Berkeley: Scenes of Corruption (Opinion)

Steve Martinot
Wednesday January 06, 2016 - 10:46:00 AM

Toward the end of 2015, we witnessed a degree of political corruption in the Berkeley City Council that was unprecedented – so much so that many commentators at city council meetings proclaimed, “this is not what Berkeley is all about; this is not who we are.” It was a flagrant financial corruption, in which one could discern underhanded “benefits.” It was more a sense of dehumanization, a gap or disconnect that had opened between the government and the people. Insofar as it affected itself in three related political crises, a housing crisis, a crisis of homelessness, and a crisis of policing, this political disconnect appears to have widened to the point of a non-traversability marking the onset of a profound political crisis. In this article, I will spell out how this disconnect expressed itself with respect to the specific issues. I will give a more general portrait of the underlying structure in a sequel to this one. 

The housing crisis

The housing crisis has been brought about by a plan for development for the entire Bay Area (called Plan Bay Area). Spawned by ABAG, and written into law as amendments to SB375 (which ironically concerned protection of the environment), this plan allots housing construction to bay area cities, ostensibly to cut down on commuter highway pollution. Over 2900 housing units have been assigned to Berkeley, to be built by 2020. The vast majority of these housing units will be “market rate” rentals. And because the very proposal for development has led to huge increases in “market rate” rent levels, these developments will be available for high income families only. 

The actual housing crisis, however, is felt not by them but by low and moderate income families. Because rent levels rise in anticipation of an influx of high income residents, many low and moderate families get forced out of their homes – a form of economic hands-off eviction. When these tenants look for housing in the city, they then draw a blank because the rise in rent levels has preceded them. They end up having to move to another town, and then commute. Though new housing is planned, its ironic effect will be to bring impoverishment through housing costs, and mass dislocation of longtime residents. Whole neighborhoods will be destroyed as a result. 

The city cannot stop this process, however, because rent control is prohibited under the Costa-Hawkins Act of 1995. The crisis can only be resolved by building affordable housing. And there the city crashes against the corporate structure. 

Corporate developers will insist on building predominantly market rate housing for very real economic reasons: finances and the debt structure. They finance their operations with loans, using their construction projects as collateral. Should they encounter financial difficulty along the way, they may have to recapitalize the building (usually by selling it) to meet their loan obligations. The presence of affordable housing units in a building will diminish the ability to recapitalize it. That is because rents for affordable units are set by HUD at 30% of the tenant’s income, and not by the rental market. This not only reduces the building’s profitability, it carries with it a link to political structure that is independent of the housing market. Most capital investment chooses not to be "burdened" by such factors. It puts a crimp in the project’s potential earnings. And banks will be wary of lending funds unless the ability to resell is assured. 

In effect, affordable housing construction depends on non-profit associations. The city actually promises to require 10% affordable housing in each new development. However, it makes this promise in the knowledge that developers can pay a mitigation fee in lieu of such units, and thus not include them. The city colludes with the developers by keeping the mitigation fee low, far below that recommended by the latest Nexus Study of the problem. Thus, it evinces an advanced level of political corruption, a scorn for low and moderate income families. “This is not what Berkeley is all about; etc.” 

But the situation is actually worse. Affordable housing is not the purpose of the Plan Bay Area (the plan which has created this crisis). The plan’s purpose for requiring construction is to bring those who live in the suburbs closer to their jobs – focusing mostly on high income executives, technicians, engineers, and financial specialists. They can and will pay more for housing. That willingness, along with the land speculators attracted to such situations, produce a general increase in the cost of living, creating severe difficulties for those making traditional wages. 

The Plan’s motive is to make the three major industries of the Bay Area – finance, IT, and transportation – more efficient. Its political purpose is to “tune up” the Bay Area to serve as the “capital city” of the Pacific Rim economy, that economic community composed of those nations designated as signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) currently proposed by the US government. Its subtext, of course, is competition with China. 

As a result, huge monoliths are planned all over town that will rise above residential areas in stylistic discord, causing traffic and parking problems – San Pablo Ave. and Cedar St., Telegraph Ave. and Blake St. (two buildings), University and 5th St. In no case has the community had more than “comment” involvement in any of these plans. 

Against this, all over Berkeley, neighborhood groups and associations are forming whose major demands are for affordable housing, protection against dislocation, and a seat at the planning tables for specific projects, so that they can protect those aspects of the neighborhood that they depend on. 

Ultimately, only a declaration of emergency will resolve this crisis. It would permit a moratorium on rent increases that would then give the city time to build the affordable housing it needs to stem the massive dislocation that is now threatening its people. 


The homeless crisis

Oddly enough, the council, and many other people in the city, wonder why the number of homeless has risen in the last year. While the homeless population averaged between 800 and 900 in 2013, it is now up to around 2100. Is it simply the attraction of the city? Or is it maybe internally generated? 

Two kinds of complaints have arisen about the homeless. Some people say, “Get these disgusting people out of our city.” And others object, “The homeless are human beings also, why haven’t you [city council] provided them with bathrooms yet, so that they don’t have to humiliate themselves in public?” The council appears to have listened only to the first group. In partnership with the Downtown Berkeley Association, it passed redundant laws to bring the issue to public attention in order to use the homeless for its own political purposes. 

