Land Use is the Principal Local Issue in Berkeley for the November Election

Becky O'Malley
Friday October 12, 2018 - 04:38:00 PM

An eagle-eyed reader noticed that last week’s editorial accidentally left out the race for the state’s 15th Assembly District. He successfully deduced, however, that the ideologically consistent position, for both me and my fellow members in the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club, was to endorse Richmond Councilmember Jovanka Beckles, as indeed we did. For heaven’s sake, don’t you miss that slot on your ballot.

It’s harder and harder to concentrate on what’s happening in California, given the plethora of shocking news national and international, but we have to keep trying. What we do here will ultimately affect the whole planet, so we need to make sure to elect the right people in November.

So I was planning to devote space this week to explaining what the main issue that tied all the endorsed candidates together is, but luckily my Marin Post colleague Bob Silvestri just sent me his own excellent dissection, which you can now read here, The IPCC Report on Climate Change in the Age of Entitlement, Growth Addiction and Urbanism.

What links the candidates for the state assembly and the Berkeley City Council is whether or not they adhere to the Scott Weiner/ Nancy Skinner/corporate dogma that we can build our way out of climate change.

Folks, we can’t. Bob saves me the trouble of citing chapter and verse of why growth won’t work to save the planet, so be sure to read what he says. (My only quibble is that he's too willing to cede the "progressive" title to the MeFirstNow crowd.) 

The shorthand slogan has been around for years: “Growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” 

Here in Berkeley, as in all of California, we’re in the middle of a great big gold rush. We’ve seen big bucks in corporate technological enterprises in the last decade, so those who’d like to share the experience at all levels have been rushing here in droves to populate enormous numbers of start-ups, the majority of which will sink without trace. 

Just like the original gold rush, this one has created a parallel land speculation boom. This time there’s an ideology to match: that building near existing and/or planned public transit locations will mitigate the climate-altering effects of hyper-urbanization. 

Just a couple of counter facts should be inserted here: 

(1) BART is failing six ways from Sunday. All it’s good for is to transport well-paid workers from suburbs like Berkeley and Orinda to San Francisco jobs, and increasingly it’s too crowded to do even that adequately. Both the many techies who are trying to commute from Berkeley to Silicon Valley and the poorly paid workers who drive hours to work there from Tracy are out of luck. 

The BART infrastructure is collapsing. 

(2) Buses, those energy-consuming behemoths, run almost empty a large part of the time—just look inside. AC Transit does not publish an energy consumption per passenger mile figure, which is what counts. 

Despite this, there’s a political push to build more and more market-rate (“luxury”) apartments along these dysfunctional “ transit corridors”. The legislators at the state and local level who peddle this snake oil are funded by the development industry, often by all three classes who profit from building projects: owners, managers and labor. A review of their campaign contributors and of the “independent” political action committees which back them makes this clear. 

Their legislative proposals are designed to shift the locus of planning and decision-making to Sacramento, where it’s easier for corporate interests to lobby for decisions that they find lucrative. That’s why, in Assembly District 15, which includes key parts of Oakland, Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito and Richmond, corporate Democrats (we have no admitted Republicans) are trying to parachute in a newbie who backs the same agenda favored by San Francisco’s Scott Weiner. 

The discussion is garbled because Weiner and his East Bay ally, Senator Nancy Skinner, have been fronting for an ever-changing series of bills designed to pre-empt local control over housing construction. The shorthand for this class of measures is “827”, the number (Senate Bill 827) of the first incarnation of this concept, which put the fear of the lord into some (though not all) local elected officials. It originally referenced a somewhat obscure Metropolitan Transportation Commission map which, if adopted, would have ceded almost all control over Berkeley land use to Sacramento mandates. 

827 was a stalking horse which has now been disavowed by its proponents, but it’s the UnDead, already rising again in multiple incarnations. That first run didn’t even make it out of committee, but since then there’s been a rush of differently numbered attempts, some of them successful, to grab control of ever more local land. And there will be more. 

The major difference between Berkeley backers of this strategy and Berkeley’s opposing progressive candidates for City Council is the definition of exactly what the “housing crisis” that has accompanied the tech boom might be. 

Three Berkeley candidates, incumbent Kate Harrison (District 4), Planning Commissioner Mary Kay Lacey (District 8) and ZAB Commissioner Igor Tregub (District 1), contend that what’s needed is more affordable housing, particularly for low and very low income residents, not just more housing in general. All three are endorsed by the Wellstone Club, Berkeley Progressive Alliance, and Berkeley Citizens Action, as is Jovanka Beckles for the 15th District Assembly seat 

The opponents of all four espouse what are sometimes called “neoliberal’, sometimes “trickle-down” and sometimes “market-based” theories with various particulars. The key contention is that if enough housing of whatever kind is built it will eventually result in making housing available to those at all economic levels. 

There’s a touching faith in the efficacy of markets which is seldom supported by data. One UC study estimates that this process will take 50 years to work its magic, but whatever… 

The four candidates who are running against the progressives are heavily backed by middle-of-the road establishment Democratic National Committee types. In your mailbox you can find the evidence: their endless expensive glossy brochures depicting every politician you’ve ever heard of in living color posing for selfies with them. 

Jovanka Beckles’ modest flier, by contrast, features snapshots of the several local Democrats she defeated in the June primary in order to make it into this runoff—they’ve all endorsed her. Well, all but one, of course, the beauteous big bucks-backed Buffy. 

A related separator is that all four progressive contenders discussed here support Proposition 10, which ends Costa-Hawkins, the state-mandated ban on much of local rent control. Buffy Wicks opposes lifting the ban (hinting at minor modifications), while the rest of the Berkeley candidates tip-toe around positions on 10—I can’t find any endorsement of it from any of them except Alfred Twu, at least online. 

And speaking of District 8, where I live, we do seem to have three interesting candidates. I support Mary Kay Lacey, who’s smart, sophisticated and empathetic. She’s not afraid to take positions on controversial issues, unlike the current councilmember, who’s been generally wishy-washy and compliant—a loyal supporter of the worst schemes of former mayor Tom Bates. 

The incumbent likes the middle of the road, bringing to mind the quip that there’s nothing much in the middle of the road except yellow lines and dead armadillos. Someone in the online commentariat compared her to Susan Collins. 

But I do plan to fill the second and third slots on my ranked choice ballot—I haven’t decided in what order—with the names of Russ Tilleman and Alfred Twu. Russ is opinionated in a good way, and articulate about what he believes. Alfred’s wardrobe, campaign signs and web page are delightful—if there were a city office called Designer-in-Residence he’d have my vote for it in a hot minute. Maybe Mary Kay should pledge to appoint him to the city’s Design Review commission. 

One last point, not housing related but which should be obvious. This is one of the very few Assembly Districts left in the state which could conceivably return an African American woman. It seems really too bad to blow that opportunity on a White woman, especially one from a rural background whose main experience is as a party operative. Jovanka Beckles would bring a depth of urban experience to the Assembly which her opponent woefully lacks.