Who Owns Our Cities?

Who Owns Our Cities Cover image, Design by Jesse Clarke In this issue of Race, Poverty, and the Environment we take a look at the fundamental power relationships that shape life in the urban United States. Who owns and who controls our public resources and how has the dividing line between public and private shifted over the last century?

Roads, ports, parks, schools, libraries, community centers, public housing, government buildings, military bases, and digital rights of way are all nominally controlled by democratically elected bodies that are mandated to act in the public interest. But across the nation, a pattern of economic exploitation of public resources for private gain has undermined public control of these resources and increased the divide between rich and poor. [More]

15-1 Credits

Editors Emeritus

Carl Anthony
Luke Cole

Juliet Ellis

Jesse Clarke

Design and Layout
Jesse Clarke

Editorial Assistance
Merula Furtado

Copy Editing and Proofreading
Marc CaswellMerula Furtado
Katherine Hall

Race, Poverty & the Environment is published twice annually.
© 2007 by the individual
creators and Urban Habitat.


For specific reprint
information or submissions, please email

RP&E was first published in 1990 by Urban Habitat Program and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation’s Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. The views reflected in RP&E are not necessarily those of the editors, Urban Habitat, or its funders.

Urban Habitat
Board of Directors

Joe Brooks (Chair)

Romel Pascual (Vice-Chair)
Mayor's Office, City of Los Angeles
Associate Director of the Environment

Tamar Dorfman (Treasurer)
S.F. Mayor's Office of
Community Development

Carl Anthony
Cofounder, Urban Habitat

Arnold Perkins
Alameda Public Health Department (retired)

Gabriela Sandoval
Department of Sociology,
U.C. Santa Cruz

Felicia Marcus
Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation
Trust for Public Land

Organizations are listed
for identification purposes only.



In this Issue, Who Owns Our Cities

In this issue of Race, Poverty, and the Environment we take a look at the fundamental power relationships that shape life in the urban United States. Who owns and who controls our public resources and how has the dividing line between public and private shifted over the last century?

Union and community members unite at a demonstration in downtown Oakland.  © 2008 Marc Caswell

Roads, ports, parks, schools, libraries, community centers, public housing, government buildings, military bases, and digital rights of way are all nominally controlled by democratically elected bodies that are mandated to act in the public interest. But across the nation, a pattern of economic exploitation of public resources for private gain has undermined public control of these resources and increased the divide between rich and poor.

In this issue, Rick Cole, city manager of Ventura, California opens with a look at just what populist and progressive local politicians can accomplish and issues a clarion call for renewed citizen involvement. Carl Anthony, cofounder of Urban Habitat, spells out a vision for a livable city, and Amanda Witherell gives us a look at how privatizers are pulling profits out of public services. In Oakland, Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor shares a textbook example of how democracy can still work to stop politically connected developers from appropriating public resources. James Tracy investigates the origins of spatial deconcentration as it applies to the poor, and how urban renewal becomes “urban removal.” Fred Blackwell offers ideas about how redevelopment can actually help reverse the black exodus from our cities. And Eloise Lee presents a case study from East Palo Alto, California where the city, working with nonprofit organizations, built a digital infrastructure that is truly accessible to the community.

The Starving Beast
“Starve the beast,” has been a right-wing prescription for reducing social spending since the mid 1980s. The formula calls for creating unbalanced budgets through huge tax cuts leading to anemic funding levels for public institutions, such as public education and public housing, which consequently appear ineffective in addressing their missions. Seth Miller shows us how this policy has played out in California since the passage of the infamous Proposition 13, which blocks local jurisdictions from raising property taxes. The Western Regional Advocacy Project details how, on a national level, similar funding restrictions have destroyed public housing and led to the national epidemic in homelessness.

Rather than analyze the real causes of homelessness, poverty, unemployment, or even traffic congestion, the right wing has argued that the substitution of corporate contractors for government employees is the path to greater efficiency and social progress. Hence, when cities are confronted with the challenges of urban development, the almost universal prescription has been to turn to private developers who clearly hold the initiative when it comes to designing and building—even on public lands.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in the rebuilding of New Orleans where public funds have been used to tear down public housing and subsidize casinos and hotels. Bill Quigley gives us a frontline report on the public housing debacle and Dr. Beverly Wright tells us just how determined the white elite is to retake the South—or at least, New Orleans. In these situations, large amounts of public money are placed in private hands, and of course, a certain percentage of it comes back to the political class as campaign contributions, or all too often, outright bribery. (The resignation of the head of Housing and Urban Development under a cloud is just one of many such examples.)

Of course, progressive forces in the United States haven’t simply capitulated to the ever-increasing power of corporate-government control of the public sphere. In city after city, we are fighting the good fight to build equity and justice into tax policy, planning processes, community benefits agreements, and public spending.

In this issue, we share with you the stories of the many organizations who are working on alternatives, such as land trusts, cooperatives, community gardens, base conversion agreements, and joint-use public school buildings. We also share stories of old-fashioned political activism on zoning and land-use, where municipalities do have the power to shape our cities’ futures.

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From The Director's Desk

This issue of Race, Poverty, and the Environment—Who Owns Our Cities—is particularly close to my heart. While not a professionally trained planner, I am a planning enthusiast and see land use and planning processes as important levers for change. Too often land use and planning are seen as irrelevant exercises designed for participation by the elite. But this should not be the case. It is time for low-income communities of color to take back their communities, one plan at a time.

Urban centers, made up mostly of low-income communities of color, have been subject to systematic and far-reaching disinvestment for decades. The result is reflected in the community’s housing stock, employment rates, school quality, infrastructure, transportation systems, crime rates, open space, and amenities.

Over the last 10 years there has been a growing “rediscovery” of cities. It is now “cool” to live in urban centers. Unfortunately, it’s resulting in wide-spread gentrification and displacement. And without deliberate interventions by existing community residents, organizations, and allies this rediscovery will not benefit everyone. As cities re-develop, basic infrastructure spending on roads, public transportation, parks, and schools go through planning processes that should be open to public participation. Unfortunately, all too often, the most impacted communities are unaware of opportunities to participate.

Community members at a Leadership Institute training in Richmond, California. © 2007 Marc Caswell
Transportation Justice
One of Urban Habitat’s first attempts at tackling one these planning processes was the 2006 update to the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). In the Bay Area, this plan is overseen by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which is itself composed of elected officials from cities and counties across the region. In 2006, they allocated $120 billion over 25 years to support transportation projects throughout the nine-county Bay Area.

Despite the critical importance of public transportation to low-income people and communities of color, there have been few public interest groups involved in these decisions.

However, working with many other community organizations across the region, Urban Habitat has advocated for more money for transportation resources to under-served communities. As a result, the MTC agreed to fund the Lifeline Program, which provides dedicated funds for transit projects serving the region’s low-income communities. Over the last two years, we have won allocations of over $359 million for the next 25 years. This funding is a small first step when compared to the depth of need or to the huge amount the Bay Area invests in rail expansion to the suburbs. But it showed that engaged communities can win a greater share of resources if they are at the table.

Urban Habitat continues our fight to equalize transportation investments. We’ve launched a two-year initiative for the upcoming RTP to advocate that low-income communities and communities of color receive an equitable share of transit funding and investments. For the first time, transportation justice advocates are targeting county-level transportation decision-making in an effort to have those transportation projects and priorities reflect the needs of transit dependent populations. So far, the Transportation Justice Equity Platform has been endorsed by 15 organizations, and both MTC and public officials have been receptive to the issue of equity principles.

Richmond General Plan
Since we began our involvement in planning via transportation justice work, we have now moved into land use planning. Each jurisdiction in California is required to update its General Plan (a comprehensive blueprint for land use and development) at regular intervals. Over the past 18 months, Urban Habitat and our partner organizations in the Richmond Equitable Development Initiative have been working to influence the General Plan update in Richmond, California. When we first considered engaging in a campaign around the General Plan we were skeptical.

We went into the process with many questions:

* Can this type of process result in concrete equitable development policies and implementation measures?

* Will local community groups sustain their engagement in this long-term “process heavy” effort, which seems counter-intuitive compared to traditional organizing campaigns that have obvious targets and short-term wins along the way?

* How will we build our capacity so that we can craft our own policies and implementation steps for inclusion into the final General Plan?

* Will the General Plan just sit on a shelf or will it guide future development for the city?

Fast forward to today and we are in the thick of the campaign. We have been able to present concrete policies and implementation efforts and mobilize the community to support them. We are hopeful that many of our recommendations will be supported by the city council. But the jury is still out on the big question: Will the plan determine future city development policy?
Our goal is to build a coalition that will be in it for the long haul but it will be years before the verdict is actually in. Meantime, working on this over the past year and a half has given me renewed excitement about planning. One of the most important things I have found is that planning allows you to be proactive.

Organizations like Urban Habitat are too often put in the position of being on the defensive and reacting to something that we do not want. While this is often out of necessity, it is also exhausting and can crush the spirit. Land use and community planning processes allows us to articulate a vision, think wholistically about our communities, move outside of our issue silos, and get to scale.

This work has the potential of being the next evolution of community benefits work, which previously has focused on individual developers—one developer at a time. Targeting planning processes takes us upstream where we can change the rules of the game at the front end before a developer even comes to town.

The articles in this issue reflect the experiences of dozens of organizations across the country that are similarly trying to engage their communities to channel public resources toward the public good. While we may yet be short of the status of a full-fledged movement, the move toward equitable development as another tool in the progressive arsenal is well underway.
As always, we thank you for your support of our work and look forward to seeing you in person—whether at the planning commission or on the picket lines!

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Who Takes Ownership of the City?

Forty years ago, as America’s inner cities imploded, the New Yorker ran a sardonic cartoon. It portrayed a smug tower dweller overlooking a vista of tenements. “Ghettoes aren’t a problem, my dear,” he blithely informs his wife. “Ghettoes are a solution.”

Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson, 1901 Today, the “urban crisis” is metastasizing across the planet. More than half of the world’s 6.5 billion people now dwell in cities—and more than a billion of them survive in desperate slums. This gives global resonance to the environmental, economic, and social equity struggles of American cities. If we are to heed the words of Gandhi and “be the change we want to see in the world,” thinking globally means acting locally. Creating a sustainable planet starts in our own hometowns.

But even those who recognize this responsibility seldom focus on the fundamentally public nature of this endeavor. Unique challenges of organizing city life gave birth to both the democratic and republican variants of self-rule. The very word “politics” is derived from the Greek word for shared urban space.

Moving Beyond Individualized Solutions
No matter how laudable personal and small-scale endeavors may be, planting trees, carrying canvas shopping bags, tending community gardens, and installing solar collectors will not collectively transform America’s cities into models of sustainability. The sheer scale and complexity of the task will require public will, public resources, public policy, and public action.
While “all politics is local,” there are some commonly shared misconceptions that deter us from fully recognizing the public sector’s vital role in reshaping our cities.

The most pervasive is the mindset that takes for granted that local government primarily exists to provide specific services. Of course, the traditional municipal functions we now take for granted (such as police, fire, parks, libraries, sewers, roads, and land use regulation) were all originally forged out of social upheaval and political struggle. Those who pioneered these services were crusaders, not functionaries. Today, however, the institutions organized to deliver these services have ossified into underfunded and self-perpetuating bureaucracies. Propping up these inherited structures takes precedence over the bold innovation needed to meet today’s needs. If we were starting from scratch (as Sir Robert Peele did in passing the Metropolitan Police Act in Britain in 1829), would we safeguard peace and order primarily through an armed and insulated caste of uniformed officers? If we were looking to eliminate waste, would we construct elaborate sewage systems and provide weekly collection of garbage? That we have grafted elaborate adaptations onto our entrenched structures (from “community policing” to “recycling”) only underscores their anachronism.

This investment in the past in turn reinforces the myth that the public sector is inherently inefficient and ineffective. There was a time when the burning passion of public service could put a man on the moon. Now we wonder whether it can fill potholes.
Another self-limiting mindset is our deep disdain for politics, which has become a shallow, petty, and self-interested game for insiders. The absence of real people in the debate and struggle over the concerns that affect their lives has robbed the public sector of both legitimacy and leverage. A professional political class has gradually supplanted the sphere of citizenship, relegating popular participation to mere voting in elections—and on rare occasions banding together for single-issue self-interest, such as protesting a highway extension, affordable housing project, or tax increase. Without robust and broad-based social and political associations, urban public life is privatized and segregated—and governance becomes an arena for mercenaries. Passivity perpetuates the self-fulfilling prophecy that political activity is futile—leaving politics to private interest lobbying.

A less pernicious, but equally misguided attitude, is the notion that public life is unimportant or simply boring. Whether it is the excuse that “people are busy” or the inescapable distractions of so-called “popular culture” (a euphemism for corporate entertainment), public life is neither compelling nor cool to most people. This is quite convenient for perpetuating the status quo. Our cities and our citizens face such tangible and significant questions as:

* How will we get around in the age of peak oil and global warming?

* How do we best utilize urban land to avoid sprawling onto farmland and sensitive habitat?

* Where should public resources be directed—and what investments should we make in our shared future?

Unfortunately, questions like these are avoided by politicians, neglected by the media, translated into bloodless administrative jargon by bureaucrats, overlooked by well-meaning single-issue activists, and end up being virtually ignored by the people whose lives are directly affected by them.

Civic Leadership in the Early 20th Century

Tom Johnson, (called “the best mayor of the best run city in America” by “muckraker” Lincoln Steffans) won the 1901 mayoral election supported by progressive reformers and immigrant voters fed up with the crooked monopolies controlling street cars and power lines of Cleveland, Ohio. The vote came just three days before the expiration of a court order Johnson had obtained forbidding the incumbent mayor from giving away publicly-owned prime lakefront property to the railroad barons. Johnson and his supporters burst into City Hall to insist on his prompt swearing into office, which came just 37 minutes before the protective order expired.

That tumultuous beginning was just the first skirmish between public resolve and private greed. Mayor Johnson immediately launched efforts to demolish unsafe structures, tear down illegal billboards, establish farmer’s markets, pave muddy streets, and construct playgrounds for children. He installed able administrators without regard to party affiliation, who in turn fired placeholders who failed to perform actual work. But these remarkable achievements were nothing compared to the titanic struggle he waged to create a municipal street car network and “Municipal Light,” a public power alternative to the Edison power monopoly. Although it cost him his political career, the broad-based reform coalition he forged eventually triumphed, leaving a national legacy of public enterprise—and a sobering warning to his successors: “I believe in municipal ownership of all public service monopolies… because if you do not own them, they will in time own you, they will rule your politics, corrupt your institutions and finally destroy your liberties.

Learning from History: Grasping the Big Picture
Lamenting these ingrained delusions is not the same as changing them. How can they be overcome?

Despite the seemingly unprecedented depth and scope of our urban challenges in the 21st century, we fool ourselves if we think we have nothing to learn from history. Americans are particularly prone to pre-occupation with the present, concocting excuses for why it’s so much harder to make change now than it was in the past. In reality, as abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and never will.”

Our urban history overflows with insight and inspiration relevant to the dangers and opportunities of our own time. How about reviving the public discourse and public spirit that brought us public libraries at a time when education and access to knowledge was confined to the very wealthy? Why not rekindle the enlightened self-interest and open-mindedness that inaugurated public health protection when typhoid, cholera, and dysentery stalked our streets?

As we look past the waning days of the Bush Administration and confront the huge work ahead of us to create sustainable cities, we can’t help but also want to think small. It makes a difference whether we sustain a Head Start program in Albuquerque or improve public school scores in Philadelphia or reclaim a park in Richmond or install solar collectors on a public works facility in Ventura. But the answer to “who owns the city?” lies with who takes ownership of the whole city, not just our part of it. That is the lesson of the millions of citizen activists who have built community and make change by taking ownership beyond their homes, their neighborhoods, and their parochial concerns. It’s the public will behind the public resources, public policy, and public action needed to make great and sustainable cities.

Rick Cole has been city manager of Ventura, California since 2004. He previously served as city manager of Azusa and as mayor of Pasadena.

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Livable Communities

Peralta Community Garden in Berkeley, California. © 1999 David Dobereiner from Building Commons and Community by Karl Linn.

Imagine cities as places where working people can afford to live and raise their families, where there is concern for clean air, water, and land. Imagine vital exchanges across generations and beautiful places where people gather. Urban life is at its most vibrant when people from various parts of the world bring together their music, food, cultural systems, and religious expressions. All of these make for cities that manifest the strength and brilliance of the human garden.

Moving the Environmental Movement
For the better part of the last century, the conservation movement and its offspring, the environmental movement, have had a negative view of cities. It started with John Muir’s celebration of nature in reaction to the ugliness of industrial development, urban pollution, congestion, and noise. But this bias against cities is changing. Environmental groups now acknowledge that the way we live in cities is at the nexus of many environmental challenges.

Key to this shift has been the movement for environmental justice that exploded on the scene during the 1980s, as communities of color all across the United States fought to protect themselves against the unequal distribution of environmental hazards undermining the health of people forced to live in neighborhoods with locally unwanted land uses. This movement quickly expanded to confront a wide variety of hazards: pesticides, air pollution, lead poisoning, toxic waste production and disposal, and garbage dumps; and also occupational hazards.

In the early 1990s, beginning from an entirely different foundation, the Congress for New Urbanism formed to re-establish the relationship between the art of city building and the conservation of the natural environment. According to its founding charter, new urbanists view “the divestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands, and the erosion of society’s built heritage as one inter-related community-building challenge.”

The pursuit of metropolitan, regional, and neighborhood equity is, in many ways, a fusion of these two social currents. It is a mobilization led by social justice advocates, civil rights organizations, and labor unions concerned with issues of fairness in the way metropolitan regions grow. It seeks to address not only what communities are against but also what they are for: healthy neighborhoods with convenient access to good schools, affordable housing, parks, and grocery stores; equitable public investments; and access to opportunity.

This new movement responds to two challenges that poor and marginalized communities and neighborhoods face as they seek to improve their quality of life. The first is that the larger patterns of metropolitan development have undermined past neighborhood-based efforts to remedy concentrated urban poverty, socioeconomic issues, and racial isolation. The second challenge is to find systemic ways to link poverty alleviation to the larger, society-wide patterns of social, economic, and environmental development.

A temporary commons organized by the People’s Convention in the South Bronx.
The advocates of regional and neighborhood equity recognize that public debate about smart growth and the new metropolitan agenda provides a political context to build new allies in the effort to address the unmet needs of poor people, working people, and people of color in ways that improve the quality of life for everyone.

The way we build and live in cities has a profound impact on society’s use and misuse of natural resources. It also profoundly affects social, economic, and racial justice outcomes. It is important to realize that in a globalizing world, the real city is the whole metropolitan region, made up of many jurisdictions, including the central city, its suburbs, and the rural and wilderness areas under its influence. Private developers focus on the shape of individual projects within a particular jurisdiction. But the public sector must fairly represent the interests of populations both positively and negatively impacted by a given development. This is an especially critical responsibility when public subsidies are involved. Decisions made by one jurisdiction have spillover effects on neighborhoods and ecosystems throughout a region. Public actions that define land use must incorporate civic engagement for all affected residents, including communities of color throughout a whole region, in ways that shape the behavior of private market forces to achieve fair outcomes for all. Contrary to much discussion of the so-called free market, the forms, patterns, and potential benefits or burdens of a particular development are shaped as much by public policy as they are by the private sector.

Creating Working Neighborhoods
Many long-time residents of isolated, poorer neighborhoods welcome middle-income families to their neighborhoods as they become popular again due to new urban trends. They see the newcomers as making the neighborhood more attractive for grocery stores, banks, safe pubic parks, better schools, and inviting spaces. However, neighborhood organizers, housing advocates, and tenant groups worry that newcomers will displace older residents, driving up taxes and housing prices, making it impossible for poorer residents to remain. Such groups, organized to protect traditional constituencies, are joining the regional equity movement, to develop new strategies to capture some of the wealth from changing neighborhoods to benefit poor people.
Every community should have housing for the people who work there. A suburban neighborhood that has many stores, for example, should have places where cashiers and janitors can afford to live. And now that the nation has largely transformed to a service economy, and many industrial processes are less polluting, there is less need to separate places where people work and live. Having jobs closer to residential areas reduces over-reliance on automobiles, improves social integration, and reduces the ecological stresses associated with high traffic volumes.

Just, Green, and Beautiful Opportunities
For many urban and rural communities, the scale of abandonment has reached epidemic proportions.
There are 90,000 vacant properties in Detroit, 60,000 in Philadelphia. Once-prosperous cities like St Louis, Baltimore, and Cincinnati, and dozens of smaller cities are shrinking, while we continue to build auto-dependent suburban communities 50 miles away from the downtowns, on what was once farmland.

In recent years, though, cities like Richmond, Flint, and Philadelphia have launched ambitious initiatives to reclaim vacant properties. Others, such as San Diego and Las Vegas, have taken aggressive steps to prevent abandonment in the first place. A National Vacant Properties Campaign is attracting smart growth advocates—who see property reclamation as a way to offset urban sprawl—and affordable housing groups seeking to rehabilitate homes.

Building community gardens, or opening up and restoring creeks and watersheds, provides opportunities to bring people of different jurisdictions, neighborhoods, and social classes together.

The natural world is a resource for aesthetic appreciation, education, and recreation. Cities that are barren of trees suffer from the heat-island effect as pavement and roofs absorb and radiate heat. When soils are displaced with paving, water can’t percolate into the aquifers, and this, too, affects the microclimate.

Perhaps easiest to understand, relating directly to issues of economic justice, is the urgent need to reconstruct our food system.
When I was growing up in the 1940s in Philadelphia, much of our food came from nearby farms. When the season changed, the food changed, and people kept track. During World War II, virtually every household in our neighborhood had a victory garden as a way of contributing to the war effort.

Today, our food is grown, harvested, processed, packaged, distributed, shipped, and marketed by a small number of giant corporations. Folks in cities have no idea where their food comes from. The small family farm is no longer economically viable. Rural communities bear the brunt of noxious corporate farming practices. The money that urban populations spend for food increasingly pays for industrial farming monocultures, dependent on toxic pesticides, and transportation costs for shipping our food from countries all over the world to urban supermarkets.

Bringing nature back into the city means finding new ways to link small family farmers with consumers in the cities in a regional food system that provides healthy food to people who live in the city while keeping rural economies vibrant.
The movement toward just, livable cities—the regional equity movement—is working to recapture some of this lost vibrancy, envisioning a new pattern of development that incorporates all the ecological ideas to grow a more equitable society.
An authentic approach to urban sustainability incorporates ecological integrity, beauty—and social justice.

Carl Anthony is a Senior Ford Foundation Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley and former director of the Ford Foundation’s Sustainable Metropolitan Communities Initiative.

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Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits


Claiming the Right to the City

In January 2007, 30 organizations from seven cities got together in Los Angeles and adopted a framework to “urbanize” human rights. The goal is to ground human rights in the real lives and struggles of communities of color in United States cities and to utilize the human rights framework to unite and elevate our organizing.

The “Right to the City” Alliance is informed by a power analysis of what we’re up against in urban spaces, recognizing the role of United States cities in the global economy. Our analysis sees working class communities as central to the fight for human rights in the city while embracing a vision of life and democracy for all city dwellers.

Principles of Unity for the Right to the City Alliance

We believe the right to the city is the right for all people to produce the living conditions that meet their needs. This includes:

Land for People vs. Land for Speculation
The right to land and housing that is free from market speculation and that serves the interests of community building, sustainable economies, and cultural and political space.

Land Ownership
The right to permanent public ownership of urban territories for public use.

Economic Justice
The right of working class communities of color, women, queer and transgender people to an economy that serves their interests.

Indigenous Justice
The right of First Nation indigenous people to their ancestral lands that have historical or spiritual significance, regardless of state borders and urban or rural settings.

Environmental Justice
The right to sustainable and healthy neighborhoods and workplaces, healing, quality health care, and reparations for the legacy of toxic abuses such as brownfields, cancer clusters, and superfund sites.

Freedom from Police and State Harassment
The right to safe neighborhoods and protection from police, immigration, and vigilante repression.

Immigrant Justice
The right of equal access to housing, employment, and public services regardless of race, ethnicity, and immigration status and without threat of deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement or employers.

Services and Community Institutions
The right of working class communities of color to transportation, infrastructure, and services that reflect and support their cultural and social integrity.

