On March 27, the Berkeley City Council approved two agenda items dedicating more than $2.5 million to the “Pathways” project advanced by Jesse Arreguín. Arreguín claimed during his mayoral election campaign that homelessness and affordable housing are his biggest priorities. The Pathways project is his attempt to deliver on that promise: first by building temporary shelters (a “STAIR Center” and “Bridge Living Community”) that provide some basic social services and counseling, and then by implementing a “1,000 Person Plan,” a hypothetical plan for housing the approximately 1,000 unhoused people in Berkeley.
The Pathways project uses San Francisco’s “Navigation Centers” as its basic model—but the city’s proposal says almost nothing about how San Francisco’s model is actually implemented, except to claim that the Navigation Centers are “highly successful.” The services provided at the Navigation Centers are critical: temporary shelter from the cold, health screening, counseling, and assistance in applying for services, housing, and employment. However, any analysis of the Navigation Centers’ effectiveness must be situated in terms of the policy context in which they are administered: the navigation centers have no effective mechanism for placing people in long-term housing, and they operate according to the prevailing logic that those who cannot afford rising rents should simply leave the city.
Criminalization of Homelessness
San Francisco’s Navigation Centers were created in 2015 to address the proliferation of tent encampments across the city. In their ideal form, the Navigation Centers would house encampment residents indefinitely, until they can be placed in long-term housing. In practice, the Navigation Centers are totally ineffective at providing housing: due to crowding, many do not receive placement in a center at all, and those that are placed are generally restricted to stays of just 30 or 60 days. After this period, the majority of Navigation Centers’ guests return to the streets; in the meantime, the city’s “encampment resolution teams” have cleared away the camps where they used to stay, and they are forced to search for new places to sleep, perhaps in unfamiliar locations, surrounded by strangers.
The Navigation Centers are based on a long-term strategy of criminalizing poverty. “Resolution” is simply a euphemism for a method of policing encampments: Resolution teams are overseen by the police department and typically include S.F.P.D. officers alongside social workers and city staff. When the city decides to “resolve” an encampment, the camp’s residents are served a form of eviction notice: “You may not be able to stay here.” After an area has been “resolved,” anyone continuing to reside there is subject to “sweeps”—you are forced to move somewhere else, or else face incarceration and confiscation of your belongings.
The temporary nature of the Navigation Centers, combined with the intensified policing of encampments, produces a “churn” phenomenon in which people cycle between shelter and crisis, without any realistic prospect of obtaining housing. Despite offering temporary respite from the cold, alternatives to homeless shelters, and improved access to services, the Navigation Centers have a demoralizing and often traumatizing effect—you must return to the streets to rebuild a shelter from nothing, knowing you could be removed again at any time. An organizer for San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness told Peninsula Press in an interview last year: “After 30 days, where are folks supposed to go? That’s when the city says it’s resolved. But resolved for who?” The outcome of the “churn” is that “people start to lose hope.”
The Navigation Centers cannot be decoupled from the criminalization of homelessness: the Navigation Center (or “STAIR” center) becomes a justification for—and mechanism of—enforcing “anti-homeless” laws (e.g. laws prohibiting sleeping, camping, and begging in public spaces). Berkeley’s “Pathways” proposal makes absolutely no effort to address the failures of the Navigation Center model, and simply repeats the same program: “intake” to the proposed STAIR center will be “followed by enforcement of camping and other laws.” When the STAIR center’s guests return to the streets and encampments inevitably reappear, the city will resort to the same policing tactics that have failed in San Francisco: “Locations that have been subject to intensive outreach will continue to be subject to enforcement actions… to deter renewed concentration of homeless individuals.”
The Navigation Center model is based on a governing logic that displaces focus away from structural conditions of housing insecurity by placing responsibility on the individual—the object that is “managed” by this sort of policy is not the escalating price of housing, but instead the body of the unhoused person. The systemic causes of homelessness are more or less ignored, as the primary question asked by government and social scientists becomes “What to do with the homeless, rather than what to do about housing.”
Depopulating the Poor
What does Berkeley plan to do about the housing crisis? From the few documents available on the Pathways project, it seems the city doesn’t have much of a plan at all. The city has acknowledged from the outset that their temporary shelters are unlikely to result in long-term housing: the April 2017 Pathways proposal states that “Berkeley has limited transitional or permanent housing to offer at this time [but] the benefits of a period of respite and connection to services are valuable even when permanent housing, or family reunification are not possible.” The proposal then suggests that a “1,000 Person Plan” be devised to “address the long-term needs” of unhoused people in Berkeley; this hypothetical plan was supposed to be presented by the end of 2017. No progress has been made since the initial proposal: I spoke to a member of Berkeley’s Homeless Commission who had never even heard of a “1,000 Person Plan.”
For now, Berkeley is following San Francisco’s lead: those who cannot afford the rising rents should simply be removed from the city. One of the programs described in the “Pathways to Housing” will be modeled on San Francisco’s “Homeward Bound,” which attempts to reunite people with family or friends elsewhere by providing them with one-way bus tickets. Most successful “exits” from Navigation Centers (i.e. when a guest does not immediately return to the street) were via Homeward Bound—through April 2017, Homeward Bound bus tickets totaled 48% of all Navigation Centers’ exits. Unfortunately, it is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of Homeward Bound, because the city has no procedure for tracking what happens when you arrive at your destination, besides a follow-up phone call 30 days later. Anecdotal evidence from social workers and activists suggests that many people bused out of the city eventually return, unable to find long-term housing at the other end.
That San Francisco regards an “exit” through Homeward Bound as “successful housing” when evaluating the Navigation Centers illustrates the basic function of the program: the city is not really concerned with whether a person finds long-term housing, it is primarily focused on ensuring that the unhoused person is “gone,” and no longer a burden on “the system.” Jeff Kositsky, the director of the city’s new Homelessness Department, reiterated this logic of managing the “flow” of bodies that defines the Navigation Centers: “From a systemic level, anybody that we can divert out of our system means that there’s going to be more flow in the system. More people get shelter, more people get housing, fewer people become chronically homeless.” Bilal Ali, a man living at a city shelter, proposed a more appropriate title for Homeward Bound: “Get your ass out of here.”
According to Arreguín’s website, the Pathways project will also include resources for “rapid rehousing” assistance, citing “regional” success in similar programs—again, we may consider San Francisco as the model. The vast majority of people who receive assistance through San Francisco’s rapid rehousing are relocated outside of the city; in 2017, approximately 88% of families in rapid rehousing were forced to leave the city, sometimes as far away as Stockton and Sacramento. The more remote from San Francisco, the more these families are disconnected from their communities and familiar networks of support, and the more likely they are to return homeless after the subsidies expire. Close to half of unhoused families fail out of similar rapid rehousing in Seattle, and many end up worse off than before entering the program.
As with Homeward Bound, it is difficult to accurately assess San Francisco’s rapid rehousing because the program does not track families beyond one year of rental assistance. After the subsidies run out, many families may end up homeless again because they are unable to find sufficient income to pay rising rents, whether in San Francisco or elsewhere. According to a May 2017 report by a researcher at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare, the status of more than 60% of families was unknown after one year of rental assistance through rapid rehousing. This study was challenged by city officials, one of whom reported: “We find 88% outside of SF and 93% within SF were stably housed. RRH (rapid rehousing) programs work.” But the city calculates “stably housed” as a percentage of only those families whose status is known—once a family is “out of the system,” they are no longer the city’s concern.
“Pathways” to Gentrification
A recent New York Times article largely blamed Berkeley’s housing crisis on “NIMBY” activists who abuse the city’s appeals process to oppose any construction that increases urban density. It is easy to stifle new construction through low-cost bureaucratic procedures, and a small group of committed residents can delay a project for months or even years. But this explanation misses a more fundamental dynamic: city governments are dependent on huge amounts of private investment capital to finance construction projects. Lenders loan money for housing based on a property’s expected income—if a property’s projected rents are fixed at “affordable” levels, investors will not risk enough capital to fund the project. This is the basic, intuitive economic mechanism of gentrification: it is more profitable to eliminate people who cannot afford high rents and replace them with people who can.
Despite the resistance of vocal “NIMBY” residents, new housing is being built. A Berkeleyside report last year on the city’s “housing pipeline” documented permits for nearly 1,500 housing units issued over the past three years. The overwhelming majority of approved permits—1,272 out of 1,429 units—were issued for “above moderate” income targets, or households with 120% of the area median income (Berkeley’s median household income is currently $70,000 per year). In the same period, the city issued zero permits for “extremely low” income units (less than 30% of median income). The logic of Berkeley’s city planning aligns well with that of private capital: urgently remove low-income groups to encourage an influx of high-income renters.
The Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) is part of California state law requiring that cities build certain numbers of housing units according to income distribution. There are many criticisms of the RHNA’s methodology for determining housing allocation goals—notably, a Haas Institute study found significant “racial bias” in allocation targets, where cities with larger white populations (including Berkeley) received a significantly smaller allocation of low-income housing. Even though its allocation of low-income units is relatively small, the city of Berkeley is still nowhere near meeting its targets. From January 2014 to November 2017, the city built zero percent of allocated units for “extremely low income” (0 of 266); 34% of units for “very low income” (91 of 266); 14% of units for “low income” (66 of 442); and zero percent of units for “moderate income” (0 of 584). In the same three-year period, the city has built 90% of units allocated for “above moderate” income (1,272 of 1,429).
Who was responsible for approving these building permits? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the construction projects were authorized by some of the very same people pushing the ill-conceived “Pathways” project and the non-existent “1,000 Person Plan” for affordable housing. In the 1980s, City Councilwoman Linda Maio founded Resources for Community Development, a firm that has been involved in many “token” affordable housing projects in the East Bay; but during her tenure on the Berkeley City Council she consistently supported the pro-developer bloc of former Mayor Tom Bates, who accelerated the aggressive gentrification we are witnessing today. Councilwoman Sophie Hahn was a senior member of the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board responsible for approving and denying building permits; she oversaw the approval of over 2,500 housing units over the past several years, overwhelmingly for high-income residents. These are not bold champions of the poor and working class—they did almost nothing to mitigate the profit motive of luxury developers and their investors.
As a city councilman, Arreguín joined City Councilmen Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson in a so-called “progressive” bloc against Tom Bates’ group; but Arreguín could only be described as a “progressive” in comparison to the naked venality of Bates. Many of the new luxury apartments popping up in and around downtown Berkeley were approved during Arreguín’s tenure as a councilman for District 4; in 2016, Arreguín also signed off on a $13 million tax break for construction of a high-rise hotel at the Bank of America lot on Shattuck and Center. Arreguín oversaw the creation of a “Business Improvement District” for improving the “cleanliness” and “marketability” of downtown Berkeley—this gave rise to the infamous neon green-uniformed “ambassadors” who have terrorized and intimidated unhoused people (as seen, for example, in this viral video).
The city officials’ general disdain for unhoused people is apparent in their decision to locate the “STAIR Center” and “Bridge Living Community” in one of the most environmentally unsafe neighborhoods in the city, at Second Street and Cedar by the Eastshore Highway. This area suffers from combined pollution from the freeway, the railroad, and the factories nearby. One resident described the pollution as a “nightmare” and complained that her house is “always covered in dust.” The environmental watchdog Global Community Monitor conducted air quality tests of the neighborhood in 2007, and called the site Berkeley’s “dirty little toxic secret,” describing a toxic footprint that extends several blocks around the Pacific Steel Casting foundry on Second and Gilman. In 2009, the Bay Area Air Quality Management district appeared to collude with the steel plant to withhold information from the public regarding the extent of pollution in the area. The planned shelters are only two blocks from the site of a recent two-alarm fire at the Berkeley Asphalt Company; in 2016, the City of Berkeley was sued for allegedly dumping polluted stormwater from the City Transfer Station and Recycling Center close by. Astonishingly, the official Pathways proposal states there are “no environmental impacts” to be considered for the project.
I do not believe the city officials advancing the Pathways project have performed due diligence in researching the structural mechanisms of housing insecurity. Hahn said last year that the “outreach” and “recruitment” components of Pathways could “disprove the idea that many homeless individuals do not want help.” This idea simply does not require ‘disproving’—the 2017 Homeless Census & Survey for Berkeley showed only 3% of survey respondents were homeless “by choice,” and not interested in housing. Hahn also described homelessness as “our home-grown refugee crisis“—but unhoused people in Berkeley are not “refugees” from somewhere else. The census showed that 76% of unhoused people were living in Alameda County at the time of housing loss; of that number, more than 50% had lived in Alameda County for ten years or more.
The Pathways project does not create any new services for unhoused people. People will be temporarily sheltered at the STAIR Center or Bridge Living Community, and once they return to the street (if they are not removed from the city), they will continue to receive case management, health care, and counseling “through existing services.” But 93% of unhoused people are already receiving some form of services from the city—the primary issue is not access to services. The problem is that these services do not work to address the structural causes of homelessness. The most common cause of housing loss across all subpopulations surveyed was money issues. When asked what would most help them remain housed, 39% of those surveyed said employment, 33% said rent assistance, and 26% said benefits or increased income (followed by mental health services (22%) and food assistance (13%)). These must be the primary points of emphasis for any policy moving forward.
Implementing “Housing First”
All current proposals for increasing access to affordable housing are based on increasing the total supply of housing. We must ask ourselves: can the market ultimately produce enough cheap housing if market mechanisms are specifically structured against housing affordability? The Affordable Housing Mitigation Fee forces developers to choose between building a certain percentage of affordable housing units or paying a fee into the city’s Housing Trust Fund for future affordable housing construction. This process for subsidizing affordable housing has clearly failed—last month, the city depleted the entire fund ($2.2 million) to construct just 53 housing units for homeless and 89 housing units for low-income residents in the Berkeley Way project. Pro-construction groups argue that increasing the supply of market-rate housing will deflate the price of housing overall—but by the time these units are built and ready for leasing, it may be too late for many people who are living on the streets of Berkeley today, and for those who are one missed paycheck away from losing their home.
Arreguín has repeatedly claimed that the Pathways project is a “Housing First” approach to homelessness, but the project proposal contains no meaningful recommendations for providing permanent housing. More than a year later, the city still has no plan for housing. There are several policies the city should pursue immediately to prioritize housing the homeless and protecting those who are at imminent risk of losing their homes—these are not radical proposals; they represent the minimum the city can do to implement a genuine “Housing First” policy.
- Develop new sources of financing the Housing Trust Fund and create a new fund for direct housing assistance
The Housing Trust Fund is the primary financial instrument used by the city to provide affordable housing—but all of the money from this fund goes in building new housing. A new fund should be created for money that can be disbursed directly to people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity, in the form of new subsidies and services. The city should develop new policies for increasing municipal revenue toward these funds; for example:
- The city should institute a vacancy tax on both residential and commercial properties. The city is already considering a tax on vacant commercial properties, but it should also immediately begin research into the feasibility of a residential vacancy tax, which is currently being proposed in both Oakland and San Francisco. The city should not subsidize the “beautification” of vacant storefronts, as was recently recommended by the CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association.
- The Affordable Housing Mitigation Fee is a per-unit fee paid by developers who choose not to build a certain percentage of affordable units; the city should conduct a new feasibility study to determine if the mitigation fee can be further increased from its current level of $37,000 per unit and if the threshold proportion of affordable units can be significantly raised from its current level of 20%. The city should also make a percentage of the money raised from these fees available for direct housing assistance.
- Preliminary research indicates that Airbnb and similar services have an inflationary effect on rents and housing prices by decreasing the supply of housing. The city should consider increasing its transient occupancy tax on short-term rentals, for example by imposing higher fees on multi-unit hosts. This tax revenue currently goes into the city’s General Fund; the city should instead require that the money be used to fund programs related to housing insecurity.
- Develop a package of combined rental and employment assistance to provide immediate housing within Berkeley
- Research shows that paying for permanent housing is significantly cheaper than temporary shelter and intermittent services due to the extraordinarily high costs of health care and law enforcement related to homelessness. According to the city budget for FY 2018 and FY 2019, there are currently 3,754 vacant housing units in Berkeley. The city could house hundreds of unhoused people today by providing a subsidy for market-rate rent in these vacant units. The city should immediately conduct a study on the costs of a rental assistance subsidy for market-rate units using data provided by the Rent Stabilization Board, including a comparative analysis of the costs of law enforcement and health care based on studies like the economic-impact analysis performed by the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness.
- This subsidy should be integrated with an aid program that provides job training, work placement, and counseling (in addition to food aid and child care) as participants pursue stable employment. Once affordable housing is available from new construction projects, participants can immediately move into the new affordable units—this prevents total displacement and allows long-time Berkeley residents to remain in the city where they have a familiar community and networks of support. The city should create special eligibility criteria for university students who are currently excluded from subsidized housing because they are claimed as “dependents” on income tax returns. These programs would be financed by the new fund for direct housing assistance described above.
- Significantly strengthen tenant protections to prevent homelessness before it occurs
The majority of unhoused people in Berkeley were residents of Berkeley at the time of housing loss, and the primary cause of housing loss was an inability to pay rent. A “Housing First” policy must prioritize preventing homelessness before it occurs—it is therefore critical to reform the eviction process.
- The city does not offer any assistance to prevent tenants from entering the eviction process—money from the city’s Housing Retention Fund is only available to people who have already failed to pay rent and have been served with an eviction lawsuit. In other words, the city intervenes only when the tenant is vulnerable to “summary judgment” without a trial, through the expedited “unlawful detainer” process designed to help landlords remove tenants as swiftly as possible. The city should make housing retention funds available to tenants before the eviction process begins—for example, by requiring a three-day notice rather than an eviction notice. To facilitate this program, the city could amend the Tenant Protection Ordinance to extend the length of the three-day notice requirement, to allow sufficient time to vet a grant application before an eviction lawsuit can be filed. The city should eliminate the requirement of providing a W-9 tax form signed by the landlord, who has a huge financial incentive not to cooperate with the tenant. The city should also increase the $5,000 cap on grant awards and allow tenants to apply for grants more than once.
- The city should pursue major reforms of the Rent Stabilization Board and its legal aid institutions, specifically the Eviction Defense Center (EDC) and East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC). These institutions do not provide effective legal representation to tenants facing eviction—in the vast majority of cases, they do not provide representation at all. Tenants typically receive standard “boilerplate” forms and some minimal counseling to defend themselves in an eviction process that overwhelmingly favors landlords. Tenants are discouraged from using legal instruments like demurrers which can significantly delay the eviction process. Even in cases of transparently illegal and retaliatory evictions, tenants are encouraged to file an answer (effectively signaling the legitimacy of the lawsuit) and reach a settlement, rather than motion to sanction the landlord. In some cases, tenants are not allowed to participate in their own settlement negotiations, and they are pressured into signing unfavorable agreements (e.g. increased monthly rent or excessive back rent) that place them at immediate risk of re-entering the eviction process.
As a rule, the Rent Stabilization Board does not proactively investigate tenant reports of landlord misconduct, and it requires tenants to undergo a lengthy petition process (typically without an attorney) that effectively “runs out the clock”: because eviction lawsuits are significantly expedited, tenants can be evicted before the Rent Board even schedules a hearing. There is only anecdotal evidence of these kinds of outcomes because the city does not require any audit of the Rent Board or its eviction defense programs. Last year the city gave $300,000 to the Rent Board to fund its contracts with the EDC and EBCLC, without conducting any policy analysis of these organizations. There is no detailed public accounting of the services these institutions provide. The annual “impact report” produced by the EBCLC is more of a marketing or fundraising document than a genuine accounting of the legal challenges facing low-income tenants (in fact, 7 out of 20 pages are dedicated to lists of donors). The EDC website has no annual report at all.
The city should require the Rent Stabilization Board to produce a semi-annual report of eviction data, and a detailed annual review of the status and effectiveness of its eviction defense programs: at minimum, how many cases, what types of cases, the form of assistance provided, demographics of tenants receiving assistance, and case outcomes. Requiring public disclosure of these data will facilitate much-needed research into legal aid reform by providing greater insight into the mechanisms of displacement and the effectiveness of techniques for preventing displacement. The city should also require the Rent Board to produce a detailed historical record of evictions in the City of Berkeley, to improve the quality of public data available for researchers studying housing insecurity. Inexplicably, the Rent Board only maintains public records of Ellis Act and Measure Y evictions; even San Francisco, hardly a model of tenant rights, produces significantly more detailed annual reports of eviction data. The city should demand the highest level of transparency in the Rent Board’s public records and accounting.
- The city should guarantee the right to an attorney for any low-income resident in an eviction proceeding. In 2009, the State of California passed the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act which created pilot programs for pro bono legal counsel to low-income parties in civil cases “involving basic human needs.” The bill’s sponsor explained the importance of this kind of protection: “You can be arrested for stealing a small amount of food—a box of Twinkies from a convenience store—and you’re entitled to counsel. But if your house is on the line… you don’t have the same right to counsel.” Last August, New York City passed the first-ever law guaranteeing a right to counsel in housing cases; this “civil Gideon” protection has not yet been implemented at a statewide level in California, but San Francisco supervisors are currently considering a similar proposal. The city should immediately conduct a study on the feasibility and costs of a program to guarantee legal counsel in housing cases.
- Vacate laws that seek to criminalize poverty, and require the Downtown Berkeley Association to provide services and employment to unhoused people
- The Pathways project is an elaborate justification for intensified policing of homeless encampments, without providing permanent housing to the vast majority of unhoused people in Berkeley. Poverty is structurally guaranteed in a society based on constant redistribution of resources to a wealthy minority; it cannot be eliminated simply by making it illegal. As civil rights activist Carol Denney wrote in an apt criticism of the project last year, “Criminalizing people with nowhere to go is unethical, a ridiculous assault on the dignity of everybody involved, including the police, a civil rights violation according to many legal decisions, and (a politician’s most persuasive factor) expensive.” Laws against sleeping, sheltering, and begging reinforce the causes of homelessness by funneling unhoused people through the criminal justice system—where they must take on the additional burdens of fines, fees, and criminal records, further obstructing access to housing, employment, and counseling. These laws primarily serve the interests of real estate developers and their investors, who understand that visible poverty has a detrimental effect on sales and property values.
- The Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA) oversees the downtown “Business Improvement District” (BID), a group of businesses that use a special property tax (an “assessment”) to fund “environmental and economic enhancements.” A major component of these “enhancements” is eliminating “disruptive street behavior,” including begging and camping in public—for example, members of the DBA actively campaigned for the infamous 2012 “anti-sitting” law which would have banned sitting on sidewalks in the city’s business districts from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Arreguín has consistently encouraged the DBA’s agenda and, because public property downtown is subject to the BID’s “assessment,” the city directly subsidizes its programs. Section 36642 of the Streets and Highways Code gives the city council authority to modify the activities funded with revenue from BID assessments—the city should require that a significant portion of the BID’s funds be diverted to programs related to housing insecurity. The city should also require that these businesses provide significantly more jobs to unhoused people through new employment assistance programs.
The city of Berkeley must urgently come up with answers for the lack of affordable housing. The Pathways project, which relies entirely upon San Francisco’s problematic example, is not a solution: San Francisco is not a model for affordable housing, it is a model for effective gentrification. Unfortunately, this model is entirely consistent with the program of Berkeley city officials over the past few decades. In Berkeley’s city government, “progressivism” is usually elitism draped in false nostalgia for the city’s history of militant activism. Although Arreguín often touts Berkeley’s status as a “sanctuary city,” his policies may soon help the city become a “sanctuary for the rich.” Arreguin wishes to be remembered as an activist against gentrification; time will tell if he is remembered as an agent of it.