On November 6, Berkeley will elect, or reelect, four city council members. All of the people running are talking about homelessness: Innovative new approaches, like sanctioned encampments, and controversial enforcement practices, like the city’s pending sidewalk ordinance, could have a major impact on Berkeley residents with and without homes. Housing—where it should be built, whether it should be primarily affordable or market rate—will be another major issue that will affect all Berkeleyans.
Street Spirit spoke to candidates from District 4, which contains downtown Berkeley, and District 8, which includes the Elmwood and Claremont neighborhoods, as well as parts of the Southside. While seats are also up for grabs in Districts 1 and 7, Districts 4 and 8 are of particular interest because in many ways, they represent the city’s two faces; the dense, urban core where many homeless and low income people live, and the wealthy, single family home neighborhoods that many argue have managed to insulate themselves from many of the city’s problems. They are also the two seats in which city council members are up for re-election: Kate Harrison in District 4, and Lori Droste in District 8.
Street Spirit asked the candidates from these districts about Berkeley’s most contested housing and homelessness debates. Many of the candidates have similar perspectives on these big questions, but the subtle differences between them could make big a big difference for the city’s homeless residents.
Kate Harrison is the incumbent city council member from District 4, a seat she won after the departure of Jesse Arreguin for the mayor’s office. She spent most of her career as a public sector consultant.
Harrison is a supporter of sanctioned encampments “in places the city selects, that are of limited size, and that have sanitation services and operate under given behavioral rules.” She points to the encampment operated by First They Came for the Homeless on Adeline Street as a good example, although she hopes future encampments would be planned with more input from city leaders.
Harrison was a co-author of the recently passed sidewalk ordinance in downtown Berkeley. For years, city leaders have been scrambling to respond to complaints from downtown businesses and commuters about homeless people and their belongings blocking passage to stores and BART entrances. The original proposal from Mayor Bates in 2012 was much more stringent than Harrison’s, which does not ban homeless people from sitting or lying on the sidewalks, but does prevent them from blocking passage.
In balancing the needs of downtown businesses and the homeless community, Harrison was careful not to criminalize the day-to-day lives of the people living outside: “I was very concerned that originally there was some idea that violating it could be a misdemeanor, and I want to make sure that at the most it’s an infraction,” she said. The exact regulations of the ordinance are still being finalized, and it could be changed significantly based on a recent 9th Circuit Court ruling that bars cities from arresting people for sleeping outside.
In terms of housing, Harrison does not subscribe to simple notions of supply and demand: “I disagree about using econ 101 when I think we’re looking at grad school economics.” Her priorities are tenant protections and the production of affordable housing, rather than increasing the overall supply of market rate housing.
She also notes that her district is already doing far more than any when it comes to the production of all kinds of new housing. “Downtown has been doing its share: over 50 percent of the housing that’s being built in Berkeley is being built in my district, so I’m happy about that, but I’m looking for other places to do their part.”
Harrison’s alternative minimum housing standards, which she passed through city council, could provide more opportunities for other neighborhoods to add more housing, especially for the formerly homeless. That law opened the door for the city to allow more tiny homes, modular units, and accessory dwelling units in places like backyards and parking lots.
After working as a teacher, an aid to Mayor Bates, and a founding member of the housing advocacy group E-ast Bay For Everyone, Magofña is now running to unseat Harrison in District 4. His big issue: building a lot more housing at all income levels.
In order to build the housing it needs, Magofña believes Berkeley should encourage more market rate housing construction. Berkeley and many other Bay Area cities have inclusionary zoning requirements, which means that a developer must provide a certain number of affordable units, or a certain amount of money for affordable housing, in exchange for the right to build. “Most of these 100 percent affordable projects rely on funding that comes in part from building market rate housing,” Magofña said.
As the city builds more housing, Berkeley residents will have to get used to more economic diversity in their neighborhoods. To those in wealthier, single family home neighborhoods concerned about affordable housing or homeless shelters nearby, Magofña says: “Maybe having affordable housing next to you isn’t bad, just give it a chance.”
He supports both Harrison’s sidewalk ordinance and the idea of sanctioned encampments. He believes the whole city should be considered for these locations, just as he does for new housing production: “I don’t think the encampments should just be in West Berkeley or in Downtown Berkeley. I think if the city is really serious about it, we need to look at the entire city.”
Magofña takes a big picture view of homelessness; not only its causes and solutions, but the diverse groups that make up the homeless community. “I know a lot of young people who are hidden homeless, who are couch-surfing, who are in school,” he said. Magofña feels homelessness policy in Berkeley hasn’t evolved with the changing times, or the changing face of homelessness.