Democracy and Participation
The right of community control and decision making over the planning and governance of the cities where we live and work, with full transparency and accountability, including the right to public information without interrogation.

The right of working class communities of color to economic reciprocity and restoration from all local, national, and transnational institutions that have exploited or displaced the local economy.

The right to support and build solidarity between cities across national boundaries, without state intervention.

Rural Justice
The right of rural people to economically healthy and stable communities that are protected from environmental degradation and economic pressures that force migration to urban areas.

All of the groups that assembled are facing huge pressures of displacement and gentrification of their communities. We explored the ways that neo-liberalism and the privatization of land use have turned our cities over to developers. We discussed how we’re fighting struggles for housing, use of traditional space, and against predatory development. We discovered how putting forward a proactive and simple assertion of our rights made a huge difference in how we understood our ongoing work. And we quickly recognized that so many of the issues we’re fighting for in our cities: housing, transportation, education, LGBT rights to space, and rights of culture, are inextricably interrelated. We just need a common way to talk about it, strategize, and develop our power in common terms. Toward that end, the Right to the City Alliance was initiated so that we can build local power toward a national agenda for our cities. So that, one day, we can build enough power to stand with our brothers and sisters in the global South and demand global justice for humanity.

Demanding Change
Systems of power do not change unless they are forced to. The question for me in organizing has been how do we actually translate a moral assertion of rights into a practical demand on power. Effective demands do two things. They weaken the power of existing systems of inequality and strengthen the rights and conditions of those whose rights are at risk.

The difference between a universal assertion of what’s right and a practical demand is that effective demands recognize current power relationships. To be useful, organizing demands must be winnable by our forces and the target of the demands must be capable of conceding and delivering on its promises.

As organizers of poor people, workers, women, immigrants, LGBT people, and formerly colonized and enslaved peoples, one of our most basic understandings is that we organize those who are most directly impacted by oppression to directly confront the powers which deny them of their rights. This is not just a reflection of an organizing method but an indication of a political principle. It’s a question of leadership of the oppressed, of the working class, and people of color in particular. We’re not just all humans. We are people, classes, races, ethnicities, genders with distinct and varied relationships to power. We believe that those whose power and rights are most crushed must be central to leading the fights for their own liberation. The struggle for human rights is then a struggle for them to directly claim their humanity against oppressive systems and institutions.

While the human rights framework’s main tenet of universal humanity is incredibly powerful as a uniting force across nation states, class, and race, it must be grounded in a theory of power and social change to be effective. Even if we look back at Malcolm X’s strategy of utilizing human rights to be able to get around the domination of the United States, successful execution is ultimately tied to the potential power of countries in the Third World and others to exert the power of the United Nations in relation to the power of the United States.

Malcolm spoke at a time when Third World liberation struggles were growing in power and the possibilities of overturning white supremacy and colonization were inspirational and almost definite. In the decades since Malcolm’s words, those movements have subsided and the United States has become the sole global superpower. The United Nations and other international bodies have lost their influence and power. The United States not only has veto power, it can completely sidestep, overstep, or step on the United Nations with its demands and generally win. The point here is that both internationally, nationally, and locally, the tool is only as strong as the power that is behind it.

Ironically, with the historic slide of progressive power the significance of human rights grows. Its strength now is as a tool for power building. For both Malcolm and the Right to the City Alliance, the importance of human rights is as a vision.
Malcolm’s vision of human rights challenged the legitimacy of the United States government as the arbiter of justice. In the context of a fractured political left, and the dearth of progressive mass movements the human rights frame provides possibilities of putting forward bold, radical alternatives while appealing broadly to a common interest in the future of humanity.

Gihan Perera is cofounder and executive director of the Miami Workers Center.

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Gentrifying Downtown Miami

Community organizations  demand the right of return for  residents.

Manny Diaz has a vision, and he’s made no secret of it. As the mayor of Miami, Diaz wants to cement the city’s position as an economic, political, and cultural hub for the Americas and pursue the holy grail of mayors everywhere: world city status. Diaz, perhaps unlike other mayors though, is well positioned for this quest. He was recently elected head of the United States Conference of Mayors and hosted this year’s Super Bowl, one of those big-ticket events that many aspiring world cities in the United States fall over each other to attract.

However, a deeper look at Miami reveals that as politicians and big business run after “world city” status, they attack poor communities of color. They refuse to build new homes for the poor, or they nab major events like the Super Bowl but never direct the money to those who actually need it. “There’s no discussion of how these huge opportunities benefit communities,” said Denise Perry of Power U, a Miami grassroots organization. “So, people might get an extra eight hours of work selling bottled water on the street corner, but there’s nothing for us in the end.”

In January 2007, some 30 community-based groups banded together at a conference in Los Angeles to form an alliance called Right to the City, whose leaders want to link the gentrification happening in Miami to that in Detroit, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and abroad. According to alliance members, Americans are facing a new urban politics, wherein the word “redevelopment” has come to mean little more than tailoring every aspect of city life for corporations and affluent consumers. Those who advocate for the “right to the city” argue that simple neglect of poor communities no longer suffices under this new urban politics. Instead, the push is to remove the poor entirely from the newly gilded downtowns. Countering this will require thinking about the larger rights that people have to their cities. (See “Claiming the Right to the City,” on page 12 of this issue.)

Overtown Faces Gentrification
Nowhere in Miami is the new urban politics more evident than in Overtown, a historic and predominantly Black community located adjacent to downtown. More than 50 percent of its residents live in poverty. Median family income is just over $14,000 a year, and approximately 90 percent of residents are renters. This marks a dramatic shift from less than 50 years ago, when many Black residents owned businesses and homes. The decline began in the early 1960s, when major highways were built through the central business district of Overtown. More than 10,000 people were removed from the area, mirroring the abandonment of many urban areas across the country by the federal government, industry, and working- and middle-class whites.

Long neglected, the Overtown neighborhood has in recent years become an area of interest to the city and to developers. The “revitalization” of Miami has made Overtown suddenly valuable again, but the proximity of a poor, Black neighborhood to downtown stands as a glaring obstacle to urban renewal. This combination of “bad” people and good land could mean only one thing in the new Miami: the neighborhood had to be redeveloped.

In Overtown, as in most low-income communities of color, the issue of housing is paramount. Without affordable places to live, other pressing concerns like jobs and education become irrelevant. Predictably, housing and land are shaping up as the central conflict points in the struggle over Miami.

In 2007, Power U confronted the city bureaucracy about its negligence on the housing question. Miami has one of the highest levels of vacant public housing in the nation yet has done little to fill these vacancies, suggesting that the city would rather allow the empty units to fall into disrepair, condemn them and then “redevelop” them. It is part of what might be called a slow “scorched earth” removal policy. In response, the grassroots Miami Workers Center led a “Fill the Vacancies” campaign that began in 2004. In February 2007, as part of that campaign, Power U and another group, Take Back the Land, seized vacant public housing units and moved in two families. “There are over 41,000 people on Miami-Dade’s housing assistance wait list,” said Bernadette Armand, an organizer with Power U. “Meanwhile, the Board of County Commissioners is allowing many of these public housing units to remain vacant for five years or more. They do not want to address or solve this gentrification and housing crisis.”
Police arrived and activists were arrested, but a message had been sent to city officials, developers, and investors: people would defend their right to the land.

Right to the City
A number of progressive academics and grassroots social movements are looking for ways to understand and respond to the changes in many cities around the world and their devastating effects on poor communities. While there is no consensus on a definition of “Right to the City,” it is clear that cities are rapidly becoming a central battleground in the new world order. As urban scholars have documented, major cities have become global command centers for moving money across borders. The decline in urban manufacturing in the United States and Europe has left many cities with thousands of people who have no jobs or entry into the new economies but who do live on valuable city land. The implications for poor people of color are clear: where they were once segregated in abandoned downtowns while Whites fled to the suburbs, now they are expected to disperse to the peripheries as cities are taken back. Increasingly, their presence in the city in any capacity other than as cheap labor is unwelcome—a blight on the landscape of the new “entertainment” city. Members of the Right to the City Alliance hope that this framework will help poor people draw connections between what they experience on a daily basis and what happens in other communities. And, understanding that gentrification is a large-scale, global problem might just be the way for people to create a bigger vision for what they want to change.

“We are frustrated with just pushing for jobs and a small percentage of housing,” said Sara Mersha, the executive director of Direct Action for Rights and Equality in Providence, Rhode Island. A right to the city analysis, she observed, puts the focus on the colonization of entire communities and highlights the national and international dimensions of gentrification. This means linking the increase in rental and ownership costs, the development of luxury condos and the threatened displacement of Black, Cambodian, Puerto Rican, and other oppressed communities of color in Providence to the commodification of land and real estate speculation that are ravaging metro regions across much of the globe.

Failing to fill public housing is one major strategy to disperse poor communities. Another, familiar to urban residents across the country, is to actively support, politically and financially, the development of unaffordable housing, particularly the increasingly ubiquitous luxury condominium. In Overtown, the community is faced with a politically connected developer, the Crosswinds Communities, a privately held residential housing and development company based outside of Detroit, Michigan.
Crosswinds proposes to build luxury homes on publicly owned land in Overtown that has been vacant for 20 years, which it gained access to in an uncompetitive, no-bid process. The project is still in its early stages, and Power U, along with its allies, has been successful in delaying construction for two years. In fact, Power U chose to focus on this particular project because they see it as a harbinger of development, a preview of the vision that city elites have for their community.

Minimum yearly income to qualify for a home in the Crosswinds development is $40,000, in a community where the median family income is $14,000. According to a study done by researchers Marcos Feldman and Jen Wolfe-Borum at Florida International University, the median family income in Overtown implies that monthly housing costs over $350 would be out of the reach of most residents. Currently, the market rate for a one-bedroom apartment in Miami-Dade County is $775, and the vast majority of Crosswinds units would be priced at market rates. Local residents argue that the Crosswinds project could casue more than 6,000 residents to be displaced and a historic cultural center of Miami to be lost.

Detroit and Miami Residents Fight Crosswinds
The campaign to mobilize the community against the Crosswinds project demonstrates some of the ways that the Right to the City framework can be used. “We went to Detroit, where Crosswinds has done the exact same thing to a Black community and completely flattened that neighborhood,” said Perry, the organizer with Power U. “Everyone’s been displaced, and they’re building luxury condominiums. In Detroit, it happened as they were building the new stadium.”

Having learned of this earlier struggle in Detroit, Power U set out to prevent a repeat in Overtown. “We interviewed the people in Detroit and brought them to Miami. So, when there was a public hearing, they were able to speak out, based on real experience that they had with the same developer there.”

Perry and her group used the Right to the City idea to emphasize that this was not just a local fight. “We could have carried on the Crosswinds campaign as only being mad at our local commissioner and only making our local commissioner the target, but then we’re missing the entire picture. Neoliberalism, corporations… all of those pieces would be missing if we only focused on the commissioner,” Perry said. “When our members talk about Crosswinds they also look around the city of Miami at the increase in poverty, the increase in homelessness. As we help people understand it more, they can name it even more clearly, but they already understand it. It’s just about sharing theory and language amongst organizations, which will help build a broader-scale movement.”

It is exactly this combination of popular education, analysis, and mobilization that the organizers of the Right to the City Alliance envision will galvanize a national movement. And while developers and their friends in city government try to paint these community efforts as anti-development, longtime Overtown resident and Power U member Howard Watts counters such attempts to seize the public relations high ground. Speaking to the Miami Sun Post, Watts asserted: “They say we don’t want development, which is false. We want development, but development for us.”

Tony Roshan Samara is assistant professor of Sociology at George Mason University. Grace Chang is a writer and activist for the rights of immigrants and women of color; she teaches at University of Califronia, Santa Barbara. Reprinted from www.colorlines.com.

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Segregated Housing: Martin Luther King to Cabrini Green

Martin Luther King Jr. Courtesy of www.diversitycentral.comMartin Luther King Jr. Courtesy of www.diversitycentral.com In Chicago, the city skyline is undergoing a dramatic metamorphosis. Construction of luxury buildings, such as the Trump International Hotel and Residence, is underway, even as segregated public housing towers—such as the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects—are being demolished. The contrast cannot be overstated.

The Trump skyscrapers with their cutting-edge architecture, five bedroom penthouses, stunning river views, and 14th floor spa are a symbol of luxury and affluence attracting outside investment to the city. Across the Chicago River, the Cabrini-Green towers, built in 1943, with their high murder rate and some of the nations most concentrated gang activity, are a dark stain on Chicago’s public image. Frightened residents live as captives in their homes. The buildings (with boarded up windows, broken elevators, graffiti, and a trash shoot that at times is backed up to the 14th floor) are encased in steel fencing to prevent residents from being thrown off.

Only One Way Out

A New York Times story from 2007 highlighted the relief and regret felt by some of Cabrini-Green’s residents.1 Commenting on the drug users and decaying conditions of the buildings, Sierra Milton, one of the last remaining residents on the 14th floor, said, “I want to be out of here so bad, I want to go because I’m scared. I’ve been living here since 1998 and this is the worst I ever felt.”
One floor above, Thelma Hicks expressed some sadness about the pending move, saying, “If I had a choice, I’d stay here because this is my roots.”

Working class communities and people of color have been facing the same dilemma for decades under urban renewal—put up with substandard conditions, or pack up and leave their communities. Investment in improvements does not occur until former residents have relocated and the land sold to redevelopment agencies for hefty profits. Savvy civic leaders have long realized that tearing down a building is far easier than dismantling entrenched racial bias and poverty. Consequently, years go by and little is done to address the roots of urban inequality.

Not all leaders, however, have turned a blind eye to the problems contributing to the perpetuation of the modern-day American ghetto. On January 26, 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved into a run-down ghetto apartment in Chicago’s West Side to politicize the issue of fair housing. The segregated neighborhoods provided a fertile ground for King and other activists to launch a national campaign to confront the fierce inequality of America’s inner cities. Like the Cabrini-Green projects of present day, King’s neighborhood was typical of the North Lawndale district of Chicago. Referred to as “slumdale” by its residents, it was known for its rotting infrastructure, chipping paint, rodent infestation, and lack of heating.2

From de Jure to de Facto
King may have begun the battle for ending de jure segregation in housing, but the widespread practices of red-lining, urban renewal, restrictive covenants, biased mortgage lending, disinvestment, and white flight have ensured that the housing patterns established under slavery and Jim Crow remain firmly intact.3 Many of the housing conditions that King fought against are still faced by Black families in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Oakland.4

During the Second World War, waves of Black migrants flowed into Chicago seeking jobs, freedom, and a better life, only to find that the city lacked affordable housing and shelter for people of color. Because whites were unwilling to allow Blacks into their neighborhoods, Black renters were forced to live in overpriced, overcrowded, rodent-infested “fire traps” owned by absentee slumlords who made huge profits.5 Those who attempted to escape the squalor by moving outside racially bounded districts had their homes burned down and their families tortured. Others were murdered by rioting mobs of white people. These acts were not just the work of individual racists. Legislation played a major role in shifting tax revenue away from the inner city to the white suburbs. Later, under urban renewal, the city tore down more Black housing than it created, thus ensuring that the projects and ghettos remained in highly segregated areas. This phenomenon has been repeated in urban communities nationwide, demonstrating that the ghetto is not just a place but a structural process.6

Recognizing that a series of seemingly “blameless” widespread practices were the cause of modern-day inequality, and that creating a democratic America had to begin with basic planning issues surrounding how people made their lives with justice in housing, hiring, and education, Dr. King set out to mobilize citizens, politicians, real estate agents, business investors, and religious leaders for a summit. Following several months of tense negotiations (and mass rallies 50,000 strong), Mayor Richard J. Daley promised to establish fair housing in Chicago.7

Tragically, despite Dr. King’s other achievements, the promise of fair housing and an end to the ghettos of Chicago is yet to be fulfilled.

Cabrini-Green—a Metaphor for Inequality
Today, places such as Cabrini-Green serve to remind us that America remains a divided society with clear racial differences, not only in housing, but also in education, employment, life expectancy, exposure to toxics, legal access, and prison populations.
Ending poverty requires much more than tearing down dilapidated buildings and shifting their residents. People require not just adequate shelter but open spaces, farmers’ markets, clean environments, fair wages, reliable public transit, equitable schools, community centers, and the best and brightest of what urban planners can imagine for all.

Once home to nearly 15,000, most Cabrini-Green residents have moved out, even as gentrification is moving in. A handful of former residents have been able to secure homes in mixed housing developments, following a barrage of background checks. The vast majority of them, however, were given vouchers and pushed elsewhere even as the value of the property skyrocketed.
King believed that equitable cities can only be created when all of us—residents, politicians, workers, religious leaders, and community activists of every color—stop ignoring the existence of urban inequality in America. The construction of the Trump International Hotel and Residence and the nearby Spire tower (touted as the world’s tallest residential tower with its 1000+ condominiums with a view of four states) stand in stark contrast to King’s dream of equitable housing. These architectural feats are monuments to inequality. As long as men and women on the ground remain segregated by skin color, these symbols in the sky will represent this nation’s tremendous lost potential.

1. Saulny, Susan. “At Housing Project, Both Fear and Renewal.” The New York Times. March 18, 2007.
2. Wehrwein, Austin. “Dr. King Occupies a Flat in Slums.” The New York Times. January 26, 1966, p. 37.
3. Clark, Kenneth B. Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1965.
4. Hirsch, Anthony. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960. Cambridge University Press, 1993.
5. Pulido, Laura. “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90, no.1. p.12-40. March 2000.
6. Sugrue, Thomas. The Origins of The Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996. 7. Ibid.

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Tax Credits for Developers, Bulldozers for the Poor

Protestors blocked by police outside the New Orleans city council meeting. © 2007 indybay.org

Despite Katrina causing the worst affordable housing crisis since the Civil War, the federal Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) is spending $762 million in taxpayer funds to tear down over 4600 public housing apartments and replace them with 744 similarly subsidized units—an 82 percent reduction. HUD took over the local housing authority years ago and all decisions are made in Washington D.C. HUD plans to build an additional 1000 market rate and tax credit units, which will still result in a net loss of 2700 apartments to New Orleans. The new apartments will cost an average of over $400,000 each.

Affordable housing is at a critical point along the Gulf Coast. Over 50,000 families still living in tiny FEMA trailers are being systematically forced out. Over 90,000 homeowners in Louisiana are still waiting to receive federal recovery funds from the so-called “Road Home” reconstruction fund. In New Orleans, hundreds of the estimated 12,000 homeless have taken up residence in small tents across the street from City Hall and under the I-10.

In Mississippi, poor and working people are being displaced along the coast to allow casinos to expand and develop shipping and other commercial activities. Two dozen ministers criticized the exclusion of renters and low-income homeowners from post-Katrina assistance: “Sadly we must now bear witness to the reality that our recovery effort has failed to include a place at the table... for our poor and vulnerable.”

Resident resistance is being expanded by allies from a coalition of groups who see the destruction of public housing—without one-for-one replacement— harming all renters and low-income homeowners.

Kali Akuno, of the Coalition to Stop Demolition, explains why many people who do not live in public housing are joining residents in this fight. “In the past two years, New Orleans has faced a series of social crises that have struck a blow to our collective vision for a more just and equitable city, not simply one that is more inviting to elites. Yet none of these crises has been as uniquely urgent as this. What is at stake with the demolition of public housing in New Orleans is more than just the loss of housing units: it is the possibility of losing any significant affordable housing for the foreseeable future. Without access to affordable housing, thousands of working class New Orleanians will be denied their human right to return.”

A federal court has refused to stop the scheduled demolitions. Residents offered evidence to show that the three-story garden-style buildings were structurally sound and pointed out that the local housing authority itself documented that it would cost much less to repair and retain the apartments than to demolish and reconstruct a small fraction of them. The New York Times architecture critic described them as “low scale, narrow footprint and high quality construction.” HUD promised to subject plans for demolition to 100 days of scrutiny, yet it approved demolition with no public input in less than two days. The court acknowledged some questions about the fairness of the process but concluded that if the demolitions turn out to be illegal, residents can always recover money damages later.

Republican party interests are clearly not served by the return of all African Americans to New Orleans. Louisiana before Katrina was described as a “pink state”—one that went Democratic sometimes and Republican at others. The tipping point for Louisiana Democrats was the deeply Democratic African American city of New Orleans. Immediately after the hurricanes struck, one political analyst from the right wing Heritage Foundation said, “The Democratic margin of victory in Louisiana is sleeping in the Astrodome in Houston.” Tiny turnout by African American voters in New Orleans in recent elections has led white Republican interests to calculate immediate new political gains. Demolition of thousands of low-income African American-occupied apartments only helps that political and racial dynamic.

But no one will say openly that African American renters are not welcome. Supporters of the destruction of thousands of apartments have come up with a series of stated reasons for their actions, but it clearly looks like political gain and economic enrichment are the real reasons.

Reduction of crime was supposed to be the main reason for getting rid of thousands of public housing apartments. Yet, crime in New Orleans has soared since Katrina, while the thousands of apartments remain shut.

Every one of the displaced families who were living in public housing is African American. Most are headed by mothers and grandmothers working low-wage jobs, or disabled, or retired. Thousands of children lived in the neighborhoods. Race, class, and gender are an unstated part of every justification for demolition, especially the call for “mixed-income housing.” If the demolitions are allowed to go forward, there will be mixed income housing—but the mix will not include over 80 percent of the people who lived there.

The absolute lack of any realistic affordable alternative is the main reason people want to return to their public housing neighborhoods, or be guaranteed one-for-one replacement of their homes. Absent that, redevelopment won’t help the residents or people in the community who need affordable housing.

Demolition Called Ethnic Cleansing

In December 2007, the City Council voted unanimously in favor of demolition, spurring massive protests from community members. In February 2008, despite several months of protests by local residents and with all court appeals exhausted, the demolition finally got underway in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, in Geneva, Switzerland the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination questioned representatives from the United States government on housing programs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Several community groups traveled to Geneva from the Gulf Coast in order to testify and make their voices heard. One of those residents was Monique Harden, co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, who stated, “The demolition of public housing, the growing number of homeless people, the utter failure of the Road Home Program, the complete disregard of renters, police harassment of African Americans, and racial disparities in flood protection are evidence of ethnic cleansing by our government that abuses the human rights of mostly African American residents of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast region.”
(See www.peopleshurricane.org.)

HUD Corruption Reports
HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson has his own reasons for pressing ahead with the demolitions. HUD has approved plans to turn over scores of acres of prime public land to private developers using 99 year leases and to give hundreds of millions of dollars in direct grants, tax credit subsidies, and long-term contracts. One of the developers described it as the biggest tax-credit giveaway in years.

Investigative reporter Edward T. Pound of the National Journal has uncovered many questionable and several potentially criminal actions by HUD in New Orleans. (See http://nationaljournal.com) Pound reported that HUD Secretary Jackson worked with, and is owed over $250,000 by an Atlanta-based company, Columbia Residential, which was part of a team awarded a $127 million contract by HUD to develop the St. Bernard housing development. Columbia was also awarded other earlier contracts for as yet undisclosed amounts under still undisclosed circumstances.

Pound also discovered that a golfing buddy of Secretary Jackson was given a no-bid $175 an hour “emergency” contract with HUD within months of Katrina. The buddy, William Hairston, was ultimately paid more than $485,000 for working at the Housing Authority of New Orleans over an 18- month period.

A review of the dozens of no-bid contracts approved by HUD in New Orleans shows millions going to politically connected consultants, law firms, architects, and insurance brokers. [In April 2008, Jackson resigned and is under investigation by the HUD inspector general, a federal grand jury, and the Justice Department's public integrity section.]

New Orleans and Beyond
What is happening in New Orleans is happening across the United States. It is just that New Orleans offers a more condensed and graphic illustration. The federal government is determined to get out of housing altogether and let the private market reign. A 2007 report of the Urban Institute confirms that in the last decade, over 78,000 low-income apartments have been demolished by HUD. Moreover, HUD has approved plans to demolish at least an additional 62,000 units. (See www.urban.org/UploadedPDF /411497_cost_benefits_hope_VI.pdf.) That is why locals are receiving support and solidarity from residents and housing advocates in Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and New York.

