(AP/Michael Dwyer)

Don’t call it gentrification

“Dispatches Against Displacement” author James Tracy on fighting to keep cities from becoming rich-only playgrounds


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Liam O'Donoghue
November 2, 2014 9:00PM (UTC)

In the early 1990s, a punk rock kid named James Tracy moved from the gritty North Bay city of Vallejo to nearby San Francisco and got a job driving a delivery truck for a thrift store in the predominantly Latino, working-class Mission district. During his pickup runs, he noticed that many landlords were making generous donations — the left-behind belongings of former tenants. This was a few years before the rise of the first dot-com boom, but even then, Tracy said, “It was obvious to me that a storm was coming.”

The storm was more like a hurricane. In the late '90s and early aughts, a torrent of venture capital poured into Silicon Valley and waves of would-be tech entrepreneurs flooded into San Francisco, displacing tens of thousands of poor folks, artists, musicians, activists and families who were evicted to make room for higher-paying tenants. In order to get around San Francisco’s rent-control laws, many buildings were demolished and sterile live-work lofts and generic-looking condos rose from their ashes.

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Just as with a real hurricane, this storm also had a body count. In one notorious case, a landlord overcame housing activists’ attempts to block the eviction of an 82-year-old woman, who died shortly after being forced out of her longtime home. Many more San Francisco seniors have met similar fates since then.

Resistance to this onslaught of displacement was widespread, fraught with internal clashes, sometimes victorious, occasionally militant, and occasionally surreal. In one case, the San Francisco police seized Situationist and Marxist books from the library of an anti-displacement propagandist who had been wheat-pasting posters throughout the Mission encouraging people to burn yuppies’ cars and sabotage hip restaurants. Through it all, James Tracy was on the front lines -- sometimes quite literally, as a member of groups that would protest on landlords’ doorsteps or during anti-eviction occupations at the homes of families facing displacement.

In his new book, “Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes From San Francisco’s Housing Wars,” Tracy not only looks back with a critical eye on the recent history of anti-displacement organizing but also offers solutions for how these struggles can be more successful moving forward. With rent prices for one-bedroom apartments often surpassing $3,000, the need for a book like this is painfully obvious.

You start the book with this quote from Herbert Marcuse: “The housing crisis doesn’t exist because the system isn’t working. It exists because that’s the way the system works.” How does this permanent state of crisis exemplify a system that’s operating as intended?

In the simplest sense, it works well for those who make exorbitant profits from a crisis. It’s working well for speculators and throwing not only tenants, but first-time homebuyers and even some small landlords under the bus. In a larger sense, the housing crisis achieves ideological goals. It tells a public story that it is natural that the rights of this small group of speculators should outweigh everyone else’s need for a safe and decent place to live. The evidence to the contrary is literally under every overpass in America, yet even those harmed by the crisis often defend it.

One of the most interesting things about the idea of a crisis is the issue of when the media decides to call it one. It wasn’t until after the cascading foreclosure crisis in 2008 that the term "housing crisis" was broadly used. This is because homeowners can still generate a great deal of more sympathy than renters. If you look at the history of housing policy, it is access to homeownership, not the construction of public housing, which was the centerpiece of the New Deal reforms. You can trace the narratives from there, homeownership is part of the American Dream, renting makes you part of a second class. Yet homeowners (and I am one) are subsidized as well through income tax breaks. Who is the system working for? The finance and real estate sectors are doing just fine by it. Everyone else is either on the chopping block or standing nearby it.

You cite an infamous quote by a San Francisco city supervisor saying “a little gentrification is a good thing” in explaining your decision to use the term “displacement” instead of “gentrification.” Do you think "gentrification" has too many positive connotations to be a useful word for people challenging displacement? Would you like to see people stop using the “g-word”?

I prefer to use the word "displacement" because it drives home the end result of gentrification: someone loses their home and their community. You can’t play fast and loose with the word! On one end of political thought, there is this underlying assumption that higher-income people improve a low-income community just by arriving there. It plays into this mythos deeply imbedded in our psyche that  rich people will somehow randomly meet their neighbors and help them up the economic ladder.

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During the Great Depression there were thousands of cases of neighbors banding together to militantly protect each other from eviction. We saw scattered examples of this in the wake of the Occupy movement, but it didn’t become a widespread phenomenon in response to the still ongoing foreclosure crisis. Why do you think people are so much less likely to use militant or even confrontational tactics now?

You see echoes of this today, although not nearly at the same levels during the Great Depression. Eviction Free San Francisco has had a lot of success in pushing back evictions, most recently in the case of Benito Santiago using a direct action model. There is a lot of innovative housing organizing going on today. Just a few examples are Picture the Homeless; NYC’s anti-vacancy work; in Chicago, the anti-foreclosure and home occupation movement is cutting edge.

Housing activism tends to do best against the backdrop of larger social and movements. In the 1930s, there were large mass-based movements that elevated the needs of working-class people. Movements influence each other both tactically and morally. The formation of the trade union movement, the campaign to free the Scottsboro Men, built a sense of boldness and political consciousness that could easily be translated into a neighborhood context. Also, today’s neighbors have far less connection with each other thanks to climates of fear and the impacts of the greatest work speedup in U.S. history. The fact that both lower-income and middle-income people are working 50, 60 and 70 hours a week damages our ability to organize on the level of the Unemployed Workers Movement.

As you say in the book, “The Clinton Administration decided that the way to deal with public housing’s problems was with a wrecking ball.” Clinton’s history of enacting steep welfare cuts is much more well-known than his equally destructive housing policies. Why do you think this aspect of his legacy doesn’t get as much attention?

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Clinton’s housing policy was part and parcel of welfare reform. Certainly, both federal income assistance and public housing needed changes. But Clinton and Congress adopted a model based in punishment and austerity. He was literally worse than the Republicans at every turn. His version of HOPE VI, the program to demolish and rebuild public housing, removed the very reasonable guarantee of one-to-one replacement of demolished housing. I had the privilege of working alongside residents of public housing in San Francisco.

Most of the demands they made on the Housing Authority and Housing and Urban Development were very fundamental. They wanted the renovation process to result in living-wage jobs for their kids, they wanted to come back to their communities. Yet, this was met with scorn, disdain and, in some cases, criminalization. It was an example of what happens when liberals accept the same worn-out assumptions about poor people as conservatives.

Clinton was able to use progressive critiques of the worst aspects of federal housing such as the warehousing of the poor in substandard conditions to accomplish the conservative goal of privatizing formerly public housing. How are progressive arguments still being used in the service of displacement of urban poor?

The Clinton administration argued that public housing was a form of segregation and that the HOPE VI process was a form of integration, essentially fulfilling the promise of the civil rights movement. He was halfway right. Local governments did in fact use public housing programs to reinforce segregation. However, what we saw in the aftermath of HOPE VI was actually a form of resegregation as the displaced just resettled where they could afford to find homes. Simply a different kind of warehousing.

You see this today under the Obama administration as public housing authorities are attempting to implement drastic rent hikes as a perverse incentive toward self-sufficiency. You want people to move towards self-sufficiency? Create good-paying public works jobs and the social supports like childcare and education to make this happen. You can’t essentially apply a Wal-Mart mentality to public policy and expect to change lives with a cheap strategy like this. The people of North Beach Public Housing taught me that the solutions to poverty start with the input, insight and creativity of people facing poverty. The rest of us can and should lend our levels of expertise and skills when needed. But to think that government is going to design solutions without these voices symbolizes they very worst impulses of liberal and conservative frameworks.

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We’re in the midst of a wave of “spatial deconstruction” -- basically the opposite of white flight -- where poor people are being pushed out of city centers into outlying suburbs. There have been various theories about how this is essentially the fulfillment of a decades-long response to the inner city uprisings and riots of the late 1960s with the ultimate goal being decentralization of potentially revolutionary populations. Regardless of the origins of this shift, we recently got a preview of what suburban uprisings look like in Ferguson -- and how effectively militarized police are able to shut them down. As an organizer, how do you think this shift to the suburbs will affect the ability of local housing rights movements to grow, thrive and accomplish their goals?

