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Editorials • August 1, 2006

Hitting the Streets

For about a month in late May and early June I abandoned my paying job and hit the streets of Berkeley on behalf of the condo conversion initiative. Financially this was a dead loss, but what an education!

Most of us, even those who have lived here all their lives, do not know the nooks and crannies of this town. Since we flee every day to jobs and shopping elsewhere, our gut feelings about Berkeley are formed solely by our immediate, home environs. For some, the City is leafy vistas of the Bay from high in the hills. For others it is dirty, traffic-clogged streets in the downtown. It is only when you go by foot into all the byways, and knock on the doors of strangers, that you begin to get a broader view. For example:

-   What they say about gentrification is true. The old “hills/flats” distinctions have blurred. So have racial lines. Young buyers in neighborhoods once dismissed as hopelessly blighted have spruced up small stuccos. But lots of these places are still scarred by architectural crimes committed in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, when multi-unit, soft story structures were permitted side by side with little bungalows. Still, there is a palpable feeling of renewal on both sides of San Pablo Avenue.

-  There is a shortage of kids. While the young families who have just moved in may have fulfilled the two-child quota, the doors I knocked on were often opened by single persons with gray hair (or no hair at all).

-  There are a lot of landlords who live in their own small buildings, side by side with tenants. While people with their own agendas talk about BPOA as a bunch of big developers and “speculators”, the core of BPOA’s membership is small property owners, often retired and often minorities, whose life savings are tied up in buildings that frequently do not yield enough income to be maintained properly. 

-  There is still a lot of fear out there. Whether in the hills or on the flats, you see iron gates, grilled windows, alarm systems and “no solicitor” signs. 

-  Yet there was no neighborhood where I felt physically intimidated. Once I was through the barriers and got to talk to real people, I found them to be intelligent, friendly and concerned. Many invited me (a total stranger) to come into their houses and chat. Another signature gatherer joked that “each name means twenty minutes of schmoozing”.

These talks revealed that our City is both very human, and very fragile. Many think it is at the tipping point. For example, nearly everyone understood immediately that taken by itself, condo conversion is not a big deal. But when seen against the overall Berkeley landscape the issue is enormous. We’ve got to give middle income people a way to acquire a stake in the City. This spreads out the tax burden, ensures that older buildings are properly maintained, and encourages young families to stay in town instead of moving off to Pinole.

The alternative is a City with relatively small number of taxpaying, middle aged and older homeowners. The majority of the population will be tenants living in large buildings owned by absentee corporate-types. The corporations will operate on a large enough scale to absorb the losses occasioned by the peculiarities of city policy. The tenants will stay for a short time but will move elsewhere to set down their roots.

These are the real stakes in November.


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