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Discussion focuses on housing, space needs

By Erika Fricke Daily Planet Staff
Friday March 09, 2001



A salon discussion on NIMBYism Wednesday night, sponsored by UC Berkeley and the nonprofit Bridge Housing corporation, broached the touchy subject of balancing the need for new housing with protecting the rights of current residents and preserving the neighborhood environment. 

Journalism students, planners, developers, activists and homeowners debated the question at the UC Berkeley graduate school of journalism. The discussion produced an over-riding sense that the complicated issues around housing will not be satisfied by simply bringing the parties together to talk it over.  

No, in fact, we can’t all just get along.  

Rather, housing issues force communities to examine their basic values. 

“What we begin to do when we talk about displaced communities is develop an ethical framework where we credit some people more than others,” said Larry Rosenthal, executive director of Berkeley’s Housing and Urban Development Program.  

As rents rise, middle-income people are forced to rent and buy in low-income neighborhoods. This can raise the surrounding rent and force the current low-income residents out.  

Choosing between community residents becomes a question of, Rosenthal said, “means testing people’s incumbency against each other.”  

Does a person who has lived in an area for three generations have more rights than a recent arrival who wants to stay? Rosenthal questioned how society makes that choice, listing possible values to decide by such as length of stay and contribution to the community. 

John Quigley, director of the UC Housing and Urban Development Program, mentioned the rental community’s frustration with higher housing prices. But, he said, the 61 percent of Bay Area residents that are homeowners are benefiting from the high housing prices. And although some people characterized as NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) may feel hostile towards private development they should recognize, he said, that “virtually all the housing provided to low-income households are provided by the private sector.”  

Rick Holliday from Bridge Housing, said that development itself is often pitted as the enemy to quality of life.  

He refuted the notion that more people in an area make it a worse place to live, saying that only a large population can support the kind of local businesses that give neighborhoods their flavor. 

“Our communities get better as we grow,” he said. “As we get denser we can support more bookstores and more coffeeshops.” 

One self-professed low-income renter and UC Berkeley student, Duane De-Witt of Santa Rosa, asked whether people should have a right to live in the communities in which they were born.  

While there is no legal right in the United States to live in one community for one’s whole life, the question evoked the larger paradox in the American theme of migration as a way to better oneself. 

“Social mobility is a key to the successful economic engine,” said Deirdre English, professor of journalism. “We also know there’s something beautiful about established communities. The very engine of economic success is also what tears us apart. We can get richer and richer and have a quality of life that’s being continuously degraded.” 

Ryan Russo, who works on projects for sustainable communities, said the discussion did not bring up two of the thorniest questions plaguing Berkeley – density and parking. During the meeting, someone mentioned that Berkeley is the third densest city in the Bay Area. Russo said this oft-cited figure is used to prove that Berkeley can’t handle more development. But he said, “Linking gentrification with development is a specious argument.” 

“NIMBYism is the right people have to that space next to their house,” Russo said. “Old people keep new people out because of parking.” 

Non-journalists participating agreed on one point. They disapproved of the press’s role in helping or hindering development by reporting the opinions of only a few or not reporting on unwelcome projects. 

“The media has a great role in what gets built and where,” said Jessica Berg. “Reporters don’t have an understanding of the deeper issues.”  

She said news stories reflect the complaints of a few disgruntled “squeaky wheels.”  

Unfortunately, she said, public officials take their cue from the press. 

The discussion, “NIMBYs and the Press: The unholy alliance to keep new people out of old neighborhoods,” was one in a series of discussions funded in honor of Don Terner, an affordable housing activist and CEO of Bridge Housing.