Commentary: Raging Grannies Wasted Their Performance on a Ruse

Friday July 16, 2004

I am writing to express my deep concern and distress over your decision to cover a protest organized by Berkeley City Councilmember Linda Maio, a close friend of the “nonprofit” developer Ali Kashani. While Affordable Housing Associates is the real party of interest being sued, the City of Berkeley is also a party in this litigation. Linda Maio was completely out of order to try to influence the outcome of the pending lawsuit for a property in District 3 since she is the elected representative for District 1, is on the staff of one of the litigating parties, and has a conflict of interest because of her close personal relationship with Kashani, former executive director of Affordable Housing Associates.  

Staging such a protest a week before an appeals hearing is, in my opinion, highly unethical. Playing into this ruse by providing extensive and misleading coverage for the developer and the City of Berkeley displayed a lack of respect for the litigating parties and the legal process. The time to cover this lawsuit will be after the hearing. The way to cover it is to take the time to investigate the facts. Failure to conduct competent research with regard to this lawsuit, pandering to sensationalism, and scapegoating involved individuals do nothing to increase the quality of journalism and serve only to diminish the caliber of reporting to mouthpiece propaganda. 

This is not the only good faith environmental lawsuit against Affordable Housing Associates pending in Alameda County. These lawsuits are courageous and concerted efforts to prevent the further erosion of CEQA protections. These environmental laws were enacted to ensure the future livability and sustainability of the environment for the health and well being of all California residents. Among the issues being addressed is that of development policy with regard to affordable housing on brownfields—properties contaminated by former industrial or commercial use. Officials and lobbyists with vested interest in accelerated infill development have lobbied for, written, and managed to pass legislation that seriously diminishes many of the protections established by the Environmental Quality Act to safeguard our drinking water, air and soil. These recent laws amount to environmental racism and classism since they primarily affect poor populations living in the inner cities.  

Their neighborhoods become the objects of redevelopment. Redevelopment often includes the improper use of eminent domain to raze homes in low-income neighborhoods in order to make way for housing that greatly exceeds zoning densities. To accomplish this, cities issue variances on required open space, and building setbacks. They allow residential units to be constructed that are as small as 300 square feet (Outback units are 402 square feet). In these redevelopment zones, cumulative impacts of multiple high-density projects are not considered and the inhumane size of the units is also glossed over. Laws governing senior housing permit the smallest units of any type of low-income housing. The push for excessively high density housing, along with concentrations of multiple high-density projects, violate protections enacted by the Civil Rights Act to prevent inhumane living conditions caused by excessive human crowding.  

The value of former gas stations is permanently reduced in real value by at least 20 percent, particularly those registered with the State Water Quality Control Board as being leaking underground storage tank sites with no record of remediation. If at least 20 percent of a development is for those earning less than 60 percent of the median area income, new legislation makes environmental assessment and cleanup unnecessary because these sites are “exempt.” Affordable Housing Associates favors these for affordable housing development. The site at 2517 Sacramento St. is such a location. These are corner lots with two possible addresses. In order to hide the fact that these are former gas stations with a history of toxins leaching into the soil and groundwater (listed with the Water Quality Control Board as such), AHA will use the alternate address.  

In 1988, and in 1990, HUD revamped its Section 8 rules to make subsidized housing more attractive to property managers. This paved the way to the perfect scam: Develop housing at public expense and then guarantee income from that housing by making as many units as possible subsidized by Section 8 project-based vouchers. If the Outback Senior Housing is built with its 40 units, Ali Kashani stands to make a small fortune, whether or not the subsidized units are filled with tenants. Kashani managed to get the Berkeley Housing Authority to issue 39 project-based vouchers on a project with 40 residential units.  

Tenant based vouchers are most equitable and fair to tenants since the voucher is portable and travels with the tenant from residence to residence. A project-based voucher provides the developer/property manager with a permanent subsidy of 70 percent of the rent on each unit covered, even if those units remain empty. Project based vouchers effectively strip tenants of protections they enjoy with tenant based choice vouchers. If a tenant moves, tenants no longer have “affordable housing” since the voucher benefits the property owner, not the tenant.  

The changes in CEQA, the shift in HUD regulations favoring the developer’s pocketbook over the welfare of the served low income community, and the misleading information disseminated throughout the media on the issues surrounding affordable housing development bode ill for the future of environmental justice in the inner cities, humane residential conditions for low income populations, and foster the continued abuse of public monies by developers who are no better, and, in fact, are much more dangerous than other industries who prey on the poor through excessive check cashing fees, excessive interest and penalties common with predatory lending markets, and abusive day labor pools that prey on the vulnerability of the poor. 

The role of a free media is to provide truthful information on a wide range of subjects, including affordable housing development. It benefits no one to disseminate information that is inaccurate and misleading, regardless of how good it sounds or how politically in vogue it may be. The current discussion about affordable housing development and property management is highly deceptive and provides the ideal shroud behind which wealthy “nonprofit” developers, such as Affordable Housing Associates, can continue to amass their personal and corporate fortunes, undisturbed by the light of truth.