Public Comment

Why neighborhood assemblies can win against corporate developers

Steve Martinot (with thanks to Hulda Nystrom, Kathy Horsley, and Phil Allen)
Friday April 08, 2016 - 03:53:00 PM

The concept of neighborhood assemblies has been broached in the recent rise in neighborhood discontent and malaise. It presents the possibility of an alternate political structure, which becomes necessary when people are faced with a representationist system that is corrupt. It is not just that some of the officials in city government are corrupt; the representationist system is corrupt as a structure. It is both exclusionary of popular participation and hermetic in its policy making. It gets its hermeticism from its dual corruption, both as a structure and as a nurturing environment for personal corruption.

By corruption, I do not necessarily refer to monetary factors of gain, but more importantly to a betrayal of trust, an ignoring or refusal of responsibility to constituents, with a substitution of alien (corporate) interests for constituent interests. The confluence of the two factors, the structural and the personal, give the system its insularity, its hermetic resistance to public accountability, and neutralizing of constituent oversight.

In Berkeley, we see this corruption in city council’s prioritizing corporate interests over constituent interests – corporate development over affordable housing, gentrification over protection against dislocation. The need for an alternate political structure of governance is indicated as political medicine for that social illness.

As an alternate political structure, neighborhood asemblies would constitute a substitution of direct democracy for representationism.

But the question arises, with respect to the housing crisis and the impending gentrification at the hands of corporate developers, where would neighborhood assemblies get their power or clout?



What is a neighborhood assembly?  

A neighborhood assembly is a body composed of all the people from a certain self-defined contiguous unjerrymandered area of a city. It operates basically as a forum for people to discuss issues that beset them as neighbors and as a neighborhood. Ultimately, it is designed to make policy for that neighborhood by some form of consensus or agreement. Assemblies from adjoining neighborhoods can compare their respective decisions, and discuss how to work together. A federation of neighborhood assemblies would then constitute a local network for melding and harmonizing policy decisions made by different assemblies, for the purpose of molding common implementation. 

But where would a system of neighborhood assemblies get its power? In the case of trade unionism, for instance, union organizations get their clout from their power to strike, to stop production. The strike obstructs the transformation of the value of labor into capital, and thus interferes with the realization of investment profit. By striking, unions can force employers to negotiate, and to grant important demands. Though many unions have shown themselves to be corrupt, they all rely on their ability to stop production through labor solidarity as the source of their power. 

But what kind of economic value could a neighborhood assembly obstruct, in order to bring developers to negotiate? 

The need to do so is extant. The economic threat from high rise, high income housing is well known. The mere plans to develop huge market rate apartment buildings along principal arteries in the city will create a housing crisis by inducing rent increases (often a form of economic eviction), tax increases, and increases in the cost of living, all of which disrupt the economic infrastructure of the adjoining neighborhoods. The ultimate effect will be to produce inordinate dislocation of residents, forcing many to leave the city. Displacement is the hallmark of gentrification. What would benefit the existing neighborhoods would be affordable housing units, with green space and places for children to play together. What they will get, instead, will be insular buildings like those proposed for 1500 San Pablo, 2100 San Pablo, and 2747 San Pablo, and economic disruption. These buildings are the harbingers of what is in store, promising traffic jams, small stores forced to close, and fights for parking spaces. 

How can neighborhood assemblies stop this, if their only legitimate policy-making influence has been reduced to begging city council or commissions for slight modifications in massive architectural design? 


The factor of land values  

The answer lies in land values. Land has no intrinsic value. Whatever value it has is given to it by its surrounding society, by its social environment – and active neighborhood assemblies can be an important part of any neighborhood’s social environment. 

For instance, the land that is now Nebraska had no value before US expansion westward. The indigenous peoples did not believe in ownership of land. It was the establishment of railroads, commercial companies, and armies that provided the economic infrastructure for the land to have economic value. What is built on the land will have value only if society gives it value. For instance, a timber mill in the middle of downtown Berkeley would have no value because there would be no room to bring timber in or processed wood out. In short, the value of land depends on people, not the land itself. 

Where does the land value that the corporate developers depend on come from? It arises from two sources. First, there is the active support given by the society of corporations, which provides the economic infrastructure for it through banking, debt, stock markets and real estate markets. Its second source is the acceptance of or acquiescence to developer plans by the surrounding neighborhoods. 

It is with respect to land values that neighborhoods hold power. Corporate interests are based on land values. Developers focus on low income areas because the land values are lower there, promising greater profit. In that sense, developers look at low income neighborhoods as a “natural resource,” an area from which to extract wealth, with little regard for whether real people’s lives are disrupted or impoverished. 

But should a neighborhood figure out how to stop being a natural resource for corporate development, it could seriously obstruct the land values essential to corporate financing, and even diminish land values whose increase the developers count on. 

When neighborhoods organize, and form neighborhood assemblies, they provide an counterbalance to the so-called "rights" of the developer. The power to delay construction or occupancy, the power to disrupt or harass the plans of the developer, and the power to jam the permit process (in counterpoint to the impending traffic jams) are all things that would lower the value of the land. Blockages, blockades, block parties, and a collective sense of hostility to the building would have their effects. There are many ways a network of neighborhood assemblies could inform a developer that he might want to change his plans. If a developer suspects there is "ferment" in a neighborhood, or that there might be a hidden “hornet’s nest” lurking there, it will think twice about building, in order to avoid losing money (and especially resale potential). Developers must take all this into account. 

What would this do for neighborhood residential land values? It would protect them and their resale value, precisely because families wishing to settle in a neighborhood would be attracted to one that could defend itself against the economic disaster of gentrification. Residential land value stability and gentrification work against each other. 

Remember, land values are determined by the surrounding social environment. 


In summary, the power of neighborhood organization, of people acting together in solidarity, lies in a threat of economic disruption that might imply a possible loss of land value. 

People acting together in assembly can do many other things as well. They can establish their own autonomous zoning of their neighborhood, establish restorative justice procedures, set up tutoring services for their children, build debt and self-help cooperatives, create local clinics (important now that all the hospitals in Berkeley will soon be closed), insist that new construction projects hire local workers, and bring the city into dialogue with the people. 

We see the potential for such assemblies in the Community Council system that has been in effect in Richmond for the last 35 years. 

Thus, the neighborhood assembly can be at once a policy making body for a neighborhood, an administrative body for local needs (such as tutoring services, local clinics, and restorative justice procedures), and a center of struggle against corporate capital that seeks to use neighborhoods as a source of raw material for the production of its own wealth.