Public Comment

How to Solve the Developer Problem

By Carol Denney
Thursday May 21, 2009 - 10:07:00 AM

We don’t have a homeless problem. We have a de-veloper problem. You’ve probably been to the PowerPoint presentation by your local developers who wring their hands over the rising costs of construction and explain, as patiently as they can to people who don’t understand the business, that unless their project is aimed primarily at housing people who make $150,000 to $200,000 or more a year, it just won’t pencil out. 

The politicians in the back of the room nod their heads sagely. Their pet developers can’t afford to build in their town without sizeable concessions on project size, parking, obstructed views, and landmark destruction, all of which will enhance the feasibility of the project. 

The project seems to hang by a thread. The presentation is powerful, the numbers clear, and the neighborhood concerns about losing views, sunlight, privacy, parking and creating neighborhood congestion all seem so selfish, so petty. Density equals polar bears, the developers and politicians concur. 

Then the politicians and developers go home to neighborhoods without highrise chicken-coop-style condos, and the neighbors go home, feeling helpless, and the polar bears literally keep losing ground. 

Not a single politician or developer in the thirty years I’ve been attending these dog and pony shows has bothered to challenge the ratios set by state and county agencies, all of which presume that the “affordable” units, usually a pathetically small ratio of the new units being built, will satisfy the more general housing needs of the under-$150,000-a-year crowd. That group, the group that doesn’t have the means to acquire a seat in the speculative housing game, has tried looking invisible while living under a bush, signing their kids up for school from their aunt’s or uncle’s residence, creating rooms out of attics, garages, and tool sheds out of sheer necessity in real density infill experiments sans permits. 

That group just got bigger. 

We don’t need to argue with the developers at the front of the room, who were somehow given the use of your local senior center or community space to convince you that without their project the sky, and the tax base, will fall. Turn around and look to the back of the room. Look straight at the politicians and planners who let the current fiasco unfold, so that we now have unaffordable, unsustainable communities from the coast to Yosemite sitting empty, families being evicted and foreclosed on, taxpayers bailing out bankers. 

The wealthy can plan and build their own homes without our redevelopment dollars and housing trust funds. The politicians, both locally and in Sacramento, can, if inspired by an informed electorate, use their connections to change the culture of housing only the wealthy and over-extended. The ratio governing the next housing proposal in your neighborhood shouldn’t be determined by the community’s “median income,” which is wildly inflated by the millionaires on the hill. It should be governed by the minimum wage. 



Carol Denney is a resident of Berkeley.