Second night of the George Floyd curfew in Berkeley, steps from People’s Park. Once built over with old shingled and clapboard houses like mine, after a long and troubled history, the space now holds a variety of tents. These tent people are quiet, unlike the angry crowds in Oakland five miles to the south. Police are not being sent to evict them from university property, possibly because the Berkeley campus is closed during the pandemic.
Tent camps, now sanctioned city locations, are the latest, if also the oldest, response to California’s housing emergency. Sadly, Project Roomkey, meant to house many thousands of vulnerable homeless in empty hotels, seems to be faltering with too little staffing and reluctant or unstable occupants. Colonies of new trailers intended for the unhoused also sit vacant. What seem to be working, still and again, are tent communities, evenly spaced, with services, on public land.
Large numbers of homeless in this prosperous land are hardly a new phenomenon. They have existed since the mid-nineteenth century, with a brief interlude of full employment during and after the Second World War. During the Great Depression in the 1930s homeless encampments were called Hoovervilles to spite the sitting president. What is relatively new is the migration of these encampments to city centers where they cannot be ignored. Their high visibility and persistence painfully signal, any way you look at it, a broken social contract.
I live on Hillegass Avenue, which begins (or ends) just south of People’s Park. The park rose some 50 years ago on a muddy, debris-strewn space where the University, using eminent domain, had levelled old housing and left it with a parking lot and a stalled plan for new dorms. In 1971, having just settled on Hillegass, we were soon breaking up asphalt in People’s Park to plant trees, and marching against Nixon’s mining of harbors in Cambodia. When not protesting the war, we joined Berkeley’s new architectural preservation group, too late to save the houses demolished on Block 1875, People’s Park. We had no problem reconciling our protests for and against the Establishment: we oozed righteousness on both counts. I ascended to president of the Berkeley neighborhoods’ coalition, my husband led the preservationists.
Many of the demolished homes in People’s Park had been re-purposed as rooming houses, and when our kids emigrated to points east, we rented rooms to students. All kinds of housing were scarce by the 1980s, no little thanks to the NIMBY concerns of neighborhood groups and preservationists like us. The median home price in Berkeley had bloated 300 percent in less than a decade. The twenty-five houses demolished for People’s Park would today, if not next week, be worth upwards of $50 million.
While we were passively amassing real estate, I was writing about local soup kitchens and shelters as well as local writers and bookstores. This led less to poetry readings and more to volunteer work with homeless support groups and a food recycling network . After the Berkeley Gazette expired, I wrote a novel about homelessness and a soup kitchen, folding in feuding academics and the gourmet revolution. …Soup of the Day. A [comic] sequel, Property Rites, involves competing native American and Mexican land claims on a campus not unlike, as they say, the Berkeley campus of the University of California.
The founding of the University of California does most often evoke eminent clergy shading their eyes as they gaze across the bay, quoting Bishop Berkeley: Westward the course of empire….
More recently, the University has been described as a group of entrepreneurs seeking a parking place. In 1868, jesting aside, the location of the new university campus vastly inflated the property values of four local investors. Francis Shattuck, William Hillegass, and their partners had divided a square mile of land just south of the projected campus, for which they had paid about $31 per acre. The loser in this deal was ultimately the holder of the Mexican land grant, Jose Domingo Peralta–if you don’t count the natives, those who survived, who didn’t share the western imperialist view of property rights.
Francis Shattuck’s eventual heir was philanthropist Weston Havens, born in 1903, whose family had lived around the corner from our Hillegass house. The maiden lady who sold us her own family home had grown up with him. When we moved in, he gifted us with sacks of fertilizer meant to sustain the viciously rampant Silver Moon rose over the driveway arbor. He had given it to her to soften the view of the four-story apartment building to the south of us. There’s more to tell here, and whether Weston Havens ever actually occupied a wing of our house is an unwritten story. But in 1940 he built a radically modernist house on Panoramic Hill where he lived until his death.
Meanwhile, our Colonial Box on Hillegass Avenue was continuing to amass unearned value as the Bay Area economy boomed. In the century after the Gold Rush, there was the pulsating prosperity of Silicon Valley and its garage geniuses. And the rich grew richer, billion by billion, and the poor poorer, year by year, decade after decade.
As Henry George, 19th-century political economist, journalist, and social reformer wrote in Progress and Poverty,
I mean that the tendency of what we call material progress is in nowise to improve the condition of the lowest class in the essentials of healthy, happy human life. Nay, more, that it is still further to depress the condition of the lowest class.… It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down.
George saw the root cause as the inevitable rise in wealth via unearned land value–such as the vast increase in the value of property adjacent to the new transnational railroad lines. Rents were already rising as fast as or faster than wages. He could have adduced another example in the shrewd purchase by Shattuck, Hillegass, and partners of a square mile of land next to the projected campus of what was soon to become the world’s preeminent public university.
George’s Progress and Poverty was the most important American economic treatise of the 19th century. But his prescription against income inequality, a single tax on land value, soon proved unworkable, since land’s value depends on its potential and its improvements. In 1880 he left the west coast to carry his ideas to New York City, where he became United Labor’s mayoral candidate. He finished well ahead of Republican Theodore Roosevelt, but lost narrowly to a Democratic candidate whose name I and others have forgotten.
Property tax in whatever form is still the most significant source of funding local government services, particularly education. The most important initiative on the 2020 ballot in California concerns Proposition 13, passed in 1978, drastically reducing all property taxes and devastating everything from school quality to street maintenance. The 2020 measure would tax commercial and industrial property valued over $2 million at its assessed value rather than its purchase price. It could bring billions of dollars to what is now our broken state economy.
After a world pandemic, after our racial conflagrations, our planetary climate crisis and national reckonings in housing, health care, and education, our stock market seems to be making the much-touted V recovery. This is all too likely to baffle financial and social reform efforts, not to mention the frantic struggle to rid ourselves of our current president. But the future may be full of surprises, and not necessarily locusts or earthquakes.