Tuesday, February 24, 2015

San Francisco housing wars

I recently faulted the best seller Season of the Witch for underemphasizing San Francisco's ongoing fights over housing for lower income workers, the poor and the marginalized. James Tracy's Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes from San Francisco’s Housing Wars covers those seemingly continuous struggles. As the title indicates, the author was there in the trenches and he knows whereof he writes.

...this is a partisan book. With the exceptions of the histories that occurred long before I was born, I was either directly in the fray or close by as events unfolded. In order for this book to be useful, I've had to turn a critical eye on people, organizations, and movements near and dear to my heart. ...

... If the working-class spine of a city is broken, then no one but the moneyed get to dream big dreams in the city. These dispatches defend the communities that make cities an amazing place to live: the working classes, artists, immigrants, and communities of color.

I, for one, am grateful for his wisdom and candor. I was around peripherally for most of this, fortunate enough to be securely housed, but always aware of whose side I was on. After a brief recounting of some of the history of housing in the city, the book begins with the story of public housing tenants fighting demolition and privatization masquerading as reform; continues through the awful era when many of our single room occupancy (SRO) hotels went up in smoke; through Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition's (MAC) struggle to preserve something of the low rent Mission for Latinos and artists who often didn't speak the same language, politically and culturally as well as literally, during the first tech boom that peaked in 2000.

Tracy's story is full of reflections on what it is really like to engage in these struggles. For example:

The very real potential for impoverished people to lead and determine their own destiny [often can be] replaced with radical others' fantasies about them or rationales for ignoring their voices. In the [Mission] Agenda's case, it also led to ignoring the role of trauma in the lives of the people being organized. Living in slum conditions, and facing the aggregate impacts of poverty, leaves its own scars. By the time the Agenda folded, many of its shining stars were dead -- some of overdoses, others of untreated health conditions; others dropped out of movement work entirely, citing burnout.

Or, as my friends and I have remarked in more than one organizational context: "Struggle is hard; that's why they call it struggle." Tracy reminds us to try to organize care for each other while we work to defeat those who would brush us aside.

Organizations aiming to empower working class and poor constituencies are often confronted with an ethical dilemma: having got people stirred up, do they have an obligation to win what can be won for the constituency, even if that undermines the clarity and vision of the work? Often this takes the form of how deeply to go inside a bad system -- whether by engaging in electoral politics or policy planning -- or to stay outside, aiming to move an agenda through aggressive direct action. This seems to me a particularly difficult problem when it comes to housing issues. Housing policy (and finance) can be very arcane. If you feel compelled to work from inside, you are also likely to find yourself within the constraints of the nonprofit organizational form answering to funders who usually think they know more about your work than you do. Tracy explores some of these issues in relation to real San Francisco organizations including the Mission Housing Development Corporation where the organizers were displaced by builders of middle class housing.

And now San Francisco's conflict over housing is playing out again in a new tech boom. Tracy describes the pass we're now in as "clear cutting" of the working and middle class by the new money.

What is to be done? Tracy discusses community land trusts, citizen participatory budgeting, and building powerful organizations of people discarded by the power of money.

Activists should resist the temptation to fetishize one organizational form as the only one capable of contributing to a housing movement. That said, there are some characteristics that should anchor all organizing in the city. All organizations should reckon with the confines that capitalism places on their best aspirations. Accountability to participatory democratic practices and self-management to the greatest extent possible may be the best guarantees that a movement will be able to "keep it real." Most importantly, housing movements must demand that which would do the most good for the greatest number of people and not start out with the politics of pragmatism. ...

Social movements and labor upsurges achieve something far beyond their stated goals: they create a new common sense about what human beings deserve both by virtue of being human and in return for their labors. Without this change, all others will be fleeting.

I found this book both thought provoking and challenging. That's what I am looking for in such a book.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

Dealing with poverty, income inequality, and the needs for housing the working poor are all part of our problem today. Zoning is one answer and Oregon did it long ago for rural land which has kept it from becoming one housing development after another. It also has led to bitterness as some bought land intending to divide it to provide for their old age only to be denied that. There are no easy answers.

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