Public Comment

Race and the Housing Crisis

Steve Martinot
Saturday November 23, 2019 - 11:16:00 AM

An event was held on November 13, 2019, in a fairly large auditorium at Berkeley City College, with the somewhat glib title of “How to Save the World with Local Politics.” That the hall was less than half full may be sign that most people think it is too late. Or it may be that those losing their world knew something these attendees didn’t know. Whatever the case, it raised the question, “which world?”

The event sported a panel of four speakers, who presented in three different directions. One spoke about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the carbon footprint of the Bay Area. He used a map strangely and counter-intuitively reminiscent of the one about recent fire danger. A second spoke about the difficulties faced by people trying to rent housing in this area. She didn’t ask why no one from among the homeless communities of Berkeley had been invited to be a panelist. A third gave a brief outline of housing economics, and why it was appropriate to advocate building more market rate rental units. And the fourth kind of filled in gaps in the other three. She had a big job.

Two of the speakers were elected officials, one from the state Senate, and the other from the state Assembly. In an election year (even one with a candidate glut), one would have expected heavy hitters like that to be a greater draw. But neither had changed the world yet, nor gotten us back on track to stop global warming (the real name of our future). Two organizations, “South Berkeley Now,” and “North Berkeley Now,” were listed as sponsors. But the real sponsor, the power behind the panel, was the Berkeley Democratic Club, which ran the panel as an in-house affair. Questions were only taken on 3x5 cards and filtered by the MC before being handed to a speaker for response. Thus, it was a purely informational gathering.

Here’s their housing program in a nutshell (I won’t tell you what kind of nut it is:

The reason there is a housing crisis is not because there are runaway rent increases or on-going displacement of people who can’t afford housing anymore. It is because there is a housing shortage. No substantial housing had been built for 40 years in Berkeley. Admittedly, rent gouging and displacement have been problems, but a new bill passed in Sacramento that places a cap on rent increases, and tightens the rules against eviction should (belatedly) resolve those problems. Therefore, building more units (both market rate and affordable) becomes a viable program.

But this is old news. Pro-developer organizations, many pretending to represent neighborhoods, have been saying the same thing for years. And having their way, to the point where there is already a glut of market rate housing in Berkeley. We see “For Rent” and “Now Leasing” signs on new apartment buildings all over town. Yet people are still having to leave their homes because they are getting priced out of the area.

Left unquestioned was the assumption that rent-increase caps could be a substitute for repealing the Costa-Hawkins Act. That is the act that gives landlords arbitrary control over rents. It is the act that has allowed rent-gouging to proceed unchecked for decades now. Which is a major reason there is no affordable housing being built. 

Surrendering to the idea that there is no space in which to build affordable housing, pro-developer programs are now advocating use of the parking lots at Ashby BART and North Berkeley BART. This was what the two "Now" organizations were pushing. In some of their statements, they advocate for 100% affordable housing on those sites. Yet one of their own panelist explained that 100% affordable housing is not an option (on these parking lots or elsewhere). Any affordable housing would require federal subsidies, which the feds are cutting back on. We therefore have to build market rate units in the buildings in which there are to be affordable units in order to pay for the maintenance and profit earnings on the buildings. 

And there’s the rub (or at least, one of them). If there is a glut of market rate housing now, what will happen to those buildings, even though the affordable units be rented, if the market rate units stay empty, and the building has to close for lack of maintenance? After all, "maintenance" is the main argument landlords have used to get a ban on all rent control (presumably a form of “for-profit maintenance”). 

This was all stuff we’ve heard discussed for years now. It didn’t seem to be “saving the world.” 

The big question is, why hasn’t housing (mainly apartment buildings) been built for 40 years? When someone accuses a city of having been remiss about building housing for so long, they are generally pointing a finger at the city government – which signifies that the accusation is mainly for electoral purposes. Very few people want to talk about the real reason for the lack. 

In the period from 1970 to 2000, there had been very low demand for housing. That was in part because the population of Berkeley (and other parts of the Bay Area) had decreased during that period. It had decreased for a reason that the political policy makers, and their component clubs, do not want to recognize “now” (again for electoral reasons). Back then, this area was a center of political activity, especially Civil Rights and cultural sovereignty (Black Power, AIM, women’s organizations, etc.), while also including anti-war and environmental activity. A significant result was a demographic shift that came to be known as “white flight.” Many white people left, moving to surrounding counties where they could construct new white neighborhoods for themselves. As time went by, many of them (and their children) moved up the employment ladders to high paying jobs in IT, high tech, and the growing financial center in SF. And they commuted back into town each day. 

About 10 years ago, a maverick organization called ABAG (Assoc. of Bay Area Governments, founded in 1972) decided to rock the boat. After the Reagan era, after the quelling of the movements, and after the Orchards of San Jose had been plowed under to make space for hi-tech manufacturing campuses, things changed. The “Vietnam Syndrome” became a name for something to blame on the movements and not on the war itself. After the Clinton years, during which the US became incarceration-nation, a new financial paradigm replaced the previous one (one of its names was “Washington Consensus”). The financial district in SF was beefed up, as was the Haas Business School and the port of Oakland, so that the Bay Area (as a metropolitan area) could offer real politico-economic competition to Singapore and Jakarta in the Pacific Rim economy. 

ABAG decided it was time to bring all those nice white people back into town. With the world dedicating itself to reducing GHGs, ending that horrendous commute by providing housing for these suburbanites right here in town could be seen as a real service to the world. It was, however, a play straight out of the "gentrification" play book. The mere promise of the arrival of these suburbanites looking for housing started the rent-gouging ball rolling, along with immediate and massive real estate speculation. These became the dynamics of a huge enrichment game for landlords. "Enrichment game" for some is a sign for an "impoverishment machine" for others. 

In short order, the Bay Area became the most expensive place in the US to find housing. Landlords who wanted to raise the rents on their housing units simply jacked up the rent, displacing families who then generally had to leave town to find affordable housing. And landlords generally found that displacing tenants of color was easier than white low income families. This juggernaut of displacement (making room for incoming white middle class technocrats) was the prelude to building new housing. By the time new apartment buildings started appearing, market rate rent levels had already sky-rocketed. And the white middle class suburbanites who moved in kept rent levels high while the black community was essentially decimated. The black population of Berkeley found itself reduced from around 20% to its present 6%. The social process of racialization can privilege some people only by de-privileging others. 

And in particular, there can be no influx without a comparable displacement. One produces the other through its assumption of priority and superiority, inferiorizing the displaced as the effect of their deprioritization. Displacement reflects a form of racialization. 

Displacing low income people through rent-gouging wasn’t the only dynamic at work. Building market rate apartment buildings that neighborhood people could never afford to inhabit was the other dimension of it. Gentrification, the shift in class and racial character of an area, was the force behind both. To take a situation that is diverse and multicultural, and make it a wholly white social location, is a form of racialization. 

In other words, what resides at the foundation of the affordable housing crisis is racism. It was not just a shortage of housing. Nor did housing construction simply express an incidental displacement of people of color. It was an institutional process of providing privilege to white middle class people. It created the means whereby they could re-colonize an area the previous generation of white people had abandoned. Like all colonialism, the new settlers disrupted the economy and culture by means of their checkbooks. 

Those who discuss the “housing crisis” generally do not give recognition to this historical process. They prefer to see housing as simply an "issue." They ignore the fact that the entire trajectory of social transformation had both the earlier struggles against racism and the later quelling of social justice movements as its foundation. The re-racialization of the Bay Area means making it white again. Complicity in this required nothing more that serious racist indifference 

Ironically, while the low income communities and the people of color demographic were reduced by this racializing process, the production of GHGs did not go down. Those who were displaced from their neighborhoods, after they found housing in other towns, had to commute to work. They filled the space on highways left by those suburbanites who no longer had to commute. In other words, there was simply a shift in the class nature of GHG emissions. 

Interestingly, as noticed by one of the speakers on the panel, though without explanation, surveys show that the use of public transportation has declined in recent years. Public transportation has become an important issue with respect to global warming, and carbon footprints. It is also an issue used to call attention to the low income communities on which gentrification is imposing itself, as an infrastructure problem. Why would demand decline with the price of gas up, the traffic jams getting bigger, and the volume of demands for GHG reduction louder? 

Public transportation is for low income people. The white middle class, the wealthy suburbanites who arrive on the crest of this demographic shift, take gig-taxis like Lyft or Uber around town rather than face a parking problem or sit in a bus with a bunch of strangers (aka residents). On the other hand, the working class people who now commute into town, taking the suburbanites’ place on the highways, have their own cars to use. So fewer people get on the bus. It is an ancillary effect of the return of the “white flight” population to the Bay Area, a class outcome of the racialized shift fostered by the state (via ABAG). 

Where transit use has actually increased is in transbay movement. It is much more efficient to take BART across the Bay than drive, since parking is, for everyone, a nightmare in the city. So a Transbay Terminal was built. 

Insofar as the Democratic Club of Berkeley and its panel ignores the dissolution of low income communities, claiming it wants to meet neighborhood needs by building more housing for the influx (rather than for the displaced), it positions itself as the party of middle class whiteness, though still paying some lip service to diversity. 

It looks like, to save the world, we are going to have to get radical. One radical solution to the housing crisis would be to set zoning standards so high that for-profit developers would turn and run, leaving their building sites for non-profit developers to construct 100% affordable housing for low income people (“affordable” meaning at most 30% of a tenant’s income). 

The "world" that the “Save the World” panel is saving is the restoration of a white upper middleclass demographic in Berkeley. It is for this restoration that the local Berkeley Democratic Club has become an advocate. Ironically, this club recently elected a black woman as its president. In announcing her election, she proudly stated that she is the first black woman to be elected to that post in the club’s 85 year history, a fact to be sincerely celebrated. But she takes that post just in time to participate in presiding over the above mentioned "restoration."