Destruction of housing for the working poor is also a global scandal as corporations and governments push entire neighborhoods out. In India, traditional fishing villages destroyed by the tsunami are being forcibly moved away from the coast, and the land where they lived is being converted into luxury hotels and tourist destinations. The International Alliance of Inhabitants, which opposes the demolitions in New Orleans, points out poor people’s neighborhoods are also being taken away in Angola, Hungary, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

Poor and working people in New Orleans and across the globe are living on property that has become valuable for corporations. Accommodating governments are pushing the poor away and turning public property to private. HUD is giving private developers hundreds of millions of public dollars, scores of acres of valuable land, and thousands of public apartments.
Whether resident resistance in the Gulf Coast is successful or not will determine not only the future of the working poor in New Orleans, but of working poor communities nationally and globally. If the United States government is allowed to demolish thousands of much-needed affordable apartments of Katrina victims, what chance do others have?

Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. You can contact him at Quigley@loyno.edu. You can read updates on Quigley’s blog www.smirkingchimp.com/author/bill_quigley.


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"The complete disregard of renters, police harassment of African Americans, and racial disparities in flood protection are evidence of ethnic cleansing by our government " — Monique Harden

New Orleans Black Diaspora: Will the Residents Come Back?

"The white elite is fighting to bring New Orleans back, richer than it was and whiter than it was, with no concern for anybody else."


Dr. Beverly Wright, Director, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice

For more than 20 years, Dr. Wright has been a leading scholar, advocate, and activist in the environmental justice arena. She has directed numerous grassroots community-initiated health surveys, evaluated community buy-outs, and supervised community development initiatives around contaminated sites and serves as a strong voice of the grassroots environmental justice movement.

Dr. Wright is a professor of sociology and the founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ). Since 1992, DSCEJ has fought for the rights of residents of the Lower Mississippi River Industrial Corridor, the area commonly referred to as Cancer Alley. Dr. Wright served as chair of the Second National People of Color Leadership Summit in 2002.

In early 2006, she initiated “A Safe Way Back Home,” a pilot project with the United Steel Workers Union, in which contaminated soil was removed from yards and common areas in the Aberdeen Road neighborhood of New Orleans.


Jesse Clarke: There has been a lot of publicity over the recent struggle focused on the destruction of public housing units. What’s the general state of things in New Orleans today? Who owned the city before Katrina, who owns it now?

Beverly Wright: The white elite is fighting to bring New Orleans back, richer than it was and whiter than it was, with no concern for anybody else. It’s clear to me that they don’t want people to come back. I am not against tearing bad housing down if, in fact, the plan is replacement housing. Poor people would love to live in a beautiful community. The struggle is over the amount of replacement housing: We are drawing a line in the sand for one-to-one replacement. We are right at the height of this struggle.

Clarke: How does that play out politically?

Wright: It affects your political strength. For example, they moved six-to-eight thousand people out of public housing. What was promised, was replacement housing. What we got, was a white city council district. Now we have two white city council presidents because the deal, when there was a Black majority, was to add a second president for the whites. That was quickly forgotten when the opportunity existed for them to take control, even though it’s not representative.

Before the storm, the white population was quite small. We had a majority Black city council. The Black population was [around] 70 percent, if you add the undercount. The mayor claims to have figures showing that we are almost back to 65 percent, but some people don’t want those numbers known. Since the storm, hundreds of Black people have been purged from the [voting] rolls, many of them unable to get back home. In this context, they held an election for city council where the one Black person that ran got 48 percent of the vote. She needed 51 percent in order to [avoid] a run-off. Those “missing voters” certainly made the difference. [At] the runoff, the Black turnout was low. The result: a majority white city council. There’s nothing about being fair in all of this. They took advantage of the situation [and] now we have a majority white city council. That could affect who owns what and where in a dramatic way and very quickly.

I’ll give you an example of [something] I saw happen that made me see what our plight could be. A Black woman who owns a daycare center in a city that has an unbelievable shortage of daycare went before the city council to have her [business] expanded. She’s in an area that didn’t get a whole lot of water. The neighborhood association—made up of all white people—came out against her expanding this Black daycare center. I watched her get locked out with nobody to speak for her, and the white city council president, saying: “I hope you don’t give up. We’re going to go with the neighborhood association and not allow you to expand this permit.” [At] a time when the city is under water, he’s denying her the opportunity to expand service to Black children needing daycare because the whites in the neighborhood are against it!

It became so clear to me [then] what political representation means. And we don’t have anybody representing us.

Clarke: So, is there a general resurfacing of racism in action—without the explicit words?

Wright: Absolutely! And sometimes there’s a resurgence of words. I mean, I live in Dixie! One of our legislators said the flooding of the housing project had done what the city had attempted to do for the last 20 years, and that was to get rid of the poor. One of the city council people talked about how we should never allow what happened before. That is, have so many poor people concentrated in one place.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not really a resurgence. [The racism] has always been here. It’s just that they have been dealt a stronger hand. Their idea of getting rid of poverty is shutting the poor out and making certain they don’t come to New Orleans. Of course, the real way to deal with poverty is not to get rid of the poor people but to get rid of poverty… [with] a decent school system and living wage jobs. But that’s not how they see it. And they said it openly.

They’ve also been talking about mixed-use housing: with condos and all of this development that [will make] young, upwardly mobile white people move to the city. What they’re attempting to do is to change the political structure of this city by race. By appealing to young white people to help us rebuild, they’re hoping to get the city back to being white, which it hasn’t been in a very long time.

Clarke: I understand that there was a sizeable amount of Black and poor home ownership in New Orleans.

Wright: Yes, [there are] a lot of poor homeowners. The lower Ninth Ward was owned by Black people, and the renters oftentimes were relatives [who] weren’t paying much rent.

Clarke: And what’s happening to these owners as the properties continue to sit vacant?

Wright: After the storm, [people] paid their houses off with the insurance [but] they have no money to rebuild. A lot of the mortgage companies forced the poor homeowners to pay off their mortgages, which was illegal. So, these former homeowners [now] actually own the land that’s just sitting there. They don’t have money to fix it but they don’t feel the pressure to sell. That’s where Road Home {reconstruction fund for homeowners] was supposed to kick in to help people, [and they] are still waiting.

Clarke: They can still meet the tax bills, then?

Wright: Up to now, the taxes have not gone up extraordinarily, because we still have—and it might change—a homestead exemption. For example, the house that I live in now, my tax was $457 per year; [but] with the homestead exemption, my tax bill is $25 per year. You pay no taxes on the first $75,000 of your house’s [value]. In a Southern town like this, where a majority of the houses cost less than $75,000, most people pay zero. That’s why poor people could keep their homes. But when they reassess the houses, [their value] will go up. It still [would not be] like California and some other places, but it [may be] enough for poor people to not be able to [afford] them.
This hasn’t happened yet, but it’s coming, and people are bracing themselves for it. The city council has been talking about programs for people under certain incomes so they wouldn’t lose their homes. That’s going to be a big issue that we’re going to have to push for.

Clarke: When you look downtown you see new hotels, casinos, and entertainment centers; are the new owners getting a bonanza?

Wright: Oh, we’re getting some new owners. Donald Trump is coming in. We [also] have the Uptown area—the Warehouse District apartments and condos are extremely expensive. The Krauss Building on Canal Street—I understand it’s already sold out and they just started construction.
Some of this was going on before the storm and the storm just hastened [things]. For instance, Uptown was built on a grid with super-houses on the main street. The houses for workers are placed with slave quarters on the Inner Circle, so you still have some relatively small houses off the main streets… owned by Black people. [But] houses around them are selling for a half million dollars, so these little wooden shotguns are now being appraised for an unbelievable amount of money. That’s one of the things that we’re real concerned about.
I think it’s a way to get rid of the poor people who own houses Uptown—by increasing the value of the property all around them, [so] they can’t afford the taxes.

Downtown New Orleans by night, as portrayed in Delta Airlines In-Flight Magazine.” ©2008 Delta Airlines

Clarke: Are you trying to get new affordable housing built?

Wright: Well, that’s what’s going on now through the Office of Recovery Management. Two huge contracts for building affordable housing were given to two organizations—Providence, which has been around a long time and is a part of the Council of Charities, and another [newer] group. It still is nowhere near the number of housing units we’ve lost or will lose, with the destruction of the projects, but there is an attempt to make certain that we extract as much of the land as we can for public housing. [When] they got rid of the St. Thomas Housing Project, they included some low-income housing, but it’s nowhere near [meeting the needs of] the 6,000 people who were displaced.

Clarke: How far has the rebuilding of the levees come? Who is benefiting?

Wright: I think that the majority of the energy and monies for rebuilding have gone into the areas that have had the least amount of damage. [That is] sections of the city where white people, rich people live, [rather] than where poor and Black people live.
The Army Corps of Engineers has, in fact, [already] secured the property of the wealthy white people. Their last report basically shows that [wealthy, white] Lakeview and Old Metairie are the only sectors of this city that have increased levee protection. They got five-and-a-half feet more protection, so they probably won’t get any water at all.
Where I live, we have gotten zero increased levee protection. The lower Ninth [Ward] has gotten only two feet of increased protection. If we get another hurricane like Katrina, we can expect approximately the same amount of water and damage and loss of life [according to a] chart from the Army Corps of Engineers. If that’s not the most racist thing that I’ve ever seen in my life… people were so upset, they said it was a mistake.
Clarke: So, who is doing this work?

Wright: Bottom line, outside contractors. For the most part, the work is going to big firms that have long-term relationships with the Army Corps. There are a small number of local contractors who have gotten some money—to appease the masses. The local and minority contractors are locked out.

Clarke: So they haven’t quite got the political will to actually bulldoze, or rather re-asses and tax and expropriate the Black homeowners?

Wright: Not yet. [But] I believe, it’s coming. They know they can buy this land for ten cents if we get another hurricane.
I think they’re getting a lot more resistance than what they expected. The fact that there was so much Black home ownership is the thing that’s hindering their process, and they’re trying to figure out how to get that land from us. If they are successful, then they can move forward with everything. But we’re holding on, you know, we’re holding on.

In the Seventh Ward—the ward that I’m from—there is a real vocal group [that is] adjudicating old properties and turning them into low- to moderate-income housing in my old neighborhood. I believe that that’s going to be our only hope—the tenacity of the people themselves who are determined to keep their land like me and many, many, others.

Jesse Clarke is Editor of Race, Poverty and the Environment.

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Hope VI Mixed-Income Housing Projects Displace Poor People

If you have ever lived in or around a public housing development you would probably agree with the stated aim of the federal Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI) program: Drastic measures are needed to improve the dilapidated buildings and uplift the lives of the people who live in them.

HOPE VI provides grant money from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to local housing authorities to demolish and reconstruct “distressed” projects. Tenants receive relocation assistance and a portable Section 8 voucher to subsidize their rent in the private market while their public housing developments are demolished—entirely or in part—and reconstructed as mixed-income housing complexes in an attempt to deconcentrate pockets of intense poverty.
In theory, the original tenants are then able to return to their refurbished homes and enjoy a wide range of social and economic programs designed to ease the transition from welfare to work. In reality, what often happens is that the reconstruction is delayed or abandoned altogether, or the “mixed income” residency requirements causes the poorest of the tenants—those most in need of subsidies—to lose their homes.

A Brief History of HOPE that Isn’t
Since 1992, HUD has awarded 446 HOPE VI grants in 166 cities. As of 2006, 78,100 public housing units had been demolished and an additional 10,400 units were slated for redevelopment.1

However, a 2004 study by the Urban Institute found that only 21,000 units had been built to replace the 49,828 demolished units. In other words, roughly 42 percent of the demolished public housing had been replaced.2

In 1940, President Roosevelt stood in front of Atlanta’s Techwood Housing Project, the first completed federally funded public housing, and said, “Within a very short time people who never before could get a decent roof over their heads will live here in reasonable comfort and healthful, worthwhile surroundings.”3

In 1996, despite its special place in history, the Techwood Project was the first to be demolished under HOPE VI to make room for the Olympic village. However, visitors to the Olympics were still able to walk through a virtual reality exhibit of Techwood, but without the annoying presence of its displaced tenants. The original Techwood contained 1100 units—all of them for public housing. Today, only 300 units are available for public housing.

A HOPE Based on Punishment
Under the Clinton and Bush administrations, Republicans and Democrats have colluded to systematically dismantle what was left of the social welfare system ushered in by the New Deal. Throughout the 1990s, the rhetoric of welfare reform blamed “cultures of poverty” and “concentrations of poverty” for poverty itself. Instead of getting tough on corporate layoffs of thousands of people during peak profit time, Clinton decided to show “tough love” to those most likely to be at the receiving end of structural unemployment.

Of course, it would be a grave mistake to stereotype all public housing residents as welfare recipients because public housing tenants are often some of the hardest working but poorest paid people. In 1999, the median income of families living in public housing was $6,500, well below a living wage by any standard. In their essay “Failing, But not Fooling, Public Housing Residents,”4 authors Jacqueline Leavitt and Mary Ochs point out that both “welfare reform” and “public housing reform,” take a punitive approach to public policy and make false assumptions about the availability of decent-paying jobs and adequate job training. Interestingly, punishment and privatization often seem to go hand-in-hand.

In 1996, President Clinton signed into law a bill designed to accelerate evictions in public housing. Dubbed “One Strike and You’re Out,” it was touted as a way to stop drug trafficking and violent crimes in public housing developments. Since One Strike was a civil procedure, tenants could be evicted even if they were acquitted of criminal charges. In effect, what One Strike did was provide an excuse for eviction based solely on innuendo and allegations of criminal activity. Thankfully, in January 2001, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals eliminated those provisions of “One Strike,” which allowed evictions of those who were both innocent and ignorant of the crime for which they were being evicted.

Fighting HOPE with Resistance
In 1996, a small group of residents at a North Beach public housing facility in San Francisco who were concerned about being displaced by HOPE VI decided to fight back. They sought the help of the Eviction Defense Network (EDN), which had previously led a successful campaign to prevent evictions of undocumented residents.

There followed a three-year, door-to-door campaign of organizing and educating the tenants about the dangers of relocating for HOPE VI upgrades without a firm promise of a home to return to. Consequently, more than 60 percent of the tenants signed pledges not to move until they had received real guarantees. The San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA), fearing that delays and a failure to comply with HUD mandates would cause them to lose $23 million in HOPE VI money, relented. The tenants were offered an “Exit Contract” with legally binding guarantees, most significant among them: one-for-one replacement of all demolished low-income units and a limited number of reasons for disqualifying a tenant from re-occupancy.
Charged by this modest victory, the tenant activists of North Beach drafted a Public Housing Tenant Protection Act (PHTPA) as a citywide ordinance. Although supported by San Francisco Board Of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano, and passed by the Finance and Labor Committee, the measure was eventually killed by Supervisor Amos Brown.

QHWRA: No Hope for the Homeless
The Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act (QHWRA) of 1998 mandates that all public housing developments should become “mixed income,” meaning, all new housing units are for those making 30 to 80 percent of the median income. In effect, this makes it virtually impossible to exit homelessness via the public housing system.

Partnerships with the private sector are key in reducing federal government costs for low-income housing. According to HOPE VI proponents, the average annual direct costs are reduced by $3.9 million for public housing units redeveloped as mixed-income housing.5 But urban land being at a premium, the HOPE VI process usually results in the privatization of many developments as developers contracted to do the reconstruction generally gain partial ownership (currently estimated at around one billion dollars) of the new housing. So, the poor continue to lose, as corporations, such as McCormack Baron, Sun America, and Bridge Housing Developers make immense profit.

Nationwide, there are now over one million families awaiting subsidized housing (as acknowledged by HUD’s own research) but the federal government continues to cut back on available units.

Fillmore before redevelopment.Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

.Spatial Deconcentration as Political Diffusion
The United States Code of Federal Regulations has identified “the growth of population in metropolitan and other urban areas, and the concentration of persons of lower income in central cities” and set a goal to “develop new centers of population growth and economic activity.” Its apparent objective is “the reduction of the isolation of income groups within communities and geographical areas and the promotion and increase in the diversity and vitality of neighborhoods through the spatial deconcentration of housing opportunities of persons of lower income and the revitalization of deteriorating neighborhoods.”6
In other words, poverty is a result of poor people living in close proximity to each other—rather than of structural unemployment or the persistence of racism—and “economic integration,” or living close to employed people will set a good example for the poor.
Is spatial deconcentration a progressive solution to poverty or a hideous experiment in social engineering? One obvious effect of spatial deconcentration is the dilution of the political power wielded by concentrated voting blocks. The other is that it makes more difficult any political organizing for the common economic interests of a community.

Author Yolanda Ward traces the theoretical roots of spatial deconcentration to when President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders commonly known as the Kerner Commission.7 Inner City riots were frequent in the 1960s. (San Francisco’s largest was in 1966—a community response to the police killing of Matthew Johnson, a 16-year-old African American youth from the Bayview.) The Commision was set up to investigate the origins of 160 disorders in 128 cities in the first nine months of 1967.

The Kerner Commission report, released in 1968, recommended traditional liberal solutions to poverty, such as strengthening the social safety net and increasing job opportunities for inner-city citizens. It also suggested spatial deconcentration as a viable strategy to deter urban uprisings.

Whatever the intentions of its promoters, the end result of spatial deconcentration (supported by the Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Jr., and Clinton administrations) has been the political demobilization of the oppressed as poor residents are scattered to the suburbs.

Pushing the Poor Out of Town
Urban Habitat studies published in the 1990s track the deconcentration process in the Bay Area where displaced low-income residents generally are dispersed to the rim cities of Antioch, Vallejo, San Pablo, Dixon, El Cerrito, and Vacaville. In each of these areas, the number of available jobs exceeds the population. Some, like Vallejo and Alameda, have suffered high unemployment rates as a result of military base closures. So, public housing transplants to these areas often have to commute to the metropolitan areas to find low-wage work.

Overt political racism is another issue that gentrification refugees have to face in the rim cities. A case in point is the early morning raid conducted by a Vallejo city taskforce on the federally subsidized but privately owned Marina Green development in 1997. Over 60 families were rousted from their beds and forced to watch as officers ransacked their apartments for no apparent reason other than that they all received welfare.

The irony of federal housing policy “reform” is that it uses a progressive critique to accomplish completely conservative aims. The HOPE VI program argues against warehousing the poor in substandard areas and many housing authorities actually have self-sufficiency programs for their residents to prepare for gainful employment. However, by abolishing the requirement that demolished public housing units be replaced on a one-for-one basis and cutting funding, Congress has effectively given the federal government an exit strategy out of the public housing business.

As the nationwide housing crisis intensifies and the nation teeters on the brink of a recession, we are faced with the type of economic and political conditions that existed during the Great Depression. We can only hope that they will lead to a re-ermergence of some of the more enlightened and progressive social programs of that era.

Urban Removal: Legacy of Destruction

The term “urban removal” refers explicitly to the government-financed-and-facilitated destruction of inner-city housing. In the case of HOPE VI, the destruction is of government-owned developments but in some cases, the government also seized private property and removed entire communities.

The Western Addition or Fillmore District of San Francisco is ground zero in the history of urban removal. The first removal in that area occurred with the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. The area was then populated by Blacks who were aggressively recruited from the southern states to work in the Bay Area building war machines. During the war years, Blacks not only enjoyed a degree of economic prosperity, the neighborhood became a center for jazz, blues, and the arts. But when the war ended, the government started a propaganda campaign against the Fillmore, branding it “blighted.” Given the relative prosperity of the Fillmore at the time, the notion of “blight” had little to do with decrepit conditions, but everything to do with racist assumptions and developer profit.

The urban renewal legislation passed by Congress in 1949 and 1954 conferred Redevelopment Agencies with the power to condemn entire city blocks and evict residents, be they renters or owners. The process of eminent domain proved devastating to the roughly 17,000 people displaced during both phases of the project.

Before urban removal, a large portion of Blacks owned their own homes. Joyce Miller was nine years old when her family was forced to leave their home under the threat of eminent domain. “They offered the families some money, usually less than what the place was worth,” Miller recalls. “They told you that if you didn’t accept, they would take your home anyhow.”
Although Miller’s family found housing not far from their former home, other residents were not as lucky. “The realtors made sure that if you stayed in San Francisco, you went only to the Ingleside District or the Bayview,” she says. “Everyone else was pushed out of the city.”

1. Turner, et al. Estimating the Public Costs and Benefits of HOPE VI Investments: Methodological Report. The Urban Institute, June 2007.
2. Popkin, et al. A DECADE OF HOPE VI: Research Findings and Policy Challenges. The Urban Institute and The Brookings Institution. May, 2004.
3 Dedication of Techwood Homes. Archives of Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, Atlanta. Nov. 29, 1935. http://www.cviog.uga.edu/Projects/gainfo/FDRspeeches/FDRspeech35-2.htm
4. Leavitt, Jacqueline and Ochs, Mary. Failing, but not Fooling, Public Housing Residents, The Ralph and Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies Working Paper Series, University of California, Los Angeles. 1998.
5. Turner, et al. Estimating the Public Costs and Benefits of HOPE VI Investments: Methodological Report. The Urban Institute, June 2007.
6. Title 42, Chapter 69 Sec. 5301. Congressional findings and declaration of purpose Section 101 of the Act. http://www.hud.gov/offices/cpd/communitydevelopment/rulesandregs/laws/sec5301.cfm
7. Ward, Yolanda. Spatial Deconcentration. http://www.ecoabsence.org /text/ward.htm

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Privatizing Public Services Imperils Cities

Over the past few decades, governments at all levels in the United States have been in a perpetual state of deficit. Taxes are way down from their post–World War II levels, and except for a brief period during the tech boom, there is rarely enough money for even basic social services

“It’s been a strategy since the 1970s to ‘starve the beast,’ as Grover Norquist calls it,” says Robert Haaland, an organizer with Service Employees International Union Local 1021.

At the same time, politicians terrified of raising taxes, have been looking for a magic bullet to fix the deficit problem. It goes by many names—privatization, public-private partnerships, competitive outsourcing, creative financing solutions—but the basic idea is to allow the power of competition in an unregulated market to provide the public with the best services at the lowest cost.
“To do or to buy is the question that all governments face,” says Ken Jacobs, director of the University of California Berkeley’s Labor Center.

We have been buying.
Since 2000, outsourcing of federal dollars has increased 100 percent, to $422 billion in taxpayer funds, according to a September 2007 study by the United States Public Interest Research Group of Washington D.C. The federal government is now the private sector’s largest customer.
Even a city like San Francisco, with a reputation as one of the most progressive cities in the country, has been wooed by public-private partnerships to fund its many civic needs, including construction of a new power plant and the running of its Muni transit system.

Milton Friedman congratulated by President Ronald Reagan. © 2008 Free To Choose Media, courtesy of the Power of Choice press kit

Public, Bad! Private, Good!
“The public has been schooled to think that government is the problem, not the solution,” says Elliott Sclar, professor of economics at Columbia University. In his book, You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For: The Economics of Privatization (Cornell University, 2000), he writes: “American folk wisdom holds that, by and large, public service is uncaring, unbending, bureaucratic, and expensive, whereas competitively supplied private services, such as FedEx are efficient and responsive.”

Competition, the privatizers say, drives innovation. Less red tape means more efficiency. A lack of unions and collective bargaining agreements translates to lower labor costs. Large-scale multinational operations can reduce redundancy and streamline their processes. But this country has a lot of experience with privatization, and the record is not good.

One hundred years ago, private companies did a lot of what we now call government work. “Contracting out was the way American cities carried out their governmental business ever since they grew beyond their small village beginnings,” writes Moshe Adler, a Columbia University professor of economics, in his 1999 paper “The Origins of Governmental Production: Cleaning the Streets of New York by Contract During the 19th Century.” At one time, private companies provided firefighting, trash collection, and water supplies, to name just a few essential services. But, according to Adler, “By the end of the 19th century, contracting out was a mature system… and the realization that every possible improvement to contracting out had been tried, led city after city to declare its failure.”

Following the 1906 earthquake and fires in San Francisco, for example, the city decided to municipalize water service after Spring Valley Water—the company charged with the task—failed to deliver while the fires raged.

In Philadelphia, as well as in San Francisco, the business of firefighting was once very lucrative—for both, the firefighting companies and the arsonists who were paid to “generate business.”

“Large amounts of public contracting out historically created lots of opportunities for fraud and nepotism,” says Jacobs. So, public agencies stepped in to provide basic services as cheaply and uniformly as possible. Towns and cities took on the tasks of security, education, and sanitation. Nationally, the federal government improved roads and transit, enacted Social Security benefits, and established a National Park System, among other things.

A Legacy of Deficits and No-Bids
About 30 years ago, the pendulum started to swing the other way and privatization came back—driven by University of Chicago Economist Milton Friedman, enacted in a massive policy shift by Ronald Reagan, and proliferated by Grover Norquist and the neocon agenda. During Reagan’s first term, he cut taxes by 25 percent overall, but the rich got a 40 percent cut. Domestic spending fell by half a trillion dollars in the 1980s, but any savings were countered by a rise in defense spending.
According to Harvard Economist Lawrence Summers, “The Reagan budgets will influence the government for the rest of this century. Just as the Great Society left an imprint of federal commitment to help the indigent and equality of opportunity, the Reagan budget deficits will leave an imprint of non-involvement.” (Quoted in Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency, Johns Hopkins University, 1990.)

Reagan’s massive tax breaks and realignment of money led to a boom in the outsourcing of public services, with private companies doing more municipal work and nonprofit organizations trying to fill in for social services, welfare, housing, health care, and the environment.

The George W. Bush era has seen even more overt outsourcing, with no-bid contracts that completely turn over government services to the private sector in “direct conversions.” The Washington Post recently reported that no-bid government contracts have tripled in the past six years.

The Failure of the Privatization Myth
To field-test the primacy of privatization, the Reagan administration sponsored a transportation competition in the early 1980s between Miami’s Metro-Dade Transit Agency and Greyhound Bus Service. The two providers were each given five comparable transit routes to manage over three years and 80 new buses were bought with a $7.5 million grant from the federal government.
After 18 months, 30 of the Greyhound buses were so badly damaged that they had to be permanently pulled from service; passenger complaints were up 100 percent; and ridership was down 31 percent. Why? There was no incentive in Greyhound’s contract to maintain the equipment or retain riders, so the company’s only goal was to deliver the cheapest service possible.
The experiment offers an important lesson in privatization politics: when you add the cost of adequately protecting the public’s interest, the private sector doesn’t look so efficient.

“Market fundamentalists present an idealized, simpleminded notion of competitive markets in which buyers and sellers have equal knowledge,” says Sclar. “Anyone can be a buyer, anyone can be a seller, everyone can evaluate the quality of the good. In this never-never land, that’s often the way the case is made for privatization by this particular group of economists.”
In the real world, privatizing a service raises a number of issues. “Accountability gets to be a really big problem,” says Ellen Dannin, professor of law at Penn State University. “There are predictions about how much money will get saved through privatization, but no one ever goes back to check.”

When companies take over services that aren’t typically part of a competitive market, all sorts of unexpected problems occur. Jacobs points to the contracting of school bus services in cash-strapped districts. Not only did costs eventually rise in many places, but when schools tried to go back to providing their own service, the skilled drivers who knew the routes and the kids and were able to do much more than drive a bus were gone.

Sclar and Dannin agree that any service that lacks competition—such as, electricity—should be public. “It’s a natural monopoly,” Sclar points out. “It’s either going to be a well-regulated industry, or it’s got to be done publicly.”

Corporations exist to make money. And although graft, mismanagement, and scandal have always been present in City Halls, in the final analysis, the legislative, judicial, and executive branches were not designed to generate profits. Typically, very little is known about a private contract outside the company. Open books are something most companies lobby against fiercely and this lack of transparency leaves the door wide open for corruption.

Sclar is of the opinion that private and nonprofit companies that receive contracts should be required to abide by public-records laws. “Transparency should always be the goal,” he says. “If a company doesn’t want to make its records public, [it shouldn’t] go after public work.”

Who Owns the Roads?
These days, public goods, from which everyone presumably benefits, are all too often falling into the hands of profit-driven companies. In New Orleans, charter schools have replaced all but four public schools. In about 15 municipalities, public libraries are now managed by the privately owned Library Systems and Services. At least 21 states are considering public-private partnerships to finance massive improvements to aging roads and bridges. When a publicly owned road is leased for 99 years to a private company, the politician who cut the deal gets a huge chunk of cash up front to balance the local budget, or to meet another need. But when the new owner of the road puts in a tollbooth to recoup costs, it’s not that different from the tax that the politician—perhaps long gone from office—refused to impose. What option does that leave the voting driver?

If there’s one point that Dannin never tires of making to her students, it’s this: Employers depend on roads for their employees to drive to work and a public education system to train their workers. They depend on housing, police, the court system, and the system of laws.

“[There’s] a huge amount of infrastructure we tend not to think about [usually],” she says. “We live within an ecosystem... [but we have] a hard time seeing that ecosystem, that infrastructure. That’s what your taxes pay for.”

If we keep this reality in mind, we might have a slightly different answer the next time someone asks: “Who owns our cities?”


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Selling Our City To Lennar Corporation

Over the last decade, Florida-based mega-developer Lennar Corp., has been snatching up the rights to the Bay Area’s former naval bases—those vast stretches of land that once housed the Pacific Fleet but are now home to rats, weeds, and sometimes, low-income renters.

Lennar acquired its first base in 1997, when it was named master developer for the decommissioned Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo. Two years later, it bid for the Hunters Point Shipyard but a consultant for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency recommended giving the development rights to Ohio-based Forest City. Lennar fought back, using its deep pockets and calling on its politically connected friends. Soon, a parade of Lennar supporters—among them, Mayor Willie Brown and Representative Nancy Pelosi—convinced agency commissioners (all of them mayoral appointees) to ignore the consultant and go with Lennar because it was the only developer that had bothered to reach out to the Bayview Hunters Point community.

Who can say if Forest City would have done a better job? A developer is, after all, a developer. But Lennar’s victory at the shipyard helped it win the rights, four years later, to redevelop Treasure Island—even before it had broken ground at Hunters Point. And a couple of years later, it parlayed yet another exclusive development agreement; this time for Candlestick Point.Lennar Corporation clears land in Bayview disturbing asbestos dust. © 2007 Jakub Moser/Chronicle

Now that the Fortune 500 company (with revenues of $16.3 billion in 2006) does have a track record at the shipyard, serious doubts have been raised about the wisdom of entrusting most of San Francisco’s undeveloped coastline to a profit-driven corporation that is proving difficult to regulate or hold accountable for its actions. Sure, Lennar has provided job training for southeast San Francisco residents, set up small-business assistance and community builder programs, and invested $75 million in the first phase of development. But it was also a Lennar subcontractor who failed to monitor and control the release of toxic asbestos dust next to a school at the Hunters Point Shipyard.

Also, when the building industry took a nosedive in 2006, Lennar reneged on its promise to provide much needed rental housing at Hunters Point Shipyard, saying that it was no longer economically feasible for the company to do so. The Redevelopment Agency had originally approved a plan for 700 of the 1600 units on the 500-acre site to be rentals.

In November, 2006, Eve Bach, an economist with Arc Ecology, warned the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that Lennar’s public benefits package for Treasure Island—comprised of 1,800 below-market affordable housing units, 300 acres of parks, open space, and recreational amenities, thousands of permanent and construction jobs, green building standards, and innovative transportation—could be seriously compromised. She cited the discrepancy between Lennar’s stated desire for a 25 percent return and Budget Analyst Harvey Rose’s projection of an 18.6 percent return as one basis for concern. “Particularly at risk [for] shortfalls are transit service levels, very-low-income housing, and open-space maintenance,” Bach warned.

Dysfunctional Development
“I can’t say that Lennar is trustworthy, not when they come up with a community benefits package that has no benefit for the community,” says activist Marie Harrison. “I’d like to be able to say that the bulk of our community are going to be homeowners. But I resent that Lennar is spoon-feeding that idea to folks in public housing who want a roof over their heads and don’t want to live with mold and mildew, but don’t have jobs or good credit or a down payment. I’ve heard seniors say, ‘I can’t even afford to die.’ Lennar is not being realistic, and that hurts my feelings and breaks my heart.”

The Redevelopment Agency’s apparent inability to pull the plug on Lennar or its subcontractors leaves observers wondering how best to characterize the relationship between the agency, the city, the community, and Lennar. The commissioners have been appointed either by Mayor Gavin Newsom or his predecessor, the consummate dealmaker Willie Brown. But the incestuous web of political connections goes even further.

Newsom is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s nephew by marriage. Another nephew—Laurence Pelosi—is Newsom’s campaign treasurer and former vice president of acquisitions for Lennar. He is currently with Morgan Stanley Real Estate, which holds Lennar stock. Both Newsom and Laurence Pelosi are connected to lobbyist Darius Anderson, who hosted a fundraiser to pay off Newsom’s campaign debts and counts Lennar among his clients.

Willie Brown’s ties to Lennar run equally deep. His head of economic development, Kofi Bonner, is now an executive vice president with Lennar serving as lead negotiator in the Hunters Point redevelopment.

It appears that the city’s interests would have been served better if the job of appointing and overseeing developers had been given to elected officials, such as the Board of Supervisors, rather than to mayoral appointees.

Plan B: Damage Control
At the moment, it appears that Lennar is accountable to none, except the hapless Redevelopment Agency. “Without any teeth, the Agency’s claims that they have enforcement capabilities are like arguments for the existence of God,” says Arc Ecology’s Saul Bloom. He recommends hiring an independent consultant to oversee the site, and firing contractors who mess up.
A Proposition 65 lawsuit filed “individually and on behalf of the general public,” by Christopher Muhammad’s Nation of Islam-affiliated nonprofit describes Lennar as “a rogue company that can’t be trusted.”

“Our contention is that Lennar purposefully turned the monitors off,” says Muhammad. “If you read the air district’s asbestos dust mitigation plan, it appears that there was a way to do this grading safely... The problem was that Lennar was looking at their bottomline and violated every agreement. They threw the precautionary principle to the wind, literally. And the city looked the other way.”

Raymond Tompkins, an associate researcher with San Francisco State University’s Chemistry Department and a member of the Remediation Advisory Board to the Navy, says: “If you can’t put water on dirt [to avoid] dust, you can’t deal with the far more complicated processes at the rest of the shipyard.” He would like an industrial hygienist to oversee the site.
“[Lennar’s] cavalier attitude around asbestos dust fosters concern among the African American community that gentrification is taking place and that they are going to be sacrificed for a stadium [next],” adds Tomkins, who has family in Bayview Hunters Point.
In fact, both Newsom and Brown, along with Senator Dianne Feinstein and Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, support a proposed ballot measure that would allow Lennar to build a new 49ers stadium at Hunters Point.

The Bayview “Jobs” Initiative
Who really is behind the Bayview Jobs, Parks, and Housing Initiative, which does not even have the support of the 49ers, who prefer to be in Santa Clara?

The measure was submitted by the African American Community Revitalization Consortium (AACRC), which describes itself as “a group of area churches, organizations, residents, and local merchants, working to improve Bayview Hunters Point.” Yet, this group is backed by Lennar and draws its members from among those with a personal financial stake in the company’s projects. AACRC founders Rev. Arelious Walker of the True Hope Church of God in Christ in Hunters Point and Rev. J. Edgar Boyd of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church of San Francisco are both members of Tabernacle Affiliated Developers, one of four Bayview-Hunters Point community builders who entered into an agreement with Lennar to build 30 percent of the for-sale units in Parcel A. Tabernacle will build the affordable units while Lennar develops the market-rate homes.

Neither Walker nor Boyd disclosed this conflict of interest at a July 31, 2007 Board of Supervisors hearing where they, and the busloads of people Lennar helped ferry to City Hall, created the illusion that the community was keen on keeping the work going, instead of (temporarily) shutting down the site to address the health concerns of people in Bayview.

Assuming that community benefits, such as home-building contracts, better parks, and job training opportunities do trickle down to Bayview Hunters Point residents, will those opportunities outweigh the cost of doing business with a company that has endangered public health, created deep divisions within an already stressed community, and is struggling financially? (In late 2007, Standard and Poor placed Lennar’s debt rating at a junk bond BB-plus level because of the company’s “exposure to oversupplied housing markets in California and Florida.”) As for the 8,000 to 10,000 proposed new units at Candlestick Point—what percentage of those would be rented or sold at below-market rates? And what would be the effect of the nationwide mortgage meltdown on that?

According to Executive Director Fred Blackwell, the Redevelopment Agency’s deposition and development agreement (DDA) with Lennar does not allow the company to indefinitely mothball its housing units. “The DDA gives Lennar and the vertical developers the option to lease the for-sale units for one year, prior to their sale.” Blackwell also insists that they can hold Lennar accountable. “I feel like the DDA gives us all the tools we need,” he says. “But we can’t just arbitrarily shut things down.”
But many in the community are not convinced.

The Measure of Things to Come
Some believe that the only certain outcome of the ballot measure would be a mandate for the city to turn over its valuable public lands and spend millions of dollars in scarce affordable housing funds on subsidizing the ambitions of a corporation with a dubious track record and an active aversion to public accountability.

True, Lennar has promised to rebuild the Alice B. Griffith public housing project without displacing any residents. And the measure also allows for the creation of 350 acres of parks and open spaces, 700,000 square feet of retail stores, two million square feet of office space, and improved transit routes and shoreline trails. But what about the rest of the shipyard—contaminated with a long list of human-made toxins? With the possible early transfer of the shipyard from the Navy to Lennar via the city, can we have faith in Lennar’s ability to safely manage the project?

As it turns out, San Francisco voters will face competing ballot measures in the June 2008 election. A Lennar-supported measure turned in 14,000 signatures, while a competing measure calling for 50 percent of the newly developed housing to be sold or rented at below-market rates, has turned in 11,811 signatures. Shortly before press time, the Department of Elections determined both initiatives have enough valid signatures to go on the ballot.

Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits
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Tenants Plus Land Trust Beat Gentrification

Situated at the juncture of San Francisco’s Chinatown and financial district, 53 Columbus is a “prime” piece of real estate by anybody’s estimate. But the tenants of this very desirable property—mostly low-income Chinese immigrants—probably wish it were not so. Their troubles began in 1998 when San Francisco City College—the owners of 53 Columbus—issued eviction notices with the intention of demolishing the building.

The tenants turned to the Asian Law Caucus for help and in 2001, this loose coalition of residents and community activists persuaded City College to sell their building to the newly formed San Francisco Community Land Trust (SFCLT), which in turn converted the building into a cooperative. Since then, with funding from the City of San Francisco and various grants, tenants have worked side by side with volunteers of the SFCLT to rehabilitate the building and upgrade the apartments, making them affordable, in perpetuity, for the tenants to own.

Historically, the population of San Francisco has always been diverse—ethnically and socio-economically. Today, rapid gentrification has made the city the second most expensive in the United States, forcing out people of color and working families. In the last 20 years, housing prices have increased more rapidly than working people’s incomes, and over one-fourth of the city’s renters pay over 35 percent of their income for housing. Whenever a tenant moves out of a rent-controlled apartment, the rent reverts to the market rate. In addition, evictions, condominium conversions, and the sale of multi-family properties, have all forced long term residents to leave the apartments that they have occupied for decades. Without affordable housing, San Francisco is in danger of becoming a homogeneous community with all of its diversity confined to history books.

“When you’re living in someone’s home, your life is dependent on other people. When you have your own home, you have autonomy.” Ji, a retired cook, told the San Francisco Chronicle in a July 25, 2006 story on how the Land Trust has benefitted the residents.

The SFCLT provides inexpensive, resident-controlled housing that working people can afford. Under the Community Land Trust (CLT) model, residents have the opportunity to cooperatively own their building. Residents purchase their units at a price based on their ability to pay but they have to sign a “limited-equity” agreement, which places restrictions on the re-sale of the units, and obliges them to sell their units only to other low-income earners—to ensure that all units within a CLT will be perpetually affordable. The lease agreements that govern a CLT are usually in effect for 99 years with the option of renewal for another 99 years. Residents can also deed their units to their heirs.

There are over 200 housing-oriented land trusts around the country, and from their 1970s beginnings based on counter-cultural ownership models, they have expanded to become a full-fledged housing strategy adopted by a wide array of people.
But true to its roots, the CLT model is more than just a mechanism for developing and financing affordable housing. Each apartment building that is rehabilitated and turned over to a CLT becomes a permanent barrier against gentrification. In other words, CLTs have the potential to revolutionize cities, making them places in which people of all races and income levels can live.

Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits
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Can Redevelopment Slow the Black Middle Class Exodus?


Fred Blackwell, Executive Director,
San Francisco Redevelopment Agency

Fred Blackwell holds a Master's degree in city planning from the University of California at Berkeley and is a 1991 graduate of Morehouse College. He worked at the Mayor's Office of Community Development from 2005-2007. He was a member of Urban Habitat’s Board of Directors from 2001-2007. Blackwell led community development efforts with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and The San Francisco Foundation before moving into government service.


Juliet Ellis: When, and why did you take this job?

Fred Blackwell: [Laughs] I took the job five months ago because, while down the hall from the Mayor’s office at Community Development, I had the opportunity to see from a distance the opportunities and challenges associated with redevelopment in San Francisco. It seemed to me that the relationship between agency and community was at times acrimonious. I came to the conclusion that it didn’t have to be that way if we could figure out a way to work more in partnership with the neighborhoods we serve.

Ellis: So, based on the history of the acrimonious relationship, how would you describe the biggest challenges you face in leading the redevelopment agency?

Blackwell: There are a few. One is overcoming the agency’s image—mostly a result of work done decades ago in the Western Addition where massive acres of land were cleared, residents and businesses displaced, and land actually lay fallow for a long period of time. That reputation has stuck with the agency. The challenge is to change that image and base it on some of the agency’s most recent work. Another challenge is to stimulate and foster investments in areas that have been neglected and disinvested for many years, in a way that produces benefits for the folks who have lived through years of neglect.

Jesse Clarke: What is some of the [agency’s] recent work that you think will deliver concrete benefits, without displacing people and driving them out of the city [as have] problems from other development projects?

Blackwell: The Redevelopment Agency has adopted a very aggressive affordable housing policy. For example, California redevelopment law requires 15 percent of the housing in a project area to be affordable. Our general rule of thumb is usually around 25 percent. We actually have a commitment to spend half of the tax increment financing that comes through the agency on affordable housing.

Also, our Bayview Hunters Point employment and contracting policy sets a 50 percent local hiring goal for agency-sponsored projects and requires developers and contractors to make a good-faith effort at reaching that goal. Our contracting compliance team is charged with making sure that good faith is really exercised.

Fillmore district housing  removed. Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public  Library

Clarke: How long has that been in place?

Blackwell: That was adopted in December 2007. We also have a Model Block Program. Although our central effort is to produce new affordable housing… in an area like Bayview, it’s also important to invest in the existing housing stock. So, we set aside money for low-interest deferred loans to homeowners on [the Model Block] to upgrade their property. We also set aside several hundred thousand dollars annually for streetscape improvements, and working collaboratively with other City departments to do things like tree planting and traffic calming.

Clarke: How much are you spending on this program [of the agency’s $246.4 million budget]?

Blackwell: This year, we’ve dedicated a million dollars for the residential loan program for one block. In the upcoming fiscal year, we’re setting aside another million dollars for another block, as well as half-a-million for streetscape improvements to the [original] block.

The other really important thing that we are working on… when people were displaced from the Western Addition and Bayview Hunter’s Point several decades ago, they received a certificate of preference. Over the years, the agency had lost track of a lot of these certificate holders. We are now tracking these people down and making sure that they are aware of the opportunities that are in the agency’s pipeline. More importantly, we are also talking to our commission about expanding the certificate preference program to the grandchildren of the original residents. This significantly expands the pool of people eligible to exercise the certificates in future affordable housing developments and acknowledges the [multi-generational disruption caused by the original displacement].

Ellis: You led the city’s task force that was looking at the Black exodus [out of] San Francisco. How are you thinking about that—as a priority in people’s concern—as you consider the redevelopment agency’s role and its work in Bayview Hunter’s Point?

Blackwell: It’s a complicated answer. When you look at the data, you see very quickly that it’s the middle class African Americans who have left this city in the largest numbers. As a result, we are left with a very low-income population of African Americans and seniors. In 1990, a little more than half of the African Americans were considered very low-income, in 2005, it’s approximately two-thirds. It suggests to me that two types of strategies need to be [considered]. One is to retain what we have of the African American population. Another is to focus on attracting more African Americans to the City. The out migration of African Americans isn’t very different [from that of] other ethnic groups. Where there’s a big difference is [in the replacement] of the community. In other words, there are more African Americans moving out than moving in.

And I haven’t even talked about economic development and the perceived lack of opportunity for African Americans—the low number of African American businesses, the low performance of African American children in the school system, or the high level of crime and violence in the African American neighborhoods.

Illustration by Lennar Corporation

Clarke: So, looking at a neighborhood like the Bayview, which still has a predominantly African American population, how high a priority is it for the agency in terms of economic development?

Blackwell: It’s our highest priority. We are trying to do a number of things to bring more investment to Third Street—the main thoroughfare for Bayview. We’ve invested in three mixed-use affordable housing projects and are looking at an investment in the Opera House, which is an important landmark on that street. We have a façade program for Third Street [that makes] grants and loans available to existing business owners. And there are a number of things that we’re trying to do as well to entice [businesses]. We were able to secure commitment from a grocery store, Fresh and Easy, which we think is a very important part of the economic development and health of [that] neighborhood.

Ellis: What’s your take on the role of communities engaged in planning processes—do you feel like it’s going deep enough and there’s authentic, adequate participation from folks?

Blackwell: I would say, you have very deep participation from those community advisory groups that are directly connected to the agency. [But], I don’t think that the engagement is broad enough or deep enough. The general populous, I think, lacks awareness around what’s going on.

Clarke: When community organizations attempted to overturn the development plan, they had the 30,000 signatures but the petition was disqualified. What do you think about giving people more frequent, actual electoral opportunities to take a crack at these issues? And what do you think of the 50 percent affordable housing initiative that just qualified for the ballot?

Blackwell: I am in favor of having the general population weigh in on important land use issues. What’s also important is that people have the opportunity to make an informed decision. One of the problems with the petition to stop the redevelopment plan was that the people [who signed] were not adequately informed about the plan. I have concerns about the 50 percent requirement for the shipyard. This is a piece of land that has been fallow for several decades and… the best opportunity to develop this land is now. It’s important in terms of the development of the Bayview community in general, and I don’t think that the 50 percent goal is feasible from a financial point of view. But I’ve got people here doing some analysis to tell me whether or not that’s true.
Another important point is that community benefits that come with projects like this need to go way beyond affordable housing. I’m in favor of affordable housing, but I think that authentic community development and revitalization involves more than just housing. It involves open space, opportunity for economic development, infrastructure, and basic services for the folks who live there. If you spend all of your tax increment money and money available for community benefit on affordable housing, you’re missing the mark.
Clarke: In terms of Lennar being the prime contractor, given the challenges they’ve had in their current work—the problems with the asbestos dirt, the dust, the constant criticism from certain community elements—why should the city give them another project when the affordable housing component got taken out for economic reasons?

Blackwell: First of all, the assertion that Lennar is not building the affordable housing in Phase One is actually wrong. The changes that were made to the Disposition and Development Agreement changed the mix of housing in terms of the proportion of rental versus ownership units, but it did not change the proportion of affordable housing. Another important point is that the [income levels for the] affordable housing slated for the shipyard are well below the city’s requirements and hence, are closer to the incomes that reflect the Bayview. I am not a defender of developers in general, or Lennar. The staff of the agency brought forward to the commission a recommendation, a developer that wasn’t Lennar, to develop the shipyard. [The Commission turned that recommendation down]. But given that Lennar is already at the shipyard, and their timeline, it makes sense to just expand what we’ve got going rather than to create a whole new process.

Third Street Light Rail terminus at Sunnydale © L. Henry

Clarke: What are some of the big economic trends that have to happen to keep San Francisco a diverse city with a diverse economic and racial population?

Blackwell: A large part is making sure that the city’s workforce agenda is in sync with its economic development agenda. Whether we are trying to position ourselves as a hub for biomedical and green technology or continuing our role as a tourist attraction and a financial center, we’ve got to make sure that we have a workforce that is prepared for those industries. That means preparing people from the Bayview, the Western Addition, and South of Market, for the jobs that will be in the pipeline… by investing in the nonprofits that are doing the work around this. Otherwise we will end up in a situation where we’ve got industries that the locals aren’t prepared to work in.

