Race, Poverty, and the Environment

Theresa Tran

Youth, Diversity and Ethnic Studies
Excerpt from an Interview with Theresa Tran

Theresa Q. Tran is a youth program specialist at the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. She received her M.A. in Social Work at the University of Michigan where she studied community organizing with youth and families. Tran also serves on the board of Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote—Michigan, working to increase civic engagement of APIAs.

Youth are much smarter than adults tend to give them credit for, which is ironic since we were all youth once and know what being marginalized feels like. Youth know right away when something is unfair—they recognize it immediately but don’t always know what to do when they witness this unfairness. Or else, they’ve been socialized by adults to be complicit with the way things are.

At the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity & Inclusion's Youth Program in Detroit, our issues change each year with each new group of youth that join our program. One of our program principles is that youth should organize on the issues that they’re passionate about; that they are directly affected by.  In our program, our youth decide on the issues they want to focus on as they are living those experiences. Last year, the group focused on disability justice, structural racism, strengthening alliance with LGBT communities, and immigration. This year’s group is focusing on Islamaphobia, educational justice, sexual assault against teen girls, and organizing youth to be better connected across the city.

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Disneyfication of Downtown Oakland

The real benefits are in the militarization and privatization of public space in a process that ultimately leads to greatly increased rent revenues for major real estate owners.

Business Improvement Districts and the Battle for Public Space


Oakland is far removed from Anaheim in look, feel and form. But as corporate real estate firms stake a claim to the maintenance and administration of public space in Downtown Oakland, the area is being reshaped in accordance with the model for a controlled and commodified space exemplified by the post-war suburban shopping mall and theme park par excellence: Disneyland.

While redevelopment agencies typically control the building phase of large-scale downtown projects, in the built environment, the “curb to property line” streetscape is often controlled by the Business Improvement District (BID), a lesser known but strategically relevant urban entity.

In early 2008, a small group of managers working for the largest real estate corporations in downtown Oakland partnered with New City America, Inc. (a San Diego-based consultancy that has established over 61 BIDs in the U.S.), to create the Downtown Oakland Association (DOA) and Lake Merritt Uptown District Association (LMUDA).

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Affordable Housing Hit Hard by Redevelopment Agency Closures



Affordable housing advocates across California are scrambling for alternative sources of funding following the closure of the state’s redevelopment agencies in February 2012.

A state law upheld by the California Supreme Court mandated the dismantling, which aims to redirect billions in property tax earnings held by the redevelopment agencies (RDAs) back to local governments to help close a huge gap in the state’s general fund.

The demise of California’s 425 RDAs “comes at a very bad time,” says Rachel Iskow, executive director of the Sacramento Yolo Mutual Housing Association.
Money coming from the federal housing program has been substantially reduced. The $2.9 billion generated by the state’s Proposition 1C bonds—enacted by California voters in 2006 for various types of housing—are almost gone, and a sluggish development market has reduced money for local low-cost housing trust funds to a trickle.

“The end of redevelopment agencies significantly shrinks the total supply of financing for affordable housing,” Iskow explains. She adds that her private nonprofit has built more than 900 homes in the Sacramento-Yolo area. It serves an ethnically diverse community of mostly “workers earning an average of $20,000 a year for a family of four people.”
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Redevelopment: After the Fall



The closure of California’s 452 Redevelopment Agencies (RDAs) could rock land-use planning and policy as dramatically as 1978’s Proposition 13. For six decades, redevelopment gave California cities one of their most powerful—and controversial—tools for spurring real estate investment. Now they stand to lose $1.6 billion per year in local RDA property tax levies and will need to change their approach to housing, land-use planning and development financing. The millions of Californians who rely on affordable housing and the groups that build and support it will feel even stronger aftershocks from the fall of redevelopment.

The abrupt shutdown of the RDAs left plans for hundreds of affordable housing units in limbo and billions of dollars worth of debt from RDA-issued bonds unpaid. The state law dissolving the RDAs (AB X1 26), set up complicated mechanisms for winding down their business, paying their debts and maintaining their housing assets. Advocates face the challenge of untangling the processes and monitoring the disposition of RDA assets while quickly formulating (and organizing around) legislative and policy solutions.

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Oakland's Civic Auditorium: Delivered Vacant

The City of Oakland, California, is sometimes compared to a good model car that, for strange reasons, never seems to be able to give uninterrupted service or get up to full speed on the highway. Strategically located and blessed with an interesting, industrious, creative, and diverse population, a wonderful climate, spectacular views, and the perfect blend of city, marsh and woodland hills, Oakland ought to be one of America’s jewels. It is not. Instead, it is often described as a city of missed opportunities and wasted resources. Nothing exemplifies that description more than Oakland’s treatment of the structure originally known as its Civic Auditorium (renamed the Kaiser Convention Center in 1984).

After years of bungled management, Oakland closed the 98-year-old cultural treasure in 2005—at the same time it was pouring redevelopment money into rehabilitating and reopening another entertainment venue, the Fox Oakland Theater in the rapidly gentrifying Uptown District. Then the city dithered for years over what to do with the Civic Auditotium before entering into a purchase-leaseback agreement with the Redevelopment Agency (RDA) in 2011, just in time for the statewide dissolution of the RDAs. In January 2012, the Auditorium became the target of the Occupy Oakland movement which staged a failed attempt to occupy the building and convert it into a social services center.  

Communities of Color Organize against Urban Land Grabs

Foreclosure Poster. Courtesy of occupysf.org

The foreclosure crisis has disproportionately impacted communities of color because people of color were sold adjustable rate mortgages at a higher rate than whites, even where income levels and financial risk were on par.[1] The upshot of this predatory lending practice has been a massive dislocation of workers and families (most of whom considered their homes their only economic asset) side by side with an unprecedented transfer of wealth to financial institutions and the private sphere.

Advocates abroad call this type of activity by a name more familiar to the third world—a land grab.[2] Multinational corporations have acquired 15 to 20 million hectares of land in wholesale purchases in the global south to establish large-scale industrial farms for food and biofuels.

Closer to home, in the Detroit area, speculator John Hantz is trying to purchase 200 acres to create a large corporate farm.[3] Indeed, land grabs have been afoot for some time within postindustrial landscapes from where capital has fled in search of cheaper labor. What makes the current land grabs especially troubling is the opportunistic use of the tsunami of foreclosures by banks to seize properties. Their willful enablers in this transfer of assets have been the states and their housing policies, ostensibly created to reduce the number of vacant bank-owned properties by converting them into rental units.  

Foreclosures: Excellent Investment for Some

A handful of fast-growing real estate management corporations are now stepping into the foreclosure crisis. Backed by billions of dollars in private equity, property management companies are viewing the crisis as a rare opportunity to amass tens of thousands of single-family homes and convert them into rentals—i.e. long-term high-yield investments. Beyond the stresses on families in neighborhoods experiencing the land grab, this nascent industry—promoted by federal policies—will in all likelihood facilitate the transfer of tens of billions in wealth from distressed homeowners—largely Black and Latino—to a few wealthy private equity firms.

Foreclosure Crisis Meets Occupy Effect

Vultures! Vultures!” a middle-aged African American man yells at a Caucasian male in an expensive leather jacket and white button-down shirt. The man holds a clipboard with real estate listings—identifying him as an auctioneer.

A crowd of more than 100 has assembled on the steps of the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland as the auctioneer attempts to read out the list of properties to be auctioned publicly. But the crowd starts up a chant of “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” Musical instruments are played loudly, signs and banners are waved about, and the auctioneer is drowned out with hisses and jeers. The auctioneer endures the hazing for a few minutes, makes a whispered call on his cell phone, and ducks into the courthouse building. A long line of protestors immediately forms, preparing to follow him inside. A young African American male holds up an “Occupy Oakland” sign.

The auctioneer is told by a deputy that he cannot conduct his business in the building and there ensues a game of cat-and-mouse between him and the crowd as he attempts to conduct his business at a different spot outside the courthouse and the crowd splits up to hound him wherever he goes. Finally, the auctioneer leaves after another whispered phone call—presumably to a bank official—and the crowd moves on to another auctioneer, also identified by his clipboard. Having witnessed the crowd’s treatment of a fellow auctioneer, he leaves without attempting to read out the names of listed properties. A third auctioneer is also encircled and quickly shouted down.

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