Public Comment

Commentary: ‘Progressives’ Oversimplify Housing, Growth Issues

By John Koenigshofer
Friday August 11, 2006

The irony of “progressive” politics is nowhere more apparent than in the housing policies of the City of Berkeley.  

For decades progressives have held up rent control as their shinning achievement while ignoring its systemic injustices. Of late, their new crown jewel is “smart growth,” perhaps generally a good concept but requiring a skeptical review. 

Rent control and the current frenzy of smart growth enjoy the blind support of Berkeley progressives via an ideological commitment to a general philosophic idea while failing to examine the real world details wherein the devil doth reside. 

Rent control is based on a vague ideological assumption that those with less should be taken care of by those with more but has made no effort to define what “more” or “less” means. It has simply assumed that the landlord is wealthy and should provide housing subsidies to the tenant, who is automatically presumed to deserve a subsidy. From its inception, rent control has never differentiated between mom and pop landlords and corporate housing providers. Nor has it recognize the difference between a good landlord and a slumlord. All property holders are evil and all tenants are good.  

Such a simplistic and polarizing construct is used to obscure the countless injustices perpetrated by rent control. 

To state the case simply, rent control compels one group to give money (in the form of rent subsidy) to another group with no consideration as to the economic capacity of either group. An 80-year-old on a fixed income is forced to subsidize the housing of individuals who are younger, more education and have higher incomes than him. Shockingly, such injustice does not bother the progressive proponents of rent control. They do not care about injustices done to those in the evil class (property owners). Their generalized ideological commitment prevents them from recognizing unfairness. 

Progressive politics should be the politic of the common person. Not in Berkeley. One of the ironic outcomes of rent control (and smart growth as I will explicate later) is that ownership of property (in this case rental property) has been pushed out of the hands of mom and pop landlords and into the hands of corporate owners. The reason is simple. Mom and pop cannot bear the economic burden of suppressed rents or the belligerence of the Rent Board. However, the big boys can. Deep pockets can wait out artificially low rents, compensating for losses on rent control units with market rate units. They can afford attorneys to litigate and pay the high cost of tenant buy-outs.  

It is perhaps the law of unintended consequences, but progressive policy has undermine the ability of ordinary people to own rental units in favor of the consolidation of rental housing in fewer and bigger hands. Mom and Pop out, corporation in! 

To the progressive a landlord is a landlord is a landlord. But it is not true. A retired schoolteacher with three apartments is not the same as a corporation with 160 units. Generalization is the sin of ideologues. 

The same mistake is being made in regards to smart growth.  

For decades, (like landlords) a developer was a developer was a developer and developers were bad. Then, via smart growth, developers were suddenly good! The ideological devotion to ‘smart growth’ makes it impossible for progressives to critically assess the frenzy of reckless development that is currently underway.  

Smart growth asserts that increased urban density will alleviate developmental pressures in outlying areas. This in turn will preserve open space and reduce commuting by providing housing near work, mass transit and commercial and cultural amenities.  

Is this true? There is no evidence that suburban and rural development has slowed in response to increased urban density. Perhaps population growth is simply outpacing development or perhaps, what is being built is not what the housing consumer in outlying areas is seeking. Would a young couple that works in San Francisco and owns a home in Martinez (for price reasons) relocate to a small apartment-like condo in a six-story building in downtown Berkeley? Probably not, especially if that building lacks aesthetic character, has no open green space or trees and does not provide adequate parking.  

Like rent control smart growth is pushing housing into the hands of bigger and bigger corporate developers. The reason is simple, a site that once accommodated eight to 12 townhouses with open space, courtyards and parking now accommodates a six-story structure with 70-80 small, dense units. There is little green space and inadequate parking. Such density potential profoundly increases the value (cost) of the land so that only big developers can compete in the Berkeley marketplace.  

Under the cover of environmental rhetoric the building frenzy is on. It has become taboo (in P.C. Berkeley) to ask how many people should live in California? How many in Berkeley?  

Just as progressive blind commitment to rent control prevented its proponents from acknowledging and correcting its problems, current blind commitment to smart growth leaves its proponents unable to say “no” or even “slow down.”  

Ironically the same environmentalists who taught us that pavement, concrete and steel heats up our environment now argue on its behalf never suggesting that with each new building there should be significant areas dedicated to greenery. Why not require a 10-foot greenbelt set back along our main transportation corridors (Shattuck, University, San Pablo) to cool the city, convert the carbon dioxide and establish a landscape that greens, matures and improves our city over time?  

The ideological answer is simple; that would reduce density. Density is good. Ever inch must be devoted to housing. Add to that rhetoric “low-income housing” and “non-profit developers,” you have a formula that makes every blind ideologue gleeful and transforms every vacant lot into a big box building with little parking and less greenery.  

We must ask what will these buildings will look like in 10, 20, 50 years? What will the traffic and parking really be like? How will it be to live in a city with thousands of more people and less and less open space and greenery? What are the implications of consolidation of housing ownership in fewer and fewer and richer and richer hands?  

I do not know the answers. I do know that blind endorsement of progressive catchphrases and associated programs (smart growth, affordable housing, rent stabilization) lead us down a road of unintended consequences. “Progressive” rhetoric generalizes and demonizes ironically providing cover for the real devil that waits in the details.  


John Koenigshofer is a Berkeley resident.