Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton, had more questions than answers when he spoke Thursday afternoon in the new Berkeley City College auditorium, addressing the topic: “Berkeley’s Economic Future—How Can We Compete in the New Economy?”
Reich, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and Berkeley resident for just one year, joked about the high cost of the house he bought and the accompanying property taxes. “I am subsidizing all of you,” he told the crowd of about 250 people, going on to speak more seriously about the consequences of the loss of diversity that the high cost of housing brings to an area.
“How can Berkeley maintain economic diversity?” he asked. “How can we make sure poor and lower middle-class people live in the community? We don’t want to be all upper middle class.”
As property values escalate, “If you want artists, how do you make places for artists to live?” he asked. Building low-income housing is critical, he said, pointing to the problems created by “nimbyism.”
He addressed the problem of homelessness, saying Berkeley and the Bay Area attract homeless people because of its moderate climate and liberal attitudes. He said, while “the homeless will always be among us,” solutions should be addressed regionally and should include community-based treatment for the mentally ill and safe places for homeless people to live.
He pointed out that people who work in Berkeley, such as postal workers, cannot afford to live in the city. And, “Commutes get harder and harder,” he said.
The question is not just bringing money into the community, “but the character of the community,” Reich said, noting how much he appreciates the small shops and exclusion of Wal-Mart-like businesses. Still, he confessed that he went to Emeryville last week to purchase a TV.
Reich said he supports unions, particularly the new push of unionization of service workers by the Service Employees International Union. “I salute unions organizing workers at the bottom,” he said.
Economic diversity includes people of various occupations, from technicians to shopkeepers, and it includes the town and the gown, he said. He called the diversity “social capital,” from which the city benefits when the diverse sectors come together and spend time working on community issues, creating a sense of community. “It’s a function of how much people care,” he said.
“But the more chic the community gets, it loses its economic diversity and its cultural diversity and becomes just another chic place,” consequently losing that social capital, he said.
Obviously enjoying the city he now calls home, Reich pointed to the views from the hills, the arts, the restaurants and the politics, which, he says, pit liberals against liberals. It’s not like Washington, he joked, “where someone is a friend who stabs you in the front.”
“Thank you for being such great neighbors,” he concluded.