Sunday, March 6, 2022

Berkeley Goes To The Mat On Housing


Berkeley is a university town – well, it's a city, although it used to be a town. But we have neighborhoods, and although everyone is proud of and pretty much supports Cal, as the University of California at Berkeley is known, there are the usual town/gown pressures. It can be financial, since all that land is untaxed. There are arrangements that Cal pays the city some sizable fees, but the university still comes out on top. And their missions must inevitably conflict – the University is an organization, and organizations want to grow. But the city has to absorb the people who are part of the growth, and it can be hard. The University houses only 23% of its students, and the rest have to find housing locally. If there are more and more, and more and more, and more and more students, there has to be more and more housing. I forget the details, but the essence of it is that the university makes promises of producing commensurate housing as it grows, and then breaks them. They are arrogant. They are self-important. They really do pretty much what they want to do. What's new with university administrations?

The city resists, usually. Weakly, but it resists. It tries to get better deals, but in the end the city generally folds, and tries to increase its budget by taxing the residents. They say the new taxes are for something great, but the fine print shows that the money will just go into the general fund. They do what cities do, they use slight of hand and hope not to be seen doing what they're doing. They are arrogant. They are self-important. The city is composed of an elected City Council whose members often have an agenda based on their ideology and the views of the district they represent, and permanent city officials are do what permanent city officials do. They come to work and they do everything they can not to be fired. They keep their heads down. They are not top quartile graduates.

Berkeley is full of people who know how to be activists, so there are neighborhood organizations that represent the neighborhoods, even while the elected city council representatives, who are elected by district, are supposed to do the same. The neighborhood organizations are all volunteer, with no paid staff. Like all organizations, they have leaders who generally get their way, but it's significant that the city permanent government, the elected representatives on the city council, and the unelected volunteer neighborhood organizations frequently have quite different views on issues.

Anyway, the University wants to expand and doesn't really care how the city handles the extra students. Because of the growth of students and the lack of significant growth of housing, there has been an increasing number of students who are homeless, and who are on food stamps. It's hard to get the University's attention to this, but it's true. The city government has been like other city governments in being slow to approve new housing in the city, and the neighborhoods have been reluctant to see the character of where they live change. If you live on a pretty tree-lined street with houses, you are understandably reluctant to see houses turned into four-plexes, to see apartment houses appear, to find trees on lots disappear, to find parking become more difficult, and to find your pleasant neighborly street, where everybody knows your name, turn into New York City.

So, deadlock. Until now. There has been a turnover in the City Council, and they have swung to the side that says we have a national problem of not enough housing, we all have to learn to live with higher density, it will be patriotic to do so, try it you'll like and even if you don't, tough nuggies, you'll have to live with it. The University Department of City and Regional Planning has lobbied hard that this is what the country needs, and most importantly, it's the progressive thing to do. They have made the argument that single family home zoning is racist, and it is anti-student and thus anti-education.

The City Council has echoed this view. Our local council member says in her latest newsletter: “Not only do our academically motivated kids have to weather a pandemic, but they now have to deal with the potential of having their educational dreams crushed.” She has made the argument previously that when single family home zoning was adopted 100 years ago, it was with the intention of keep out people of color. She also says, “I don’t say this lightly—I fundamentally believe this is a civil rights issue. This is about fair access to education and equity, particularly for lower income families and communities of color who will be most impacted the most by this ruling.” The ruling she refers to is the freeze on enrollment increase at Cal imposed by the California Supreme Court.

Nobody says it, but there is a good deal of resentment against people who can afford to live in single family homes. Some of these residents are well-paid, and others have simply lived there for decades, starting from before there was such housing inflation. Berkeley has always harbored a good deal of the politics of resentment. Abolishing zoning for single family homes would seem to be a way to get back at those who live there. The San Francisco Chronicle has covered it here.

I remember about 30 years ago when they abolished our neighborhood elementary school, which was fully integrated, because it was too good. They didn't want one school outperforming others because it wasn't fair. In private conversations, the school board admitted that. They turned our local school into a magnet school. Equality tasted better than quality.

So, naturally, when our council member made her case in the newsletter, I rebutted. Here is my over-the-top letter:

Dear Lori:

As your constituent, I would like to weigh in on the UCB expansion issue, as well as the dropping of zoning for single family houses.  I have lived in Berkeley since 1974, am a graduate and supporter of the Goldman School of Public Policy, and I currently sit on the Board of Advisors for the Goldman School.  My wife graduated from Cal, and her daughter graduated from the School of Public Health.  We are a Cal family.

I would like to see the Goldman School get its expansion.  But that is quite apart from the relentless expansion of Cal. I have seen up close how they have expanded without fulfilling their responsibilities to provide housing, and how the students have suffered, including living in cars and relying on food stamps.  This is the direct result of irresponsible expansion.  Now the situation that they consciously created is laid at the feet of the neighborhoods, and the agreed upon solution appears to be to change the population density of all of Berkeley.  Not to do so is called depriving students of a decent education.  It is even called racist - you personally have made this argument - because zoning a century ago had racial prejudice as one of its objectives.  To apply this motivation to the current situation is ludicrous, incendiary, an unfair. To want to live in a traditional neighborhood is not equivalent to wanting to exclude people of color. This should be obvious.

Now, even with these sins of unsupported university expansion in their past, which the university seeks to bury, the university promises to "limit" its expansion to "only" 1% a year.  A quick calculation tells us that this means 10% larger in 10 years.  The way to supply the housing infrastructure for this constant expansion?  Let's let the students pile into the neighborhoods - double up, you guys!  Sell your houses to developers, who will convert your houses into condos, demolish them to increase population density double or triply or even more, allowing developers and others to make a mint in the process, and changing the nature of Berkeley irrevocably.  The nature of Berkeley is to be apartments, condos, and personal congestion everywhere, because not to allow high-density housing everywhere would be anti-education, and more than that, "racist." What an agenda! What specious argumentation! What attempts to intimidate!

I would like to see the Goldman School get its expansion.  Since their plan includes housing, it should be rather simple to justify. I would like to see more deserving students served.  But there are other ways to expand without turning Berkeley into a replica of the area surrounding Columbia or NYU.  When Harvard needed to expand, they went to Allston, just across the Charles River, and did it there.  Cal could do something similar.  They can and should plan for a new campus, where room for housing is available. There is no need to make Berkeley an example of how to fit more and more sardines in a can.

Frankly, I am appalled at the stance taken by our city government, which is carrying Cal's water.  The highly ideological and inflated rhetoric, full of specious reasoning and implying craven motives to those who simply want to see pleasant neighborhoods preserved, especially the accusations or innuendos of racism, are beyond the bounds of reason and comity, pollute the waters of fair and reasoned discussion, and are unfair to the neighborhood citizens who better represent the community of Berkeley than does our government.

I'd like to see you do better.

Budd Shenkin

Take that!

Budd Shenkin

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