I’ve had many a conversation lately with white liberals in Berkeley who lament the rise of Donald Trump. They always seem to be bewildered about how this could be happening in our country, how someone like that could be so close to grabbing power. When our conversations turn to local politics, however, there seems to be a disconnect about how the dehumanizing policies that Trump is proposing for the country have much in common with ones that are in play in Berkeley this election.
White liberals are appalled when Trump talks about going door to door and removing Mexican families from their homes and sending them back to Mexico. Yet they seem totally unmoved by the potential displacement in South Berkeley of African-American residents whose families have resided in the area for several generations. Somehow the economic violence of pricing people out of their homes seems less sinister.
White liberals recoil in horror when Trump talks about how certain groups of people are rapists or slobs, about how the places these people live need to get cleaned up. Yet when the subject turns to homelessness in Berkeley, the same people often talk of needing to “clean up” the city. Again there is a disconnect, in the idea that the homeless are the problem rather than a society that fails to provide them with addiction counseling, mental health support or simply a dignified place to live.
This disconnect is nothing new, and in many ways it’s intentional. In 1964 California passed Proposition 14, which nullified the Fair Housing Act of 1963. Proposition 14 passed with about 70% of the vote in the East Bay Hills, even while many of the same people voted proudly for Democrat and civil rights champion Lyndon Johnson. In 1967 Proposition 14 was overturned by the US Supreme Court as unconstitutional. The reason Prop 14 was so successful was because it linked the property rights of homeowners with segregationist policies. There was an economic incentive for people to vote in a way that marginalized the rights of others, and they knowingly did.
In this year’s race for mayor, many justify voting for Laurie Capitelli because he’s a real-estate agent, and since he understands real estate and development he will get things built.
The argument goes that by building more housing, regardless of the price range, it will increase the housing stock and therefore lower prices for everyone. This is not dissimilar to Trump’s proposal to cut taxes on the wealthy and claim it will eventually trickle down to everyone. There is no evidence that trickle-down economics is a viable solution with tax cuts, and neither is there in regards to housing stock. In fact, a recent report by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that subsidized housing is more than twice as effective as market rate housing at reducing displacement pressures. Regarding market rate housing trickling down to low-income people, it found that it would take several generations to do so.
Capitelli’s primary opponent in the mayoral race is Jesse Arreguín. In eight years on the City Council, Jessie Arreguín has fought tirelessly for tenant rights, more affordable housing, and a better minimum wage. He is an advocate for those who are often forgotten in the rush to develop, and for this he has been labeled anti-development. It seems many white liberals fear that he will not have their best interests in mind, that he will not always do things that would most benefit them. If by this they mean he will be an advocate for those that don’t usually have a voice, and that he will not give blank checks to big developers, they may be right. That’s probably why the National Association of Realtors Political Action Committee – the same organization that bankrolled Proposition 14 in 1964—has spent upwards of $60,000 campaigning for Laurie Capitelli.
People of all colors and economic backgrounds are having issues with the cost of housing in Berkeley right now. While there is no doubt that housing is an issue across the board, it is clear there are certain groups of people much more in danger of being permanently displaced than others. At the same time, many of the people clamoring for the city to hurry up and develop downtown are people who themselves have absolutely no instability in their housing situations. The next mayor of Berkeley is going to play a large part in deciding if this city continues to be a community that respects the rights of all of its citizens or one that turns its back on some of its longest term residents for a quick fix that benefits a few. As white liberals in Berkeley go to the polls this year, I hope between patting themselves on the back for their presidential vote and casting their vote for mayor they take the time to make the connection between the politics and ideas in these parallel races.
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