I was born in Oakland but brought up mostly in Vallejo; I think that it is a mistake most of our organizations have made to not nurture progressive organizing in the blue-collar suburbs. It doesn’t mean that big-city organizers need to run and parachute in to Hayward, Vallejo and Fairfield and Concord. But we do need to create relationships with people already doing the work, mostly through church-based organizing.

The Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Council has been doing fantastic work in areas far outside of “hip” areas. Last year, I observed the Participatory Budgeting process in Vallejo and I was impressed by what I saw. By giving a portion of the city budget over to a popular decision-making process, a lot of dialogue between citizens was created over the future of their city. Youth and non-citizens were welcomed and encouraged to participate. It wasn’t uncommon to see a resident of a Section 8 housing development work alongside a middle-class homeowner in a spirit of mutual respect.

When schools, parks, streetlights and other aspects of local infrastructure are improved, it makes neighborhoods more desirable -- which makes displacement more likely. How can neighborhoods improve themselves without falling prey to this vicious cycle?

This is the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Because of this reality, many well-meaning people romanticize preserving dilapidated conditions as an anti-displacement strategy. This is simply wrong-headed. Disinvestment is simply the first phase of displacement, the time when speculators can scoop up property on the cheap and wait until the time is right to flip. One of the solutions is to engage in long-term community planning so that improvements such as these can be done in tandem with strategies to preserve affordability in a meaningful, not superficial way.

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On a bigger scale, look at projects like BART. Clearly the development of a mass transit system played a key role in mass displacement in San Francisco. But for reasons of environmental sustainability as well as convenience, I think it would be hard to argue that the city would be better off without a rail system. As more cities improve their transit systems, what can low-income communities do so that they’re able to enjoy the benefits of improved transit options without succumbing to displacement?

When Portland put in its rail system a few years ago, it funded a Community Land Trust to work on preserving the impacted communities. The funding was never enough to make the desired impact, but the model was a strong one.

One of the possible solutions you mention in the book involves passing laws to curb property speculation by taxing away the profits. None of the ballot initiatives coming up for a vote in San Francisco next month go quite that far, but several do aim to alleviate the city’s displacement crisis. Are you hopeful that any of these will achieve that goal? If so, what solutions embedded within these initiatives give you the most hope?

Yes. Proposition G on San Francisco’s ballot is critical. It curbs displacement by discouraging the practice of swift flipping of buildings for windfall profits. Even though it will help protect renters, first-time homebuyers who actually want to make San Francisco home will be big winners if this passes. In the absence of political will on the state level to address the Ellis Act, this is the only hope to save what’s left of the San Francisco we fell in love with.

Another option for creating “gentrification-proof bubbles” that you mention is the establishment of Community Land Trusts. The interesting thing about this ownership structure is that it does so much more than just prevent evictions -- they actually require that neighbors know each other and learn how to work together. This model feels like the polar opposite of the sole homeownership model of the 20th century in America, which promoted individuality and independence at the cost of community-building. Can you really ever see the CLT model taking off in America?

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I helped form the San Francisco Community Land Trust and I believe that this model can simultaneously preserve affordability and build community. It’s basically a rebooted version of the old cooperative housing model where affordability and tenure is protected, much in the same way that forests are protected through trusts. Without forms of community ownership, even the most impressive housing organizing victories are temporary. It’s important not to romanticize the cooperative and deal head-on with the problems it presents. For example, the SFCLT has been incorporated since 2004 and we have secured about six dozen homes. Not enough to intervene in the housing crisis yet. Land trusts are part of the solution, not the entire thing. And yes, one of the main obstacles is the accepted notions of what people expect from their housing. It is hard to move beyond the poles of renter vs. homeowner. The CLT model makes asks of both society and the individual. It asks society to move toward housing as a human right. It asks individuals to take personal responsibility as part of a community. It is a heavy lift given the times we live in.


Liam O'Donoghue

Liam O'Donoghue is Salon’s communications director. He writes about what’s happening at Salon and manages Salon’s social media assets. You can follow him on Twitter @Liam_Odonoghue.

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