It’s All About Housing
In Berkeley, council candidates Ben Gould and Kate Harrison spar over whether the city needs more housing or has already built too much.
Kate Harrison is vying against Ben Gould for the seat left vacant by Jesse Arreguin.
Lots of insults get hurled at Berkeley politicians, but Ben Gould might be the first ever branded “The developers’ son.” That epithet, uttered during a recent campaign event by a supporter of Kate Harrison, Gould’s opponent in the current election to fill a vacant Berkeley City Council seat, would barely elicit a shoulder shrug in many cities. But in Berkeley, those are fighting words. And Gould, a 25-year-old Cal graduate student, knows his campaign is doomed if that label sticks.
“I’m not a developer shill,” he said recently inside his modestly furnished one-bedroom apartment above the downtown Peet’s coffee shop. “They support me because my opponent is much more anti-housing than I am, but I’m not paving the way for them to do whatever they want.”
Harrison, a 58-year-old government consultant, insists she too is being unfairly reduced to a caricature—that of a no-growth Berkeley ideologue. She counters that she isn’t anti-housing, but that Gould’s policies would only accelerate gentrification.
“He really believes that we should build market-rate housing, and [housing affordability] will eventually trickle down,” she told a gathering of voters at her house last month. “By the time that happens, we’ll all be dead or gone.”
Their council race could have ramifications far beyond the slice of central Berkeley they are vying to represent in a vote-by-mail election that runs until March 7. Berkeley has emerged as a regional leader in building tall apartment buildings along transit corridors with the intent of helping house new arrivals and fighting suburban sprawl.
But its voters appear to be joining a growing backlash against development—even as rents and home prices continue reaching into the stratosphere.
Los Angeles is contemplating a once unthinkable ban against political contributions from developers, who opponents say have too much influence at City Hall. In Fremont, voters last year ousted their pro-development mayor amid complaints of overcrowded schools and gridlocked roads. And in November, Berkeley voters swept aside the pro-development council majority that reigned during Tom Bates’ 14 years as mayor.
Harrison, whose home nearly abuts Shattuck Avenue’s Gourmet Ghetto, said constituents complain to her about the pace of new construction and “feel a bit assaulted” by the surrounding business district that is catering more to the needs of the younger new arrivals.
“We can only eat so much pizza and buy so many cellphones,” she said. “We’re not getting housing for our own people, and we’re losing a lot of essential small businesses.”
Harrison and Gould are vying to replace Jesse Arreguin, a preservationist champion, who romped to victory in last year’s mayoral race over Laurie Capitelli, a real estate broker and Bates’ handpicked successor. Arreguin and his allies, including newly elected councilmembers Sophie Hahn, Ben Bartlett, and Cheryl Davila, are backing Harrison. Councilmembers Susan Wengraf and Lori Droste are backing Gould. If Harrison wins, Arreguin will preside over a commanding 6-3 majority on the council.
The two candidates disagree on several hot-button issues. Harrison supports setting up a tent city with services for the homeless and establishing a police commission with similar powers to those approved by voters in San Francisco and Oakland.
Gould opposes handing over public space to the homeless and isn’t convinced Berkeley police require heightened oversight. He also is less interested in picking a legal fight with Sutter Health to avert shuttering Alta Bates hospital.
But housing animates the race, because it’s the issue on which both candidates can stake their claim as the rightful heir to Berkeley’s progressive legacy.
“Building more housing is a social justice cause,” Gould said. “More market-rate housing means more people can move to Berkeley without displacing other people, and that’s really important for preserving Berkeley’s diversity.”
Karen Chapple, a professor of regional planning who heads UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project, agrees with Gould and has endorsed him.
But many Berkeley residents see it differently. They question whether it’s worth altering the look and feel of the city for projects that they say primarily enrich developers who build apartments for out-of-town young professionals and heavily indebted college students.
A survey commissioned last year by the Berkeley Property Owners Association, a landlords’ group, found that a startling 72 percent of residents were “really ticked off” about new development.
There’s no shortage of housing projects for development critics to dislike. Since 2014, more than 2,115 units of housing have been built, entitled, or proposed in and around the city center, according to figures compiled by the Downtown Berkeley Association. Nearly one-third of those units are in eight buildings that are either completed or under construction.
The building boom has been too much, too fast for many residents, said former Mayor Shirley Dean, who is endorsing Harrison. “There’s a feeling of being hemmed in,” she said. “Everybody talks about how congested it is wherever you go now.”
But Libby Lee-Egan, a Gould supporter, said the new buildings have added vitality and fresh blood to the city even if residents have struggled with change. “It seems that the majority of people in Berkeley are in favor of housing in the abstract, but when there is a real physical building going up, they are against it,” she said.
If that’s the case, Gould is squarely in the minority. After growing up in the Berkeley hills and graduating from UC San Diego, he returned to his hometown a committed environmentalist who takes pride in not having a driver’s license.
His environmental views—and the fact that several of his friends can’t afford to move back home—led him into local politics as he pursues advanced degrees at UC Berkeley in environmental engineering and public policy.
During a long-shot mayoral bid last year, Gould criticized Arreguin for opposing market-rate housing projects and Capitelli for supporting tough enforcement against homeless residents.
On the campaign trail now, he’s presenting himself as a mainstream Berkeley liberal, who supports rent control, union labor pacts, and a strong minimum wage—but also wants lots more housing on major thoroughfares across the city.
Gould sees some merit in legislation that would help developers skirt opposition to projects that fit zoning rules and offer high levels of affordable housing. “If nobody builds housing, then it won’t be affordable for anybody, and we won’t have the community that we want to see here,” he said.
Housing was far less expensive when Harrison arrived in Berkeley as a college student in 1976. She quickly became politically active, fighting to pass rent control and stop the peripheral canal that threatened the ecosystem surrounding the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
After graduating, Harrison worked for San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos and later ran local government programs before starting her own consulting firm. She shifted her focus to Berkeley several years ago and co-founded the Berkeley Progressive Alliance, which lobbied to boost the city’s minimum wage.
When it comes to housing policy, Harrison says the city has been bending over backward to satisfy developers without getting sufficient public benefits in return or being fully transparent with residents. She also said planners are too keen on allowing high-priced housing along transit corridors, which she contends then displaces low-income families to the periphery of the Bay Area where they must rely on their cars.
But she’s not an antigrowth purist. Harrison opposed Measure R, Arreguin’s unsuccessful 2014 initiative that would have severely restricted downtown development.
“I’m not saying we should stand in the way of market-rate housing construction, but the government exists to help those who need assistance,” she said.
Harrison’s positions better reflect the likeliest voters in the district, who are older and live in single-family homes just west of downtown, said Jim Novosel, an architect, who lost to Arreguin in 2010. “That area has a lot of old-time leftists and hippies who somehow got homes,” he said. “And they don’t want change.”
Harrison also has the backing of much of the coalition that got Arreguin elected mayor, including endorsements from the Democratic Party and the Sierra Club. “I think Gould’s only hope is to contact every single student in that district and get them to vote,” said Noah Finneburgh, a political strategist who guided Arreguin to victory last year. “But … he’d have to pull off a miracle to do that.”
Gould, who has the backing of elected student leaders, knows he has work to do winning over long-time residents, like Janet Levenson and Monica Wesolowska, who nurse grudges against developments that imposed on their properties or eliminated amenities like the former Fine Arts Theater.
“I’m in favor of building more in Berkeley,” Wesolowska said after leaving a recent meet-and-greet with Gould still undecided about her vote. “But not when it destroys the other things that we want.”
Published online on Feb. 21, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.
Correction: The original version of this report misspelled Karen Chapple's last name.