On the Road With de Blasio

The De Blasio Express blew into Berkeley yesterday, and if I were inclined to mix metaphors I might opine that the newly-minted Mayor of New York is gunning for bigger game. If you believe the New York Times, some of his constituents think so too. And they’re not too happy about it: Mayor de Blasio’s Days on the Road Fuel Criticism at Home.

He appeared at a one-hour show-and-tell at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage Coffee House, hastily organized but lightly publicized by U.C.’s Goldman School of Public Policy. On the dais with him as interlocutor was Prof. and Old Pol Robert Reich, who probably spearheaded the performance. It provided a great photo-op for filmmaker Jake Kornbluth (brother of Josh, who was there too.) Attendees were warned that they’d be captured on the video cameras that were around the room. Jake produced the film Inequality for All, which starred Reich, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that yesterday’s footage was being shot for the sequel. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the whole event was staged for the next film—and there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

Perhaps because of the last minute nature of the program, or because it took place in the middle of the work day and during U.C.’s exam period, the house was only about half full. (The opera I attended there recently filled all the seats.) Most of the younger audience members seemed to be from the Goldman School—two of them at the door held big buckets seeking donations for their institution (which seemed tacky to me—the Goldmans were still pretty well off last time I checked.) There was only one African-American in the audience, who looked like a grad student.

The first half hour was devoted to articulating what seems to be a new PR push by self-identified Progressives (disclosure: I’m one) to get their message out in simple form. Reich is good at this, generating a seemingly endless stream of easily digested sound bytes for all media. The bullet points in de Blasio’s presentation were really no more than what we called in my youth (which preceded his youth) the Standard Liberal Position, but de Blasio embraced the Progressive brand for his ideas with enthusiasm, and Progressive does sound more au courant than plain old Liberal. However more than once he invoked the sainted images of Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia, plain old Liberals both and one even a Republican.

The overall theme of their half-hour Q&A was Ending Inequality, cleverly illustrated by the side by side pose of Reich (well over four feet tall) next to the mayor (huge). Top hits: minimum wage, tax the rich, campaign financing, pre-kindergarten for kids. Missing from the script, however, was housing development.

This is no surprise, because it seems to be a big bone of contention on de Blasio’s home turf at the moment, as it is almost everywhere in the Progressive universe, including the San Francisco Bay Area and even Berkeley. It’s universally agreed that there’s a shortage of affordable housing in some areas, especially for those with very low or no income. What’s not agreed is what to do about it.

One school of thought says that the best way to ensure a steady supply of affordable housing is to encourage the current flight-capital-fueled luxury building boom now going on in desirable metropolitan areas. The extreme Ayn Randish version of this theory seems to hold that some sort of trickle-down effect will result in expensive condos opening up spaces elsewhere for cheaper rents for the rest of us—that one’s so silly that Progressives seldom bother to argue with it.

But the Lite version of that agenda is to require would-be apartment developers to include affordable units on all building sites, and that’s the one de Blasio articulated in Berkeley yesterday.

Mind you, he didn’t bring it up himself in his first half-hour presentation. In fact, he didn’t mention housing at all until pushed.

This might be because housing development seems to be a sticky wicket on his home turf at the moment, according to another recent story in the New York Times (De Blasio’s Housing Push Spurs Anxiety Among Those It’s Meant to Help). No wonder he wanted to get out of town.

The second half-hour was supposed to be devoted to questions from the audience, sure to add visual interest to the film Kornbluth was shooting. But Berkeley being Berkeley, the first couple of audience questions were pointed at the housing shortage, the very topic de Blasio had avoided in the first half.

The first questioner was an older San Franciscan, now priced out of her home town by tech boomers. The mayor said that his policy was to require at least 30% “affordable” housing in every new development, and if the developer balked, too bad, no permit. He did not say that he supported the alternative concept of allowing market-rate and high-end developers to pay in-lieu fees into an affordable housing building fund, a theory now promoted by some for Berkeley, San Francisco and elsewhere in the pricey Bay Area. This would group lower-income residents into purpose-built housing projects, a strategy which has had some problems in the past as public housing turned into crime-plagued ghettos.

