Sunday, August 10, 2008

We Fight Blight--Geographic Scope and Focus

Several people interested in fighting blight have asked me to clarify the geographic scope and focus of the Fight Blight in South Berkeley-North Oakland effort. Understandably, the terms South Berkeley and North Oakland are a bit amorphous. To start, we have limited our geographic focus as follows: (1) Ashby to the north; (2) Telegraph to the east; (3) Sacramento/Market to the west; and (4) 52nd Street to the south. We picked this area for several reasons. The most important being that we live and travel within this area and became increasingly dissatisfied with the blighted conditions that were affecting the quality of life in our community and the apparent lack of community knowledge or interest in fighting blight. Because of our desire to create a safer community, we also wanted to address the connection between crime and blight, something that did not appear to be actively and comprehensively addressed by any of the existing community groups or neighborhood associations.

Within this geographic area of South Berkeley-North Oakland, we want to provide resources and tools for residents to address blight themselves. Essentially, by arming residents with information on the city processes and giving them an understanding of the laws governing blight, residents will be able to solve blight issues on a block by block basis. Importantly though, this requires an interested citizenry. In addition, we have several people who are actively identifying and reporting blight issues within this geographic area.

Our primary focus at the moment is to identify all the abandoned and inoperable vehicles within South Berkeley-North Oakland and have them removed by the owners or the Cities of Berkeley and Oakland. We are also identifying the most blighted single family dwellings and apartments. This mostly includes those residences with peeling paint, deteriorated siding, large amounts of debris/litter in their yards and on their porches, and overgrown weeds. Next, we will work on commercial properties with deteriorated facades. Of particular interest are the large number of liquor stores/markets that serve as a magnet for loitering, littering, public drunkenness and drugs. BAPAC, the Berkeley Alcohol Policy Advisory Coalition, has been working tirelessly to address the oversaturation of alcohol outlets in South and West Berkeley and to provide the City of Berkeley with the tools that will allow it to systematically and quickly address alcohol-related public nuisance problems before they get out of hand. Our efforts are not intended to supplant those of BAPAC, but to be complementary by actively monitoring and reporting code and blight violations. This will help BAPAC and others develop the evidence for shutting down nuisance alcohol outlets.

In our efforts, we are always trying to partner with neighborhood associations and crime prevention councils. Naturally, these organizations are a great way to help educate the community on the existing tools for fighting blight as well as the necessary policy reforms to assure fair, efficient, and effective reduction of blighted properties.


Lupa said...

I don't have a car and have limited walking ability. The store at the corner of Fairview and Adeline is very important to me. I have never had a problem in there.

Drinking has never inteerested me but you cannot stop people from drinking by closing all the liquor stores! We tried that. It was called PROHIBITION and it was unsuccessful to say the least.

Lupa said...

Oh, um, but I'm glad to find this Fight Blight Blog. Thanx for your work.

I'll let you know when the next dead mattress or sofa shows up at the corner. Should be sometime in the next 48hrs. or so...

Fight Blight said...

Thanks Lupa. I think you got the wrong idea. We are not trying to close all liquor stores. In fact, I too like to drink beer and enjoy patronizing my neighborhood liquor store (not the one in question). What we are not interested in are nuisance liquor stores that attract loitering, littering, graffiti, public drunkeness and drug dealing. Nor do we like liquor stores that are aesthetically unappealing and unnatractive. You can have responsible drinking just as you can have responsible property and business owners who maintain their properties. While you may feel that the store in question does not pose any problems or concerns, other residents in the community feel differently and have observed some of the problems I noted above. On the other hand, we feel that small grocery stores are of value to the community and want to keep them, just as long as they are responsible.

Tom Luce said...

Hi Blight!

I was checking out the blog a little more carefully in an effort to determine how we in the Lorin neighborhood can work with you.

My reaction to M&H being on your list is similar to lupa's. I had heard over a year ago that it was a blight generating spot. I was involved in a trial organizing action to do something about such places. I found the official report form to write up such alcohol outlets. But we never got any reports.

I was accosted a year ago by a mentally ill young man on that side of the street where young groups gather on the 1800 block. Since then, though I've not noticed these groups and haven't had any more confrontations.

This year I discovered that the manager of the store was a very devout Muslim and had worked with one of our homeless women for 15 years who slept on the porch of South Berkeley Community church. Provided food-not alcohol--to her and she would pay him back when she could. I suppose people will say that such help is enabling bad choices for such a person. I was moved by his concern--he posted this woman's obit in his store and the whole neighborhood was able to appreciate the woman's whole life.

I feel like M&H is worth studying as a neighborhood fixture that serves a positive role. Where do homeless people go if we drive them away from us? Are we involved in developing real housing options for them? Or do we just hope that gentrification will eliminate them altogether?

Thanks for this solid, effective tool in dealing with blight!

Fight Blight said...

Thank you for the thoughtful post Tom. Small grocery stores, particularly those with liquor outlet components, have been a magnet for undesirable behavior for sometime in both North Oakland and South Berkeley. Understandably, when these negative or undesirable behaviors are expressed in the community, nearby residents and homeowners can feel victimized and may rally to shut down the "offending" grocery store.

However, as you have experienced there is a face, a person, a family, and a story behind those that operate such grocery stores. It is far easier to demonize and to shut down a business with whom you do not have a personal relationship with. Looking at the positive, I believe that small grocery stores can provide an important food source for those with limited mobility and limited incomes. As in small villages in other countries, the small local grocery store serves as a community focal point for impromptu community gatherings that serve an important social function. Unfortunately, those that gather in South Berkeley seem more often than not to be people who express bad behaviors--public drunkenness, littering, graffiti and drug dealing--not valued by others in our community.

Living in South Berkeley we have some of the most accessible public transit around and live within a very short distance of one of the best grocery stores in the country, Berkeley Bowl. This raises the question of why do we need a high concentration of small groceries particularly those with liquor components. How do we reduce the liquor components while ensuring that the business stays viable and gets a good return. Also, take a close look at the products sold by these stores. While we cannot tell people what to eat, the products often, though not always, focus on chips, candy, and drinks laced with high fructose corn syrup. Does this product model serve the community well?

Gentrification, which is a process larger than you and I, has been and will continue to eliminate and push some of the people you speak of out of the community. The location of South Berkeley, as I have mentioned in other posts, lends itself to continued gentrification.

Regarding affordable housing, I have come to the conclusion we are doing it completely wrong. We often focus on inclusionary housing requirements and development fees on private developers, rent control, condo conversion laws and Section 8 subsidies as a way to force the market to provide affordable housing.

In the Bay Area what we need is more housing, not less. At its most basic level this is a supply and demand issue. We need to break down the barriers and the opposition to providing higher density housing and focus on reducing the costs to construct housing--development fees and unpredictable entitlement processes with the local government.

As a society, if we want affordable housing and want to house the homeless, we should all be willing to accept a broad based tax, not unlike an income tax, that is applied to all members of society in an equitable fashion. This tax then could be used to fund affordable housing (mixed income) through non-profit housing developers. We cannot expect private developers to bear the burden alone. It will never get us where we want to go.

So the question is whether there would be enough support for such a broad based tax. My opinion is that there would not be. Not enough people care. It is easier to support development fees and inclusionary zoning because then the "evil" developers have to pay it. But guess what, the so called "evil" developers simply pass those costs onto the other units making them even more expensive.

We appreciate your comments and support Tom.