The Death of SB 827 (increased density around transit) applaud or mourn?

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A Sacramento reporter called me the other day to ask me how I thought the Bay area was feeling about SB 827, the Wiener-Skinner bill that would wrest some level of local control from communities that use zoning and other more imaginative strategies to prevent dense development, that is, high-rise and even low-rise housing in transit zones. download (3)

But before the article even came out, my prediction that the bill would die, came suddenly true. And it died an ignominious death-it didn’t even get out of its first committee hearing at the capital-but this is not before it had animated heated discussions in every hamlet and city disguised as a suburb across the expanse of the golden state.

Those who feared SB 827 may not want to dance on its grave just yet as the original author, Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco claims he’s not giving up. “I will continue to work with anyone who shares the critical goals of creating more housing for people in California, and I look forward to working in the coming months to develop a strong proposal for next year.”  http://sd11.senate.ca.gov/news/20180417-senator-wiener%E2%80%99s-bill-allow-more-housing-near-public-transportation-stalls-senate

Wiener also said (in the above statement) that he was “heartened by the conversation it has started, both with those who support the bill and with critics of the bill.” And there I agree with him. We need to have this conversation and we need to have it among friends since we all live in a state that has almost no really affordable housing AND no  comprehensive transit systems that compare with those in cities like New York, Boston, DC, Chicago, Philly, you know, real cities.  NoLita

I grew up on the outskirts of a small town near a big East Coast city that was rapidly transforming into a suburb-this was the 50’s and early 60’s-so I regularly find Californians’ ideas on a number of things to be odd and somewhat removed from reality (my definition of that, of course.) For instance, you will often hear Californians say, we can’t have a festival, a picnic or whatever in March or April, because it might rain! But it rains whenever it feels like it in most of the country and people still plan festivals, barbecues, etc despite the likelihood of actual weather, you know, more than foggy-in-the-morning-clearing-with-sun-in-the-afternoon.

images (1) And so it is with our understanding of transit. Californians think that driving to a parking lot and getting on a sort of subway that takes us to one or two parts of town is transit. No wonder our cars clog the streets of our  downtowns. In fact, how many real downtowns where jobs, entertainment and retail all coexist within walkable blocks can you find in the entire state, one, two, maybe three?

Political Perception makes Ornery Bedfellows

The Wellstone Democratic Club tried to debate the bill at a recent meeting and lots of folks I have never seen before showed up. Some said they were there to support affordable housing and anti-gentrification measures, still others feared their quaint neighborhoods would be transformed into concrete canyons.

Rarely does the Right join with the Left or if you don’t like those characterizations, the wealthy homeowners join with the anti-gentrification folks something which by definition happens outside of their high-priced enclaves, like they did in opposing SB 827. It would have been amusing if not so worrisome, because in this case, there interests do not overlap.

So at the Wellstone meeting most spoke about the problems with the bill, all the things it left out (I for instance felt sad that I didn’t get promised a pony-something I’ve always wanted) all the things it might change inalterably and all the folks who might be driven out by luxury, that is, market rate housing.

I know that the authors  went to great lengths to tweak it, alter it and promise more goodies if only you clapped your hands 3 times. The bill’s bland scale was a mind boggling readjustment or an overreach, depending on your point of view, of our state’s zoning rules and even the vision we have of the California dream….

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Burned out 1000 sq ft house selling for $800k in San Jose

But one younger person, not a white-haired liberal like the rest of us, wanted to know why we opposed folks his age being able to live somewhere much less own a home. Good question and it encapsulated the growing generation gap between those of us who’ve obtained a corner of the American/California dream and those who are lugging along student debt while hoping that at some point in their lives, they won’t have to scan craigslist for Housing-Share any longer.

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Private room in Berkeley, $1175

But according to Katy Murphy’s story in the Mercury News, ” Anya Lawlor of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, argued that it was too simplistic of a solution, ignoring decades of research and advocacy on the preservation of affordable housing and development near transportation hubs….that legislation of this scope can take years to become law.”  https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/04/18/why-did-californias-major-housing-bill-fail-so-quickly/

Maybe that’s why, skimming my local pages on Nextdoor, many of my neighbors reacted to this proposal as they would a terrorist threat. Yes there were some who suggested we were in a housing crisis but they were quickly driven away by the fear mongering. In fact when I suggested on social media that the bill could be amended to consider these concerns and to add affordability requirements, some of my closest allies questioned my judgement and maybe my morals too.

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Apartment building next to single family home near Piedmont Ave

While the bill was in hospice, Senator Wiener tried intubation by adding an inclusionary zoning clause (requiring affordable housing be included which matters a lot in Oakland since that policy is NOT in place here) and lowering the height demands of the bill, but it barely took another breath before it keeled over from the weight of confusion, consternation and out-right hate from all of its anxious would-be relations. The will has yet to be read on this blockbuster (get it?) bill before we are all fighting over the remains or rather attempting to put a stake through its heart.

Issues raised, my take-

1) Subsidized housing

Housing is not or should not be a privilege though it obviously is here in Oakland where tent cities expand daily. Housing should be seen as a necessity, a public utility and subsidized to the tune of whatever is necessary to house our workforce, our families, our future and that includes the poor to the middle class like they do in many other countries where owning a home is not perceived as synonymous with being grown or successful and lifelong renting is a comfortable solution not a prediction of PTSD. 20180422_200927

Some of the affordable housing folks object to this bill because market rate developers could not be pressured into offering community benefits like subsidized units and local retail on the ground floor. That’s likely true but it’s a hell of way to get affordable housing built and not a sustainable approach over the long term. We also want prevailing (union) wages, of course, cause we don’t want out-of-town workers sleeping in their cars much less homegrown workers who have to live in tents while constructing luxury housing for newcomers.

Sounds like we all still want a pony —but but–we live in a wealthy state and if we can’t afford to subsidize housing for our folks, we shouldn’t expect to have a growing economy. Fix Prop 13, pass oil depletion allowances, tax professional services, but get something built since the Feds apparently won’t anytime soon.

2) Comprehensive mass transit

But that’s not all, who are we kidding with transportation hubs, we live in a state that has little to no dependable public transit capable of serving the majority of our everyday needs. And no, RM3 will not fix that. It won’t shorten the headways between BART trains or provide many more AC Transit buses on busy routes, much less expand those routes. Folks love to fuss about Uber, etc (me included) but it’s there because we simply cannot get around on our local transit and we can’t all ride bikes, not that there’s anything wrong with bikes-yeah, more bikes, more scoooters, whatever, please.

I can walk out of my house in the morning on time but that doesn’t mean the bus will arrive and mine is not the only street where this happens. You can’t reconstruct California around transit hubs if they aren’t there. We need transit choices like you find in other, less expensive, less wealthy cities. I’d even give up my pony for that! So Scott and Nancy and Governor Whoever, can you get on that too??

3) Dense cities & active downtowns

So here’s the last point I want to make which, damn, may be the most important one. Look around you please Californians. This whole state is one giant suburb. Is that what you really want? Do you want to be wedded to your cars and crabgrass, especially knowing that your children will be moving away or living their lives like Russians in old movies, multiple families to an apartment? 20180423_205440

I have the benefit of having some young people in my life, but not so young that they shouldn’t be able to have an apartment or house or condo without checking the housing wanted, apartment-to-share listings, who allow me to see things in a different way. Also I like to travel and I appreciate cities. Some of them are full of low-rise apartments like Paris whose average buildings are 5 or 6 stories high although that’s about to change. https://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-product-design/newly-freed-from-height-limits-paris-skyline-ready-to-rise.html

20180423_205722Some cities like New York and Chicago and now Atlanta have apartment and condo buildings with many more stories but, of course, some of their chicest, most expensive neighborhoods are similar to Paris. Even the Piedmont Avenue area is more like Paris and less like Rockridge, Crocker Highlands, or North Berkeley. I’m not even bringing Piedmont of Orinda into this discussion. They’re different animals.

But areas like Rockridge and North Berekeley near BART were once surrounded by working class cottages whose owners are now house-millionaires while their offspring move away or yeah, wait for them to die before they can hope to live in their pristine California craftsman cottages (with additions, of course, for those 6 burner stoves, ginormous fridges and farmhouse sinks, but don’t get me started.)

20180422_200843 City living can be convenient and attractive, public transit doesn’t have to try so hard to reach it, eating out, which is now a national pastime for the young, is closer and a bit cheaper. Yes, I am betting that young families wouldn’t mind living in a fourplex with a shared backyard or nearby park if it meant not moving to Sacramento or Omaha.

For those families living in old lead-filled homes or crowded into small apartments, many might prefer newer family sized buildings that could be built with subsidies, rather than subsidizing their children’s learning problems later on. Pay now, pay later but pay anyway.

What is so wrong with building up a bit and not insisting that the California dream is a picket fence with grass we can’t afford to water (and why should we? It’s not sustainable.) Rockridge wouldn’t have to be a canyon but a well-designed low-rise urban landscape with occasional high-rises in their midst. Crocker Highlands could easily sustain duplexes and triplexes along Lakeshore and even higher. The problem on my narrow little street isn’t too many dwellings but too many cars. Only reliable transit can fix that. I can imagine a triplex on our little lots with an occasional empty lot transformed into a mini park.

20180422_201215 Most of us when we travel prefer these kinds of cities where gleaming downtowns alternate with five to eight story side streets and cafes and street vendors encourage us to entertain and shop in public, where civic life is not limited to fighting on twitter but watching people’s children frolic while sipping a glass of locally made wine. These activities do not have to be limited to the gentrification class if we subsidize housing, transit, and promote local business. And if we do not, it won’t be long before our booming economy (not to mention confounding climate change, already here) will sputter and die.

Let’s rethink California! Si se puede….

 

 

 

Don’t Whine, Organize!

Now that BART management has succeeded in pushing negotiations into another strike and Bay Area Liberals are falling all over themselves bashing union workers and finding fault with everything union leaders say and do, I thought I’d offer a little more personal background on what it’s like to work for BART-why I wanted that job and why I got out.

The Promise of BART
At the time that BART first opened, it was known around Bay Area transportation circles, as one of the better places to work. And remember, AC Transit was not so bad in those days before public transportation budgets were repeatedly slashed. In order to find some experienced transportation workers, a deal was designed that offered bus drivers a way to move laterally without losing their seniority rights. It was known as the 13C clause. Union drivers were willing to train on the new system with all its quirks, tweaks, and serious problems that were yet to be worked out.

Because the system was so different from all others, there were weeks of classroom training and weeks of training on the line, including working in the middle of the night where operators got the chance to crank over rail switches in case of computer malfunction.

Initially, operators were called attendants because theoretically, the system was to be completely automated. But, the name was altered as soon as it became apparent that train operators would need to be able to make decisions and run in what is called “manual mode” pretty regularly in addition to moving cars in the train yards.

Fun in the Rain and Other Quirks
One of the things that happened almost every time it rained, became kind of a game for operators and made a job that could be excruciatingly boring more exciting if nerve wracking. When the tracks were slick, the trains often slid part of the way through the stations before coming to a stop. On the train console there was a big red emergency button that an operator could push to stop the train. An operator had to gauge exactly when to hit that button in order to keep all the cars within the station. Of course, the doors wouldn’t open automatically if riders were going to be thrust out into thin air. That meant the operator had to go back into the cars and, using a key, open every door that was within the platform. It put us behind schedule, was a big hassle and was not a popular event with the riders. So the operators learned how to stop the train manually until the system was finally adapted to the conditions of the track.

There were lots of other quirks that caused the system to be run in manual mode. The electrical switch boxes, called MUX boxes, would get hot in the summer, especially in the neighborhoods past the hills and would just quit working. The operator would have to move the train in manual mode while the muskboxes were packed with ice!

The problem with manual mode is that the trains are designed to work with a certain number of minutes of “headway”-the spacing between trains. When the train is not in automatic mode, the system cannot tell where other trains are and so the operator has to try to keep the spacing just right so the trains do not get too close to each other. This could be problematic when visual conditions are not perfect. Anything on the tracks that does not show “occupancy” on the computer may be hit and this happened once or twice when I worked there.

The 20 Minute Lunch Break and Work Rules Run Amok
Despite what the odious Zakhary Mallett says, when the train operator is not on the train, he or she is either waiting for a train turnaround on the mainline, waiting for a train to leave the yard, or moving cars about in the yard. When an operator is in the yard, he or she must become inured to the danger involved in hopping over the third rail through which run a thousand volts of electricity that if touched…well… you try not to think about that.

In terms of those pesky work rules that management keeps shooting its mouth off about, some of them are designed for safety and some just so the operator can function as a somewhat normal human being during her shift. For instance, when I first started, operators were given a twenty minute lunch break (they now get a whopping thirty minutes). At the end of your run, you might be waiting at the end of the line with your supervisor for your next train. You get a chance to use the bathroom and maybe chat for a minute or two till your next train comes in when you switch places with the other driver. Sometimes the trains are late or some type of problem develops on the line. Then your supervisor advises you that you just had your lunch period, but, of course, since you didn’t know it (nor did he) you hadn’t even opened your lunch bag. Off you went, no eating allowed on the train, and now you’re hungry but you don’t know when you’ll get a full fifteen or twenty minutes to eat. Of course, you carry a small piece of luggage with you wherever you go since you might start out in hot Concord and wind up cranking switches over in foggy Daly City. Don’t forget your parka!

After the frustrating experience of going without meals, I managed to write some language into our contract that required our supervisors to notify us before our lunch period was called or be required to pay us twenty minutes of overtime because we had not received a lunch break. I don’t know if that is one of the “antiquated” rules they want to change; but it is still no small thing to an operator to have to go without a lunch break in an eight hour (or more) day.

Fighting for the 8 Hour Day Again
Here’s something else that most non-transportation folks don’t know. Some drivers switched to BART just because of the eight hour day. Many transportation jobs involve split shifts. You go to work during the morning rush, are off for a number of hours and then back to work for the rest of your shift. You, typically, do not get paid for the total hours but for the hours your are on. These kinds of shifts can wreak havoc with living a normal life. In fact, being a transportation worker ofttimes means giving up on a normal life.

For instance, my first shift as a new operator with no seniority ran from 8PM to 4AM with Tuesday and Wednesday off. I envisioned the world as streaming in one direction while I trudged off in the other, alone. It’s difficult to have relationships with anyone who does not work in your field and for your agency (which might be why I ended up married to another driver.)

So, I opted for the Extraboard. Those of us on the Extraboard, gave up our miserable assignments in order to fill the ever changing shifts of others who were on vacation, sick, or disabled (a Kaiser therapist, my therapist, by the way, once noted to me that more people were coming in from BART than any other company enrolled with them. She was trying to encourage me to leave the job.) Normally, the practice was to give us a twelve hour turnaround so that we could commute (train yards are a distance from housing and some workers live in cities far from the yards they regularly check into), and even eat, sleep, and bathe. But every so often the management would get its collective panties in a twist and start ordering eight hour turnarounds. Any 4th grader can figure out how miserable and even unsafe that was for drivers.

Still BART operators and other workers felt themselves lucky to have a straight eight hour shift, albeit with mandatory overtime when there was a problem with the trains. Of course, it wasn’t luck, it was the work of union negotiations and it gave the workers the hope of leading a normal life.
The eight hour day is now up for discussion, or should be, according to management negotiators.

In fact, BART workers do feel lucky to make a real living wage with good benefits. These are precisely what this management, and I’m afraid, this board would like to take away. But there’s more at stake than some takeaways to so-called “well paid workers” which is a whole other discussion. A $70,000 income no longer even qualifies you for a mortgage or much else in this part of the world.

Ask yourselves why a young woman (as I was at the time) with college credits just shy of a degree, would want a blue collar job like that, wearing a uniform and working almost exclusively with men who really didn’t want me there. The answer is that, in those days, blue collar jobs were men’s jobs, men’s union jobs, and I was tired of the pink collar world where you were stuck in an office (horrors) and spent much of your small wages on stockings and other clothing you otherwise had no use for. I wanted to make some money so I could save for better opportunities and I wanted good benefits. I had also been a Yellow cab driver in San Francisco so I didn’t mind hard work, dirty work, unusual work. I wasn’t crazy about the harassment-something office workers also experience-but I was willing to put up with it for the other protections and benefits, at least for a time.

Be the First in Your Family
And this is the really important point in this story. The men and women I worked with came from working class backgrounds; and as many of you Bay Area liberals have so bitterly pointed out-most of them did not have any college credits, and never even thought they could buy a house, much less a new one in the burbs.

But many of them, probably most of them, succeeded in buying homes in what were then the less expensive outlying towns of Union City, Newark and Fremont. They bought new homes in new developments. They sent their kids to college, the first ones in their families to go, and some have now retired in a way that allows them to maintain a reasonable lifestyle and to continue to support the communities and businesses where they live.

Don’t be a Crab
The Bay Area has always been a difficult place to raise a family and to have the confidence that you can continue to take care of your family in good times much less bad, but those public service jobs-transportation, teaching, healthcare, and municipal service-all these union jobs have empowered many women and people of color to raise their families, to start businesses, and to hope for a better life for their kids. We can’t allow ourselves to be divided, to scrabble like crabs in the proverbial barrel trying to get out while pushing others back in.