The next audience members Reich called on, both student-aged, had similar queries, and de Blasio amplified that he supports allowing taller, denser buildings so that affordable units can be included. This caused three or four of the Goldman students to clap for what has lately become the Standard Liberal Progressive Position.

But after two successive housing questions, Reich clearly got nervous about what the NYT piece had outed as a sensitive area for the mayor, and he interposed two or three of his own questions about safer topics, like de Blasio’s much-praised (in Berkeley) end to New York’s stop-and-frisk policing and his push for pre-kindergarten education.

In all, Reich asked about half of the “audience period” questions during the second half hour. For the last question he called on a front row spectator whom I recognized as a Major Donor to progressive causes, who went backstage with the speakers at the end.

Of course I had my hand up to ask a touchier and more complicated question about development, and I hadn’t even yet seen the NYT article about de Blasio’s problems with the topic at home. And of course, since I’m another old woman, Reich didn’t call on me—students provide more appealing visuals for the video-in-progress that he and Jake Kornbluth seem to be working on.

My question would have been about the relative merits of on-site inclusionary requirements vs. in-lieu payments by developers as a way of providing affordable housing. I also wanted to ask about displacement of low-income tenants to make room for fancy condo buildings aimed at international oligarchs, a big problem not only in New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, but in other gentrifying in-demand world cities like London and Shanghai.

Development issues like these are the biggest source of potential disagreements among those now vying for the newly sexy Progressive brand. In Berkeley the dispute is particularly bitter, since the favored in-lieu payment currently supported by the majority of the City Council members is a piddling $20,000 per unit, which would not even come close to enough to providing enough low-income units to meet Berkeley’s quota in allaying the Bay Area housing shortage, where very modest single-family houses now hover around a million dollars. Thirty percent inclusionary on-site housing here? Dream on!

Berkeley’s aging mayor and his faux-Prog allies have agreed to allow construction of at least seven new high-rises, all much bigger than anything now visible on the city’s skyline. The first one submitted to the city’s planning process, if approved, could result in partial demolition of historic buildings, including the ten-screen movie house which is now an anchor for downtown Berkeley small businesses, as well as partially blocking the view of the Golden Gate from the University of California campus, which has some students up in arms.

I tried to buttonhole de Blasio about such topics after his one-hour cameo ended—he chatted with a few students (filmed, of course) on his way to his car. But my access was blocked by about six big guys in suits with electronics in their ears, who formed a ring around him as they moved toward an enormous black SUV. Someone told me it was a Chevrolet Suburban, an alien vehicle here in Prius-land. He’s an enormous guy, so maybe he needs the space (though the enormous guy I usually travel with manages to fold himself into a Prius.) Certainly if he’s going to continue to travel with this entourage he’ll be needing a big car, no matter how odd it looks in the Bay.

The interesting question, as is always the case with up-and-coming politicians and high-tech start-ups both, is scale-up. Will de Blasio’s big-city message play down in Peoria or Chico?

And conversely, how will it hit the home folks? In the Times, they asked it thus:

“After 16 months as mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio seems determined to escape the confines of his day job and to prompt a national liberal movement — even as he leaves himself open to criticism that he is not making problems at home a priority.”

If a former New York senator were not the leading candidate for president, you might wonder if de Blasio wasn’t angling to get out of town as V-P, but Rest of World probably can’t take that much New York on the ticket. In the best of all possible outcomes, of course, there are always those cabinet jobs, probably more fun than the tedious task of trying keep Gotham working, if Hillary makes it.

And meanwhile, trendy Berkeley builds, builds, builds those luxury condos to swell the coffers of the 1%, while low-wage workers have to move out of town to find a place to live. Our elderly incumbents aren’t going anywhere–they like the status quo just fine. Someone told me they noticed the mayor’s most reliable knee-jerk faux-Prog councilwoman exiting the coffee-house when de Blasio started talking about his housing policies.

Becky O’Malley edits the Berkeley Daily Planet.

Becky O’Malley is Editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet.