Progressive Cities and Neighborhood Planning: Berkeley, CA

Berkeley’s city government had a Republican majority from its early years until 1961, when liberal candidates backed by the Berkeley Democratic Club gained control of Berkeley’s City Council and School Board and began to take actions to end de facto racial segregation and to deal with social problems such as unemployment and lack of affordable housing. During the late 1960s Berkeley’s Democrats became deeply divided over the war in Vietnam and over demands for black power. By the 1970s city politics were divided between two loose coalitions. The “moderates”, centered on the Berkeley Democratic Club, had their major voting strength in the affluent Hills. The “progressives” brought together radicals and anti-war liberal Democrats in a group called the April Coalition and later organized on a more permanent basis as Berkeley Citizens Action. They were strongest in the student neighborhoods around the Berkeley campus of the University of California and the nearby lower-income “flatlands” neighborhoods. Berkeley’s African-American community in the flatlands areas of South and West Berkeley held the balance of power.

In 1971 three progressive candidates, two of them African-American, were elected to the nine-member Berkeley City Council. From that point on, whether they held a majority or not, the progressives had major influence on city policies and were often able to get the voters to pass initiatives when the Council would not approve their proposals. Among the most important initiatives were the following:

1972 – Strong rent control, overturned by the courts due to lack of provision for an annual across-the-board rent increase.

1973 – Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance (NPO), down-zoned certain parts of the city and prevented demolition of existing housing to clear sites for construction of new and higher-priced housing unless affordable replacement housing was also included in the development.

1975 – Fair Representation Ordinance, allowed each member of the City Council to appoint a member of each city advisory commission so that the Council majority cannot control appointments.

In 1976 several people active in these initiative campaigns, including two, Eve Bach and Ed Kirshner, who had degrees in city planning, formed the Community Ownership Organizing Project (COOP). They published a comprehensive program statement called The Cities’ Wealth: Programs for Community Economic Control in Berkeley, California. It expressed a communitarian vision of participatory democracy and a locally-oriented economy that was widely held among the activists of the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s and received national distribution through the Conference on Alternative State and Local Public Policies. Many of its policies were at least partially implemented, especially in the area of housing.

Among these programs were:

1976 – City support for development of cooperative and non-profit housing

1980 – Rent Stabilization and Eviction for Good Cause Ordinance, this strong vacancy control rent control system was upheld by the courts but in 1995 the State legislature mandated vacancy decontrol, with recontrol allowed only at the new, market rent after the beginning of each new tenancy.

1980 – Limitations on conversion of rental housing to condominiums

In 1979, the Berkeley Citizens Action (BCA) slate won a majority on the City Council, led by Mayor Gus Newport (1979 – 1986). The BCA lost its majority in 1981, and then gained an 8 -1 majority in 1984 after successfully passing an initiative that moved local elections to coincide with state and national elections, which increased turnout among their supporters. In June 1986 the voters passed an initiative measure that changed City Council elections from citywide to districts. It was sponsored by people angry at the City Council for approving 61 units of scattered-site public housing on surplus school district land in several sites around the city, but was also supported by many progressive neighborhood activists.

Led by Mayor Loni Hancock (1986 – 93), council members identified with progressive policies held a narrow 5 – 4 majority on the City Council in the November1986 election and have continued to do so every two years since then, with the sole exception of the election of November 1994. District elections reduced the importance of citywide slates, however, and by the end of the 1990s BCA as an organization had little influence.

Under Mayor Tom Bates (2002 – 2014) Council members identified with the progressive coalition have held 6 of the 9 Council seats, but development issues have split the coalition, with many neighborhood activists opposing higher density development and many environmental activists supporting it on the grounds that higher density reduces auto use and helps combat climate change.

Additional references:

Stephen E. Barton, “From Community Control to Professionalism: Social Housing in Berkeley, California, 1976 – 2011”, Journal of Planning History, online publication May 14th, 2013, print publication May 2014, 13:2, 160-182.

Stephen E. Barton, “The City’s Wealth and the City’s Limits: Progressive Housing Policy in Berkeley, California, 1976 – 2011”, Journal of Planning History, online publication January 5, 2012, print publication May 2012, 11:2, 160-178.

Stephen E. Barton, “The Success and Failure of Strong Rent Control in the City of Berkeley: 1978 to 1995”, in Rent Control: Regulation and the Rental Housing Market, Dennis Keating, Michael Teitz and Andrejs Skaburskis (editors), Center for Urban Policy Research Press, New Brunswick, 1998.

Documents, Links, and Images

RMC Resources

Series III: Berkeley
The Cornell collection derives from research by Pierre Clavel and others and includes 29 interview transcripts, 45 key city documents, and 174 news clippings covering the years from 1974 to 1996.

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