To paraphrase Joe Hill, don’t whine, organize. We can revive the promise of a golden California if we believe in each other and begin to work together. We did it before, we can do it again.

Whose Strike, My Strike

I’ve been told by progressive friends and pols that it’s not really union busting if the union is left intact. But now we know according to Darwin BondGraham of the East Bay Express, BART’s Lead Negotiator Has a History of Illegal Behavior, that the board that we voted for did knowingly hire a negotiator who makes it his job to, “make permanent the pay and benefits rollbacks that workers have endured in recent years,” according to BondGraham’s research.

How many times have I read this past week- “I’ve always been a union supporter but”-BART train operators make a lot of money or…they should have to pay some of their retirement costs or… health care has gone up or, the best and most astounding-unions have too much power nowadays!

Yeah, unions aren’t perfect. I was a train operator back in BART’s early years, and I can tell you that the unions weren’t any more welcoming than management was to adding women to that workforce. I took that job precisely because it was a traditionally-male job with good pay and benefits that the pink collar world did not offer. Before that I was a cabdriver in San Francisco. It was union but very loosely organized and without the kind of security that BART offered.

Transportation is a strange type of work. Your hours are so outside those of 9 to 5 folks that you soon lose connection with that workaday world and most of the people in it. Eventually, that and the stress of being one of the first women in that job category plus the lack of job satisfaction led me away from it.

Since then I have been a teacher in many public and one private school. There are lots of poor excuses for why teachers make less than other professions, professions where you get on-the-job training, not on-your-own-time, on-your-on-dime-training, but that’s another discussion for another time-as a friend of mine used to say. I was also a city council aide when it had no job protections-I mean none, but it is now a part of IFPTE, Local 21. My experience as a city council aide was one of the reasons that the union was organized by other aides.

So back to BART, or back to unions and the point of supporting one of the only remaining institutions standing between us and the New Feudalism, the new indentured servitude, the sharecropping that we now call work, the unpaid internships, the low paid fellowships, the temping, and, not to be left out, the sort of pay we get when we work for non-profits with their tiny margins and gaping needs for unpaid extra hours. Here’s to contracting and free-lancing, the New American Nightmare of Lifelong Austerity, the Permanent Recession OR here’s to organizing and fighting together for real benefits. Here’s to a dignified retirement.

Yeah, maybe you’re not in a union since most of the above luckless “careers” don’t have them. But the union movement fights to get them for you, and they continue to fight to stanch the loss of workers’ rights, all workers. They are all that stands between us and the triumph of oligarchy.

Some unions may have become big and unwieldy but, public sector unions especially, are now made up primarily of women, immigrants, and people of color who know the struggles of folks who never had much power or wealth. Hey, maybe that’s one reason they get less respect than they used to-they no longer look like the average 1 percenter.

Back to union-busting, the real growth industry. Is it union busting to ask people to pay a little more of their family’s healthcare costs or their retirement benefits? It can’t be union busting then to offer a wage increase in return for an increase in the cost of pensions and doctor’s visits. Nah, don’t call it union busting then-just call it union neutering.

Why would you offer something with one hand while trying to take away a bit with the other, maybe you’ll get a little raise but in the process you’re giving up some security in the future. Why do you think they do it? Is it some kind of shell game? Yes, it is. It’s a game that says, you once had the benefits of a dignified retirement but we’re betting we can chip away at that by offering a few pennies to spend right now since you were so accommodating when times were hard. Why, you even worked harder for less pay.

Okay, so maybe BART needs that money, that surplus I’ve read about, to buy more cars and upgrade the system so many of us depend upon. Then I want the BART board to come out and tell us that, explain to us exactly what the options are, hold public meetings and let the taxpayers, the riders, the workers among us who believe in solidarity for our own sakes, what is at stake.

Don’t hire creepy law-breaking negotiators whose job it is to obfuscate, delay and frustrate the union folk, our neighbors. People don’t strike because they enjoy losing days at work.

I’m calling on Robert Raburn and Rebecca Saltzman, folks I’ve put my trust in, to come to us and lay BART’s cards on the table. I’m certainly going to remember Zachary Mallett, should he ever come before me for an endorsement, for denouncing the ATU and the SEIU workers who gave back in hard times. And I thank James Fang for walking the picket line and realizing that it was a mistake to leave the board out of negotiations. We elected a progressive board and we expect them to act like one. Trust us, your constituents, to see the wisdom in your decisions by letting us see you make them.