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Activists in struggle for diverse city

By Erika Fricke Daily Planet Staff
Monday March 05, 2001

Gentrification doesn’t have to be all bad.  

James Head of the National Economic Development and Law Center believes that controlled growth and gentrification can be positive for a community. But, he said, in order to reap the rewards of gentrification — including economic vitality and diverse communities — cities must aggressively combat the displacement of residents, small businesses and non-profit organizations.  

The Berkeley City Council took the first step to address the problems of gentrification by highlighting the issues at a community forum entilted, “Displacement and the Impacts of Gentrification,” sponsored jointly with UC Berkeley’s Institute of Urban and Regional Development. 

Displacement is not news — Berkeley residents already recognize that gentrification is bringing high rents, which in turn is forcing renters, artists and non-profit organizations out of the city. But the figures are startling. James Vann, an architect who has worked on many low-income developments, said that rent has increased 37.4 percent in the past year and that Berkeley’s median home price is $455,000. According to Vann, someone earning $136,500 per year could afford the mortgage after making a $91,000 down payment. Beyond simple costs, Vann said Berkeley’s total housing supply has actually decreased by a small percentage since 1970, rather than increasing with the growth.  

The Bay Area growth strategies are creating a special problem for business owners, said Panelist Bruce Kern of the East Bay Economic Development Alliance for Business. The area lacks affordable housing for middle-income workers. He said this creates a community of the very rich and the very poor, with no way for businesses with middle-management to locate in the area.  

People in search of living space are not the only ones suffering. Susan Brooks is a working artist and 30-year Berkeley resident who organizes the annual Artisan Holiday Open Studio.  

She has seen rent increases between 10 and 100 percent for artist spaces in Berkeley.  

“I’d like to be in a building where I knew the community I’m building can grow,” said Brooks. “The community I have is being decimated.”  

A strong stable artist community can be essential to survival, said Lucy Lytle, another working artist, because a critical mass attracts commercial business and allows for shared tools and resources. 

After enumerating the problems, panelists offered potential community solutions. Vann mentioned several possible options for curbing the displacement of low- and fixed-income residents, including declaring residential hotels landmarks, using city funds to purchase property for low-income housing and making it mandatory to develop projects with high density.  

Other panelists offered the solution of requiring the inclusion of art and community space in new office development projects as one way to ensure that space continues to exist. In addition, the city could purchase buildings specifically to rent to non-profit and arts organizations, similar to plans for low-income housing. Sue Hestor, an attorney who fought the negative impacts of gentrification in San Francisco, mentioned aggressively using zoning laws to slow down development and limit growth. 

Berkeley has been pro-active in preventing displacement and is already using some mechanisms for keeping different sectors of the diverse community stable. A Planning Commission recommendation for a moratorium on office development in West Berkeley will go before the City Council on April 17. In West Berkeley, an ordinance created to maintain the artistic community already decrees that if a working artist leaves a space, someone doing the same kind of work has to move in. Unfortunately, said Civic Arts Commissioner Susan Levine, many artists do not know about the law and do not take advantage of it.  

Other panelist recommendations are included in the new city general plan, which should be completed in December, said Rob Wrenn, chair of the Planning Commission. One major component is the plan for 6,400 new affordable housing units owned by the city. But the problems facing artists and non-profits were a wake-up call, said Zelda Bronstein, vice-chair of the Planning Commission. She said that provisions to support these sectors would need to be addressed in the general plan.  

For some, the city’s efforts will come too late. Zoning Commissioner Dave Blake recently had to move his small business out of Berkeley because he could no longer afford to rent office space. Nonetheless, he was pleased that the public event “made an issue” out of business displacement because now the city will have to address it. “For most of us there’s a million problems,” said Blake. “And you don’t always think of them as policy problems.” 

One courageous audience question expressed the tacit hopes of many long-term Bay Area residents. Now that the dot-com boom is over, shouldn’t prices settle back to normal? Panelists discouraged that quixotic dreaming. 

Dot-coms or no dot-coms, California is going to continue to grow, they said. Architect Vann noted that gentrification is a regional problem spurred by the growth of the technology sector and the change of industry base in California at large. In addition many of the housing pressures people face comes from a natural increase in population from migration and birth rates.  

“Can we stop the growth?” asked Bruce Kern of the East Bay Economic Development Alliance for Business. “The growth is us.”