Op-ed: Free market ideology is not progressive thinking

Downtown property owners always run a just-build-everything candidate in district 4, but we’ve always slapped them down because we know that what happens in downtown has direct effects on our neighborhoods.

Markos Moulitsas boasts in his Ben Gould endorsement of his pride in living here. I’m a 45-year-long Berkeley resident, the last 17 as a homeowner. But I haven’t always been proud of my town. For the 14 years of the Bates council, I was frustrated and depressed to see Berkeley become a poster child for how to minimize construction of new affordable housing in a city that loves to think that its council members are all dedicated progressives.

When Tom Bates became mayor, Berkeley required that 20% of its new mixed use residential (residential over first-floor commercial) – the overwhelming generator of our affordable housing construction – meet affordability standards. Under Bates, and with the help of then-staff attorney, now city attorney Zach Cowan and our then-Zoning Officer, now downtown developer frontman Mark Rhoades, state density law was radically reinterpreted to reduce that number to barely over 10%. Berkeley fell from a state leader in affordable housing policy to deep into the bottom half.

When Moulitsas claims that newly elected mayor Arreguín, formerly district 4 council member, voted against or abstained on 1,500 units of housing, he’s apparently using opposition research from Arreguín’s November opponent, real estate agent Laurie Capitelli. This research is, unsurprisingly, heavily flawed, and in several ways. Most importantly, it mischaracterizes what happens when construction approval comes before the Council. Moulitsas suggests that Arreguín’s votes reflect kowtowing to nimby neighbors. The record shows that Arreguín opposed those projects for their failure to supply adequate affordable housing, which the council had the power to increase but consistently chose not to. (Or, in a couple of cases, because of demolition of rent-controlled units.) Council hearings are never about whether or not to build: empty lots eventually get buildings. The question is about what sort of project gets built.

Moulitsas apparently wants a council that will approve all building permit requests, no matter how appropriate a given project may be. He’s a true believer, and that belief seems be that if you just let developers loose to build whatever they can make the most money on, the housing market will improve for everyone. That is free-market nonsense.

The downtown property owners always run a just-build-everything candidate in district 4. We’ve always slapped them down, because we know that what happens in downtown has direct effects on our neighborhoods. Gould is the downtown property owners’ candidate this time, as a glance at the city website (click public access portal, search for Gould) will reveal. His money comes from architects, developers and downtown property owners; his campaign manager is an operative of the developer/planner/architect lobby (Barely) Livable Berkeley; and many if not most of his canvassing crew is supplied by the Yelp-CEO funded (and aptly named) libertarian lobby BARF.

Despite what the developers constantly tell us, their ultra-dense buildings are not a response to the need for long-term housing for current and aspiring residents, but geared to UC students, whom the university has effectively abandoned any responsibility to house. If all that you want is more Gaia buildings with students crammed two- and-three-up into tiny bedrooms, Gould may well be your guy. But if you believe that our city council should be focusing on the long-term needs of its low- and middle-income residents, with a commitment to truly affordable housing as a top priority, then you’ll want to keep this district in progressive hands, and those hands are attached to Kate Harrison. That’s what the Sierra Club says too.

Deliver your votes (by Tuesday!) to City Hall.

David Blake served on the zoning board for 13 years, the Arts Commission for six years, and also served nine years on the Design Review Commission.