Making Sure Berkeley’s ‘Riff Raff’ Can’t Afford to Live Here Anymore: Thoughts on Being without a Home in 5 Days

Renting in Berkeley (2)
2015 Copyright Dr. Amie “Breeze” Harper, The Sistah Vegan Project

Over the last month or two, I have shared with my fans that we have been searching for housing. We live in Berkeley. There appears to be 1 home for every 2.5 home-seeking folk in the Berkeley and surrounding areas.

We have found nothing yet. We must move out August 30. We are trying to figure out what to do since school starts in Berkeley after we move. Our 6 year old is already in the school system. We will most likely live in motels far away (too expensive in the immediate area) and have to drive out everyday to the school in Berkeley where our son is enrolled. We can’t even find a sublet at this point. We do assume that it will be easier to find a place after everyone has come back for the new UC Berkeley school year.

So far, we have been searching since March 2015. It’s a tough market. Seriously. We lose to people who don’twant  kids around in their place or we lose out to people who can offer far more than what is listed on the rental ad; in some cases, we have been told that people drop the entire first year’s rent, in cash, to the landlord to secure the place. A while ago, we thought we’d get a place that was 2 bedroom with an additional separate detached studio loft in the back. It was perfect… but the rental agency said the land lords didn’t want a family of 5 living there. When applying to a place in El Cerrito and attending the open house for the 3 bedroom place, the person showing the place was skeptical about whether it would be big enough for a family of 5. We kept on explaining that the kids all share a room and don’t care. (A majority of the world’s children’s population don’t all each have their own bedrooms. I loved sharing a bedroom with my twin brother, growing up. My mom shared a bedroom with 3 bunk beds and 6 sisters. Am I missing something here?)

Let’s face it. Over the last five years, the Berkeley area has become ridiculously over-priced. Same with Oakland, Albany, and Kesington. Alameda and El Cerrito seem to be going that same direction. It’s nearly impossible to find something for working class to lower-middle class people that doesn’t put one into barely making ends meet. Those who locked in a place to rent, years ago, are not moving, in fear that the same type of housing would be 1.5 – 2x more expensive than what they are paying for now. Thankfully, Berkeley has rent control and excellent renter’s rights policies. We were in the same boat (low rent from years ago) until our landlords announced that they would be moving back to live in the house. Our place was a great find and we had planned to never leave.

Right now we are in a transition period and searching for permanent or temporary/sublet housing. If we can stay in this area another month, and wait for housing to become more available (assuming that once the University folk move back, there will be more availability), we would gladly sublet something for 1-2 months. If you can point me to a place in the Berkeley area (and surrounding towns) that would be fantastic.

And of course, we are searching for a more permanent option for a family of 5. We are open to co-op housing as well.

We need something by this week. August 30 2015 is our last day here.

One of my favorite scholars, Steve Martinot, wrote this piece in June 2015 about gentrification in Berkeley and the surrounding areas (which inspired me to create the infographic at the beginning of the blog). Great food for thought. It made me think about how I moved to Berkeley/Oakland area, 8 years ago, because the major players in social justice, diversity,  food justice, etc were here. I wanted my PhD program to be in such an environment with rich history. I wanted to continue to build with these communities. I don’t want to lose this and living 60-80 minutes a way makes it hard for me to build and engage in more social justice/food justice work I have been doing for 8 years here.  My husband has a PhD in astrophysics and is a research scientist at Cal. He received a coveted post-doctoral position to work with George Smoot, the Nobel prize winning scholar in physics which is why we moved here 8 years ago (he is now a research scientist at Cal). His work is here. His research and science community are here.  …so, if these communities of color/working class/lower-middle class folk like us eventually can’t afford to live here, then what will Berkeley and the surrounding areas begin to look like, 10 years from now? How do we do the good work for society (the social justice research, the innovative research in science) when we don’t even have the stability of affordable housing?


Gentrification and the Corporate Structure – Berkeley Daily Planet, July 7, 2015
By Steve Martinot


The issue of affordable housing in Berkeley (and elsewhere) has become a battlefield, one that will affect all neighborhoods in Berkeley. Because the need is great, and housing is a human right (by international standards), many social movements, local and citywide, have arisen to get that need fulfilled. But if housing is a human
right, why are political movements needed to obtain that right? After all, doesn’t capitalism function best (and profit most) by producing for extant social needs? Why is there a battlefield? Because indeed diametric interests confront each other – humans needing housing we can afford, and corporations whose needs are for economic control over markets.

Underneath this confrontation, serious political purposes lurk. Various government concerns – ABAG, the Plan Bay Area, and the financialization of the region – are in operation. ABAG’s purpose is to reverse the “white flight” to the suburbs that occurred during the the 60s and 70s. At that time, massive social movements targetted “Jim Crow,” and fought to enable people of color to become full members of US society. Though racial discrimination was never fully abolished (it persists in education and housing), the economy changed. Industry “ran away,” technology turned into technocracy, and a financial economy independent of production became a more facile source of profit, supplanting productive capital while controlling its destiny from its heights.

The heirs of those who fled are the suburban technocrats, professionals, and executives of the area’s three major industries: financiers, IT technicians, transportation managers and their underlying bureaucracies. Today they spend time in traffic jams that clog their lives and their ability to work. So ABAG seeks to bring them closer to their desks, and gilds this project with ecological tinsel, saying that city densification will curtail expressway traffic, and preserve the countryside by curtail urban sprawl. To facilitate this, massive construction of high income apartments and condos is required. And planned. It is a restructuring of the area to facilitate its role as a major capitol city for the Pacific Rim Economy.

That the Plan’s focus is on the very well-to-do is evinced by the absence of necessary infrastructure – enhanced public transportation, social services to enable low income people to deal with inflation, and affordable housing. Instead, funding of services is cut, and mitigations are enhanced that enable developers to avoid including affordable units. In other words, communities and life styles will be sacrificed to the wealthy, and moved out to the suburbs to replace the former commuters.

Many white people think they can weather this storm as people of color leave because they live in the development industry’s target areas. Berkeley’s black community is now a third of what it was a decade ago. Many people of color wonder how it is that a version of the old time colonialism has resurfaced, without everyone noticing, and why they and working class whites are the one’s who must move out of town. It is a corporate process, but with a racialized dimension.

The corporate picture
The fundamental operations of corporate developers
Developers are corporate businesses. They operate on the basis of profit. A developer (corporation) will buy land or real estate where prices are lowest, so that when it sells the building and real estate to the next owner (and some of these buildings go through three or four owners before construction is even finished), its profit will be maximized. Working class neighborhoods generally have lower valued real estate, which is why workers find they can afford to live there. When real estate values go up, or rent levels rise – perhaps because the area is targetted for development – low income people find themselves forced to find other low priced areas. This is especially true for black and brown communities, where real estate values have been keep low by redlining and segregation (banks restricting loans to black and brown people, charging higher mortgage rates, restricting employment, discriminatory hiring and union membership, low funding for education, etc.). Without access to credit, property owners have trouble renovating or improving their properties. Without access to advanced employment opportunities, communities suffer forms of cultural famine. The purpose of segregation may or may not have been to provide for land profitability, but it now provides the opportunity for high development profit.

Oddly enough, the Plan Bay Area broadcasts where the development areas are going to be (Priority Development Areas or PDAs). And Berkeley has actually published a list of properties that will be the targets of development in each of its four PDAs. That means that developers will face increased property values, as the property owners raise their asking prices in dealing with them. Three effects of this are foreseeable. (1) It will neutralize opposition to development among property owners. (2) It will set them against the social movements that demand affordable housing and political input into the process. (3) It will induce new buildings to be aimed at higher income use.

The corporate origins of Gentrification
Yet this doesn’t explain the conflict between corporations and affordable housing. Why do they find it unprofitable? It is not just inflation, raising the cost of materials and labor. And it does not stem from the difficulties low income families have in getting rent subsidies. It has to do with the corporate structure itself.

Affordable housing is housing whose rents or mortgage payments relate to the residents’ income, rather than to the value of the property or the real estate markets. “Affordable” is defined as no greater than 30% of a family’s income (specifically for those earning less than the area’s median income ($90,000 a year for this area).

Because the affordability of housing is controlled and regulated by political means – namely, land use permits, construction permits, rent control laws, and federal grant conditions – it is more difficult to recapitalize the building. When, in the course of construction, a developer to find itself out of funds, it will seek to sell the partially constructed building. This happened roughly three times for one building on San Pablo Ave. Each time it is sold, profit is made on the initial capital outlay, even though the process of construction may have been operating at a loss, because the actual construction process, the debt structure that finances it, and the investment holdings that manage the finances are divided among different corporate entities (from constrators to holding companies). The debt structure can be reconfigured by recapitalizing the assets (stock, land, etc.), limiting losses to lower levels of operation, with profit made through recapitalization and sale at the higher levels.

Thus, for a developer, the nature of the building is immaterial; what counts is the ability to recapitalize, and the stability of its securities on the securities markets. Since short term debt is acquired using capital assets (usually stock) as collateral, any drop in its stock price will diminish the value of that collateral, and require supplementation, which could easily threatens financial crisis. If cash must be used, the borrower can easily run out of funds, and be unable to meet its wage bill (for instance).

So the corporation must operate to keep its securities attractive on the securities markets (demand maintains price levels). And the need to deal with political regulation mars that attractiveness. Capital will flee that developer’s securities.

Capitalism may operate to meet human demands, but corporations operate to meet financial demands. They do so by creating securities demand, to the detriment of human demands. For this reason, developer-financed buildings must cater to an upper income class of people, and engage in larger projects which move greater amounts of money, producing higher earnings within the financial domain. In short, the financial survival of development corporations depends on an expanded level of gentrification, to which affordable housing and community character are sacrificed. The drive for gentrification is systemic, peculiar to the corporate structure.

The racialized picture
The racialized dimension to this has already been suggested. It has been evident in the continual relocations of people of color – from SF to Oakland and Berkeley, now out of Oakland and Berkeley to El Sobrante or San Leandro, etc. Rents go up, services are cut, destitution and crime increase, and people move out. Speculators move in, buy up buildings and sell them to developers at a profit. In other words, the presence of more homeless people, who are precisely the ones who need housing most, become the means of clearing an area in order to build housing for richer people, who don’t need it so badly.

Sadly, many white working class communities ignore the logic of this process. Those who feel that race is the real problem welcome the processes that induce that relocation. Later, they will be unable to resist when the same process is turned on themselves.

Racialization is a vestigial product of colonialism, invented as a way of ruling conquered peoples and justifying settlements. It persists as white supremacist hegemony (the power of white people to have far-reaching social impact on people of color, which people of color do not have) and a complex social hierarchy. The terrible massacre that just occurred in South Carolina is only a direct expression of this sense of hegemony. The history of racialization begins with slavery (a form of prison labor), continues through Jim Crow with its chain gangs, plantation contract labor and rural debt servitude, and now takes the form of the largest prison system in the world, fed by racial profiling and persisting segregation in education and housing. It produces neighborhoods on which corporate development can opportune.

Direct Democracy vs. Representationism
Corporate need is incommensurable with social need. It is a conflict between human concerns and financial interest. What benefits one becomes a detriment for the other. They confront each other in ghostly battle. Yet housing remains a human right. To withhold it by whatever means (economic or political) is to violate human rights.

Corporate interest may proclaim itself to be the public interest; it rarely looks that way to the people displaced. When it appears in the form of gentrification, those displaced are thrown into the silence of distance. No nice-sounding platitudes will bridge the gap. One side pays for land and buildings; the other side organizes social resistance. One side monopolizes the flow of information; the other side depends on word of mouth, discourse and meetings. One side buys politicians in the present; the other can only vote for or against them in the future.

The political decisions that foster gentrification are made by agencies like ABAG or city planning departments that also dispense with major human concerns. Cuts in social funding, racial profiling, and the substitution of comments in hearings for participation are all methods by which a city government clears the land for corporate development.

Finally, there is a continual demonization of social movements for “opposing” development. However, it is not development these neighborhood movements oppose, but elite settlement that will devastate their communities. They are demanding development at a human level. The job is to transform political acquiescence to elite development into a social process for affordable development.

The problem for communities is how to gain democratic participation in planning, and not be simply restricted to “public comment,” as if that were input. It is how to create conduits by which to implement local collective decisions. If we are to rescue our city from the corporate jaws preparing to consume it, the democratization of development is a necessary place to start. That doesn’t mean electing other representatives, but locating the power to decide locally in the neighborhoods.

Today, we elect representatives who represent nothing and talk politics elsewhere. Democracy would mean people talking politics, making decisions, and electing representatives to represent those decisions. Development will be democratized when local neighborhoods have the ability to make development decisions in dialogue with developers, before the developers go to get their permits.

Source: http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2015-07-06/article/43454?headline=Gentrification-and-the-Corporate-Structure–Steve-Martinot


Like what the Sistah Vegan Project Does? Find out about our 2016 upcoming conference “The Role of Foodie+Tech Culture in an Era of Systemic Racism and Neoliberal Capitalism”. If you missed our Spring 2015, “The Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter” you can download the recordings with slides, here

Also, learn about our other projects and how you can donate to keep the Sistah Vegan Project alive and vibrant.

7 thoughts on “Making Sure Berkeley’s ‘Riff Raff’ Can’t Afford to Live Here Anymore: Thoughts on Being without a Home in 5 Days

  1. Gentrification and rent prices are completely out of control in the SF Bay Area. I’ve shared your story on Facebook and hope that someone comes through with a lead. Best of luck to you.

  2. Oh no!! I hope you find somewhere soon. I suppose moving more south in the East Bay is cheaper. Best of luck, to you and your family!!

    1. We are trying to figure that all out. Because we’d need an extra car, the farther away we move and I would need to figure out how both me and my husband (works in Berkeley) would get to our work. I’m sure we will figure it out. Thanks for reading!

    2. Of course we could move in with our parents who live very far away. For me, that is at least something. The downside is that my mom and dad live in the middle of rural new england, so there is little economic/job opportunity, despite the cheaper housing. It’s all pros and cons, you know? But, at least we have that. I know a lot of people don’t have that. I am thankful.

  3. A landlord not wanting to rent to a family of 5 and stating this to a broker is 100% illegal. I’m sure it’s difficult to prove since it’s not in writing but I wonder if you could somehow follow through on this even if just a symbolic gesture to let people know that it’s NOT OKAY to discriminate against families never minding all of the other kinds of crazy racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic and other kinds of discrimination carried out daily in housing negotiations. Wishing you the best in your housing search.

Add a Mindful Comment (No Trolling Please)