“We have just run out of places to house people, which is why one of my huge things is actually building more housing,” he said.
Prior to becoming a city councilmember, Lori Droste was a professor of public policy at Mills College and the chair of Berkeley’s Commission on the Status of Women. “Permanent supportive housing” is the main focus of her homelessness policy, she said. “All evidence points to permanent supportive housing, with supportive services being the best solution to homelessness.”
Droste believes the city should be spending its homelessness related funds primarily on these kinds of projects. This belief is what lies behind her opposition to sanctioned encampments: “The amount of money it takes for a city to sanction encampments, and make sure people are healthy and safe—it’s better to allocate that funding toward supportive housing,” she said. She does, however, believe navigation centers, and the Pathways project could be effective intermediate steps between homelessness and more formal housing.
As for the downtown Sidewalk Ordinance, Droste is a supporter, but is not sure what will happen in light of the 9th District Court’s ruling.
While Droste has been criticized by her opponents for abstaining on a vote to authorize the Pathways project—a year round, 24 hour homeless shelter—she stresses that she did vote in favor of it five out of the six times the issue came before the city council. She says that her abstention was related to what she described as unrealistic cost estimates for staffing the facility, and an unrealistic timeline for opening it. She has since voted in favor of allocating funding for the project and approving a contractor, and remains “cautiously optimistic” about its success. “I think it’s important to have a council member who looks at these issues with a critical eye,” and who makes sure “we are spending our money in the way that helps the most amount of people,” she said.
On housing, Droste emphasized “maximizing the affordable housing that we create,” through measures like her housing streamlining law, which the city council unanimously passed. Droste abstained on a vote that would have condemned SB 827, the controversial transit density bill introduced in the state legislature earlier this year. In our conversation she recommended a middle way: “The more we have these binary conversations—people saying ‘827 is the solution’ or ‘building no new housing is the solution’—then we’re never going to get anywhere.”
Mary Kay Lacey
Mary Kay Lacey is a lawyer whose practice has most recently focused on Native American affairs and tribal law. She was inspired to run for local office after the 2016 presidential election.
Lacey did not explicitly endorse the idea of sanctioned encampments, but she did say, “For someone to suffer the indignity of not having a secure home, and at the same time not have the ability to access very basic health and hygiene services is not acceptable.” She also supports 24-hour homeless shelters, new navigation centers and the Pathways project.
When it comes to the Sidewalk Ordinance, she praises Kate Harrison’s work, “I know that she’s been approaching this in a very thoughtful way, and it’s a complicated problem.” She is hopeful that the recent ruling by the 9th Circuit Court will spur more action on homelessness from all levels of government.
One of Lacey’s biggest points of emphasis was increased intervention for at risk tenants before they fall into homelessness. “We need housing subsidies, we need to get money into the hands of people who need it so hopefully we can keep people in their housing so they aren’t evicted and don’t end up homeless.”
Lacey was strongly against SB 827, emphasizing the importance of local planning and focusing on the construction of affordable housing. “We really have to get a handle on who it is we’re trying to help,” she said.
Alfred Twu is an architect, artist, and chair of the Sierra Club’s local Zero Waste Committee, who hopes to bring their unique skill set to the city council.
Twu is a strong supporter of sanctioned encampments, and more spaces for people who live in vehicles like RVs. Especially in light of how long it takes to produce new housing, they see sanctioned encampments as an important step to improve quality of life for homeless people in the short term, and set them on a path to more permanent housing in the long term.
Their biggest issue with the city’s current stance towards encampments is selective enforcement of laws. “If there’s an encampment and one person causes a problem, it gives them an excuse to shutdown the entire camp,” they said. “If you were to take that in any other context, it would be ridiculous. It would be like, if one restaurant had a health violation, then we’re going to shutdown the entire block.”
Twu supported the main ideas behind SB 827, but believed it could be improved by focusing more on wealthier, single family home neighborhoods. Most of the Berkeley neighborhoods where new apartments are currently allowed are more working class. Building apartments—both market rate and affordable—in the richer neighborhoods would help spread the burden of new housing construction across the city.
On their campaign website, Twu includes drawings of dense housing that would fit in with the existing urban form. Smaller windows, less glass, and gabled roofs might make neighbors more amenable to new housing, they speculate.
Solving Berkeley’s housing and homelessness issues must be a community effort: “You can let the developers build and you can also let the homeless person build, and also you can let the middle class homeowner build in their backyard,” they said. “It really needs to be all the above, everyone do what they can.”
Benjamin Schneider is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco.