Opinion: The moral case against Measure O, the $135 million housing bond measure on the Berkeley ballot

Measure O would cost taxpayers $280 million (including interest) but its claim to provide “affordable housing” is vague and there is no oversight mechanism.

Dressed in the usual meaningless liberal finery, Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s recent Berkeleyside op-ed arguing in favor of Measure O maintains that in exchange for the “relatively small price” of $280 million of your money ($135 million in principal and $145 million in interest), you get to solve the decades-old and persistent affordable housing crisis plaguing Berkeley.

Included in the vague and exceedingly expansive definition of the solution to this crisis are:

  • Housing more than 1,000 homeless people supposedly already here. Note that the argument does not address how to house the replacement homeless who will certainly arrive.
  • Subsidizing the housing of various other deserving groups including veterans, seniors, nurses, teachers, and “other vulnerable” victim-groups. Parenthetically, I am somewhat surprised by the omission of police from this list, since they are certainly a victim-group and further, like nurses and teachers, they are all fleeing Berkeley. On second thought, I am not so surprised by Arreguín’s overlooking the police since they are unlikely candidates to vote for him.
  • Leveraging unspecified “other funding” from the state and possibly the federal government. Essentially, Arreguín promises to get some money back from taxes already paid to solve this problem at the state and federal level.

Note the stunning and certainly not-accidental vagueness of this definition: No metrics, no operational goals, no limits on the number or size of the eligible groups, no timetables, nothing but an empty field for spending $280 million. Check the city web page on Measure O and if you do, you will find precisely the same vagueness – indeed you will find the exact same language.

The net effect of this vagueness is that Measure O will enable the City to spend the $135 million of principal on just about anything it wants. And consistent with the results of past bond measures on equally exigent matters e.g. Measures T1, M, I AA, BB, A, B, S, etc., the city will do just that.

In contrast to the vagueness of the proposed solution, Measure O is very specific as to the means of accomplishing this final solution to the affordable housing crisis. Here is the money quote: “bonds will provide funds to help the city and its non-profit partners acquire” …. In legal terms, this is called specific inclusion and thus exclusion of the rest. That is, private and for-profit partners are excluded. Why would the city exclude the use of the most cost-effective mechanism to provide affordable housing – the so-called private/public partnerships?  If you doubt this claim consult Public/Private Partnerships for Local Governments by Oliver Porter.

By the way, the answer to the question posed above is that the city and the “non-profits” are political allies. Indeed, I would say that they are more than political allies in the sense that they are just separate parts of the same political machine whose only source of funding is bond monies. Or you might go even further and suggest that the non-profits are essentially money laundering facilities for the city.

Another enlightening quote from the mayor’s argument deals with the potential problem of voter anxiety over transparency. Here is the quote “Both measures will be subject to rigorous independent audits and annual reviews.”

Is the mayor talking about compliance audits or about performance audits?  Compliance audits only assure that the money was received and spent according to accounting rules.  Performance audits evaluate how effectively the money was spent – that is, how much of the stated purpose was achieved.

Maybe the mayor should think back to the transparency provided for Measures M and T1. Both measures had the same language on the issue: “independent audits and annual review.” There was NO independent audit (say Rand Corp.) nor annual reviews (presented in open forum to the public with measures of performance) on either of these still outstanding bond measures.

Indeed, by its own admission, the city does not have any performance measures, published or not, on these measures. Do you, the readers, know where and how efficiently the more than $130 million provided under these measures will be spent?  Hint: as Isabelle Gaston has shown, under Measure M, streets have apparently actually deteriorated.

Based on my extensive experience with city computer systems, and replies from Berkeley to my Public Records Act requests, I believe the city’s financial management system is in such disarray that it does not have the capacity to perform a performance audit on Measure O funds.

In effect, what the mayor calls transparency is really is just the same deceptive window dressing of past bond measures.

So, stripped of its liberal rhetoric, Arreguín’s argument in support of Measure O offers the usual moral bargain:

  • for approximately $280 million dollars you can buy absolution from your inhumane and intolerable indifference to the homeless. In effect, it is a modern-day example of the medieval church’s practice of selling indulgences.
  • Further, you have to trust the mayor that your money will buy absolution – that is, that he will spend it in a manner best calculated to buy favor in heaven. I am dubious.

Here is my moral proposition: Vote no on Measure O and then:

  1. In the event that Measure O deservedly fails, spend the equivalent tax savings on directly relieving the homelessness and affordable housing problems in a manner of your choice. There are many public and private channels for addressing this problem including the Salvation Army, Catholic and other religious charities, and many public and private agencies that do provide efficient, effective, and transparent use of your money.
  2. Speak out against the moral bullies and virtue signaling politicians who attempt to impose a simplistic and self-serving narrative about a difficult problem. Condemn their selling indulgences and demand government reform.

And then, finally, take back your city.

Robert Krumme is a structural engineer and researcher specializing in seismic design, the founder of the award-winning Seismic Technical Advisory Panel, and a former member of various Berkeley commissions, including the Public Works Commission.