Op-ed: The ‘Right to the City’: Who should control the process of urbanization in Berkeley?

The “Right to the City” is an idea proposed by Lefebvre that those who live in a city have a democratic right, a human right, to shape the process of urbanization.

Unfortunately we seem to live in a world where private property rights, where profit rates, trump all other human rights. We seem to live in a time where the majority of our City Council believes the neoliberal notion that markets should determine all change -— that profit-driven decision making by the .01% must determine our future. This neoliberal exercise of power by the developer-investor class is anti-democratic. The backroom deals between the Berkeley City Council and for-profit-developers, deals that control Berkeley’s process of urbanization, are diametrically opposed to democratic rule and social justice.

At the Berkeley City Council meeting on April 5, 2016, we again saw the result of these backroom deals. After suppressing the NEXUS study for many months in 2015 in order to pad developer profits, and after giving an additional sweet-heart deal to the Harold Way developer that would cost the city an additional $2.4 million, the City Council again sided with developers.

Once again we witnessed the corrupting influence of developer money. Once again the City Council ignored the majority of public comment and chose to discount the in lieu fee fees below the NEXUS study recommended minimum of $34k per unit. The discount of $4k per unit could cost the city over a million dollars on a development the size of the proposed Harold Way development. Ironically, this vote followed on the heels of a council debate over a measly $15k for homeless youth, where council members suggested that this minor amount of funds would impact funds for some other needed social services. What we witnessed was a demonstration of neoliberal ideology, of austerity policies used to enrich the 1% at the expense of all others.


But I digress, so let’s get back to the “Right to the City.” Paraphrasing David Harvey: Robert E. Park once wrote that the city is “man’s … most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in” – an attempt to make the world “more after his heart’s desire … the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live” and “in making the city man has remade himself.” Park’s point is that the kind of city we want cannot be separated from the kind of people we want to be.

Our city will determine our social relations, our relation to nature, and the values that we hold. Do we want a city designed to exclusively benefit moneyed interests? Do we want a city that primarily caters to the rich or the techies? Do we want Berkeley to merely be the servant of the university? Do we want a city with diversity? Do we want a city that serves and sustains both the rich and poor, old and young, blue collar and white collar? Do we want a city that is environmentally sustainable? Do we want to house the people who work here – or just the rich who can afford to push others out?

The right to the city is far more than a property right of wealthy developers to exploit the current housing bubble. It is to right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire. We get to choose. It is a collective right rather than an individual property right. Markets should not decide. They are not democratic – they are plutocratic.

Under neoliberal rule, the city becomes a commodity to be digested, its wealth extracted, and the undesired people discarded as so much trash. This is not the Berkeley we desire. Berkeley needs to affirm the “Right to the City” — that those who live in a city have a democratic and human right to shape the process of urbanization.

And it is the job of the elected officials, the City Council and its commissions and boards, to listen to us and carry out our desires. It is not the Council’s job to grease the wheels of development in order to enhance the profits of out-of-town developers. The Council should not invoke TINA – that “there is no alternative” to market rate housing. We the citizens of Berkeley should get to decide on the process of urbanization – not markets. That is democracy.

There is a movement afoot against the corruption of money. We see it in the Panama Papers scandal. We see it in the rise of Bernie Sanders. People are starting to question the neoliberal polices that for 30 years have enriched the 1% while leaving main street in debt. And the citizens of Berkeley are starting to question the motives of the City Council.

The City Council needs to listen to the people. We want low- and moderate-income housing, not market-rate developments. Berkeley should not be a tool where the uber-rich and foreign investors can park their Wall Street gains in luxury condos. We are not raw material to be gobbled up by the university. We want human scale development not luxury high rise that blocks view corridors. We want sustainable development – LEED platinum. We want 100% union labor. We want construction designed for small businesses, not big-box stores. We want to keep our ethnic and economic diversity.

We need a vehicle to fund moderate- and low-income housing – to give us, the citizens, some democratic control over the process of urbanization. We should impose a tax on landlords that recovers some of their unearned income from rental property value inflation and extreme rental hikes. We should use these taxes to fund the housing trust in order to develop non-profit affordable housing.

We need our Council to protect our poorer neighborhoods from developers and landlords who manipulate the system to eliminate rent controlled housing. We need a Council who will do the right thing for the citizens of Berkeley and who will honor the idea of the “Right to the City.”

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Dr. James McFadden is a Berkeley resident and research physicist at UC Berkeley, whose interest in economics, bubble markets and market manipulation date back to the 2008 economic collapse.