Opinion: Ignorant words about people with mental illnesses helped a developer get his project approved

The City Council failed to denounce prejudicial language that was designed to instill fear about homeless and mentally ill people.

Joseph Kennedy III said in his response to the 2018 State of the Union that our current leadership is, “turning American life into a zero-sum game. Where, in order for one to win, another must lose.”

Congressman Kennedy was speaking about the Trump Administration, but those words describe what happened at a recent City Council meeting. At its Jan. 23, 2018, meeting, the majority of City Council members failed to denounce baseless prejudicial language from a developer that was designed to instill fear about homeless people and people with mental illness so he could exclude them from his apartment building. Not only did the City Council, as a governing body, fail to denounce the ignorant words, the written record and history on this proceeding will show that their votes were based on those words.

This story, like life, is complex. As the executive director of Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF), I support the goal to provide much-needed housing for low-income people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. The project that the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) first approved and that the City Council upheld against an appeal has a good outcome: 12 below market rate apartments in a 63-unit development are set aside for low-income people who have intellectual or developmental disabilities. Unfortunately, this win came needlessly at the expense of people with mental illness who are homeless.

In the initial successful application for a permit to the Zoning Adjustments Board, the developer of 2527 San Pablo Ave. sought a waiver from Berkeley’s requirement (BMC §22.20.065.C.2), which states that when a qualifying development is granted a density bonus, 40% of very low-income (VLI) apartments be reserved for holders of the city of Berkeley Shelter + Care certificates and Section 8 vouchers. In short, he sought to exclude certain people who qualify for housing subsidies—people with mental illness.

Shelter + Care is a federally funded housing subsidy and services program for individuals who are chronically homeless and who are disabled. The program assists people with severe mental illness, physical disability, a chronic medical condition, and people who have drug/alcohol dependence to be successful in long-term housing.

In a May 11, 2017, letter accompanying the developer’s submission to ZAB for a permit and seeking the Shelter + Care and Section 8 waivers, the developer wrote:

“The imposition of the requirement under BMC §22.20.065.C.2 may expose I/DD persons (people with intellectual or developmental disabilities) to fellow residents with a known history of violence or severe mental issues which could create potential life safety issues and legal liability.”

The developer also wrote:

“The Project hopes to target an extremely vulnerable population and needs to ensure their immediate neighbors are “safe”….”

Contrary to the misinformation put forth at least twice by the developer, less than five percent of the overall violence perpetrated in the United States is directly related to mental illness, and yet four in 10 news stories falsely link mental illness with violent behavior toward others, according to 2016 research conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Sensationalistic media coverage often reinforces the false perceptions reflected in the developer’s proposal and the ZAB and City Council votes. Sadly, rather than denounce the false assertions made by the developer, the written record will affirm that their votes were instead built on his inaccurate assumptions.

Berkeley has been home to the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund for almost four decades. Our city is internationally renowned as the birthplace of the modern independent living and disability rights movements. As a city, as a community, and as an example, I’d hope we are better than pitting highly vulnerable groups of disabled people against one another to compete for inadequate housing. Entrenched ableism and disability prejudice have no place in our community.

Susan Henderson is the executive director of the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in Berkeley.