To: self
From: Commissioner Thomas Lord
Subject: prepared comments
Date: 1 March 2018

In Honor

Today is Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 99th birthday.

Here is a quote from "The Poetic City That Was" (2001):

It took him some time to discover north beach, the italian and bohemian center of the city. But in a few days he found a big sunny flat for $65 a month and a huge painting studio for $29. There was no electricity above the ground floor, and he had a pot-bellied stove for heat. There was a whole new school of poets brewing, and there were pioneering artists around the school of fine arts who later became famous as san francisco figurative painters and abstract expressionists. it was the last frontier, and they were dancing on the edge of the world.

Fifty years later, he awoke one fine morning like Rip Van Winkle and found himself again with his sea bag on his shoulder, looking for anywhere he could live and work. The new owners of his old flat now wanted $2500 a month, and his studio was $3000 plus. Many of his friends were also evicted, for it seemed their buildings weren't owned by San Franciscans anymore but by faceless investors with venture capital. Corporate monoculture had wiped out any unique sense of place, turning the "island-city" into an artistic theme-park without artists. And he was on the street.

Item 5: Elections

[Item held over due to Chair's absence.]

Item 10: Home Share Pilot Program

I will be brief. I ask the Commission to support Vice Chair Wolfe's effort on this issue but not to support Vice Chair Wolfe's motion. I will offer a substitute motion.

I sympathize with the cause the Home Share program is meant to advance. Aging in place and housing for young adults are important issues. I think it is important to think about these things. Bravo to the Vice Chair for exploring a new idea.

When we vote on Vice Chair Wolfe's item, however, it is very important that all of us remember: we're not voting on that concept. We're not voting on that general idea. We're voting about very specific actions -- we're voting on a plan of action.

I don't think this item offers a good plan of action.

A "Request for Qualifications" is generally a process in which a buyer, such as the City of Berkeley, pre-qualifies those who wish to bid for some contract.

An RFQ streamlines the bidding process, by identifying the serious and qualified bidders early on.

This may be confusing because in the famous case of the BRIDGE project on Berkeley Way, the RFQ yielded one non-competitive entry, one competitive entry from BRIDGE, and a polite letter from a potential competitor to BRIDGE who observed that the fix appeared already to be in and that they therefore wouldn't apply. That RFQ essentially failed, establishing a non-competitive award of the project to BRIDGE.

But normally an RFQ would be to identify and vette a pool of competitors, in expectation they'd later bid on an RFP.

For example, as a purely hypothetical case, let's suppose that the City had the money and was ready do some preservation and seismic upgrade of the historic Maudelle Shirek City Hall Building. We might imagine that to work on that vintage building requires a general contractor with very specific expertise dealing with historic buildings of that era. An RFQ would help the City figure out if there are suitably qualified contractors who might be interested -- and to identify who those might be.

In one sense, we already know who are the potential bidders for a home share contract with Berkeley. The Vice Chair has put them on the agenda in January and February and now we are remembering them in March.

In another sense, this program is such a vague idea at this stage that we really don't have any idea what the qualifications might be -- we aren't in a position to even begin writing an RFQ. We know who the candidates are -- but not quite what the job is.

For example, no work has been done yet to identify what should be Berkeley's position on the issues of:

We either don't really need an RFQ because we can already name the competitors, or, viewed the other way, aren't anywhere close to issuing an RFQ and more groundwork can be done first.

As written, this item seems to acknowledge that because it instructs the Council that the HAC will help to prepare an RFQ.

That being the case, there is no reason at this time to ask the Council to do anything. If members of this body wish to work further on planning the details of a Home Share program, they can simply do so.

If the Vice Chair wishes to develop RFQ criteria, she should do so.

If others on the HAC wish to help, they should join the Vice Chair in a subcommittee to get the work done.

Meanwhile, this proposed referral to Council would not be productive, if passed.

It may be -- I don't mean to over-anticipate but -- it may be that the Vice Chair intends this item to ask that staff time be set aside and dedicated to helping the HAC with this issue.

Given where we are on the calendar, I will observe that:

  1. The annual work plan is where the HAC as a body should gather and prioritize its requests for resources such as additional time from City staff.

  2. The HAC's current work plan includes no resource requests but, in any event...

  3. We will soon be creating a new work plan, as the period for last years effort expires.

This is a second reason not to rush to Council to create an RFQ process right away -- in fairness, the Home Share efforts should be evaluated in the context of what other members of the HAC hope to do in the coming year. There is no reason the Home Share project needs to be rushed through before we have discussed our other plans.

