A 27-year-old Berkeley city council member wanted to build more affordable housing. Relentless harassment from 'left NIMBYs' pushed him to resign.

A 27-year-old Berkeley city council member wanted to build more affordable housing. Relentless harassment from 'left NIMBYs' pushed him to resign.
A view of the People's Park as shipping containers were placed around, Berkeley, California, USA on January 5, 2024.
University of California police and California Highway Patrol (CHP) took control of People's Park and secured the area with shipping containers despite efforts by protesters to stop the takeover.Tayfun Coskun/Getty Images
  • Rigel Robinson became Berkeley's youngest-ever city council member in 2018.

  • He pushed for more housing in the city, including student and supportive housing in People's Park.

  • Robinson resigned this month after facing overwhelming harassment over his housing advocacy.

When Rigel Robinson was elected to the Berkeley City Council in 2018 — just months after graduating from UC Berkeley — he was determined to tackle the city's housing crisis as its youngest-ever council member.

Little did he know that six years later, at 27 years old, he would be handing in his resignation notice.

As an undergrad serving on Berkeley's student government, Robinson grew passionate about building more affordable student housing in the notoriously expensive city. After being elected, he built on those efforts to shape the city government as the Chair of the Land Use, Housing, and Economic Development committee.

At the forefront of the housing debate that has long roiled Berkeley is whether to move forward with the university's plans to build 1,100 units of student housing and 125 units of supportive housing for homeless residents in a green space known as People's Park.

The park was the site of anti-war protests and other progressive activism in the 1960s and has long been a gathering place for the community and a homeless encampment. Meanwhile, the university is facing a severe student housing shortage amid a broader affordability crisis.

The issue has divided the progressive community, pitting pro-housing YIMBYs — which stands for "Yes In My Backyard" — against so-called "left NIMBYs," who oppose new development on the grounds that it hurts lower-income and marginalized people. In response, advocates for new housing development point to numerous studies have found that even the addition of market-rate housing helps bring down costs in a community and lowers the risk of displacement.

Decades of debate over the future of the park has culminated in a slew of lawsuits from local opponents. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill allowing Berkeley and other universities to overcome community objections to potential noise issues from student residents. The university — which has barricaded the park while construction is on hold — won't have final go-ahead until the state supreme court weighs in.

Robinson and many other progressives believe the university's development plan would do much more to help students and vulnerable community members than keeping People's Park as a green space. And, he argued, it would better reflect the park's history.

"It's an incredibly elegant and really balanced proposal," he said, noting that most of the park would be kept as green space. "I believe that we really could better honor that history by repurposing the site."

But Robinson's advocacy for housing in People's Park was met with a wave of harassment from residents who wanted to keep the park as is. He reached his breaking point in early January when he decided to resign from the council.

"We knew that when the park was closed, it would be an intense and fraught moment for our community," Robinson told Business Insider. "But when people employ tactics like harassment and stalking and threats to try to subvert the will of the people and the votes and directions that our democratically elected city council has made, I think that creates a problem."

Rigel Robinson
Rigel Robinson resigned from Berkeley's city council at 27 years old. Rigel Robinson

While it's increasingly common for public officials to face harassment and intimidation, Robinson said it was "most acute" for him when it came to People's Park.

The intensity of the pushback forced him to evaluate whether he could tolerate the opposition, or take a step back and preserve his mental health. He chose the latter, and while he doesn't regret his decision, he hopes that those opposed to building housing won't get in the way of the needs of the community.

"I ran for this office to elevate the voice of the next generation, and the most pressing challenge facing young people and working families in our city is the housing crisis," he said. "But Berkeley is a city notorious for its resistance to new growth. The NIMBY capital of the West Coast, if you will."

'Relentless efforts' to stunt housing projects

When Robinson was running for the council in 2018, some of his political mentors advised him to stay away from YIMBYs because an association with them would make it harder to get endorsements from progressive groups who view YIMBYs as "developer shills."

While that might have been the case at the time, Robinson said, he didn't take that advice — and now, "the politics of the issue have entirely changed."

"Even the candidates who are the most averse to and skeptical of new housing construction, they don't want to sound like NIMBYs," Robinson said. "And that is a titanic shift."

But that shift in the mindset of some politicians hasn't been enough to quell the pushback from Berkeley residents who don't want to see more housing units in their neighborhoods. Earlier this month, the conflict escalated as hundreds of police officers arrested dozens of protesters and cleared tents at People's Park.

"With the People's Park project, there have been relentless efforts, both in terms of protests and activism, and legal tools, to obstruct the project every step of the way," Robinson said.

Since Robinson resigned, some of his fellow council members spoke out on the harassment he endured, and the importance that abusing policymakers should not become the norm — even on controversial issues like housing.

"CM Robinson, thank you for your service to the City of Berkeley, the kindness with which you led, & your tireless advocacy for safe streets, affordable housing, & community safety," one council member Terry Taplin wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on January 9. "The harassment & abuse public servants face is real," he wrote. "This toxicity should never be normalized."

Robinson said that while he'll miss fighting for the issues he's passionate about on the council, he's happy that he's able to prioritize his mental health and his family as he figures out what's next. And when it comes to Berkeley's future, he's feeling pretty optimistic about that, as well.

"It is our job to be responsive to the community, but sometimes the right thing to do requires you to listen and then hold your ground and make the right choice in the face of a whole lot of noise and frustration," Robinson said.

"And I think that's what we've seen with this project at People's Park, which is not only going to represent a new chapter for that site, and for the story of People's Park and for the story of resistance to state violence, but really is going to provide incredible resources and meet urgent needs in the city," he continued. "There's no more precious resource in Berkeley than permanent supportive housing."

Read the original article on Business Insider