Public Comment

Commentary: Section 8 Rent Hikes Threaten Disabled and Elderly

By Berkeley Citizens for Fair Housing
Tuesday February 20, 2007

Former Clinton Secretary of State Robert Reich has recently deplored Berkeley’s housing gentrification rush and its unfortunate, un-Berkeley like homogenizing effects (Jan. 30, “The Private Eye”). 

This comes in the wake of the worst case of housing discrimination in Berkeley’s history.  

In March Berkeley will begin to take the Section 8 Housing Vouchers away from (mainly) the disabled—including veterans—and poor elderly. This the city will do by jacking up the rents of only Section 8 studios and one bedrooms, the vouchers developers covet the most. (Rent raises will be $35 and $45 per month, plus higher utility burdens.)  

The backroom scheme seems to go like this:  

If developers and their cronies on the Berkley City Council can call a developer’s building “partially affordable” (an “affordable” apartment renter’s salary in Berkeley is $60,000 per year) and include some Section 8 units, using HUD budget cuts as an excuse, they can violate city building codes by cramming more units into taller buildings and wipe out Berkeley’s housing fund. This money should go instead to current Berkeley tenants who will otherwise be forced onto the streets. 

Recently, the new U.S. Congress voted to reinstate much of the HUD-cut funding, which the City Council will include in its corporate schemes if it doesn’t vote on February 27 to restore needed funding to its current HUD tenants. 

Robert Reich remarks: “My impression is that Berkeley building is pretty dense already. Do we want to create more ugly apartment complexes? I don’t think so. I don’t know how they get away with what they get away with.” 

Recent arrival Reich also states that Berkeley wants a city that “keeps its unique charm from turning into high-end chic.” But once the developers have contracts, they have proved resistant to keeping their promises, if any. The troubled black-hole Brower developers’ project has decimated Berkeley’s housing fund and shows no signs of stopping there. The once highly touted Gaia building doesn’t seem able to keep its Section 8 apartments up to health codes, and instead of renting just to promised environmental and nonprofits, it has installed a loud jazz club. The building development on Sacramento and Dwight has made some trapped disabled people ill with their over-abundant use of toxins.  

Do we want our remaining disabled folk warehoused and ghettoized? Do we want to proudly say that Berkeley managed the homeless problem by increasing the burden on health clinics, police, fire and other tightly stretched community resources? 

Reich maintains that Berkeley’s success is not just a function of its economic vitality, but also reflects it social capital: how much people care about and are willing to do for the community. 

Some of the people who will be “cleansed” from Berkeley are its former architects and leaders, civil rights heroes, healers, artists, progressives, eccentrics, and a few lonely conservatives. They are part of the political watchdog force that tries to keep justice regardless of race, age, disability or economic disadvantage. They are human beings who, according to Berkeley’s 1990 Human Rights Ordinance, have the right to fair housing like everyone else who pays Berkeley sales tax, eats Berkeley food, wears Berkeley clothes, and thus creates Berkeley jobs. 

The housing discrimination against Berkeley’s disabled and elderly is so blatant and egregious that Berkeley should not be surprised if, as with LA and Oakland, Berkeley and its officials get sued. After all, these are some of those irritating folks who brought you the Free Speech Movement. 

Berkeley Citizens for Fair Housing (at) 

Endorsed by the Gray Panthers