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The History of Gentrification in Berkeley: Part II
The history of displacement and housing politics in Berkeley with Census data.
All demographics and housing data from 1940 to 2010 and accompanying census boundaries were created from data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau and digitized by National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS). Citywide housing and population data in 2020 were sourced directly from the U.S. Census Bureau. From 1990 onwards, every racial category will only include non-Hispanics with Hispanic as an individual ethnicity.
I created Census maps of the East Bay & San Francisco from 1970 to 2000 at the neighborhood level and they are accessible here. Tracts in black were geographically changed in-between years and thus comparison calculations could not be made. Split tracts in Berkeley were combined for comparisons.
The Preservation Era: 1970 to 1980
In 1970 the Black community was larger than ever before in Berkeley. It had spread definitively over the entirety of the flatlands and inched into white neighborhoods to the east and north. The city was awash in counterculture activities with a massive influx of youths moving into town. A minor housing shortage impacting low-income households began to slowly intensify after the 1960s downzonings and increased lumber prices slowed housing production. 1/3rd of renter families were rent burdened and landlords were conducting rent hikes.Meanwhile the city council approved the West Berkeley Industrial Park urban renewal project, proposing to demolish housing in the city’s oldest district for industrial expansion.
The politics of 1960s Berkeley saw the segregationist Republicans defeated by the liberal, pro-integration Democrats. However, emerging from the left was a political coalition—birthed directly from revulsion at the police violence at People’s Park—that won half the seats on the city council at the start of the 1970s. This political coalition of leftists, referred to as “the radicals” in contemporary literature, would later become Berkeley Citizen Action (BCA)—the progressive party of Berkeley.
The progressives (not yet known as BCA) laid out three immediate priorities on housing: end the West Berkeley urban renewal project; stop dingbat apartments from replacing old houses; and install rent control.They were split into two unofficial wings: the pragmatists who had practical, left-wing reforms they wanted to achieve such as public housing or public utilities; and the ideologues who consisted of Socialists, tenant organizers and militants who were part of a broader ideological movement promoting collective ownership and ending market control of housing and employment.
In response to rent hikes by landlords, tenant organizers initiated a rent strike starting in 1969 that was nationally reported at the time.The rent strike numbered about 500 homes and allegedly over 1,000 tenant participants, making it the largest in Berkeley’s history. Several landlords conceded to their tenants’ demands and in its aftermath the progressives decided to start a grassroots campaign for rent control in 1970.
Rent control was put on the ballot in 1972 after receiving sufficient signatures to qualify; it beat an aggressive landlord opposition at the ballot box and won 52% to 48%, with most votes in favor coming from the student districts and half of the Black community. It was the first rent control law in the state of California since World War 2 and the strongest seen on the West Coast. The law created a charter amendment declaring that the city was suffering from a housing shortage due to a low vacancy rate; that rents would roll back one year; that all rents were frozen by default and increases were only permitted by a newly established rental board; that evictions could not be arbitrary and required a “just cause” such as non-payment or crime.
The passage of rent control was a massive victory for the progressives but it was struck down by the Alameda County Superior Court in 1973 after landlords sued.Next was the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance (NPO) of 1973, a law that was put on the ballot after a signature drive and is considered by many to be the most monumental policy to come out of the pre-BCA progressive coalition.
Today it is widely believed that the NPO was a prejudiced downzoning trying to stop Black people from moving into the city by prohibiting dingbat construction. And while the NPO was indeed a voter-approved initiative to kill new apartment construction in the city and the progressives were extremely clear and direct about its intent, the NPO was not racially motivated. The measure passed with about 59% voting yes, indicating decent support from the Black community.
The two primary authors of the NPO were an anti-density homeowner named Martha Nicoloff and a leftist tenant activist out of UC named Ken Hughes. The homeowner/leftist alliance that created the NPO was a microcosm of the larger neighborhood-centric political coalition which became the backbone of Berkeley Citizens Action throughout the 1970s. BCA’s lead planner Kat Bach explained this strategy like so:
More important to the coalition on a practical basis — to any political coalition, really — is whether candidates and elected officials would (1) give them their traffic light; (2) prevent an apartment house from going in next door; and (3) keep their rents stable.
The spirit of the NPO, as written by Hughes, was to give the working class flatlands the same anti-development zoning as the single-family zoned wealthy hills. Beyond the primary authors, the NPO was largely drafted and politically organized around by leftists and tenant groups and much of its advertisements used anti-speculator rhetoric. The NPO also appealed to tenant activists because high density zoning had allowed some landlords to flip older apartments into new high rent complexes. The proponents also argued to homeowners that the additional population from dense housing imposed higher taxes on them.
Liberal moderate politicians, however, did not support the NPO because of the permit requirements it imposed on single-family dwellings in the hills. Black politicians did not support it because it did not exempt Black developers. But it was a soft non-support mostly seeking amendments to the NPO and no argument against the NPO was submitted to the ballot—a rarity for a very high profile measure. Many moderates switched to favoring and defending the NPO after it passed and its effects became apparent. Shirley Dean, at the time a moderate liberal planning commissioner, was among its most vocal opponents; today Dean, who served as Berkeley’s Mayor from 1994 to 2002, is a lead opponent against citywide upzoning.
The liberal tone-switch was evident within just a few years of the NPO’s enactment. The president of the affluent Claremont and Elmwood neighborhood association who like many Berkeley Hills residents reluctantly voted for the NPO with strong reservations and criticism explained why he changed his mind by 1978, “I think what it's done to this city is just incalculable and it's all beneficial . . . Now the speculators have given up and gone away.”
However, Planning Commissioner Dorothy Walker, a school desegregation activist, made this preeminent prediction in a debate hosted by The Gazette with a leftist political candidate, “The practical effect of this ordinance is that nothing is going to be built except perhaps a few wealthy single family houses.” Many progressives retorted that social housing would keep up the pace if private housing fell back: "Maybe that (private capital) is not the best way to have housing built."
The NPO didn’t actually downzone any part of the city (contrary to common belief) but regulated housing through permitting. The NPO was largely temporary while its provisions were codified into the city’s ordinances and the Master Plan of 1977. The NPO mandated that any and all development proposals:
Conduct no fewer than five public hearings;
Use affirmative action hiring standards for labor;
Subject every development to examination and approval based on an environmental impact report of that specific project conducted by the developer;
Require use-permits and grant them only if the development proved to not hurt the quality of life of neighbors;
Demolition permits were required for each development, thus foreclosing any premature demolitions of old houses;
Send a 21-day advance notice to every neighbor within 500 feet of the project before it had a hearing;
Ensure that displaced tenants from developments have supplemented housing;
Fourplexes or denser must be 25% affordable for low income households;
Some of these elements, such as tenants getting relocated housing, neighbor notification, and the creation of “inclusionary zoning” where a percent of housing must be low-rent, became longstanding practices. However The Cities’ Wealth — a book published by Cooperative Ownership Organizing Project (C.O.O.P.) which was an economic think tank by the ideological progressives — had several subtle criticisms about the NPO.
The book which was published three years after the NPO’s passage notably admits in its evaluation of the NPO that the proponents of the 25% affordable requirement knew it wasn’t going to generate the construction of low rent housing but instead was intended to make new private housing unfeasible.
The requirement that low-to-moderate income housing be provided in any development was included to guarantee that new development would not be exclusively for wealthy residents. But proponents also understood that no private, speculative developer would either desire to provide lower priced housing, or be able to afford such inclusions without subsidies . . . It is also not clear whether the Neighborhood preservation ordinance has adequately served the goals of protecting the lower-income housing supply. The ordinance enables neighborhoods to place a virtual freeze on new construction, thereby raising the value of single family dwellings which are no longer faced with the possibility of neighboring multi-family buildings.
The document also appears to somewhat subtly criticize the progressives’ support of downzoning as a de-commodification tool with this excerpt.
But growth limits in the housing market do not automatically redistribute in favor of lower income people any more than the absence of limits does.
Cornell professor Pierre Clavel, who studied and interviewed the BCA activists, suggests that the common denominator for the homeowners and tenants who passed the NPO was animosity about the induced population and architecture of contemporary apartments, and not the market-rate rents:
What these homeowners had in common with tenants was the perception that speculative apartment building was causing a general deterioration in neighborhood conditions. In this case, the problem wasn’t high rents, but the aesthetic and physical deterioration of the environment.
Using zoning and the NPO as a means to protect the city from the pernicious consequences of population growth was a popular argument back in the 1970s, when ideas about overpopulation were commonplace. As Hughes succinctly explains in his pitch for the NPO: "Old neighborhoods were disrupted by the shoddy construction and additional population imposed by the ticky tacky.”
The end result of the NPO was that virtually no more new private apartments were built in Berkeley — creating an effective moratorium over the flatlands. This was stronger than its authors had anticipated, with Hughes arguing that the end of housing development in Berkeley was not the fault of the NPO — which was quickly being blamed in publications — but of a national home building slowdown.
Even before the NPO’s actual passage, there had been a record decline in the construction of housing, perhaps due to the rent control campaign, high lumber prices and 1960s downzoning.But prior to 1973, Berkeley built between 200 to 500 homes annually, and after the NPO, Berkeley would average just 70 homes annually—almost exclusively as single-family houses in the hills. Between 1970 and 1974 (even during the strict 1972-1973 rent freeze political battle) Berkeley still added 1,121 rentals; once the NPO went into effect it took sixteen years thereafter for the city to add just 1,105 more rentals.
Despite Black politicians refusing to support the NPO the many Yes votes it did receive from the Black community were in part motivated by the West Berkeley Industrial Park project. The City Council in 1967 voted to go forward with Industrial Park despite clear opposition and planned to demolish over 60 homes between Fourth and Sixth Streets north of University Avenue in the Ocean View district and eventually sell the land to industrial companies. West Berkeley activists complained to HUD that since Berkeley had a housing shortage, demolishing housing instead of rehabilitation was a misuse of HUD dollars and would displace residents from the city. But HUD neglected to intervene.
David Mundstock, a local activist, sued the city for violating the rules of the NPO and successfully saved most of the homes slated for demolition via a ruling by the California Supreme Court. The political tide in Berkeley, especially among the white community, which ordinarily supported business, shifted in opposition to expanding industry.
By the late 1970s the West Berkeley Industrial Park project finally came to an end, largely due to the NPO’s demolition moratorium, which essentially disallowed the city’s redevelopment agency from demolishing the old Victorian homes without a permit. Bulldozer protests, elections and an explosive corruption exposé by Berkeley Barb of alleged mob ties with a corporate buyer proposing purchase of the Ocean View public land finally convinced the City Council to kill the Industrial Park project in 1979.
In the aftermath of the rejection, the city council and the neighborhood community board solicited housing and commercial developers, not industrial ones, to help revitalize the neighborhood. One developer who had proposed shops and farmer markets but not the housing development the neighbors had desired, explained that lenders wouldn’t finance new housing under Berkeley’s political climate. “Banks flat out won’t lend you money for housing.”
In 1976, a challenge to Berkeley’s defunct rent control was heard in the Supreme Court of California. The landlords argued in court that Berkeley had a 3.6% vacancy rate, which proved there was no housing shortage and thus no need for rent control; the progressives counter-argued that a vacancy rate below 6% was indicative of a housing shortage according to economists, which validated rent control.The final ruling clarified that rent controls and eviction protections were legal and that rent control did not require a housing crisis to install, but that not allowing landlords to raise rents at all without permission was illegal due to its impracticability.
An emboldened BCA quickly put together a second rent control ballot measure. But the Berkeley Tenants Union, consisting largely of the ideologue wing of the progressives, argued to the BCA that the BTU should be the lead drafters, and the BCA consented.The BTU and tenant allies wrote another strict rent control proposal akin to the 1972 law. But a particular passage from C.O.O.P.’s Cities’ Wealth was discovered and circulated by landlords and moderates, which doomed this measure:
By enacting rent control and thereby restricting increases in future rents, a city may actually reduce the present value of a property. This is essentially community expropriation in favor of tenants.
Using rent control and downzonings to devalue and expropriate private housing was one of many ideas of the progressives’ ideologue wing, but it was not a mainstream belief or concern of the pragmatic wing. As BCA planner Kat Bach explained, “The more visionary goals of controlling property speculation concern very few people.”The Berkeley Democratic Club — the liberal moderate wing of Berkeley politics — and the state landlord lobby exploited C.O.O.P.’s literature and widely proclaimed that the rent control measure would intentionally turn Berkeley into a slum ripe for expropriation.
Voters subsequently killed the rent control proposal by a significant 26-point margin in 1977.Many BCA electeds were voted out from city council, and the momentum to restore rent control was stunted. Suffering the worst defeat of the decade, the BCA’s pragmatist wing prohibited the BTU from drafting the next rent control ordinance, having been convinced that the ideologue wing was writing rent control measures too extreme to pass.
California voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978, which effectively became a form of rent control for property owners by capping property taxes. Conservative proponents had promised tenants that rent relief would trickle down from the reduced taxes on landowners, but that never came true. BCA used this angst to successfully pass a form of proto-rent-control that required landlords to give most of their tax savings from Prop 13 to tenants in the form of a rebate.
Emboldened by the win, housing groups led by the BCA’s pragmatists wrote the final rent control ballot measure. This rent control ordinance exempted new residential development since the BCA had become wary of the blame the NPO and rent control had received for worsening the housing shortage. The measure also exempted 1-4 unit properties to discourage opposition from homeowners and small landlords but the provisions angered the Berkeley Tenants Union and they declined to support it.With the housing crisis now becoming front and center as the city’s #1 issue, the voters passed this rent control ordinance and just cause eviction protection in 1980, protecting roughly 70% of Berkeley tenants. This is the foundation of the current rent control ordinance Berkeley has today.
Downzonings occurred throughout the 1970s but they became less necessary with the NPO in place. Areas of LeConte around Telegraph were downzoned to R-2A (5-units) as a way to stop the encroachment of high density, student-oriented apartments from Southside.Neighborhood groups were formed to stop the last remnants of apartment construction in the racially-mixed Central Berkeley neighborhoods by downzoning to R-2 (duplexes). The neighborhood developer accused the group of trying to stop Black people from moving in as a response. There was a big but failed attempt at an enforcement-style downzoning by the moderate coalition which proposed to cap the number of unrelated persons who could live in a single family home but this was defeated.
Outside of rent control and the NPO, progressives worked on establishing social housing. A decade-long battle was fought with HUD to get the federal government to help pay for the creation of a cooperative public housing project called Savo Island in South Berkeley. The project eventually finished as a limited equity cooperative that was 20% market-rate and 80% subsidized low rent.Using Savo as a model, the progressives — who for the very first time in 1979 became a majority on council with a newly elected mayor and Socialist Gus Newport — would launch more community ownership models in the next decade.
So how did Black Berkeley fare this decade?
For the first time, the Black population shrank and 6,651 Black people left the city. The 1970s ranks as the decade with the largest decline of Black residents from Berkeley in its history, however family sizes were shrinking in the 1970s so it’s necessary to examine households more so than the absolute population. 1,197 Black households left in the 1970’s and 95% of them were Black renter households despite Black renters making up only 63% of all Black households. This ratio suggests displacement and unaffordabilty as the cause.
Both the White and Black population declined but white homeowner population increased throughout several Black neighborhoods. Whereas the Black homeowner population declined or stagnated throughout Berkeley except in the most southern and affordable districts like San Pablo Park and Adeline Street in South Berkeley. This put an end to the northward and eastward expansion of Black Berkeley.
The 1970s was characterized by an intensification of the phrase “housing shortage” in Berkeley not seen since World War 2. The shortage was so severe that by 1978 hundreds of UC freshmen were reported homeless with 700 students requesting housing daily while only 50 to 70 units were available.For the first time, Berkeley added zero homes to its total housing supply in the 1970s. Fewer homes were built than lost in Berkeley — 1,027 fewer, in fact. The deficit overwhelmingly came from downtown, due to the widespread conversion of residential hotels back into lodging rooms. The reasons for conversions could be rent control or the decline in the business. Downtown Berkeley depopulated by 4,267 residents in just 10 years.
The Black decline was long obvious even before the official Census count was published in 1981. When Mayor Gus Newport took office in 1979 his administration was the first to acknowledge gentrification, declaring, “The gentrification of south and west Berkeley is alarming. It threatens to really gut the social and racial mix in Berkeley, and we've got to stop it.”The displacement of families from Berkeley to Oakland due to rent hikes was an argument progressives made to support rent control in 1977. Progressives emphasized that “landlords can take advantage of the tremendous demand for housing here” due to the low vacancy rates.
1978 was the first time both the Berkeley Gazette and Berkeley Barb mention the word gentrification. They define it as an influx of white residents fixing up houses in Black neighborhoods. When the Census numbers were published, environmental activist Henry Pancoast in a Berkeley Gazette front page 1981 news article on gentrification used census data to illustrate that many Black neighborhoods had been gentrified.
Gentrification was quite confusing to some people. Fair housing leader Byron Rumford reacted to the Census data by saying it was merely integration “in reverse”; that the Black population loss was some amount of displacement but also better jobs in Oakland and Richmond. But the general consensus in the Black community was gentrification:
Black community leaders and realty agents agree that housing costs are responsible for the loss of black population. Prices have quadrupled in south and west Berkeley in that last five years, according to Ruth Brunn of Tepping Realty. . .
Every city bordering Berkeley grew its Black population except Berkeley, but just looking at city-level data can be misleading, so I mapped the entire region for a clearer view. Both Berkeley and Oakland share the same trend of Black population decline in neighborhoods west of Grove Street/MLK Jr. Way, largely uninterrupted, from West Berkeley to West Oakland. Where Berkeley and Oakland differ is that Black renter households grow considerably on the east side of Grove/MLK in the Rockridge, Temescal, Broadway and Lake Merritt neighborhoods. No such west-to-east migration occurs in Berkeley to comparable neighborhoods like LeConte, Elmwood and Claremont, and the migration pattern appears to dissipate at the Berkeley border. Black homeowner decline was relatively moderate throughout the region yet new Black homeowners increase exclusively in suburban areas of East Oakland and Richmond.
What northeast Oakland neighborhoods had that east Berkeley did not was sustained apartment construction which likely filtered and became accessible to many Black renters. It’s also important to note that housing discrimination was officially sanctioned until the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which confined many Black residents to overcrowded neighborhoods designated for Black people such as west of Grove/MLK. With de jure (but not de facto) discrimination made illegal, this enabled more Black migration eastward into multifamily north and central Oakland.
The mass decline of Berkeley’s Black population, coupled with an increase in white homeowners, signaled the birth of gentrification in the Bay Area. The same trend of white household influx and Black displacement can be seen in San Francisco’s Haight and Fillmore neighborhoods — two other first-wave gentrification birthplaces.
Berkeley Unified School District K-12 enrollment data shows that Black student enrollment peaked in the year 1970. Black enrollment marginally declined by 605 students between 1971 and 1974, and then drops dramatically by 1,034 students in a single year between 1974 and 1975.The school district blamed this on the housing crisis causing Black families to leave. Thus 1974 seems like the appropriate birth year of gentrification in the East Bay, clearly coinciding with the severe housing shortage.
The 1970s saw the first wave of gentrification with old homes being renovated by white, young professional buyers, later nicknamed “yuppies.” The yuppies included both newcomers from the suburbs and progressives who were ageing out of their radical youth. They entered the neighborhood organizing spaces as early as 1976 and were strongly anti-development and pro-preservation, but socially moderate, and some progressives sought to get them into their camp.
The Progressive Era: 1980 to 1990
Rent control was the law of the land and the government of Berkeley was now run by leftists. The Berkeley Tenants Union — with muted support from the BCA — successfully got onto the ballot and passed stricter reforms of rent control by imposing controls on all rentals except single-family and 2-unit rentals—down from the previous 4 unit cap; and lowered the ceiling of allowable rent increases to well below inflation.A flex over the pragmatists by the ideologues to show their political viability.
Progressives with a council majority and a Socialist mayor began their social housing crusade with gentrification as the imminent issue. They understood that the BCA’s electoral power relied on renters and Black people to counterweight white people in the hills and liberal homeowners and that their political future would be dim if another one-quarter of Black residents left the city.
The housing crisis became a major Bay Area-wide issue by 1981 as San Francisco’s financial district boomed with office development while cities and suburbs had downzoned. New state laws tried to accommodate this growth by requesting cities to plan for a quota of homes needed to accommodate projected population growth (RHNA) and create inclusionary requirements to spur low income housing production. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) found that Berkeley had the worst housing shortage of any city in the Bay Area, and advised that Berkeley needed to expand its housing capacity by 1,611 homes because the city’s vacancy rate was 2% when it needed to be 5.8%.
Bay Area communities largely opposed and nullified these unenforced requests. The Berkeley City Council insisted their quota should be revised to 972 new homes alongside neighborhood groups who thought the quotas were a developer plot.Nevertheless, the city acknowledged that they would prioritize developing low income housing and that they would liberalize policies about adding secondary units in single-family dwellings. The city council also lowered the NPO-derived 25% affordable requirement for 4-unit and denser new housing to 20% as an inclusionary ordinance in 1985 for newly constructed 5-unit buildings and denser. An interview of city officials by realtors claimed that only 3 buildings ever used the NPO requirement 8 years after its enactment.
In the previous decade, Berkeley’s biggest subsidized housing project was Savo Island. This publicly-subsidized income-integrated project was the gold standard of “social housing” that progressives preferred over publicly-owned housing because those public agencies had been complicit in urban renewal and top-down housing management. Following the community-run housing model influenced by C.O.O.P. another 47-unit subsidized cooperative was built at University Avenue and Sacramento Street. The land was owned by the city, while management and operation of the building were delegated to the cooperative’s residents. A third project was launched at the corner of Ashby and Sacramento in South Berkeley, transforming a derelict commercial space into a 43-unit subsidized cooperative.
The severity of gentrification early in the 1980s caused the progressive city council to resort to agency-owned public housing alongside the cooperatives. While the limited-equity cooperatives advanced their community control philosophy, these projects took longer to finance with federal grants; many cooperatives were inexperienced in management, which became time-consuming for city staff; and experienced housing non-profits avoided Berkeley due to its anti-development stigma.It was also apparent that with the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, public housing funding would dry up—so subsidized housing of any and all types needed to be produced as quickly as possible.
The city council acquired HUD funding for 14 units of public housing which were built at five locations throughout South and West Berkeley—marking the first public housing development since World War 2.This was unsuccessfully challenged in court by several Black residents who charged that building public housing exclusively in Black areas was tantamount to discrimination and ghettoization. Afterwards, the progressives crafted a plan to build 75 more units of HUD-subsidized public housing, mostly in Black neighborhoods and mostly on surplus school lands, but notably, included the white neighborhoods this time. Known as the “Scattered Sites” project, it received strong opposition in White and Black neighborhoods alike.
White people in the hills and up north teamed up with yuppie homeowners and launched their own preservation group called Neighborhoods for Berkeley to stop the project. They charged that public housing would damage the neighborhoods and that open green space should be preserved over development. The progressives, who composed a super-majority of the council, dismissed the group as Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) racists, smirking and laughing from the dais at their public comments. Citywide opposition grew tremendously afterward, with residents calling the leftist council arrogant. Many Black homeowners who felt patronized by the BCA’s motives to combat gentrification, including renegade progressives angry about BCA’s perceived arrogance, organized alongside the 1st wave gentrifiers and the whites of the Berkeley Hills to fight public housing.
"People are coming at us from all sides now," said then Vice Mayor Veronika Fukson. . .
"What really got me angry was these politicians making a big point of building housing to keep blacks in Berkeley," said Broussard, a black letter carrier. . . Between 1970 and 1980 his census tract lost a quarter of its black population . . . Broussard sees 'nothing wrong' with the recent influx of homeowners, primarily young and white single people and families like the Constantinos. . . "The younger [Black people] I work with at the post office would rather live in Fairfield or Vallejo," he said.
”If you ask me, it's the city council who doesn't care about poor, minority kids,” contended Doris Barrett, a black homeowner who is soliciting signatures near one of the proposed sites.
The 1980s saw the rise of the homeowner movement—a constituency unconditionally opposed to all new housing. When the first wave of gentrification started in the mid-1970s with yuppie groups like Progressive Berkeley Neighbors, the BCA progressives attempted to ally with them since they were in agreement about opposition to speculative development. But it became clear to the progressives that the yuppies thought that the progressives’ left-wing views on police and social issues were: “hostile to liberal middle class homeowners such as themselves.”By 1984 it had became apparent to progressives that the first gentrification wave and the subsequent homeowner movement had dramatically altered the city’s political alignment from radical to liberal:
Before 1984 people in the neighborhoods had a vision of income diversity. Later that changed. Newer residents were young professionals who had come from the suburbs. Now the BCA program threatened what they saw as their birthright to homogeneous neighborhoods...
The original founders of neighborhood preservation movements like the BCA thought these new neighborhood groups had taken anti-development preservation to an extreme level, beyond even what the leftists had advocated a decade ago. The BCA chairman admitted to the Oakland Tribune how exhausting he found it when describing a neighborhood group opposed to a market-rate housing project.
From his seat on the city's board of adjustment, Milliken, the BCA chairman, said he also sees many examples of people opposed to any kind of change in their neighborhood. Just last week, a neighborhood opposed 10 privately financed apartments on a busy commercial corner. The rents are to be $880 [a] month. 'You can be certain at that rent they weren't worried about welfare mothers,' he said.
Homeowners in the Berkeley Hills revolted against Scattered Sites and the progressives backed down: they opted against the placement of a public housing site in the hills or the far-north affluent districts and reduced the quantity to 61 homes.But the progressives defied the white middle class opposition in North Berkeley and built the public housing anyway, scattered mostly around school sites and various public parcels in the form of single-family townhomes, with several units placed in white North Berkeley.
The Scattered Sites issue so enraged the various homeowner neighborhood groups that they successfully put on the ballot and passed a reform of the Berkeley City Council into its current district-based system (abandoning the previous citywide council system) and a recall of the City Council. The BCA retained a slight majority despite the reforms, but their electoral strategy, which relied on the aggregate Berkeley voter being left-wing thanks to the dense student districts and enough flatland Black votes, had been nullified by gentrification and the homeowner revolt.
1980s Berkeley also saw the rise of another constituency: the homeless. While there had always been “street people” since the counterculture era, the amount of homeless people who simply could not afford housing in the city skyrocketed in the 1970s. City estimates put the homeless count between 800 and 1,400 in the mid-1980s. Edward Kirshner, C.O.O.P. founder and now the city’s housing chief remarked, "Yet before, the homeless issue was primarily seen as a social service issue. Now it's rapidly becoming a low-cost housing issue."
The rise in homelessness was a national phenomenon due in part to the decline in funding of public housing, increased unemployment, and the War on Drugs. In the Bay Area it was fueled by a severe housing shortage due to San Francisco’s finance boom and the aggressive regional downzoning in the suburbs — creating a major jobs/housing imbalance. In the 1980s Berkeley bled another 400 residential hotel units, which were the most affordable options for those with the smallest income, and also saw a 12.7% decrease in the number of residents receiving public assistance or welfare due to federal austerity.. This fueled a rise in people living on the streets.
At the start of 1985, a couple dozen homeless people living in cars and RVs moved into West Berkeley at 5th Street and made an encampment named “Rainbow Village.” The leader of the village said, “We're on the streets and we're looking for housing. . . We want to be part of the city but we can't when we don't have an address."Within a month the city council instructed Rainbow Village to temporarily move to the marina since 5th Street businesses had complained about sanitation and parking problems.
The State Lands Commission and the nearby hotel then sued the City of Berkeley for sanctioning residential use at the marina. After winning their suit the plaintiffs gave the city a year to find a spot for an RV park that the homeless could park their vehicles at, but the city could not find any place within the city limits and instead directed them to East Oakland’s Coliseum. “We tried. We failed,” said the assistance manager in charge of the project and by 1986 the city evicted the RVs.
The Rainbow Village saga led to a growth in political support for the homeless from Berkeley’s activist left as the number of homeless residents grew in West Berkeley and downtown. In 1986, homeless activists seized a foreclosed vacant house in West Berkeley for 18 months, demanding housing instead of shelters for the homeless. This put tremendous pressure on progressive veterans like Mayor Loni Hancock and the council majority, since the BCA consisted of people directly radicalized by the police brutality at People’s Park years ago. But now they were governing the city, and after four homeless residents squatting in a seized vacant office building died in a fire, the mayor and city council stated that they could not tolerate indefinite squatting and encampments.
West Berkeley homeowners, who had regularly begun arguing with the squatters about their conduct, had organized to have the homeless removed and begged the bank that owned the property to evict them. After a year of occupation, an irate homeowner adjacent to the occupied house firebombed 35 homeless squatters in the backyard. Berkeley police eventually evicted the homeless from the vacant homes.
Shortly afterward, student activists and the homeless then occupied a UC-owned old vacant house, but were evicted by city police citing fire concerns. A small riot ensued on Telegraph after the eviction, as well as various protests at city hall. UC swiftly demolished the old vacant house soon afterward to prevent re-occupation. The city consented to granting permits for the homeless to live in tents around city hall (nicknamed “Reaganvilles” by the inhabitants) but eventually as the issue became politicized by the moderates and homeowner groups, the council revoked the permits and police evicted them.
The 1980s is generally considered the peak of the first wave of gentrification that started in the mid-1970s. The initial beachhead of whites growing in one South Berkeley neighborhood since the 1960s now encompassed all of South Berkeley, with every neighborhood seeing a mass in-migration of white people during the 1980s. The relative affordability of Black neighborhoods caused white newcomers to buy there. The yuppies extended west into South Berkeley from their Elmwood/Bateman birthplace, replacing and expanding over the lower-income whites who first came during the counterculture days.
In 1981, the state’s regional housing requirements asked Berkeley to build 1,000 homes to combat the housing shortage. Instead, as in the 1970s, Berkeley increased its housing supply by zero—in fact losing 609 homes during the 80’s. Very little new housing construction occurred in the 1980s other than the social housing projects that numbered in total around a little over one hundred units. This was easily dwarfed by the over 1,000 homes lost in the private sector.
The reductions were caused by new homeowners converting subdivided duplexes and triplexes housing back into single-family housing; downtown hotel owners converting residential motels back into lodging units; and “Ellis Act” evictions where landlords were allowed to exit the rental business and evict tenants, which many did in protest of rent control and the registration.
Only 1,362 Black residents appeared to have left Berkeley in the 1980s, one-fifth the loss of the 1970s. However, the numbers are misleading, because the census maps show an increase of several hundred Black renters in student neighborhoods due to increased Black enrollment at UC during the 1980s. Excluding the student districts and only counting the Black flatlands, the decline of Black residents numbered 3,005—about half the decline of the 1970s. City research corroborates this, indicating that with the removal of the students the Black population declined 11%.
Moreover, 1,076 Black households left the flatlands during the 1980s, which is a mere 126 households fewer than the amount of Black households that left the city in the 1970s. Thus, the amount of black families leaving Berkeley remained — for the most part — the same, although family sizes had shrunk since the 1970s.
The white population saw a similar citywide “decline” but that was due to Asians replacing whites in UC enrollment. Excluding the student districts, the white population increased throughout the flatlands; now in total numbers and not just households. Latino population growth is considerably large in West Berkeley, and only Census 1990 and onwards separates Latinos from white people so a portion of the white population growth is Latino. However, over 1,000 white homeowner households grew in Black flatland neighborhoods, compared to just a little over 100 Latino homeowner households.
Renters of all racial groups continue to bleed out the city except in the poorest southwest and western districts. While Berkeley lost many low income housing units, the Census indicates that Berkeley lost only half as many low rent units as Alameda County and the Bay Area did: a reduction of 26% in Berkeley vs 52% in the county and the Bay Area.This data suggests that without rent control, Black renter displacement could’ve been twice as large. And the percentage of Black households that left Berkeley that were renters was 54%, compared to 91% in the 1970s, suggesting hundreds of tenants were saved from displacement.
The Revitalization Era: 1990 to 2000
The Dot Com boom would usher in the second wave of gentrification bringing internet workers and a new generation of middle class professionals to the Bay Area. The housing crisis was now firmly a regional crisis no longer just pertaining to Berkeley. By 1990 the city’s homeless count was between 1,000 and 1,200 and every commercial district was populated with homeless people—particularly after the devastating earthquake of 1989.Homeless activism and poverty from homelessness stirred up oppositional activism from homeowners, and proposals like a sanctioned tent encampment were quickly politicized by moderates and quickly squashed by progressives.
Progressive council members joined an alliance with moderate council members on various positions such as backing more police hiring and anti-panhandling enforcement.Due to the district based elections political factions became more neighborhood-oriented, so what was leftist (BCA) or center-left (BDC) in one neighborhood was not in another. The opposition to homeless people, the decline of renters and young Black people, the ageing and moderation of radical leftists, the first and second waves of gentrification, the emerging homeowner constituency, and the public housing blow back would end the BCA’s electoral lifeline and the progressive majority in 1994 as they had foretold. As Kat Bach concluded, “The demographics got us."
Progressive housing programs still continued through purchasing declining motels for homeless housing. The University and Sacramento Street cooperative bought 75 units of a motel for homeless housing in West Berkeley—with strong but eventually unsuccessful opposition from neighbors. A South Berkeley nonprofit, with city funding, built 14 affordable homes in the Lorin district. The new 20% inclusionary ordinance enacted in 1985 resulted in 36 affordable homes in market-rate developments seven years after its passage—more than the 25% requirement before it.
Neoliberal reforms at the federal level resulted in a transition from supply-side solutions like public housing to demand-side solutions like Section 8 where low income families would be subsidized into market housing. Another reform was the birth of Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), which rewarded private interests and lenders for funding low income housing. This led to the birth of city supported nonprofits such as Resources for Community Development (RCD), founded by the progressives, and Affordable Housing Associates (AHA) founded by RCD alumni, to manage and build low income housing in Berkeley and later the Bay Area.(Disclosure: I formerly worked for RCD).
RCD started off small, mainly taking over the management of existing subsidized housing projects and building shelters and housing for the homeless by renovating existing buildings. Over time RCD built high-density housing to the standard of market-rate projects — something the cooperatives and public housing agency did not have the experience to do.The city bureaucrats also made it quite clear that they were no longer interested in being landlords, and the Berkeley Housing Authority spent the next decade turning over 75 units of public housing to private nonprofits.
Unlike prior decades of downzoning, the 1990s saw the rebirth of upzoning since progressives like Mayor Hancock were no longer completely opposed to market residential development, and the moderates under liberal veteran Mayor Shirley Dean (who would succeed Hancock in ‘94) wanted to see downtown revitalized. Proposition 13 also forced Berkeley to find ways to recuperate tax revenue since the current property taxes were no longer fruitful and the city routinely faced budget deficits; real estate development and collecting taxes from it became a solution:
“Berkeley is coming out of the Dark Ages,” exulted project developer Patrick Kennedy. “The ice ages have ended with regard to anti-business.”
Downtown Berkeley — like many downtowns throughout the country — had been abandoned, due largely to the loss of residential hotels and apartments, which took the census tract from 6,663 residents in 1970 to 2,104 residents by 1990. With too many vacant storefronts and too few patrons, the city council passed the Downtown Plan of 1990 after years of drafting. It called for dense housing development to make downtown more urbanist and pedestrian, but also outlined rules about height limits and architectural preservation for those who didn’t want any development.
In the interim, in an effort to revitalize downtown and nearby commercial corridors, the council also initiated a series of anti-panhandling programs such as “Berkeley Cares,” a voucher program where the homeless and street beggars would receive a voucher paid for by local patrons that, unlike cash, could not be spent on alcohol or drugs.Both moderate and progressive council members collaborated with the Shattuck and Telegraph business associations in getting police officers to crack down on homeless people who were accused of being aggressive panhandlers. This became the final rift with the activist left and the elected progressives.
Housing development proceeded in Downtown Berkeley and new political division in Berkeley had formed: the preservationists versus the pro-development. The preservationists would begin a multi-decade crusade to stop high-density buildings in downtown with the goal of retaining its small town character, and the pro-development side would clamor for more housing development using justifications such as reducing housing costs, making downtown more walkable and supporting downtown businesses with neighbors.
The first housing developments in 30 years occurred just slightly outside downtown, on Shattuck and Hearst and at University and Grant, in 1994-1995. The city loaned money to the developer to ensure the project with 17 low income condos were built and that the developer paid it back with interest.Both projects were greeted with bipartisan enthusiasm. But quickly future projects at greater heights became a showdown between preservationists which featured many anti-density homeowner moderates and what was left of anti-development progressives in battle with merchant associations, affordable housing advocates and various groups who wanted modern housing after 20 years of an effective moratorium.
These strange bedfellows were illustrated when the biggest project of the 1990s came to downtown Berkeley by developer Patrick Kennedy of Panoramic Interest at 7 stories tall.
It’s hot because a lot of people who are not normally fighting against each other are in opposition [to each other],” said one City Hall insider. . .
. . . The fight finds feminists and spiritualists siding with Kennedy, who also claims the support of advocates for the disabled and mass transit. The building would be fully accessible to those with disabilities, and Kennedy even promises to provide electric cars that tenants can share to do their errands. But preservationists see an out- of-scale hulking structure that will dwarf its two-story neighbors and cast much of the street into shadow. . .
Industrial West Berkeley was seeing a revival in the late 1980s and 1990s with an influx of young white, Latino and Black renters, who were working in art studios, biotech labs and various light industrial works. Since the death of the Industrial Park project in 1979, the neighborhood groups in Ocean View had wanted mixed-use housing and commercial development, and put together the West Berkeley Plan of 1993, which would result in the re-zoning of areas around Fourth Street and San Pablo Avenue to high density apartments, condos and stores. This created the Fourth Street commercial corridor, which over time became one of the city’s most popular business districts—but housing beyond a few live-work units would not materialize for years to come.
In 1995 rent control was gutted severely due to Costa-Hawkins, a state law passed through the legislature by the landlord lobby that gutted strict rent control by allowing landlords to reset rents to any level once a tenant vacated; it also stipulated that rent control could not be applied to buildings built after 1995. Once a tenant left a rent controlled unit that unit's rent would reset to market-rate, causing the loss of many low rent homes and incentivizing evictions. Landlords also kept units vacant to protest rent control, and after Costa-Hawkins passed the number of vacant homes in Berkeley shrunk across the flatlands in the hundreds according to the Census.
The 1990s would mark the end of the effective housing moratorium since 1973 and mark the first decade that Berkeley added more housing than it lost. 1,249 homes were added, primarily in Downtown Berkeley or on corridors in adjacent to downtown tracts like University and Shattuck Avenues. Downtown’s tract added 219 homes, the most of any tract, which on an annual average is 21 or 22 new homes a year.
With liberal moderates controlling the city council by the mid-1990s, low-income housing faced additional scrutiny from the dais in ways it hadn’t under leftist government. Learning from the public housing controversy that erased the BCA, the moderates usually obeyed neighborhood groups’ opposition to development — particularly regarding subsidized housing. For example, a high-profile HUD-funded project to convert a vacant motel into homeless housing was killed by the moderates on the justification that downtown disproportionately carried homeless services, impacting revitalization efforts.
Another incident where RCD had proposed to turn a bygone grocery store in upper North Berkeley into a hospice for homeless AIDS-infected residents in the midst of the AIDS epidemic was killed by moderates on the council at the behest of North Berkeley neighbors who opposed it. They claimed that the project was simply too expensive, unfit for the area and that RCD had betrayed the trust of the neighborhood.They insisted they were not bigots and that it was the density, not the AIDS patients, they were opposing. Of course, obscuring bigoted objections with more anodyne ones is a common trait that became more popular as outright objections to subsidized housing became less politically correct.
By the year 2000, 4,991 Black residents composing 2,439 Black households are lost, marking the largest Black household decline of any decade by far. However, part of the cause for Black decline in the 1990s was that in 1996, voters banned Affirmative Action admissions at UC Berkeley. This would erase the previous large increase in Black residents in the student-heavy tracts as the graduating classes of Black UC students were not replaced in subsequent admissions.
Ignoring the student districts and only count the flatlands, the Black population decline is 4,050 with 1,826 households lost—56% of them Black tenant households. That makes the 1990s only 118 Black renter households shy of the massive displacement of Black renter households in the 1970s but ranks the as the highest Black household displacement yet with 600 more Black households leaving than the 1970s.
Non-Hispanic white migration patterns intensified in former Black neighborhoods. Over 200 white people moved into residential West Berkeley. Hundreds of white people moved almost exclusively into Black enclaves like South Berkeley, where economic development was nonexistent but homes were the most affordable. Four hundred white people moved into the South Berkeley neighborhoods bordering North Oakland. White renters increased dramatically in south and west Berkeley.
Over seven hundred Latinos moved to Berkeley, but almost exclusively focused in Southwest Berkeley, the lowest income areas and over 300 moved to Poet’s Corner—almost exclusively as renters and very few homeowners. Asian migration is mostly restricted to the student-heavy neighborhoods as a byproduct of increased Asian enrollment at UC Berkeley.
With the minor return of housing development in Berkeley, there doesn’t appear to be any correlation between where it’s occurring — Downtown Berkeley, largely void of Black residents — and where Black residents are being displaced in the flatlands. As Fourth Street has redeveloped, the residential sections of West Berkeley have seen the displacement of 578 Black residents, but all of this development was commercial, office and light industrial. The epicenter of displacement remains Southwest Berkeley, where over 1,000 white people have moved into neighborhoods bounded by San Pablo Avenue, Dwight, MLK, and the Oakland border in just 10 years.
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