Substitute motion

This motion has three parts but really just needs one vote:

  1. I move that it is the sentiment of this Commission that the possibility of a Home Share program should be further studied,

  2. AND that the Home Share program should return for consideration in June, at which time the Commission may - if appropriate - consider additional work in this area in its work plan, including any requests for additional resources for the Commission,

  3. AND, lastly, that if there is desire among commissioners to help with the program between now and June, that appointment of a subcommittee for that purpose should be made as an amendment to this motion.

Item 11: the Small Sites Program

This item is a bit technical and obscure. It is also time sensitive. Fortunately, the item is not complicated.

I personally think that passing this is a no-brainer -- at worst it is harmless. I will use my time to try to make sure that everyone is "up to speed" about what is proposed here, and why.

Some Background

From time to time, multi-family rental housing is sold. In the process, often, either the seller or buyer will make some effort either to raise rents or to empty a rent stabilized building in anticipation of future rent increases or redevelopment.

In that way, naturally according affordable housing in Berkeley is lost, tenants become displaced or ever more insecure in their own homes, and communities are destroyed and scattered.

No system of subsidized development for affordable units -- in the manner of some of our partner agencies -- can help to protect tenants in that circumstance. The subsidized development scheme we are familiar with through the HTF program can never produce but a tiny fraction of the quantity of below-market-rent housing needed by our community.

A Small Sites Acquisition program uses the police powers -- the market regulatory powers -- of the City government to change the rules of apartment sales. One way or another, a Small Sites program gives tenants the first option - the first right of refusal - to acquire a building that is for sale. A Small Sites program helps tenants do this if ownership will be transfered to some entity, such as a land trust and a coop, that promises to keep the property affordable.

Thus, a Small Sites Acquisition program is an alternative -- a potentially more cost effective alternative -- to subsidized development as a way to expand the stock of not-for-profit rental housing in Berkeley.

As I noted in the memo in tonight's agenda packet, the City has committed to developing a Small Sites Acquisition program as its highest priority among current housing strategy referrals.

Tonight, there is no need for us to vote (again) to endorse such a program.

Rather, this item tries to ensure that the upcoming Small Sites program will allow the City itself to act as the buyer who promises to maintain future affordability.

According to our Mayor and more than one other councilmember, work on the Small Sites program is progressing and a report back from the City Manager is expected in the reasonably near future.

This item asks the City Council to ensure that not only land trusts and coops can buy small sites, but that so can the City itself.

The advantages to public acquisition of housing are potentially very large. Public ownership allows housing to be treated as a public utility, managed democratically. Concentration of ownership by the City will give the City a flexible land and housing bank which can be adapted to changing social needs. Concentration of ownwership allows for economies of scale, cross-subsidy, and even a net positive City revenue that can be dedicated to further expanding the pool of social housing.

The City may or may not ever exercise this option -- I hope that it does but we are not deciding that tonight. This item does nothing more than ask that the door to public ownership be kept open as the Small Sites program is readied for implementation.

Some History

50 years ago, Berkeleyans faced a familiar crisis.

Rents were rising rapidly while wages waned.

A flury of new construction was producing units of poor quality and character, yet with still higher rent prices.

Evictions and disinvestment in older rental stock soared, as owners were anxious to be rid of lower income tenants in anticipation of later reinvestment and redevelopment for higher paying tenants.

Housing discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, political activities, sexuality, and family composition were rampant.

Radical, by which I mean anti-capitalist, analyses grew in popularity and political effectiveness. A few jive grifters notwithstanding, the radical urbanism of the late 1960s and early 1970s did not envision armed revolution -- but rather set out to achieve hard nosed reforms.

In a transformational period from 1969 to 1973, tenant unions organized strikes -- with some large successes -- and formulated a demand that tenant unions be legally recognized for collective bargaining. Berkeley passed a system of strong rent control that, though it got caught up in the courts, established a critical court precedent allowing rent control to exist in California. In small scale practice, and in blueprints for the future, Berkeleyans envisioned housing as a democratically controlled social resource, not a system of economic exploitation and injustice. They began building the new system. It was working.

Unfortunately, by the early 1980s, the Regan era, a significantly more liberal Democrat politics had prevailed and watered down the vision. Berkeley progressives launched a HUD-dependent system of scattered site public housing. Among the reactionary backlash to even that small step towards City-wide racial and economic integration, conservatives passed a charter reform replacing the at-large City Council with a council elected by districts. The dependence on federal welfare transfers through HUD was ultimately too constraining and helped to bring about the collapse of Berkeley's Housing Authority as it was then constituted.

Today, in 2018, with the benefit of experience and hindsight, we have the opportunity to correct the missteps of the past and once again to build a supply of social housing, democratically controlled, efficiently operated, and affordably provided.

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Copyright (C) 2018 Thomas Lord