The demand by the homeless for showers, bathrooms, and sleeping areas (if not housing) has been loud and long. The humane response would have been to at least provide some basic services like public toilets and sleeping areas. It is owing to this failure that the situation has produced complaints about “uncivil behavior,” and that people who smell bad. The city uses those complaints to increase police action against the homeless. In sum, it creates the conditions for “bad behavior” through inaction and then calls the cops to punish the victims of that inaction. If the police had not raided and broken up a variety of encampments under bridges and freeways where no one encountered them, they would not have forced the homeless to focus on the downtown area and its parks, where they could then be used by the city as a propaganda mechanism to increase police activity. The council remains indifferent to the police confiscation of property needed to survive exposure to the elements (clothing, sleeping bags, ponchos, etc.), denying it committed any crimes itself though its deprivation of property condemns people to possible sickness or death from exposure. 

At no time were the homeless themselves consulted as to their needs or their behavior, or included in discussions concerning their situation. Instead, the police were consulted. It is as if the mayor or the council simply told the police, make the city attractive for corporate developers. 

But the city’s corruption lies not just in its own inaction. Its true corruption lies in its use of the homeless for other political purposes. When considering its budget, it sought to cut funds for services and drop-in centers that homeless people rely on. By creating a more desperate population, it hoped to turn them and residents against each other in neighborhoods that were targeted for development. By creating conflict, the city would then become the arbiter, while creating a dependence on itself with respect to real neighborhood issues, like housing. In particular, it could use neighborhood hostility to the homeless to subvert neighborhood resistance to development and to economic dislocations. 

The real cruelty of the council’s schemes was revealed during its last meeting of 2015 when it refused to consider a proposed emergency measure for extra services and shelters for the homeless as bitter winter weather approached, while proceeding with usual business about traffic patterns and zoning. 

The political crisis

There is a political crisis in Berkeley, of which the housing and homeless situations are the primary symptoms. We see this crisis unfold in other forms of malfeasance, in which a strong conflict of interest exists between institutions and constituencies. In almost routine fashion, the council’s vote divides 6-3 in favor of institutionality (such developers, business districts, the police, etc.). 

The police have to be included in the structure of this political corruption. They partake in the uniformity of style that one finds among police all across the country, crushing homeless encampments, and deploying other forms of violence. Police violence has become all too prevalent in the US. Over 1100 people were shot and killed across the country by police in 2015. That’s three a day. The latest in SF had the distinct character of a firing squad – five cops confronting Mario Woods, each one twice his size, and all shooting at once because he took two steps to the side. The vast majority of instances where people are shot (mostly people of color) is for disobedience. This demand for obedience, the regimentation and militarization of civil society that it represents, has become uniform throughout the US. 

Many in Berkeley remember when the mayor called the police to arrest a man who was about to speak at council about the police having killed his sister (Kayla Moore). The mayor chose that moment to move the agenda item to the end of the meeting (an illegal move). The police dragged the man out of the council chambers. 

During the Berkeley demonstrations of Dec. 2014 sparked by two such “disobedience deaths” of black men (Michael Brown and Eric Garner), the Berkeley police deployed themselves in such a manner as to play a political role against the demonstrators. Scores of people were injured from beatings, shootings, tasers, tear gas, kettling, pepper spray, etc. deployed as "obedience" technology. Three huge hearings occurred in the wake of this violence, detailing police assaults. No compensation has been offered those harmed, while the police report excusing its comportment was accepted without question. No communities have been included in revising police manuals, nor in suggesting how police should comport themselves in a civil manner. Only a few mild rebukes for racial profiling have been forthcoming from council about the police. 

An associated police question emerges with respect to the BPD’s contracts with federal fusion centers (NCRIC-North Cal Resource and Information Center), which council also ratifies without question. To the extent police autonomy and fusion center contracts represent federal (coast-to-coast) policy within the city structure, it hobbles city government autonomy. And this brings us full circle to the issue of Plan Bay Area and its relation to the Pacific Rim economy and the TPP. 

It is possible that the council actually thinks that it is doing the right thing, that it is not criminalizing poverty, that the police really “serve and protect,” that its promises of affordable housing will actually be fulfilled. But its actions belie that. The council knows that toilets, shelters, and jobs will change homeless behavior, that higher mitigation fees will serve the constituents better, and that cancellation of the police fusion center contract will actually put the police under local civilian control. Instead, the homeless face dire threats to their health and lives, low income families face the threat of dislocation and possible homelessness, and the police get military weapons. City council chooses to exacerbate these conditions by violating its responsibility to the residents. And it has done so to the point where only states of emergency have any hope of preserving the people of the city. 

To escape the bind it is in, the city would have to involve the people of the neighborhoods in all aspects of development and the resolution of social problems. Neighborhood associations would have to be given a seat at the planning tables with a vote. The homeless themselves, through their own intentional community, would have to be party to the decisions that the council and the police make with respect to them, with a vote. And the communities would have to have access to the procedural and training manuals of the police, with the ability to modify them so that malfeasance by the police cannot hide behind the claim to “proper procedure.” In other words, democracy rather than obedience to institutional interests.