Opinion: Labels are easy, community is hard

Let’s come together and build affordable housing while allowing the community some voice at the beginning of a project’s approval process.

This week’s City Council meeting resulted in a well-balanced, unanimous vote to begin to remove some of the planning barriers to affordable housing that plague not just Berkeley but the entire Bay Area.

Cognizant of the fact that absence of funding and land are the main impediments to building more affordable housing, the Council discussed how to streamline the design review process. In a few notable cases, this process has been abused as a delaying tactic by those who do not want the less well off, people of all races, seniors and the young to live in our neighborhoods.

This is the civil-rights movement of our era: high prices, gentrification and segregation of people by class and race are driving our politics, making our communities less vital and keeping young people of all races from realizing their dreams.

However, in the course of that discussion, something very important was sacrificed: the notion that community and civility are worth protecting.

Leading up to, and in the hearing, people with different and sometimes just nuanced points of view were labelled as NIMBYs, hippies and unprogressive. Those who want to ensure some community input into projects, or who don’t want to repeat the brutalist designs of affordable housing built in the 1950s and 1960s, with their attendant social and crime problems, were derided as hopeless dreamers standing in the way in progress.

In part, this is because we in Berkeley have not suffered these types of soul-destroying designs. We live in a place of beauty and assume it can’t be destroyed. But it can and, once it’s lost, it is gone forever. Let’s come together and build affordable housing while allowing the community some voice at the beginning of a project’s approval process (thank you, Councilmember Susan Wengraf for adding that).

This fracturing of civility is also happening because we are all being pushed to the wall by a global economics that leaves nothing behind for the rest of us and a national rhetoric that seeks to divide us. Let’s not let that happen. Community and human relationships are also delicate things that, once broken, can’t be fixed. If saying that makes me a hippie, so be it.

Kate Harrison represents District 4 on the Berkeley City Council.