who make the decisions. That is structural impoverishment. 

One place to start would be a restructuring of City Council. Here are a few ways that can be done. 

Political policy is made through dialogue, and especially dialogue with those people empowered by law to make policy. If people cannot dialogue with them, then they are left with a monopoly on power to do what they like. In the absence of open dialogue on issues, only money can break through that monopoly. 

But democracy means that those who will be affected by a policy should be in dialogue with those with the legal power to make policy. People need to be able to ask elected officials how they stand on issues, and discuss it with them in an open domain and try to change their minds, in the open so others can hear. Going to an office and lobbying is like extending the campaign trail. The official can say what s/he likes, and then go to council do do anything. Council meetings should be restructured to allow dialogue and involvement in policy-making. 

As an indication of how far City Council will go to impoverish politics, it recently cancelled the people’s ability to take items off the Consent calendar, so that they can be discussed as Action items. If council agrees among itself that it does not want to discuss an item, and puts it on Consent. The people have no way of countermanding that monopoly elitist decision. 

We are, right now, witnessing a further extension of council’s impoverishment of politics by silencing the people. It is considering a plan to establish “Standing Policy Committees.” Different committees will be responsible for different issues. Their purpose will be to buffer the relation between the council and all those people who have something to say or something to advocate. As the proposal itself states, people can go to these “Standing Policy Committees” to speak, instead of going to council. The Committees will then decide for themselves what they will pass onto the Council. 

Instead of “Standing Committees,” why doesn’t the city set up “Standing neighborhood assemblies” in each neighborhood in which people can talk to each other, come up with resolutions to problems, vote on resolutions of their own making, and present them to the council as the will of the people of that neighborhood? 

One thing the council can do right now is make the agenda flexible so that items for which many people show up to speak would go first. Indeed, there could be a signup sheet in which people would record their main interest, and those items that got the most signups could be put first. Traditionally, they go last, so that the lateness of the hour will persuade many to go home before their issue comes up. 

The fight for democracy is a fight against political impoverishment. Impoverishment is always something imposed by a minority on the majority.