Although many in Berkeley profess a Buddhist sensibility, meditate, and even have a Buddhist practice, there seems not to be much of a middle way in Berkeley politics.
Kate Harrison, up for re-election in Berkeley City Council District 4, tries to find that middle way and has discovered that, in Berkeley, it is not necessarily the path to serenity.
In this vein, I’d like to engage what appear to be the most contentious issues in Berkeley politics: the Berkeley police force, housing, and homelessness.
Let’s start with the Berkeley police. On one side there are activists who forget that Berkeley has an excellent police department, among the best in the country, and certainly not comparable to Ferguson, Missouri. On the other hand, there are those who would prefer to put aside the realities of racial disparities in Berkeley police stops that a recent report from the UCLA Center for Policing Equity identified. That’s why Harrison was the principal author of a reform of the Police Review Commission and revisions to the police department’s policies about the use of force.
The proposed Charter Amendment was not placed on the ballot for November because the required “meet and confer” between the city and the Berkeley Police Association was not complete.
In a polarized atmosphere, it’s been very hard to have a discussion about the need for appropriate disaster training for the police and fire departments and the reality that the current available disaster training had been embedded in the highly militarized and right-wing connected Urban Shield program run by the Alameda County sheriff. Harrison worked very hard to have the City Council address this issue by pulling out of the most objectionable parts of Urban Shield and leaving Berkeley in the Community Preparedness Fair and Emergency Exercises. Her proposal did not pass the City Council, but perhaps it helped persuade the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to shift the direction of Urban Shield.
Now let’s go on to housing policy in Berkeley. Trying to unravel the different expressed concerns and viewpoints about housing in Berkeley is best left to Talmudic scholars. Harrison has chosen to focus on some specific and tractable problems. One is that there are some 141 vacant buildings with 488 apartments in Berkeley and that the city has no process for requiring that owners rent them. Although making these units available to house people in the very short term appear as low hanging fruit, it is difficult to describe the obstacles that the city of Berkeley places in the way of addressing even the most direct of “no-brainer” issues. Harrison got an ordinance passed that clarified when the vacant units could be declared “an unlawful nuisance.”
Another is that the city needs a process to deal with vacant or abandoned properties, including apartment houses. There are two such buildings that are well known to District 4 residents, totaling around thirty apartments. One is on Roosevelt between Channing and Dwight and another is on the 1900 block of Delaware. Harrison soldiered on and introduced a vacancy fee on blighted, abandoned buildings. This proposal was adopted by the City Council.
I would have moved for the city to condemn and take possession of these abandoned properties. But, of course, I’m not on the City Council.
Many controversial housing issues in Berkeley involve the building of apartment houses, typically along transportation corridors and financed by private capital. Harrison supports these efforts and also works to have these projects contribute to affordable housing in Berkeley. But these projects generate controversy from all points of Berkeley’s political spectrum. Are the proposed apartment houses too high or not high enough? Should the requirements for supporting affordable housing be higher or lower? Is the proposed location appropriate or not? Will these requirements discourage development or is the prospect of building in Berkeley so enticing that developers will do just about anything to invest here?
And there are those who really don’t want any new housing in Berkeley.
How these issues are addressed on the Planning Commission, the Zoning Adjustment Board, and the Housing Advisory Commission is worthy of a dystopian Netflix series.
I have seen Kate work to negotiate this process with her constituents and within the City Council. She operates with much greater skill and patience than I would have.
Finally, let’s turn to Berkeley’s homeless population and face some complex and disturbing realities:
- Homelessness is a regional and national issue, one that requires a major investment that won’t be forthcoming under a Trump Administration and Republican-controlled government. Berkeley does not have the resources to fully provide housing and care for all of its homeless population. But Berkeley needs to use the resources that we do have in a better planned and consistent way. Harrison has done yeoman work in trying to get Berkeley to actually have a consistent and long-term plan. Neither of these comes easily in Berkeley.
- Berkeley needs to make provision for those homeless people whom it cannot shelter, some of whom acutely need care. Although there are many grassroots initiatives in support of homeless people in Berkeley, city policy about longer-term encampments is ephemeral. Harrison continues to try to find ways to have the city and various agencies address this issue.
- Berkeley needs to guarantee that our parks, neighborhoods, and streets do not become ad hoc unsanitary encampments with heaps of trash, needles, and other bad stuff. And, in fact, Harrison has taken quite a bit of flack for exercising balanced judgment on this issue and not ceding to the demands of some activists for the unfettered use of public space.
So, in my view, Harrison is trying to walk the middle way. I think that she is trying to engage all of these issues in a city government that finds it difficult to address complex issues. Not an easy path in Berkeley.
She has my vote.
Editor’s note: This op-ed has been updated to say Harrison found 488 vacant units in the city rather than 1,000.