Another positive development in terms of retaining diversity is Hope SF, the city’s response to the drying up of national Hope VI money. This year, through revenue bonds, the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors raised 95 million dollars for the revitalization of public housing locally, which is the same amount that was appropriated nationally for Hope VI.

The important thing to know about Hope SF that distinguishes it from Hope VI is that the commitment under Hope SF is one-for-one replacement of all the public housing to get torn down. That wasn’t the case with Hope VI. The other commitment with Hope SF is to phase redevelopment of the public housing, which means that existing residents do not have to move off-site during the construction process, which I think significantly enhances our ability not to displace people as we go through the revitalization process. The first development is going to be Hunter’s View, then Potrero Hill, and Sunnydale.

And if the initiative passes the voters in June—Alice Griffith will be included in the Candlestick Shipyard Project.

Clarke: How does this compare with the idea of spatial deconcentration—the breaking up of large public housing units to put in mixed income housing, so the poor population isn’t concentrated in a single area—something which also tends to break up political power blocks in inner city communities?

Blackwell: The paradigm that you describe creates mixed-income communities by spreading the poor folks around the city. We’re saying that the problem is that poor folks are not in the mix with people from different [rungs] of the economic ladder. So, we’re trying to achieve the income mix without displacing the low-income people. But that notion about diluting the voting block—that’s a good point.

Ellis: Any comment on the topic of this issue: “Who owns our Cities?”

Blackwell: I think a group of people that need to be brought into [this conversation], especially when you talk about “who owns our cities,” are the developers. This is not just about public agencies and nonprofit developers and advocates. It’s also about this development community and we need to sit around the table with them a bit more in order [for] them to gain a better understanding of what communities are looking for, and their role in producing the kinds of communities low-income neighborhoods envision for themselves.

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Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits

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Without Housing, Without Rights

Freedom Of Speech, Linocut © Art Hazelwood

The federal government created the contemporary crisis of mass homelessness by cutting and refusing to restore billions and billions of dollars in funding for affordable housing programs, starting in the early 1980s and continuing to today. On top of this, every Congress and administration since then has focused on homeless people themselves as the cause of the problem, in the process institutionalizing the idea that “fixing” the broken people—rather than the broken system they dismantled—is the solution.

Since the emergence of mass homelessness in 1982, every federal plan to address homelessness—Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) emergency shelter plans, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Continuum of Care plans, 10-Year Plans to End Homelessness spearheaded by the Bush administration’s Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH)—has been based on the assumption that homelessness re-emerged in the 1980s because something was wrong with the people who were finding themselves without housing.

The federal government has required local communities to submit competitive applications for federal largesse, and to show that they could effectively address the “problems of homelessness in America” within the grant amounts allocated. So, local governments did just that: they formed committees, created task forces, hired tons of consultants, and wrote grant after grant and plan after plan showing how they could address the problem if only the feds would give them the lion’s share of the little money available.

Unfortunately, while the federal government does fund “homeless assistance” programs at the state and local level, the $1.4 billion total allocation for these programs pales in comparison to the $54 billion reduction (in 2004 constant dollars) in annual spending on affordable housing programs. As a result of these skewed priorities, local governments are more and more hard-pressed to shelter—much less house—the ever-increasing homeless population, and many have turned to draconian measures to solve their “homeless problems.”

From “Quality of Life” to Economic Cleansing
Local efforts to deal with growing homeless populations often start with innocuous-sounding language about the “quality of life” of the housed and business sectors of the community, or perhaps are billed as an effort to ensure that communities don’t become a “magnet for the homeless.” But over time, more laws and ordinances get passed, and as these are implemented, it is only under very stringent “time, place and manner” restrictions that are enforced by private security and local and state police departments that homeless people are tolerated—if at all.

By the early 1990s, the business sector began to join forces with local governments to enforce open space and activities restrictions. Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) use private security that has various levels of enforcement authority and works with local police. BID security is most commonly financed with some form of government subsidy, direct funding, or a combination of both, but it is not under the purview of any government oversight body.

According to the non-profit organization Religious Witness with Homeless People, (RWHP) homeless individuals face anxiety, degradation, and frustration as a result of the aggressive enforcement of “quality of life” ordinances. This anxiety is expressed by one homeless individual in one of nearly 200 interviews conducted by RWHP: “You’re always on edge out here already because it’s dangerous. I can’t go to the cops now because they’ll probably just arrest me because of the (camping) tickets.”

This type of ticket is not uncommon. The most common public space and activity restrictions are those aimed at camping, sitting, lying, or trespassing on either public or private land, panhandling, sleeping, blocking the sidewalk and possessing “stolen property,” such as shopping carts and milk crates—to name just a few. Furthermore, these restrictions are often implemented in conjunction with the closure of public parks and the outlawing of free food and clothing distribution.

While certain communities highlight different controls at different times, often depending upon the outcome of local elections and legislative and court efforts, all have one primary common goal: to remove the presence and resulting impact of people without housing from local communities. As the Mayor of Las Vegas recently stated when she outlawed feeding people in city parks: “If we stop feeding them, they will leave.”

This nationwide pattern has escaped Civil Rights protections because on their face, these programs are not clearly discriminatory. Local laws are often drafted in such a way as to appear to apply equally to all people in a community. In fact, however, enforcement is very much impacted by both skin color and appearance.

Local governments cannot legally discriminate against people strictly because they do not have housing. Federal protections prohibit local and state governments from removing people from their communities due to the color of their skin or economic/employment status. California’s “anti-Okie” laws of the 1930s and the South’s Jim Crow laws in effect from the late 1800s to the 1950s are examples of the kinds of local laws overturned in previous generations. Yet, modern “quality of life” legislation and enforcement targeting homeless people can be found in communities across the nation.

Infractions and Due Process Rights
Anti-homeless laws and ordinances and their application have, in fact, created a loophole that allows for the circumvention of a homeless person’s right to due process under law. The process by which homeless people face repeated incarceration generally follows this scenario:

A homeless man is sleeping on the sidewalk. A local ordinance makes it illegal to do so. The man gets a ticket and is later arrested for not paying the ticket. He spends a couple of days in jail, and is just as homeless now as he was before, only now he has a criminal record. This was the case for many of the individuals interviewed by RWHP. One man relayed the familiar scenario, “I was sleeping in a tent in a hidden spot near the freeway. They gave me a ticket for trespassing. I don’t have money to pay it. I’ve never been in jail before. I keep to myself, but now they’re going to make me a convict just for sleeping.” Another anonymous man related his experience: “They wake me up in the morning and threaten to arrest me if I don’t stand up and start walking. The drop-in centers are all full, so I either walk or get ticketed again. I can’t walk all day long. You can’t think straight when you’re this tired.”

The overwhelming majority of the thousands and thousands of homeless people incarcerated under these laws are jailed for not responding to the tickets they were given, but not for the offense they committed in the first place. Because that original offense did not carry a jail penalty, they are not entitled to the free representation provided by the Public Defender’s office. If they are going to fight the ticket in court at all, they will have to do it alone and in the belly of the very system (criminal justice) that is trying to get rid of them in the first place. More often than not, the government, through the local District Attorney or a police officer trained in court presentation, will have representation, but the homeless person will not.

This chasm in “due process rights under law” for poor and homeless people is exploited by local governments and business interests to remove people from neighborhoods and communities where they are unwanted. Because the state defines itself the “owner” of public space, it enforces discriminatory time, place, and manner restrictions and works with local private property owners to do the same. People without housing are left with no other options but to keep walking, get very lucky, or wind up in jail.
Additionally, homeless individuals who have an active warrant for minor offenses, such as sleeping in public, are often prevented from getting the services needed to exit homelessness. Due to warrants, they can be denied public housing or lose social security benefits, general assistance benefits, a place in a treatment program, and employment opportunities.
When local governments initiate new programs designed to remove people from their communities, it becomes a civil and human rights issue that cannot be overcome solely by those being targeted. Only the combined skills, resources and talents of many communities working in concert with each other can stop this trend.

The Real Crime
Fact: Compared to 1978, the United States government is now spending nearly 65 percent less on developing and maintaining affordable housing for poor people. ($83 billion was appropriated in 1978, while only $29 billion was allocated in 2005.)

Fact: Compared to 1978, the United States government now spends $84 billion more on subsidies for homeownership programs than on affordable housing for poor people. (It spent $38 billion in 1978 on these subsidies for middle-class and affluent homeowners versus $122 billion in 2005.)

Fact: In 2004, 61 percent of all federal housing subsidies went to households earning over $54,787 per year, while only 20 percent of those subsidies went to households earning less than $18,465 annually. The 2004 federal poverty threshold for a household of four with two minor children was $19,157.

Fact: Approximately five percent of the United States population has a serious mental illness. However, the Department of Justice reports that 16 to 24 percent of the population in prison or jail has a mental illness.* Moreover, inmates with mental illness in state prison were 2.5 times as likely to have been homeless in the year preceding their arrest than inmates without a mental illness.

There is a direct correlation between the federal government’s decision in the late 1970s and early 1980s to redirect expenditures for housing from rental assistance for poor people to homeownership—a trend that continues to today—and the subsequent re-emergence of homelessness in America in the early 1980s.

If our federally mandated housing and homelessness plans (FEMA, HUD, and ICH) and our locally politicized campaigns had focused on addressing “what created this mess” in the first place, the ludicrous current attempts to fill a $54 billion housing hole with a mere $1.4 billion of annual homelessness assistance funding would have drawn ridicule long ago.

Life skills training courses for a homeless person do not compensate for the fact that in the 20 years from 1983 to 2002, the United States government built 500,000 fewer units of affordable housing than it did in the seven years from 1976-1982. Money management classes for a rural parent do not compensate for the 35,000 fewer affordable units being built in rural America each year. Better outreach and case management may be good things, but they are unrelated to our nation’s massive reemergence of homelessness. Will the repressive policing of homeless people for sleeping and living on our streets ever create enough housing to make up for a $54 billion cutback from the federal government? No.

If we want to address homelessness in America, we need to stop looking at homeless people, at “them,” and we need to start looking at us. If we believe our government represents us, it is we, the people, who must pressure our senators and congressional representatives to make a real economic commitment to restore funding for affordable housing. Outlawing homelessness won’t make it go away; nothing ends homelessness like a home.

* Web correction: Print editions of this story list this statistic as "about 16%"

Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits

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Pay Dirt: State Tax Policies Drive Local Land Use Policies to Ground

California’s Proposition 13, passed in 1978, forever changed the fiscal and governance system of the state. It placed strict limitations on property taxation by capping overall property tax rates at one percent and requiring tax revenues from each property to be apportioned to each of the local governments—e.g., city, county, special district—serving that property. In turn, the local governments allocate the money among local agencies, such as police, fire, sewer system maintenance, and social services.
To soften the loss of revenue from property taxes, the state assumed a higher level of responsibility for education costs incurred by school districts. But this arrangement has led to a confusing system where the state raids local coffers to close the budget gaps in deficit years. Over time, and as population growth has increased the demand for schools, healthcare, and environmental protection, this fiscal policy has seriously limited the resources available for public services. As a consequence, local governments have been forced to chase revenues wherever they can be found: mainly in the form of sales taxes from retail sales.1

The need for tax revenue pushes cities across the state—and around the country—to accept developer plans for auto malls and mega stores, at the expense of affordable housing, parks, or open spaces. Cities have found it easier to pursue sales tax from commercial land use than to do battle with homeowners who have embraced a stable property tax structure since 1978.

Plan Locally, Pollute Globally
Planning commissions are made up of locally elected or appointed officials who understand that public projects, such as low-income housing, preservation of open space, and other amenities do not pay for themselves over time. But they do know that if you zone lots of land in your city for stores and auto malls, you can attract lots of customers who will come only long enough to buy cars, clothes, and computers in your city but will leave a penny of every dollar they spend in your coffers. That’s because revenues from a one percent local sales tax (collected by the state) are returned to the general fund of the municipality in which the sale occurred.

Sales taxes now exceed property taxes as the largest source of revenue for California municipalities. What’s more, it’s revenue that is not earmarked for specific purposes, which makes it very attractive to cities everywhere. So, as long as local governments are responsible for land use decisions, parking lots, malls, and other sales revenue generators are going to be the winners.
Says Judy Corbett, executive director of the Local Government Commission, “There’s too little incentive to create new housing and use land wisely when it’s a money-losing deal for local communities.”

The fallout from these thousands of locally made land use decisions, unfortunately, is traffic congestion and air pollution. Especially in this era of concerns about global warming, it is an opportunity missed to reduce the local carbon imprint and reverse greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, awareness of the climate change issue is slowly beginning to gain momentum in land use planning circles.

Typical mall development
How can local communities have an impact on zoning decisions? Traditionally, participation in land use planning commission hearings has been left to the busybodies and zealots. But, if we do not all begin to pay attention to the forces that drive local land use decisions, it will be too late for our environment and for our communities. Local communities need to implement thoughtful ideas for re-designing neighborhoods around industries that pollute less. Not only could this approach work to reverse global warming, it has the potential to enable our communities to capture sufficient revenue to deliver high quality services to residents.
In rural communities where farming and ranching are the cornerstones of the economy, there have been innovations to transform the methane produced by cows into energy creating facilities called methane digesters. That’s the type of community transformation that urban communities must pursue.

The threat of a recession in 2008 has prompted the President to push for a cash rebate of approximately $600 per taxpayer—for a total of $150 billion. The idea behind this scheme is to spur consumer spending—of the tax rebate, apparently—and get us out of a recession. But what if the federal government had invested the funds in carbon sequestration programs? What if every rooftop in urban America were to plant carbon sinks—rooftop gardens—to not only minimize the progression of global warming, but to increase their local community’s revenues?

It will not be a simple task to reform our fiscal policy institutions, but the alternative in this era is unthinkable.

1. Lewis, Paul. “Retail Politics: Local Sales Taxes and the Fiscalization of Land Use,” Economic Development Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 1 (2001): 21-35, Public Policy Institute of California, 2001.

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Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits

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Case Studies

Coyote Valley: Building it Right

Ever wonder what it would be like to build a city from the ground up? To create a vibrant and diverse neighborhood with parks, schools, community centers, libraries, transit stations, businesses that serve every income level, and employment centers that are accessible to all? In the Coyote Valley region of San Jose, a community-initiated planning process is making this vision of equitable smart growth a reality.

City of San Jose, Department of Planning, Building and Code Enforcement

When You Deny A Voice, You Deny Equity
Traditional urban planning has usually excluded community members from any meaningful role. With little input from working-class residents, city councils have routinely ignored critical factors, such as living wage jobs, healthcare facilities, and affordable housing. A systematic failure to address these vital concerns has left many urban communities suffering from stagnant job growth and a lack of access to goods and services.
Yet, with the right coalitions, strategies, and ongoing commitment, community organizations can develop and advocate for a broad economic blueprint that puts social equity at the center of land use planning.

Raising Our Voices in Coyote Valley
Residents of San Jose, California have a unique opportunity to exert their influence on a city planning process in Coyote Valley, a largely undeveloped region of South San Jose. In 2002, the city council appointed a 20-member task force—comprised of developers, landowners, environmentalists, planners, local legislators, and labor leaders—to develop a Specific Plan for Coyote Valley, oversee the work of city planners, and serve as the council’s advisory body. The broad planning guidelines established by the city council call for 25,000 housing units and 50,000 jobs, providing for some 80,000 new residents of San Jose.
In an effort to fundamentally change the economic development and land use process, Working Partnerships USA (WPUSA)—a coalition of community groups, labor, and faith organizations seeking a solution to the widening gap between the rich and poor in Silicon Valley—created a series of objectives for incorporating social equity into the Specific Plan:

Build enough affordable housing for all income levels. WPUSA initially won approval to make 20 percent of all new housing affordable. Later, the coalition got city council to mandate that 60 percent of the affordable units—entirely funded through developer contributions—be reserved for those making less than 50 percent of the median income for the area.

Guarantee living wage jobs. Although the city council set a goal of 50,000 new jobs, it did not specify standards for job quality. WPUSA wants to ensure that every job that is counted towards the city’s goal pays a living wage.

Include healthcare services. WPUSA is working to incorporate two healthcare clinics in a land use process for the first time ever in San Jose. Most importantly, the clinics will be funded through the initial infrastructure financing of the project and not by a regressive tax on residents.

Provide access to public transportation. The Draft Specific Plan includes a fixed route transit system in Coyote Valley.
Protect open space and provide recreation facilities. Nine neighborhood parks and 3,600 acres of permanent open space have been incorporated into the Plan.

Shaping Your City Through Community Engagement
We hope that the social equity and environmental justice achievements of Coyote Valley—expected to have a profound impact on the lives of nearly 100,000 residents—will serve to illustrate how land use decisions can create extraordinary opportunities to design livable urban communities that avoid sprawl and congestion while integrating populations across race and class barriers.

Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits
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Digital Infrastructure for the Community, by the Community

In East Palo Alto, we’ve realized that it’s not a case of ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Just because technology is in place doesn’t necessarily mean people will find value in it,” states Dr. Faye McNair-Knox, executive director of One East Palo Alto—an organizational member of the East Palo Alto Digital Village Program. “Working alongside groups who provide essential services to local residents has helped us to partner with individuals who have not participated to become familiar with the technology and develop their own value for it. You really have to build that whole base of value within a community for people to access technology.”

Like water, gas, and electricity, access to the internet and other information technologies can no longer be viewed as a privilege, yet it remains out of reach to the disabled, communities of color, new immigrants, non-English speakers, the homeless, and low-income families (to name a few). The struggle to control broadband technology and the infrastructure that facilitates internet connectivity is contested by public, private, and nonprofit sectors. The rise and recent fall of municipal wireless ventures, such as in San Francisco, are examples of the tensions surrounding issues of sustainability, self-reliance, and ownership of broadband access. Broadband access involves a digital landscape that few city officials are willing to take direct responsibility for. Fortunately groups like the East Palo Alto Digital Village, a partnership of direct service providers and nonprofit organizations dedicated to improving the quality of life in neighborhoods throughout East Palo Alto, are leading the way. They are showing that it’s possible to offer innovative approaches to building infrastructure that are locally determined by the stakeholders and residents they aim to serve.

Dr. Faye McNair-Knox speaks at the Oakland Digital Inclusion Conference
East Palo Alto
Known as the gateway to all highways in California, East Palo Alto, or EPA as termed by locals, has long lived in the shadow of Palo Alto. The highways that split these two communities have become representative of the multiple divides that keep them worlds apart. Aside from zip and area codes, both communities share little in common. The 10:1 income disparity between residents in both communities characterizes EPA’s historical disconnection from the affluence of Palo Alto and Silicon Valley. Even before its inception as an official city in 1983, EPA’s predominantly low income, immigrant, and Pacific Islander communities were isolated and removed from the social capital that borders its boundaries.

Fueled by the desire to close the social, economic, and technological gaps hindering EPA’s engagement in the digital age, local EPA groups, community leaders, educators, and organizers banded together, later forming the East Palo Alto Digital Village in 2000.

Originally designed to leverage the existing framework and programs of groups already serving EPA residents, the EPA wireless network is not only a pipeline for the usual Internet traffic, such as checking e-mail and downloading media, but a tool for the uploading and sharing of culturally relevant content that is determined and created by community members themselves. Exemplified in the creation of WiFi101, an initiative that utilizes the EPA wireless network to provide youth job training opportunities through emerging technology, the EPA Digital Village Program proves that a wireless network built by the people and for the people is possible.

But unlike East Palo Alto, many cities, instead of asserting the public interest in broadband access and ownership, have chosen comfortable dependence: relying on private, for-profit vendors to own, operate, and finance municipal broadband projects, wireless or otherwise. In the end, cities are left with lofty promises and scores of residents excluded from participating in the information superhighway.

Before pulling out of its municipal wireless partnership with San Francisco and Philadelphia, Earthlink appeared to be at the forefront of Wi-Fi arrangements that promised “universal” coverage at virtually no cost to the host city. By funding the deployment of a jursidiction’s entire wireless network, private vendors like Earthlink expected the pay off to come in the form of wireless service subscriptions from customers wanting faster and secure Internet service.

In San Francisco, the Earthlink ad-supported model appeared to solve all of San Francisco’s wireless woes. But in fact, once the details of the package were revealed it meant low-speed service, infinite advertisements, and potential privacy and security infringements.

In April 2007, after almost a year of contract negotiations, Earthlink discovered that their business model failed to attract enough citizen subscribers to make it profitable. San Francisco’s rush to mimic a private ownership model popularized by the promise of Philadelphia’s municipal broadband network, ended before it took shape. Not only did Earthlink leave an embarrassed San Francisco government and a floundering Google to pick up the pieces, but their decision resulted in the breakdown of Philadelphia’s highly publicized and much anticipated wireless network.

Grassroots Alternative Makes Some Headway
Instead of waiting years for the next municipal Wi-Fi proposal to be approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the “Free the Net” program, a project launched by Meraki, a wireless start-up based in Mountain View, California, convened a broad coalition of community-based groups to provide free Wi-Fi to 40,000 people across two square miles of San Francisco, and are set to expand twenty-fold. By providing free wireless repeaters to city residents and installing solar-powered distribution points on the rooftops of privately owned buildings, the San Francisco Free the Net program has made universal access more of a reality—and for only a fraction of the cost of standalone Wi-Fi spots of municipal wireless models once spearheaded by private vendors like Earthlink.

Community driven solutions that counter-balance the top-down approach of for-profit marketplace broadband initiatives are being imagined and realized in neighborhoods across the country. Community ownership of digital infrastructure can take many forms, from the city department model of Burlington Telecom, to a cooperative network of organizations like the East Palo Alto Digital Village. Even when a network is on its last leg, as in Philadelphia, pockets of hope can materialize in the most unlikely places, inspiring seemingly disenfranchised groups to locally determine the content created and transmitted through broadband networks. As cities continue to close the acute divide that separates those who are linked into the digital universe and those who teeter on its periphery, community groups are forging the future of broadband from the ground up—no middlemen, no Earthlink, but a comprehensive approach to community internet that exceeds the limitations of existing network models, drawing strength from the people it aims to serve.

Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits

Democracy vs. Development Oakland Wins a Round

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Lake Merritt © Oakland Convention and Visitors Bureau Oakland has always had a decidedly mixed relationship to its waterways. The city retains one of the largest working shipping ports in the nation but elsewhere along its extended waterfront, the East Bay’s gateway city has largely neglected its shoreline. That longtime neglect is more than made up by Oakland’s care for its most popular attraction, Lake Merritt. Created at the same time as the city itself, the lake was carved out of a fetid, marshy tidal pool. Today it is the home of a string of pleasant lawns, walking and jogging tracks, and the nation’s oldest wild bird habitat, the place where Oakland residents go to relax, and where they bring out-of-towners to show off. The lakeshore could be a prime spot for high-rise residential development butting up to the edge of the water. But over the years, the city and its public and politicians have fiercely protected both the view from the lake and public access to its environs, refusing to give in to the box-in builders. It is one of Oakland’s greatest success stories.

Six years ago, Oakland residents decided to extend that preservation success all the way out to the bayshore waterfront. But the initial aftermath of that effort showed that even where communities take affirmative steps to set aside open space parkland and waterways, the attempts to subvert that set-aside to private, commercial use can be both enormous and insidious.

Lake Merritt empties into the San Francisco Bay waters through the 3,000 foot long Lake Merritt Channel, a lovely but poorly-named little creek, much-loved by ducks and other waterfowl, bordered along some of its stretches by grassy banks and shadetrees. But many decades ago the channel was cut off from the lake by a high-speed throughway, so that only a spelunking adventure through an underground passage of uncertain safety makes it possible to walk from the lake to the channel.

Public Money from a Public Vote Expands Park Access
In 2002, in a $198 million municipal bond measure called DD, Oakland residents decided to correct that problem, voting to spend $80 million of the bond money in large part to dismantle the throughway, connect the lake to the channel through a series of bridges and pedestrian walkways, and landscape the channel banks into a more parklike atmosphere.

Construction on the channel is scheduled to begin this year and run through 2009.

Public access to the new Lake Merritt Channel lands seemed assured both by Oakland’s longtime protection of Lake Merritt itself, and by the fact that the channel was already bordered on both sides by public property—the city-owned Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, the administrative headquarters of both the Oakland Unified School District and the Peralta Community College District, and Peralta’s Laney Community College—eventually running down past Estuary Park as the channel waters emptied into the bay estuary. Extending public-access waterway parkland through such public territory seemed almost the perfect urban ecological fit.

Private Developers and Powerful Politicians
Some developers, allied with a handful of powerful local politicians, saw otherwise. Instead, they saw the opening of the Lake Merritt Channel as an opportunity to get Oakland taxpayers to foot the bill for opening lands that would then become prime commercial and residential real estate. And they came close to succeeding.

The community college district occupies arguably the most strategic spot on the channel, with holdings on the four property squares straddling the waterway at its midway point. One of those squares is occupied by the Peralta administrative offices, with the three others—athletic fields, a student-faculty parking lot, and classroom buildings—occupied by Laney College, one of the district’s four colleges.

In 2004, four of Peralta’s seven trustees opted not to run for re-election. On the agenda for their final meeting before the new trustees took office, Peralta’s governing board included a presentation by an Oakland-based developer, Alan Dones for a “Public, Private Partnership—Laney College Parking Lot and District Office Administrative Center Property.” The item was not listed on the “action” portion of the agenda, and when one of the concerned incoming trustees made an inquiry beforehand, he was assured by one of the outgoing trustees that the item was for information purposes only, and so he should not worry. He chose not to attend the meeting.

At the time, although Measure DD had been passed two years before, its plans to open up the adjoining Lake Merritt Channel were still only on the drawing board stage, the implications apparent only to a handful of the interested.

At the Peralta trustee meeting, Dones presented an ambitious plan to “design and build new facilities that will provide localized and centralized multi-governmental administrative buildings, enhanced civic, educational, commercial, residential, and recreational uses on the land currently occupied by the Laney College parking lot and [Peralta] district administrative center,” according to the official meeting minutes. In a PowerPoint presentation, Dones also said that his plans could include the development of lands currently occupied by the Laney College athletic fields.

Following the meeting, I reported in the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper that “while Dones was vague about what the final plans might be, he told trustees that the development plan would be anchored by administrative offices built for unnamed government agencies, but he also mentioned the placement of a medical center and “up to 1,000 residential units” on the property. Trustees approved a one-year exclusive negotiating agreement with Dones to flesh out his plans into a formal development proposal despite a plea from the Laney College president to hold off until faculty and staff at his college could be brought into the discussion,

The Lake Merritt Channel development wars had officially begun. But the biggest blasts were not heard at Peralta or Laney, but across the street at the aging administrative headquarters of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD).

Act Two: Oakland Unified School District
In the spring following the passage of Measure DD, OUSD found itself in a severe financial crisis, caught between an unexpected drop in student attendance—leading to a resulting drop in state reimbursements—and the unanticipated effects of a teacher pay raise. Faced with the inability to meet its final payroll of the fiscal year, the OUSD school board was forced to request a massive state loan, triggering a state takeover of the district.

In the last frantic days before the 2003 takeover, board members called on the state to either lease or sell surplus district property to help pay off the state loan. The genesis of the request was so obscured that interviewed years later, board members were not clear on how it got introduced.

But someone was clearly interested in the issue


The California Education Code requires that when any public school district real property is sold, the proceeds must go into the district’s building fund. But early in the process surrounding the passage of the bill authorizing the state takeover of Oakland Unified, powerful California Senate President Don Perata, who represents Oakland, put in a provision that in Oakland’s case, the proceeds from such a sale could go towards paying back the state loan. Perata, or someone else, seemed very interested in that provision. Twice it got taken out in the legislative process. Twice, pointedly, it got put back in, including in the version that finally passed the legislature.

This obscure provision in the OUSD takeover legislation got no press coverage at the time, and no public notice until the spring of 2006, when California State Superintendent Jack O’Connell revealed that for a year, using the property sale provision, he had been in secret negotiations with developers for the sale of 8.25 acres of prime Oakland Unified area property just east of Lake Merritt. Included in that property was the school district’s administrative headquarters, as well as an elementary school, two alternative high schools, and two early childhood education centers.

The property sits on the banks of the Lake Merritt Channel.

A month later, O’Connell announced that he had signed a letter of intent to negotiate sale of the eastlake OUSD property to a well-connected East Coast development company. The team, TerraMark, proposed relocating the district’s administrative headquarters and five educational institutions, putting in their place five 27- to 37-floor high-rise towers, with luxury condominiums on the top and commercial space on the ground floors. A TerraMark official said they were planning to build an artificial waterfall from the top of one of the high-rises—an attraction that tourists would come to Oakland to see rather than travel to the natural waterfalls at Yosemite National Park.

Act Three: Oakland City Council
Shortly before the announcement of the OUSD property sale negotiations, the Oakland City Council had an announcement of its own. Due to budgetary problems, the Council voted suddenly to close the century old Kaiser Convention Center, which also sits on the Lake Merritt Channel, a block away from the OUSD administrative headquarters and the Laney College administrative building.

Thus, four years after Oakland residents passed Measure DD authorizing the Lake Merritt Channel renovations, the four public institutions which were to be the anchor of those renovations—Peralta, Laney, OUSD, and Kaiser—were all either closed or in active sale-and-development negotiations with private developers. Not surprisingly, TerraMark revealed that it was also in negotiations with the City of Oakland to include the Kaiser Convention Center in its development package aimed for the OUSD lands.

Act Four: Public Lands for Public Purposes
Unlike many modern development stories, this one has a happy ending, at least for those interested in maintaining the Lake Merritt Channel as public parkland. The furor against the development proposals was enormous, effective, and eventually, triumphant.

Opposition to the Peralta-Laney development proposal initially centered around the Laney College Athletic Department, whose members declared that they would fight any attempt to put condominiums or office buildings in the spot currently occupied by the Laney athletic fields. Developer Dones immediately declared that he had been misunderstood, and had no intention to develop the fields, but by that time Laney’s general faculty and staff had entered the struggle, aided by some of the district trustees who had taken office after the exclusive negotiating agreement had been authorized. Speakers lined up to talk against the proposed deal every time it appeared on the Peralta trustee agenda. Peralta Chancellor Elihu Harris eventually suspended contract negotiations with Dones, saying that the controversy had grown too great, and after reports that one trustee had switched—under labor union pressure—from support of the development project to opposition, Dones himself voluntarily withdrew from the deal.

The Oakland Unified fight was considerably harder. The state takeover left the local school board powerless, and State Superintendent O’Connell was far away in Sacramento and seemingly impervious to local pressure.

But a group of Oakland parent and community activists, joined by several school board members, took their case to local elected officials, and their relentless agitation eventually led to a rare show of political unity in the city. Every member of the Oakland City Council as well as the Peralta Board of Trustees came out against the OUSD land sale, the City Council opposition being particularly important since they would have to eventually approve any development put on the property. Newly-elected Assemblymember Sandré Swanson came out publicly against the sale as well, and even outgoing Assemblymember Wilma Chan and Senate President Perata, who had co-written the takeover legislation that authorized the land sale, issued public statements that backed away from support of the deal. Incoming Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums took his case to O’Connell privately, reportedly to tell the superintendent in stark terms that the TerraMark deal should be dropped.

The pressure worked. In February of 2007, O’Connell announced that he was permanently dropping the TerraMark deal. Immediately afterwards, the district moved forward with plans to put a new administrative-education complex—complete with rebuilt schools—on the site.

As for the Kaiser Convention Center, it still sits vacant and boarded-up, the only public building visible from both Lake Merritt proper and the Lake Merritt Channel. But so far, the city has announced no new plans to sell, and so the building might yet be returned to public use.

For the time being, the Lake Merritt Channel renovations have been saved for their intended use—the enjoyment of the general public.

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor writes for the Berkeley Daily Planet, Alternet, and numerous print and web publications. He lives in Oakland.

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Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits


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Removing the Poor through Land Use and Planning

In Texas, when they talked about “smart growth,” they said it would limit suburban sprawl but it was just gentrification. Sprawl hasn’t stopped. As they began to develop downtown, they pretended that there were no people of color downtown. Those people who were supposed to be our allies are running us out of our communities.

“I don’t want a seat, I want the table.
A person of color table. We need to have our own people writing the legislation. People from the most impacted communities.”

The passage of the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act of 1922, under the sponsorship of the United States Department of Commerce, gave authority for cities to regulate land use. Cities used the Act as a zoning tool to exclude or segregate the poor and people of color from certain areas. In many cities throughout the United States, people of color live on the other side of the railroad tracks and/or major highways. In 1928, the City of Austin’s Master Plan designated East Austin as the area where all industries, African Americans, and Mexican American communities would relocate and reside. Prior to that, there were African American and Mexican American communities throughout Austin.

Although Austin has an image of a progressive city, poor race relations and poor land use planning are at the heart of many issues. For instance, Austin is the only metropolitan city that has at-large elections for city council members. That is to say, we do not have districts, wards, or smaller units of representation on the city council where zoning cases and codes are finalized and formalized. In the 1960s there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” that designated one city council seat for an African American and one for a Mexican American, and whites usually decide who will be elected.

Fast forward to the “Environmental Justice” movement. Beginning in the 1990s, people of color began to challenge the siting of hazardous industries in their communities. We realized that hazardous and polluting industries were allowed to set up shop in residential areas and near schools and churches due to zoning. As hazardous and polluting industries began to shut down and/or be relocated, zoning changes also began to take place in many communities.

At the same time that people of color began to cleanup their communities, another national movement began to develop: Smart Growth. As we rid our communities of industrial and certain types of commercial zoning, which had allowed hazardous facilities, pawn shops, and liquor stores in our neighborhoods, the Smart Growth movement was inventing new zoning categories. Just to name a few, the new zoning included Commercial Mixed-Use, Vertical Mixed-Use, Mixed-Use Urban Center, and Neighborhood Mixed-Use. None of these zonings secured housing for the poor or the working poor.

The Smart Growth movement began to move toward high density development in the urban core of numerous cities in an attempt to curb urban sprawl. The Smart Growth movement was advocated by mostly white middle class people who felt that sprawl needed to be addressed and that high density development in the urban core was the answer. People of color, the poor, and the working poor were not at the table and thus, the impacts on these communities did not receive meaningful consideration. Urban planners and developers began developing the urban core as if people of color were not living in them. New zoning codes and policies were adopted to make room for the new urbanisism. Communities of color throughout the United States began to see condos, lofts, McMansions, and live/work buildings pop up in low-income and people of color neighborhoods. A tidal wave of gentrification began to engulf people of color communities.

“Affordable” Housing Unaffordable,
“Inclusionary” Zoning Excludes the Poor

All of the plans for neighborhoods of low-income people of color have included calls to increase the availability of affordable housing and to protect existing residents from gentrification. In November 2006, Austin voters passed a $55 million Affordable Housing Bond, but as of 2008 no clear plan has been presented to the community as to how this money will be spent.

Community residents are currently involved in discussions about Transit Oriented Districts (TOD), which call for high density development near transit corridors. Federal guidelines for funding TODs require 20 percent of the total number of residential units be “affordable.” The affordability is set at 60 to 80 percent of the Median Family Income (MFI).
Many East Austin residents live at only 30 to 50 percent of the MFI. The result is that federal housing money is being used to gentrify low-income communities.

The City of Austin has created an even lower standard—a Vertical Mixed Use zoning where only 10 percent of all units built would be affordable at 80 percent MFI.

All these standards don’t even begin to address the poor—those who live below 29 percent of the MFI. In most states, public housing for the indigent has not been built since the 1940s and 1950s, and many public housing contracts have expired and are in jeopardy of converting to market-rate housing. PODER and other housing activists recommend that housing funds be utilized to truly assist the poor and working poor of this country. Present MFI targets don’t represent the financial reality of many communities where there is a large gap between rich and poor. Lower levels of affordability must be instituted at the federal level or increased homelessness will be the inevitable result.

Environmental Issues Are Economic Justice Issues
PODER was formed in the early 90s by a group of Chicana/o East Austin activists and community leaders to increase residents’ participation in corporate and governmental decisions related to economic development, environmental hazards, and the impact on our neighborhoods. Our mission is redefining environmental issues as social and economic justice issues, and collectively setting our own agenda to address these concerns as basic human rights. We seek to empower our communities through education, advocacy, and action. To promote community empowerment, PODER has undertaken projects to educate the community so they may advocate for themselves and take the appropriate actions to become participants in decisions that ultimately affect their quality of life.

In the early 2000s, PODER produced a brown paper discussion that forced the City of Austin to put together a gentrification task force. PODER’s report included recommendations, such as a Community Land Trust where land is purchased and set aside for communities to decide the use—from parks to housing to small business development. In 2006, the City of Austin put a small amount of money in a Community Land Trust but so far, no land has been bought or put aside. PODER also recommended inclusionary zoning and housing/rent control. The Texas State Legislature passed a law prohibiting statewide inclusionary zoning in 2004. In 2005, State Representative Eddie Rodriguez passed House Bill 525—the Homestead Preservation Act. This law gives the City of Austin several unique tools that preserve housing affordability in Central East Austin, such as inclusionary zoning. The law is in place but no action has been taken by the City of Austin. The city refuses to hire a lobbyist to push for rent control at the state legislature. Another one of PODER’s recommendations was that community neighborhood plans be supported and their economic, social, and environmental visions implemented. The City of Austin did divide the city into 52 neighborhood planning districts but it continues to override the visions of low-income people of color.

PODER and other housing activists recommend that housing funds be truly utilized to assist the poor and working poor of this country. The present system of median family income does not capture an adequate financial reality of many communities where there is a large gap between rich and poor. Smaller units for financial determination of affordability should be instituted at the federal level. The federal government must provide adequate funds for low-income housing programs. We also feel that federal policy should be implemented to institute rent control nationwide.

Historically, communities of color, Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans have been disproportionately affected by toxic contamination. At the same time, our communities have not benefited equitably from these industries. As we look into our own backyard, we see a power plant, fuel storage tank farms, refineries, lumber companies, and most recently, high tech industries which emit their pollutants into the air we breath, the water we drink, and the earth that sustains us.

In Austin, we saw communities living adjacent to industry, families living next to the power plants. We went door to door doing health surveys and found disparities in rates of cancer, learning disabilities, and asthma in impacted communities, compared to city averages. We launched the LUCA (Land Use, Community and Action) campaign to bring to light the fact that this was more than a community issue; it was a regional issue of health disparities. We said that Health and Human Services agencies need to look at the health of our communities, focusing at the federal level.

Go National, Go Global
What do we do? Research done by grassroots communities must be recognized. We can give living testimony on what our communities are putting up with. On city, county, state, and federal levels, we can frame how housing needs are being addressed. We can take it from the local to the state level, then up to the national level, targeting the department of Housing and Urban Development, like we did with the Environmental Protection Agency.

We have to fight and address the gentrification issue. In this period of globalization, there is a need to redefine national and international goals with a broader vision, which honors the sacredness of human life and the environment. We must, therefore, work to create economic and social juistice within our own communities and support the efforts of others to do so in communities around the country and the world. Only then can we restore global environmental harmony.


Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits

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People Power In San Francisco: The Mission Coalition

"We had a sense of power. People saw they could make changes. People who got jobs through the Committee would come back to give something back to the community. People on the street knew… that this Committee was doing something for them. I learned things in the Mission Coalition Organization that I’d never have learned anyplace else. And they worked other places, too.” So said the late Rich Sorro, executive director of the Mission Hiring Hall, a nonprofit job placement agency in San Francisco’s Mission District, in a 1996 interview shortly before his death.

Over 25 years ago, Rich Sorro was a leader in the Mission Coalition Organization (MCO)—an important organization in the history of the neighborhood and the city. The MCO grew out of the Mission Council on Redevelopment (MCOR), formed in 1965 to either control or stop a plan to make San Francisco’s Mission District an urban renewal area. San Francisco’s low-income communities had already experienced the bulldozer approach of federally-funded urban renewal and had learned that early community action was the only way to halt the bulldozers.

When the city’s Redevelopment Agency began eyeing the Mission, organizers and activists were ready. The urban renewal proposal for the Mission was defeated in early 1967 by a slim 6-5 majority in a combined city council/county board of supervisors meeting. MCOR suffered the fate of single issue organizations—it won its victory and disbanded. But many of its leaders and organizers remained in the Mission.

Then in 1968, Mayor Joseph Alioto announced his intention to include the Mission District in San Francisco’s Model Cities application to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), if a broadly-based group of Mission District leaders came together and asked him to do so. Afraid that this might turn into a Trojan Horse for urban renewal, veterans of MCOR banded together early to provide leadership for the coalition, which was called the Temporary Mission Coalition Organization (TMCO) and recognized as the neighborhood’s voice in Model Cities planning. The leaders, however, agreed that the organization, unlike the MCOR, would be multi-issue in character and would not limit itself to participation in the Model Cities effort. After a founding community convention was attended by over 800 delegates and alternates, “Temporary” was dropped from the name.

How MCO Found Victory in The Unity of Diversity

Diversity of membership. An “organization of organizations,” it consisted of Catholic parishes, Mainline Protestant churches, Evangelical Baptists and Latino-immigrant Pentecostal store fronts; conservative and moderate homeowner and civic groups; militant Progressive Labor Party-led tenant and Latino nationalist organizations; newly formed tenant associations, block clubs, parent groups and youth clubs; community-based nonprofits; the merchants’ association; and some unions. Delegates from this diverse constituency met at a totally bilingual (Spanish/English) annual convention to elect officers and leaders, establish policy, and adopt or revise rules of governance.

Diversity in leadership. MCO’s weekly Steering Committee was a microcosm of its membership with 34 elected members representing about 16 nationalities (including, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Colombian, Cuban, Mexican, Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican, African American, Filipino, Native American, and Pacific Islander) and interest groups (including business, labor, clergy, block club, senior citizen, youth, and national organizations). It was a very effective strategy in terms of making everyone an “owner”of the organization and building people power.

A multi-issue approach with strategic concentration on big campaigns. People power requires involving the broadest base possible, which means working with different people with different agendas. However, by employing a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” approach to the smaller issues, MCO was able to create a “we need each other to win the big issues strategy.” MCO got groups that hadn’t talked with one another working together in a powerful organization.

A willingness to find the lowest significant common denominator. Through negotiation and compromise among members, the organization as a whole was able to tackle issues as a tight federation.

Mass participation in the various committees. This built people power as well as powerful relationships. In any given week, as many as 500 people would be meeting in the jobs, tenant-landlord, neighborhood improvement, or education committees. This was in sharp contrast to most organizations which operate with a small, dedicated activist core and a passive, nominal membership.

The MCO was a federation, or “organization of organizations,” including both previously existing and well-known organizations and newly formed tenant associations, block clubs, and youth groups. At its third Annual Convention in 1970, the 1,100 delegates from over 100 organizations adopted a platform of issues for the MCO and elected its leaders for the coming year. By this time, the organization had won control of the Model Cities program and was a well-known force in San Francisco. Its list of accomplishments was long and brought about through a combination of direct actions and negotiations with landlords, employers, local merchants, the school district, and other public agencies.

Hundreds of people were placed in jobs; dozens of buildings organized tenant associations and won improvements and rent decreases from landlords; education reforms were achieved in the school district; city services of all kinds improved; and a “plan for the Mission” was developed.

Rise and Fall of People Power
Two traditions—Saul Alinsky’s urban people power populism and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s pioneering grassroots organizing in Mississippi—blended to create the MCO. In The City and the Grassroots (University of California Press, 1984), radical sociologist Manuel Castells called MCO “…the largest urban popular mobilization in San Francisco’s recent history… showing a remarkable capacity to combine grassroots organization with institutional social reform.”

Until it took control of Model Cities, all MCO activity was based on a strategy of “institutional change.” People power was used to pressure business, government, and others to make changes in structures, policies, and practices, so that the community would be better served. As MCO’s people power grew (and its reputation with it), it was able to make demands that reached more deeply into the sources of social and economic injustice. But when it came to Model Cities, MCO’s membership rejected the “institutional change” strategy in favor of “community control.”

The year before he died, I had an opportunity to interview Rich Sorro about his thoughts and opinions and experiences as a majore leader in MCO. And he had this to say about the MCO’s past and present:

“The Mission Coalition fell apart over Model Cities. When MCO got started, it drove Model Cities [but by the 1971] convention… Model Cities was driving MCO. People were fighting for titles, positions on boards of directors, and administrative jobs in the funded agencies. The [MCO] rank-and-file didn’t care about any of that stuff, but the leadership got caught up in it. You had a whole pack of neighborhood people carrying brief cases around. People got divided up into different agencies [to receive] Model Cities [funds]. And it wasn’t all that much money to begin with.

“In the old Mission Coalition, it wasn’t competitive because there wasn’t a screening process. Employers took people as we sent them, and they got good people. [Now] We send four or five people to apply for one entry-level job. We [can] advocate for resident hiring, go through the legislative process, but we can’t raise hell. The leverage is gone. With all the [other] jobs programs in place, the situation is worse as far as the quality of jobs [for] Mission residents. It’s awful.”

The old MCO operated on a “point system” for jobs. People “earned” points by participating and jobs were allocated according to the number of points a committee member had. A member could take a job, refer it to someone else, or retain his/her points and “pass” the job to the person with the next highest points.

What Sorro said about people power then is true today, whatever the issue might be. Indeed, the Mission as a neighborhood for immigrants, struggling students, minimum wage workers, retirees, and others of low-to-moderate income may soon disappear.


ho Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits

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"The Mission Community Organization 'showed a remarkable capacity to combine grassroots organization with institutional social reform.'”

Saving Community Gardens in NYC: Land Trusts and Organizing

Classie Parker in Five Star Garden in Harlem

In the late 1990s, the community garden movement was thriving in New York City. In hundreds of locations, community members had cultivated gardens of all kinds on city owned land. The gardens presented a cornucopia of vegetation—with flowers, vegetables, and fruits. Some gardens were only a sliver of land wedged between buildings, while others were contemplative or artistic, but all were social centers where life literally bloomed.

The Giuliani administration decided to sell off the 114 city-owned lots for development despite the protests of members who had created these oases of green and community. The Trust for Public Land (TPL), is a national nonprofit dedicated to conserving land for people. When it became unclear whether litigation could save the gardens, TPL stepped in and purchased a little over half of the gardens, with Bette Midler purchasing the remainder through the New York Restoration Project.

TPL’s 1999 acquisition of 62 community gardens slated for destruction was the single largest nonprofit initiative in America to preserve urban gardens. (Since then, other gardens were added to bring the total protected by TPL to 70.) Some of the gardens have been turned over to the city’s Parks Department, others needed to be taken over by the community to ensure that they would be adequately stewarded over the long term. (The deal provided that the land would revert to the city if it ceased to be used for gardens).

With their immediate future secure, during this holding period, TPL invested in physical improvements to make the gardens safer, easier to maintain, and more inviting for community use. TPL also set about helping to create the community infrastructure to care for the gardens over the long term.

“Many neighborhoods where we own gardens are predominantly low-income neighborhoods of color. The gardens are places to bring families and children, and where neighbors get together to socialize,” says Paul Coppa, director of TPL’s Garden Land Trust Program in Dig It! Magazine. “Gardens enhance civic pride, they really help people take ownership and an interest in their own community. If they are able to be responsible for the governance of a garden, there is greater involvement in taking pride in a neighborhood. This plays a very positive role in contributing to pride in a community.”1

The members of these gardens, representing an extraordinary group of racially, culturally, and economically diverse people, worked with TPL to establish independent land trusts that will ensure the gardens are protected as neighborhood resources for public use; and the volunteer groups managing each garden are open to accepting new members and are governed democratically through group decisions, including voting and elections.

Three New York City land trusts—together the largest urban land trust in the United States—are now established as the Bronx Land Trust, the Manhattan Land Trust, and the Brooklyn-Queens Land Trust.

Gardeners lead each of the three new land trusts and make decisions about the governance and operation of each organization. Each land trust has a Board made up of a majority of member gardeners. The vision is local control of volunteer-managed neighborhood open space; with the land trust organizational structure, the work of protecting and maintaining the garden properties is shared. One of the most exciting aspects of these organizations is the new level of relationships of mutual help it has fostered among community gardeners. All three land trusts have developed extremely effective Maintenance and Operations committees that help each other take care of the gardens, including the very challenging maintenance of the city water systems. They have also helped each other recruit new members and set up events to encourage participation at gardens where more gardeners are needed.

Classie Parker, a founding member of the West Harlem Garden known as Five Star, describes how lives have been transformed by the garden: “One couple reunited in the garden. We grow herbs that help seniors with arthritis; we rub their hands and exercise. Three classes of pre-kindergarten came and drew plants on a mural featured in school for nine months. Students didn’t know where apples grew or where corn came from, so we got involved with an educational program called ‘Cook Shop.’ They bring children out to the garden and they get a chance to write about an urban farmer, of which I am one. I work with the special education kids at PS76. They calmed down when they came here. You wouldn’t believe how many lives we’ve affected through the years here.”2

Community Ownership vs. Public Ownership
One question that arises in talking about “community” ownership of land is whether it is always better to have community ownership vs. public entity (e.g., city, state, county) ownership. The best answer is that “it depends” on the circumstances. The Trust for Public Land does a great deal of public land conversion—private to municipal, county, state, or federal. Thousands of threatened properties have successfully moved into public ownership to benefit people for a host of reasons. However, public ownership may not always be best or an option in every case. In this case, the city was going to develop and demolish the gardens, so the best choice was to buy them, and then actually assist in the creation of land trusts to hold them. In other cases, land trusts exist and become logical landowners (there are over 1700 land trusts across the country). In some places, like New York, Newark, and the Bay Area—instead of changing ownership, we have found the best option sometimes is for us to take on the process of rejuvenating a city-owned park or playground and help the city fund the process, which includes extensive community engagement in the design process (e.g., Bayview Hunter’s Point or our New York Playground Program).
So, there is no set rule as to which is better—it depends upon the circumstances of the place and its community and institutional infrastructure. Regardless of technical ownership, however, the presence of an engaged community, interested in the stewardship of the land is a critical factor in its ongoing preservation—whether through physical stewardship, or through a watchdog or support role to a public agency.

1. Jasch, Mary. “In Land We Trust” Dig It! Magazine, October 1, 2003.
2. Ibid.

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Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits



PlaNYC: EJ Group takes the Inside Track to Advocate Sustainability

The explosive growth of urban centers worldwide has forced government and civil societies to grapple with the question of how to manage population growth without destroying the environment, while simultaneously ensuring economic prosperity. The quest for this balance is commonly captured by the phrase “sustainable development.” By any measure, achieving sustainable development is a significant challenge. However, when you try to make New York City—the world’s financial and entertainment capital—sustainable, you need more than chutzpah; you need environmental justice (EJ).Willoughby Street before street closure

Sustainable development is often presented as a traditional environmental issue, but the forces that led to its emergence are not the traditional “greens.” Any credible analysis of sustainable development will reveal that it was social justice movements that propelled the “greens” into thinking in terms of equity and justice for present and future generations. While several other “world cities” (London, Stockholm, and Singapore to name a few) beat New York to the punch in planning for sustainable futures, none can take credit for approaching sustainability from an EJ perspective, as New York has.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 is bold and ambitious in its effort to transform the way city government engages in long range planning. It is also the first sustainability plan, to our knowledge, that seeks to address the multiple public health challenges that communities face from the many noxious and polluting facilities they house. However, the process itself was not a community-driven planning process. The story that follows speaks to the need for an EJ voice in every phase of the development and execution of any sustainability planning process. We share it in the hopes that it will serve as a guidepost for future EJ workers.Willoughby Street after street closure

Planning a Greener, Greater New York
In the Fall of 2006, West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. (WE ACT) received a call from Rit Aggarwala, the new director of the mayor’s Office of Sustainability and Long Range Planning. The mayor, recognizing that the city’s aging infrastructure and antiquated policies could not withstand the immediate impacts of climate change and the expected influx of one million new residents by 2030, was embarking on a program to create a “greener, greater New York.” The purpose of the call was (a) to disclose that the mayor wanted to move quickly to form a diverse Sustainability Advisory Board to shape the plan that had been outlined by Aggarwala and his consultants over the past two months; (b) to elicit WE ACT’s top priorities regarding sustainability issues; and (c) to determine WE ACT’s willingness to serve on the advisory board and participate in the frequent work group meetings.

Board, which included environmental and civic groups, businesses, academics, and another EJ group (UPROSE), was based on the potential opportunity to influence the plan for the benefit of EJ communities, as well as our past positive interactions with the mayor and his agencies. One such interaction had resulted in the City’s agreeing to fund and build a waterfront park (set to open in Spring 2008) that was the product of a community-visioning process led by WE ACT and the local community board. Another involved the Mayor’s decision to keep a Harlem-based garbage marine transfer station out of the City’s Solid Waste Management Plan after WE ACT and groups in Northern Manhattan mobilized to keep it closed. The new plan called for transfer stations to be expanded and reopened in more affluent white neighborhoods.

At the first meeting attended by the mayor and chaired thereafter by the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Dan Doctoroff, a draft outline of principles and key issues was presented for the board’s consideration. Though the screen of public health raised by the two EJ groups did not immediately become part of the plan, the principle of equity was incorporated. The group advocated consistently for open space, land use, and affordable housing to be incorporated into the plan, but the mayor had been convening a number of other advisory boards that developed plans to address affordable housing, jobs, and poverty.

Environmental Justice and the City
It soon became clear that the long-term vision for the plan would focus narrowly on infrastructure needs and metrics that would enable the city to effectively track and evaluate its progress. PlaNYC was never envisioned as a broad-based planning process that engaged area residents. To achieve its goal of ensuring that New York’s growth over the next 20 years would benefit both the economy and local residents’ quality of life, the city is initiating measures that reduce its carbon footprint, update obsolete energy and water infrastructures, clean up contaminated land, increase access to open space, provide sustainable and affordable housing, and improve the regional public transportation system.

Eight work groups—focused on Solid Waste, Energy, Water, Open Space/Land Use, Financials, Transportation, Buildings/Infrastructure, and Sustainable Procurement/Best Business Practices—and staffed by more than a dozen city agencies, were established to support the advisory board in its effort to develop a sustainability policy. Advisory group members were able to discuss the issues with city agency officials, advance ideas for pilot projects, and make recommendations, some of which were incorporated into the plan. It was a challenging, intensive process that required the constant involvement of three WE ACT staff, as well as several meetings between Aggarwala and the EJ community to keep EJ principles, initiatives, and perspectives alive.
The mayor announced PlaNYC and its 127 initiatives on Earth Day 2007. Surprising to everyone was the inclusion of a congestion pricing proposal (to encourage a reduction in traffic pollution and generate revenue to enhance mass transit). The proposal—which would charge a fee for all vehicles entering or leaving a pre-defined congestion zone in midtown Manhattan during certain hours—ignited a media frenzy that lasted until the July recess of the state legislature, which passed a bill authorizing the city to accept a $400 million grant from the United States Department of Transportation’s congestion mitigation fund. The proposal continues to be controversial a year later. The mayor’s announcement also kicked off a process of public consultation that included community town halls, a round robin of city visits to community and civic groups, and an onslaught of public recommendations to the city’s PlaNYC website.

The Campaign for New York’s Future
In the days leading to the announcement, members of the Advisory Board had formed a coalition of 75 groups—the Campaign For New York’s Future—to ensure the plan’s feasibility and implementation through successive mayoral administrations.
City officials and campaign members helped secure significant funding for the campaign from several foundations and hired a campaign director. Trying to secure state legislation in the two months before the legislative recess required daily and overnight visits to Albany to lobby and educate legislators on congestion pricing and other key financing mechanisms needed to implement the initiatives. There were press conferences twice a week highlighting the support of city and state elected officials. Currently, the campaign is engaged in seeking city council legislation that would institutionalize both, the plan and the mayor’s office of Sustainability and Long Range Planning.

Some advisory board members hired staff to lobby elected officials and consultants to develop commercials highlighting the environmental health advantages of congestion pricing. One foundation held a funders’ breakfast to support the two EJ groups and help us maintain our participation in the project.

Countdown for PlaNYC
Mayor Bloomberg posts a countdown of the number of days left in his administration to institutionalize the plan and accomplish his goals. He has made it clear that it will be in the hands of the advocates to monitor the progress of the plan, which is posted on the city’s website and features two progress reports.

WE ACT has developed a scope of work that includes community education and consultation, briefings for elected officials, and the hiring of a policy staffer to coordinate campaign work, analyze the plan to assess opportunities and challenges, advise elected officials, and work to secure benefits and pilot projects for EJ communities. WE ACT has also partnered with the Earth Institute to conduct a study on the potential impacts of congestion pricing on Northern Manhattan communities. The final report of this study—a unique partnership between WE ACT and land use experts at Columbia University—recommends certain measures for the city to mitigate the potential negative impacts of congestion pricing.

Most importantly, the collaborative study has enabled WE ACT to consider concerns raised by community members and local politicians, and conduct an analysis of the scope of likely impacts and the feasibility of mitigation measures. In particular, the study has focused on the potential for an increase in park-and-ride activity by commuters seeking to avoid the daily congestion charge, and the capacity of buses and subways to handle the anticipated increase.

Environmental Justice—Five Boroughs Wide
WE ACT has also worked to increase community engagement in and knowledge of all aspects of PlaNYC by holding a town hall meeting in Central Harlem in conjunction with Manhattan Community Boards 9 through 12. The forum gave community members an opportunity to discuss with Aggarwala and other mayoral staff, those aspects of PlaNYC that will directly affect Harlem. WE ACT also released preliminary findings from its Earth Institute study, which included a determination that while park-and-ride activity is unlikely to significantly increase in Northern Manhattan where most neighborhoods are already near 100 percent capacity for on-street parking, congestion pricing may increase the price and demand for off-street parking.

The second portion of the report determined that the anticipated two percent increase (around 75,000) in daily riders would put many subway lines at or beyond capacity and necessitate significant investments in transit improvements and expansion. WE ACT hopes that its study will contribute to public dialogue on PlaNYC and encourage the city to put in place necessary measures to mitigate the impacts of congestion pricing prior to its implementation.

PlaNYC is designed to ensure that New York City grows sustainably over the next few decades. WE ACT has remained engaged in the process to ensure that the burdens and benefits of this sustainable growth are distributed in an equitable manner. Even though the Plan affects the city as a whole, the environmental, health, and social burdens historically placed on Northern Manhattan communities make the impacts of PlaNYC of particular concern to these neighborhoods. WE ACT and other community groups’ involvement and continued engagement with PlaNYC works to advance the goal of a liveable, healthy and environmentally just city.


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Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits

Community Benefits: New Movement for Equitable Urban Development

The fight for the heart and soul of our cities and suburbs is being taken into communities all across America. In churches and synagogues, in union halls and other meeting places, powerful coalitions of diverse stakeholders have been creating a new approach to economic development. The result has been tens of thousands of middle-class jobs, thousands of units of affordable housing, and the creation of permanent avenues for public involvement.

These substantial gains for low- and moderate-income households are not the result of a newfound corporate conscience but a product of the growing community benefits movement. This movement—in which communities exercise their power to come together and develop a common agenda, and progressive city governments create policies that link development to community needs—is rapidly becoming an important force in addressing the needs of the marginalized and the underrepresented.

Over the past 10 years, metropolitan regions across the United States have seen a “back to the city” movement, with a concurrent growth in city populations, particularly among middle- and upper-income groups. Developments, such as sports stadiums, entertainment arenas, hotels, office parks, “big box” retail outlets, and upscale residential projects are being built more often in existing communities, generally inhabited by low-income, disenfranchised people of color. These projects have the potential to offer tremendous opportunities for low- and moderate-income neighborhood residents, but, absent intervention, can be devastating to them. Unchecked development can lead to large-scale displacement of residents, the diminishing of social services, and an increase in crime, traffic, and pollution.
Logo from the "Community Control and Benefits in Land Use" conference 2007
Birth of the Community Benefits Agreement
The typical public approval process for most urban economic development projects is superficial and quick with very little (if any) attention given to the potential impact of the project on the neighborhood and the people who will live or work there. Despite their extensive land-use and development powers and authority to withhold approvals and subsidies, city officials—in their quest for sales tax revenues—often are unwilling to change a process driven by developers.

The community benefits movement is a response to the widespread inequities of urban development. It involves organizing diverse interest groups—community groups, unions, housing and environmental advocates—around a common set of demands and convincing public officials to embrace them. Sometimes—especially in the early stages of a development project—residents can engage in direct negotiations with the developer to achieve a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA). This legally enforceable agreement—proven in dozens of cities—provides residents with a more equitable development, while ensuring crucial community support for the project.

Undoubtedly, CBAs are a significant improvement over the traditional developer-driven process, but the approach needs to be institutionalized—with policy and practice—throughout all levels of local and regional government. Propelled by strong community and labor activism, some local governments—like the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency —have taken the lead in creating policies to orient all major developments toward public goals, such as increasing the number of good jobs, building more affordable housing, and improving environmental quality, in exchange for subsidies and development rights.

How to Create a Winning CBA
A successful community benefits program almost always starts outside of government, in community groups, environmental organizations, churches, and unions. They come together with other stakeholders to address such problems as working poverty, lack of healthy and affordable groceries, environmental pollution, and the proliferation of high-cost housing.

At the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), we began our community benefits program in 1998, after an analysis of prospective developments determined that the city’s future depended on improving the outcomes of publicly supported projects. In 2002, LAANE and others organized to successfully negotiate three major CBAs and I was appointed as a volunteer commissioner to the Redevelopment Agency. Since then, the city’s approach to economic development has radically (albeit gradually) changed, leading to significant improvements in the job quality, housing affordability, and environmental effects of hundreds of major projects.

Although change has been possible, it hasn’t come easy and we have learned that success depends, above all, on our having a comprehensive strategy. While the strategy may vary from region to region, the following approach has proven effective in communities around the country:

Research and Decision-Making: Research staff from the lead organization—often in partnership with local development officials—monitors development proposals in their region and identifies the ones with potential to offer important benefits to the neighborhood and the community. The broad outlines for a potential CBA are defined.

Community Organizing: Members of the lead organization go door-to-door or conduct phone surveys to ascertain the residents’ needs and desires around the proposed development. It is also an opportunity to identify community residents who may be trained in leadership, economic development, and communications.

Coalition Building: Success ultimately depends on a strong coalition. Building it requires outreach to a wide variety of stakeholders, and a real commitment to a demanding process of dialogue and compromise. Members must be given a real voice in the decision-making process and in turn, must pledge to support the entire program.

Getting the Developer to the Table: Once support is organized and the coalition is in place, a CBA campaign may have the capacity to bring the developer to the table. If the CBA approach is new to a city, the support of key public officials can help push developers into negotiations. Occasionally, legal action may be needed to initiate the process. But once the CBA negotiation process becomes routine in a city, developers usually are ready to negotiate—sometimes in advance of making a proposal to the city.

Negotiating Negotiations: The process of negotiating a CBA must be firmly based in the unity of coalition members, even if they differ over priorities. Absent a united front, developers will often use a “divide and conquer” strategy with community groups, making just enough accommodation to gain the support of one group (sometimes with a monetary payoff), while ignoring the concerns of others.

Agreement to Approval: A typical CBA must be approved by both, a government agency—such as the redevelopment agency—and by elected officials, either as an attachment to or as a part of the developer’s agreement with that agency. To win approval, coalition members and community residents must meet with the decision-makers and emphasize the CBA’s value. Favorable press reports will facilitate persuasion, as will large turnouts at public hearings, and the use of grassroots spokespeople.
Implementation and Enforcement: Gaining approval of a CBA is only half the battle. Without constant vigilance from activists, implementation of the agreement will be minimal or nonexistent. Ongoing community education and an open and transparent process are essential for regular oversight and reviews of reports necessary to hold the developer accountable.

From CBA to Economic Development Policy
Our experience over the past eight years in Los Angeles has shown that it is possible to turn a grassroots community benefits movement into an institutionalized public program that embraces the use of economic development to build healthier cities. But it’s a transformation that requires a lot of work and a relentless adherence to some core principles (explained below) by advocates of responsible development:

1. Impoverishment and a poor standard of living should not be a part of any economic development plan. Every development agency in the country has a mission to alleviate poverty and physical blight and improve the aesthetics of a community.

2. Most city officials are reluctant to impose requirements, such as good jobs, a healthy environment, and affordable housing on development projects in poor and depressed communities for fear that developers will walk away. Similarly, in the more vibrant economic areas they are afraid of “killing the golden goose” with community benefits requirements. However, history and experience have shown that developer threats are mostly empty, especially when there is money to be made from city subsidies, and it’s up to the advocates of responsible development to keep pushing their agenda.

3. The role and purpose of the public sector is to benefit the broader public. A “successful” redevelopment project, therefore, must create a better quality of life for everyone, not just nice buildings and big profits for the developer. To reorient a city’s redevelopment program, community benefits proponents must advocate for this higher public purpose.

4. To implement successful community benefits programs, public agencies have to function effectively and efficiently, which means having the following in place:

* a vision and a strategy for land-use planning for the entire city, which embraces public input and process;
* a staff that is mission driven—staff who “just do their job” should be reenergized or replaced;
* policies that clearly spell out community benefits requirements for developers who receive public subsidies or ask for discretionary approvals to change land-use or building density conditions;
* a very aggressive marketing program that strives to promote the area as a great place to do
business because of its amenities and the quality of its workforce and not because it’s “cheap”;
* a clear understanding of the community’s needs, which lead to the drafting of enforceable and well-written contracts for the best and most efficient use of scarce public resources;
* a strong and well-resourced program for monitoring and enforcing all policies and agreements made with developers;
* an ability to conduct real and regular evaluations of the development process to assess if stakeholders feel included and projects actually produce the promised good jobs, affordable housing, and quality environment.

A Movement That’s Here To Stay
Over the past several years, community benefits work has evolved into a bona fide movement, with an increasing number of organizations across the country using the CBA model as an integral part of their strategy. The growth of this approach is inextricably linked to the creation of new broad-based coalitions willing to embrace partnerships with both traditional (progressive groups) and nontraditional allies, while relying equally on the idea of empowering disenfranchised communities.
As advocates seek to advance an agenda of social and economic justice, they would do well to study the community benefits movement, which has offered a way to transcend the differences that too often have splintered community forces. Such alliances point the way toward a promising future in which the common aspirations of the majority are harnessed for social progress.

Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits

Community Planning for Power

Low-income communities of color have long struggled with racist, discriminatory land use practices that diminish health, safety, and quality of life. It is not uncommon to see residential areas opened up for industrial development, houses located next to freeways and toxic polluters, and new freeway development and truck routes targeted at these communities.

The question is: Do these communities have the power to change these zoning practices and revitalize their neighborhoods? How can they leverage their needs against developers and decision-makers seeking to gentrify their communities?

Empowering the Poor
The Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) has worked for nearly 30 years to empower poor communities to become meaningful participants in their neighborhood’s policy decisions and development processes to:

* ensure healthy neighborhoods
* maintain and create affordable housing
* preserve community character and culture
* promote sustainable communities.

Some of our most effective organizing tools have been developed through our work in two largely Latino communities of San Diego County—Barrio Logan in the City of San Diego and Old Town in National City.

San Diego’s Systematic Environmental Racism
The two communities of Barrio Logan and Old Town are plagued by the all-too-familiar problems prevalent in low-income communities of color: substandard housing, overcrowded schools, a lack of social services, and poor jobs. Also typical is the preponderance of polluting industries in residential and commercial neighborhoods—thanks to mixed-use zoning, which allowed auto body and chrome plating shops, chemical supply houses, and woodworking and painting companies to locate adjacent to homes, schools, and parks—and lead contamination in the aging houses.

Systematic environmental racism since the turn of the century has shaped the development in these communities, where asthma-related hospitalization rates are two or three times higher than those for the rest of the county. The problems have been exacerbated more recently by the growth in international trade, leading to a huge spike in the number of diesel trucks crisscrossing the neighborhoods as they transport goods and raw materials to and from the Port of San Diego.

Wanted: A General Plan for Neighborhoods
Under California law, all municipalities are required to create a General Plan, providing a blueprint and a vision for the city. And although not required by law, there’s no reason why General Plan standards should not be applied to determine matters of zoning, building density, and amenities for a neighborhood.

True, General Plans can be lofty and vague sometimes, but as a rule they are useful documents with clear objectives and we have frequently used them in EHC’s community-driven planning efforts for two reasons: (a) it enables residents to be proactive instead of reacting to inappropriate development proposals; and (b) it allows residents to self-determine their communities, using their own values and aspirations.

Strategies for Authentic Involvement
It’s obvious that authentic community involvement in every aspect of planning and visioning leads to better outcomes for neighborhoods and their residents. So, EHC has developed some core strategies, which combine community organizing and policy advocacy, with grassroots leadership development, research, and media communications to implement each strategic plan:

Community Action Teams: EHC’s first step is to establish a Community Action Team comprised of community leaders who help develop the community vision and priorities that direct EHC’s efforts. Team members serve as spokespersons for campaign meetings with elected officials and government agency representatives and on various planning committees established to oversee the plan development.

Salud Ambiental Líderes Tomando Acción (SALTA): a.k.a. Environmental Health, Leaders Taking Action, is an eight-session compulsory training program for all EHC leaders, providing them with the skills and knowledge to become effective advocates and community organizers. Another five-session SALTA focused on land use provides training on redevelopment, zoning, affordable housing, air quality, contaminated site clean-up, industrial pollution reduction, and sustainable building, including green building materials and renewable energy.

Community Surveying: EHC leaders use community surveying as a means for collecting and documenting the priorities and needs of their neighbors. In Old Town, National City, for example, leaders surveyed residents to discover that affordable housing, relocation of auto body shops, and a change in zoning laws to prohibit incompatible mixed-use were the highest priorities by far, and incorporated these priorities into the community plan.1

Community Visioning: When the leaders in Barrio Logan and Old Town, National City elected to develop their own neighborhood vision, EHC raised the funds to employ a land use planning firm, which worked with residents to develop detailed plans that included zoning changes, volume and affordability levels of new housing units, identification of industries for relocation, park acreage, and school requirements, among other things.
The Barrio Logan Vision is currently endorsed by over 1000 area residents, 28 community organizations, and 16 local businesses.2 EHC also secured $1.5 million from a neighboring downtown development agency to update and revise the official Barrio Logan Community Plan—which had not been updated since 1978—starting in early 2008.

Buffering Communities Against Pollution
For many years, EHC has promoted pollution prevention and the precautionary principle as the best solution for preventing toxic exposure. But the significant changes to industrial practices that are critical to environmental safety can take many years to accomplish. So, communities subjected to toxic exposure because of discriminatory zoning practices need to take immediate action to protect themselves.

In 1990, EHC proposed the Toxic-Free Neighborhoods Ordinance for the City of San Diego, which would have required a buffer between industries using or emitting hazardous materials, and residences, schools, and day care centers.3 But it was defeated by local polluters who spent thousands of dollars on lobbying against the ordinance.

EHC then tried to target polluters who chronically violated the law. One of them was Master Plating, which had over 150 violations on the books. Concerted organizing efforts by the community resulted in the California Air Resources Board (CARB) monitoring the air quality around Master Plating to reveal a cancer risk four times higher than that of a “typical urban area” because of hexavalent chromium emissions. Master Plating was shut down in 2002 and CARB developed the Air Quality and Land Use Handbook of 2005, which recommends buffers for many polluters—for the first time in state or local regulatory history.4 (The recommended buffer for chrome platers is 1000 feet—996 feet further than the distance between Master Plating and the house next door!) The Handbook also recommends the separation of housing from major roadways, which is more difficult given the popularity of “transit-oriented development”.

While rules for future zoning of sensitive areas are important, it is equally important that polluters currently situated adjacent to homes and schools be removed or relocated in order to restore the residential neighborhoods. In National City, EHC was successful in convincing the city council to adopt an amortization ordinance that will phase out industries currently allowed to operate near sensitive use areas. It also sets up a process for relocation of prioritized industries when the amortization period is triggered.

Environmental Justice: It’s All in the Planning
This article has provided a close look at EHC’s strategies for involving and empowering residents in their own community planning processes with particular focus on reducing and eliminating toxic pollution threats. A plan for truly achieving environmental justice, however, must go further and address the critical issues of affordable housing and preserving community culture. EHC is grateful for the tools that were passed on to us by others and in turn, we are developing our own tools for pursuing affordable housing overlay zones, community land trusts, and other strategies to ensure that community plans enable current residents to remain in their neighborhoods.

1. EHC, Toxinformer, Summer 2005.
2. http://www.environmentalhealth.org/TFNBarrioLoganNewVisionPlan.html
3. EHC, Toxic Free Neighborhoods Community Planning Guide, 1993.
4. http://www.arb.ca.gov/ch/handbook.pdf

Download or view a pdf of this article (171 KB).

Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits


Building Schools and Community

As the landscapes of our cities evolve, school buildings remain a constant. Desperately in need of repair, modernization, and beautification, especially in the urban areas, schools are frequently called upon to provide essential support services for the families and communities of the children they serve. To meet the new dual demands of education and social service programming, urban school districts are beginning to invest in neighborhood revitalization and modernizing school facilities.

School facility capital spending is a form of place-based community investment, so it’s not surprising to see school investment goals coalesce with city redevelopment and planning goals. Stakeholders in school facilities and program planning now include city officials, social service providers, and community residents, in addition to the parents, teachers, administrators, and students. These coalitions are formalized in some places and work in tandem without any institutionalized commitment, in others.

Such collaborations between public institutions are notable, as historically, school districts and city governments have often had antagonistic relationships. Furthermore, the process of participatory visioning and planning used in these projects represents a transformative moment in governance for both institutions. The result has been a nationwide emergence of a move towards “community-centered schools” that are more intimately connected to their physical surroundings and local communities.

Building Schools for the Whole Community
School districts, often perceived as isolated and bureaucratic entities, are forging partnerships, policies, and processes to revitalize or plan new school buildings that are more open, participatory, and often characterized by nontraditional school designs, such as joint use recreation and community service facilities, adaptive re-use of non-school buildings, and schools built on urban infill sites. The planning and construction of public school facilities is moving away from the 1950s industrial model towards one that integrates community services with educational programming.

Joint use schools, which first emerged in the 1990s, are schools that share one or more of their spaces with another public entity or community-based organization. Sometimes called “full service schools,” the advantages they offer their communities include:

* Services, such as on-site health clinics, counseling offices, recreation opportunities, and financial literacy information.
* Amenities, such as swimming pools, libraries, and computer labs.
* Savings on costs of construction and maintenance.

By bringing the benefits of recreational and health services to the broader community of residents, these multifaceted facilities expand the definition of “school stakeholder” beyond students and their caregivers. In other words, joint use developments can increase parental participation, raise general community support of schools, and provide new or improved infrastructure in the urban landscape, contributing to the beautification, safety, and vibrancy of our cities.

Community Integrated School Buildings
The new Helms Middle School building currently under construction in the City of San Pablo in the Bay Area, has evolved out of more than 10 years of work grounded in comprehensive programming and service provision. In 1994, the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) administration, as well as several elementary and middle school principals applied for a Healthy Start grant from the California State Department of Education. Among the schools selected to receive startup money to build a small learning center that included community services was Helms Middle School in San Pablo. Out of this funding emerged the Helms Community Project (HCP)—a school-community collaborative comprised of district and school staff, community-based mental health service providers, parents, and community members—and a partnership aimed at supporting the academic successes of the schoolchildren and their families.

Since its initial funding, the project has expanded to offer a growing list of programs that are a working example of how seemingly separate services can be integrated when housed in the same physical space. A student referred for counseling may receive a weekly appointment with an on-site therapist and/or be connected with a mentor or healthcare provider, recommended to participate in an after-school program, have his/her parents called in for an academic/behavioral appointment, and/or receive a home visit by an HCP parental outreach staff. Most importantly, having all of these resources housed in the Helms Middle School has made them easily accessible to the students and their families.

Although students are the core constituency of this school-community collaborative, they are not the only beneficiaries of HCP’s extensive programming. LaZena Jones, director of HCP, says that the project often functions as the eyes of the community. The staff has worked to familiarize faculty with the lifestyles of their students, the challenges they face in their communities, and the impacts on their academic experience. One recent example of such an effort was a school-wide community-mapping project for which the Helms faculty, staff, administration, and community members walked around the school neighborhoods, identifying challenges and assets. Such interventions enable teachers, parents, and community to develop the empathy needed to support students from a variety of perspectives and represent the school’s holistic approach to education.

City Council Member Genoveva Calloway calls Helms Middle School a mini-replica of San Pablo for the wide-ranging and integrative services offered by HCP. Recently, the City of San Pablo has begun to formalize its collaborative efforts with HCP. Vice Mayor Leonard McNeil is also one of HCP’s consistent champions. In recent years, the city has done everything from co-writing grants with the School District, to matching grant monies, to earmarking city funds for after-school academic enrichment programs, demonstrating that education is not just the bailiwick of school districts, but rather, a community’s shared responsibility.

With the new partnerships and processes at hand, the city now excitedly awaits the construction of the new Helms Middle School facility (funded by a bond secured by the WCCUSD in 2002), which will include San Pablo’s Community Center building—funded, in turn, by the city and situated on land granted by the school district. Now referred to as San Pablo’s Center of Community, the center is the product of a 10-year program needs assessment conducted among school service providers and stakeholders under the direction of former Principal Harriet McLean and with the collaboration of the city and the Helms Project. The resulting facility is designed to enable small learning communities to function within the larger school and also to include space for community service providers to work.

Currently, the City of San Pablo, HCP, and the WCCUSD participate in the PLUS (Planning and Learning United for Systems change) Leadership Initiative of the Center for Cities and Schools at the University of California, Berkeley. Since last summer, the PLUS team has worked to institutionalize HCP partnerships that have been established over the years. Ultimately, the PLUS team hopes, the physical presence and ongoing utilization of the Center of Community will serve as a beacon of their vision of a transformative collaboration between school and community, in addition to being a landmark in the urban fabric of San Pablo.

Centers of Community Life, Emeryville
A few miles south of San Pablo, down San Pablo Avenue, the Emery Unified School District (EUSD) and the City of Emeryville have been cultivating their own vision for connecting community and educational programming. In this 1.2 square mile city, the school district, the city government, community members, and local businesses have been working together for seven years to craft a redevelopment plan that puts education for everyone at the center of community life in Emeryville. This vision of supportive services and high quality education is coupled with the creation of public spaces and buildings built to foster and enhance a collective learning environment. As school board member Josh Simon puts it, “We don’t want to just build the Center of Community Life. We want to be the center of community life and then build a building around what we are.”

In 2001, following poor student performance and an impending fiscal crisis, EUSD was taken over by a state administrator, setting in motion a series of changes, which included the election of an entirely new school board whose members were keen on re-thinking the school-community connection. A broad coalition of stakeholders—made up of city officials and staff, school district representatives, teachers, residents, and other community members—came together under the Emery Youth Services Advisory Committee (EYSAC) to craft a vision for turning the schools around. In 2002, it was recommended that the city and district work together to redevelop the schools and other city parcels into a vibrant, mixed-use community center to serve all the people of Emeryville and the idea for Emeryville’s Center of Community Life was born.

The Center was originally envisioned as a multi-acre site, consisting of new “green” school facilities, community health and service support centers, joint use recreation facilities, business and retail facilities, a fire or police station, and some mixed-income housing—to create a place that is diverse, vibrant, and a “center of community.” Also in 2002, influential business leaders and the Chamber of Commerce publicly supported a successful parcel tax vote to raise desperately needed money for the school district. Then again, in November 2007, Measure A—another parcel tax increase—passed with an overwhelming majority, thanks to a concerted “get out the vote” effort by city officials, business leaders, community members, and students.
At this moment, Emeryville’s many stakeholders are in discussion to plan and create not one, but many smaller Centers of Community Life. The district is currently engaged in renovating the elementary school and is working on plans for a Family and Community Wellness Center located at the Emery Secondary School campus. The design and development of the Center will include input not only from school district and city staff, but also from young people and their families. The Y-PLAN, an initiative of the Center for Cities and Schools at the University of California, Berkeley, which partners university student mentors with high school students to work on local community planning projects, will work with Emery Secondary students this year on the Family and Community Wellness Center, slated to open in September 2008. As Roy Miller, the architect working for EUSD, says, “The Wellness Center is not the final piece. It’s another learning increment—we are taking on a piece that we are able to tackle and accomplish. It’s simply another step in the evolution of this process. And that’s the truth of change—there is no final end point. Rather, we are just taking steps, putting them in place, learning, and then doing it all again.”In other words, the ultimate hope of the city of Emeryville is that the physical infrastructure, along with the services and activities it offers, will serve as a catalyst for productive and supportive cross-cultural, inter-racial, and intergenerational interactions.

An Endless Loop of Possibilities
The two innovative joint use school projects featured here, in many ways, embody the potential of new and rehabilitated school buildings to manifest the collaborative work of two important public institutions—school districts and city governments. Beyond that, they represent the shared vision cultivated by parents, students, teachers, and other community members. Schools no longer need to be built as traditional stand-alone facilities that are open only during school hours; rather, they can be designed and built to be community centers that offer services and amenities to local neighborhoods. As San Pablo and Emeryville show us, joint use facilities are not merely an end point of a long collaborative, but also a part of structuring the process of building mutually beneficial partnerships across public agencies, community-based organizations, parents, students, teachers, residents, and other community members.

Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits
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Industrial Land Preservation: Key to Green Jobs Growth

The most important issue facing Oakland today,” is how former Planning Commission Chair Mark McClure describes the debate over the conversion of Oakland’s approximately 33.8 million square feet of industrial land (and potential job-generating space) for residential use.

Oakland’s industrial land is the city’s premier “jobshed” area outside of the Downtown/Airport area office core with large tracts of strategically-positioned parcels that can provide a base for the 10,000 good jobs, which Mayor Ron Dellums has vowed to create.
Much of the momentum for industrial land preservation in Oakland is due to the emerging green economy and clean tech scientific and energy industries. When Mayor Dellums signed on to the new Green Corridor Initiative (with other East Bay cities) for entry into the field of biosynthetic fuel and solar cells, he signaled that Oakland is ready for such activities. But questions about the preservation of the remaining areas of industrial land, and the production and distribution jobs that have served as Oakland’s jobshed for a century, still remain.

Can Oakland court these new industries while preserving and encouraging its baseline of production, distribution, business-to-business supply and repair, and other existing quality jobs that have provided generations of Oaklanders with a decent living wage, career longevity, and family benefits?

Oakland’s Job Picture by Numbers
Two of the biggest employers in Oakland, according to a 2004 EDD report, are Transportation and Trucking (11,551 jobs) and Postal/Delivery/Courier services (7,283 jobs), thanks to Oakland’s easy access to freeway networks, railways, a seaport, and an airport. Other major employers are Food Processing (about 1675 jobs), Recycling (about 1,000 jobs), and Construction (about 950 jobs). The total number of “industrial” jobs, including the Port and Airport, was nearly 50,000.

Also, according to the California State Department of Commerce, manufacturing jobs in particular offer a high multiplier effect of 1:3. In other words, every new manufacturing job supports three other jobs. These jobs, surveys show, are often local and created by supplier networks that value “just in time” delivery over high-cost long distance shipping. Key players in this area of symbiotic job creation are beverage distribution (with a local industry spender multiplier of 2.28) and food processing, both of which typically generate a high number of jobs per square foot of space.

While employment numbers show a decrease during the 2001-04 period, a report on “The State of Manufacturing in California” by the Bay Area Economic Forum (2005), shows a net increase in the number of businesses (from 1,777 to 1,984) during the same period in Oakland. This seems to confirm the growing trend towards small business in California and especially in the Bay Area where streamlined, value added businesses, such as artisan foods, digital media, recording and sound technologies, smart engineered cooling technologies, and green building product development thrive.

New Jobs, Old Jobs—Good Jobs, Bad Jobs
Increasingly, Oakland has been attracting artisan food production, green building material markets, such as sustainable lumber, tile and granite, and emerging ventures in print, digital arts, and related media activities. “Valued-added” production and distribution businesses and other ventures are attracted to Oakland’s strategic location in the Bay Area, the quality of its workforce, and its cultural diversity.

However, these businesses are finding it nearly impossible to grow their facilities because of a paltry industrial vacancy rate of 3.9 percent in Oakland and less than five percent along the I-880 corridor (CB Richard Ellis Industrial Market Report, Fourth Quarter, 2007). Meanwhile, highly visible “underutilized” land and buildings are being withheld for future “higher value” deals, or offered at rates above feasible production market values. Still, new investment interest in large industrial facilities continues to grow, as demonstrated by the 2007 sale of two 10-acre manufacturing sites to Bay Area commercial investors, creating over $50 million in private investment in a single industrial district of Oakland.

Industrial Land Preservation Strikes a Chord
The preservation of Oakland’s industrial land was one of the most popular issues considered by Mayor Dellums’ citizen task forces on housing, planning, and economic development. According to J. Douglas Allen- Taylor’s account of the task force meetings (Daily Planet, March 27, 2007), members voted 19-0 for the Dellums administration to “develop and review an industrial land conversion policy to prioritize industrial retention and, if converted, to prioritize rezoned land for affordable housing.”
In fact, since 2002, thanks to the efforts of the Zoning Update Committee, there has been substantial public debate on the issue and a commitment from Commissioner Annie Mudge and former Commissioner Michael Lighty to follow General Plan policy and discourage an agenda that allows conversions through the policy “back door.” With the arrival of new Commissioner Doug Boxer, well versed in economic development policies from his work in the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, there has been a thoughtful approach to policy setting and regulatory action through the development of new zoning, which respects a need for residential buffers, while preserving land for essential job- and revenue-creating enterprises.

Back to Basics
New industries cannot survive in the absence of a network of business-to-business suppliers, commonly known as “Backstreet Businesses.” Production jobs in industries, such as construction materials, food processing, and fabrication, in addition to offering decent wages, stability, and career ladders to the non-college educated, also offer technical skills training. In Oakland, these production and distribution jobs are limited to the industrially-zoned land within the narrow belt of the San Leandro corridor in East Oakland, the East Oakland Airport Park and Estuary-adjacent lands, the northern end of Jack London Square, and the area adjoining the upper Mandela Parkway.

Quantifying the benefits of sustainable industrial districts, however, is more than a simple job count or tally of business license revenues to the City. Indeed, getting an accurate representation of local jobs requires ongoing active participation in business planning by the residents who represent the workforce, the business leaders, and city government. Jobsheds need to be viewed from the perspective of both, improvement of infrastructure to retain and court modern production, as well as the knitting of the business-residential fabric to ease environmental concerns. To grow local jobs, the City of Oakland and its councilmembers need to better understand the relationships between its residential and industrial neighborhoods, while at the same time, clearing a path for the growth of quality green and sustainable jobs for Oaklanders.

City Council Supports Industrial Preservation Concept but Passes Significant Exceptions

In February 2008, the Planning Commission signaled its support for industrial land preservation recommending the city council declare:

* Industrially designated land in the City of Oakland is a scarce resource.
* The preservation of industrially designated land is vital for the future economic growth of the City of Oakland.
* The city recognizes that land use patterns change over time more quickly than General Plan updates occur and that amendments may be necessary.
* Amendments to the General Plan to allow conversion of industrially designated land to residential uses should be restricted to projects that fulfill the required findings based on criteria developed through a public process for evaluating such conversions.
Most of these recommendations were adopted by the City Council on March 5, 2008, with city staff directed to come back with specific critera for the conversion process. However, at the same meeting the council approved the likely conversion of one entire section of an industrial district on the waterfront, and will allow (by application) amendments to rezone land in three other industrial districts, pending consistency with yet-to-be created criteria.

Margot Lederer Prado, AICP, has been a local municipal land use planner for over a decade, specializing in industrial business retention and attraction, land use policy and zoning, and brownfields redevelopment. She currently works for Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency. Download or view a pdf of this article (121 KB).

Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits

Turning Swords into Ploughshares

Every morning, Irma Cardenas watches her brother wake up at 4 a.m. to begin the four-hour commute to his construction job. “My brother leaves every day at 5 a.m.,” states Irma. “Sometimes, when there is a lot of traffic, he can be back by 10 p.m.” Irma and her family live in the Monument Corridor neighborhood in Concord, California. Located in Central Contra Costa County, northeast of Oakland in the Bay Area, Concord has a well-deserved reputation as a suburban, middle-class community. Nevertheless, for those who live in “La Monument,” an imaginary wall seems to surround their neighborhood.

“La Monument” houses more than 18,000 residents. Almost 52 percent of its residents are Latino; 83 percent of whom are renters. It is estimated that even though 93 percent of the people who live there are employed, 47.4 percent live under 185 percent of the poverty line, nearly triple the county rate. This translates to more than 8,500 Concord residents who can’t afford to pay for their basic needs, such as housing, food, utilities, health insurance, clothing, and education. In addition, Contra Costa has the highest commute times in the entire country for counties of comparable size. This is directly related to the lack of local jobs and explains why Irma’s brother spends four hours commuting to work, each way. Poorly planned, sprawling suburban development combined with a deteriorating employment base has created massive economic dislocation.

Irma is a leader with the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization (CCISCO). She says that the high commute times, lack of jobs, and high cost of living are not the only issues facing Concord. She notes that once local organizations got together to consider the re-use plan for the Concord Naval Weapons Station, they discovered that they shared more common ground than they imagined. Low-income immigrants had concerns about the environment and the need for open space for children to play. Environmentalists wanted local residents to get access to living-wage, union jobs in their own communities. Labor unions advocated increased affordable housing. Over a period of six months, coalition members developed their own platform for the Concord Naval Weapons Station and a plan of action to take it to city officials. The group is called the Community Coalition for a Sustainable Concord and it is a powerful and diverse movement of a broad range of community organizations. (See authors’ credit at end of story for a full list.)

Go for the Whole Loaf
“If you approach elected officials in a piecemeal fashion, you end up fighting over the crumbs rather than the whole loaf,” said Bob Doyle, assistant general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District. “What a lot of folks are realizing is that they may not agree with each other on everything but working cooperatively in the process benefits everyone.”

In the flurry of planning for the future of the 5,028-acre Concord Naval Weapons Station, one issue is often glossed over—it is owned by the public. Community groups want to ensure that the impacts of development at the Weapons Station are balanced with clear public benefits—both in Concord and region-wide.

Early on in the process, the voices of community leaders were overshadowed in the mad scramble for the valuable land. In the winter of 2006, the City Council narrowly thwarted an effort by the Shaw Group to acquire the entire parcel from the Navy. The stakes are high. The Concord Naval Weapons Station is the largest development project currently proposed in the Bay Area.

The Community Coalition has the following comprehensive goals:

Parks and Natural Lands:
Preserve 80 percent of the Weapons Station as community parks and a new public regional park. Protect wildlife corridors and endangered species, designate a creek restoration area, and prohibit any new roads east of Mount Diablo Creek. Benefit all of the region’s residents with sites for active recreation, sports fields, and museums.

Vibrant, Diverse, Walkable Neighborhoods:
Create walkable neighborhoods well-served by public transportation with a mix of jobs, shops, and homes serving a range of incomes. Cluster retail, office space, and homes around the North Concord BART station and also in villages farther from BART. Develop in a way that allows workers and residents to commute and do errands without a car, with safe streets, good bus service, trails, and bike lanes.

Affordable Homes and Homelessness Solutions:
Respond to the critical housing needs of Concord residents by dedicating at least 45 percent of housing developed at the Weapons Station as affordable, including 250 acres as permanently affordable housing.

Quality Jobs for Local Residents:
Create a mix of good jobs that pay family-supporting wages with benefits throughout all phases of the redevelopment. Target a high percentage of construction and new permanent jobs towards Concord residents.

Environmentally Sustainable Development:
Incorporate the highest standards in green building, green design, clean technology, and energy efficiency. Leverage this opportunity to prepare workers for careers in green technologies and green building.

Full Environmental Clean-Up:
Coordinate planning for housing, jobs, recreation, and habitat with a comprehensive environmental cleanup. Ensure informed public participation in the environmental remediation process to fully protect the health of Concord residents, workers, and visitors.

Strong Community-Driven and Inclusive Process:
Fulfill community needs and reflect everyone’s aspirations through a community-driven planning process that is transparent, inclusive, multi-lingual, and representative of the community’s diversity.

It is the City Council’s responsibility to ensure that the Concord Naval Weapons Station re-use plan results in significant public benefits. The project must be integrated into the city and the region so it doesn’t become a “New Concord” to the exclusion of existing residents.

In October 2007, Coalition members scored an early victory when over 150 members packed a City Council meeting to call for inclusion of alternative proposals in the environmental impact review. Dozens of coalition leaders from every segment of the community gave testimony in English and Spanish. Environmentalists talked about the importance of living wage jobs and affordable housing advocates talked about the importance of open space.

The alternatives were included in a decisive 3-1 vote handing a victory to the rapidly expanding Community Coalition for a Sustainable Concord. Now, coalition members have launched an ambitious community education plan to educate thousands of local residents about their vision for a healthy and sustainable Concord and are preparing for a series of mobilizations in the coming months as the city moves to finalize the re-use plan.

The re-use of theWeapons Station presents Concord and the surrounding region with a momentous opportunity to create a project that represents the vision and values of the community. The planning and design process can address the needs of Concord residents and fulfill priorities for open space, affordable housing, quality jobs, vibrant neighborhoods, and environmentally sustainable development. Given the broad impacts, it is critical for the benefits of the base re-use to be shared by the public throughout the city and region and promote inclusiveness and a high quality of life for all.

Community Coalition for a Sustainable Concord members include: ARC Ecology, Carpenters Local Union 152,
Central Labor Council of Contra Costa County,Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, CNWS Neighborhood Alliance, East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, East Bay Housing Organization, Friends of Mount Diablo Creek, Greenbelt Alliance, Habitat for Humanity East Bay, Lutheran Social Services, Mount Diablo Audubon Society, Resources for Community Development, Save Mount Diablo, Sierra Club, and the Transportation and Land Use Coalition.

Download or view a pdf of this article (118 KB).

Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits

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Atchison Village: A cooperative in Richmond Changes with the Times

Atchison Village, going strong since 1941 © Scott Braley 2008

Atchison Village Mutual Homes sits less than a mile from a shoreline park with postcard-perfect views of the San Francisco Bay—and on the edge of the “Iron Triangle,” one of the hardest-hit areas of Richmond, California, a city deserted by industry and ravaged by violence.

When you walk around the Village on a summer Sunday, you smell meat grilling and hear the buzz of lawn mowers and the bells of an ice cream truck playing,“Do your ears hang low?” Neighbors chat about gardening and kids play soccer or baseball in the park at the heart of the Village. A family might be setting up for a quinceañera in the wood-floored and paneled community building, where the Village also holds its meetings.

The federal government built Atchison in 1941 to house workers streaming in from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and the deep South to work at the Kaiser Shipyards, building ships for sale to Great Britain.

“The modest 450-unit complex was hailed at the time as a cutting-edge example of worker housing, designed following the tenets of the ‘city beautiful’ and ‘garden city’ movements,” Richmond architect and City Council member Thomas Butt wrote when Atchison became a national historic site in 2003.

After the United States entered World War II, defense industries boomed in Richmond.
“The factories and the shipyards worked 24 hours a day,” says Redell Randle, who has lived in Atchison since the 1950s and now serves on its Board of Directors. “The welding was like firecrackers all night, pa-pa-popping and sparking.”
The government built many more housing projects, but only Atchison survived. In 1956, when the residents heard the government was going to shut it down, they incorporated, raised $150,000 for the down payment (in only two-and-a-half months), and became one of California’s first housing cooperatives.

“This was done by working people,” Randle says, and their work forged strong bonds. “They were on a mission, building those ships.”

The charter members of the Village set up an elected, all-volunteer Board of Directors to run the corporation, and wrote strict rules to prevent renting and speculation. Though Atchison remains an island of affordable housing, today’s members face the challenges of maintaining the 67-year old structures, and finding ways to reinvigorate the spirit of community.

Atchison has one-, two- and three-bedroom units in one- and two-story duplexes and fourplexes. The buildings are grouped around courtyards, with common space in front and yards or common space behind. Ten years ago, you could get a 2-bedroom in Atchison for around $30,000. Now sellers are asking $80,000 and up. The units exchange at “fair market value,” but the corporation must accept prospective buyers as members before sales can be final. Members own 1/450th of the corporation, and the “right to perpetual use” of their units. They pay monthly fees that range from $212 to $411, depending on the size of the unit and the amount of property tax they pay. The fees cover water, garbage, and basic maintenance.

“It’s like a little town here. You can know people if you want to,” says Bennie Singleton, who bought her unit in 1971 and served several terms on the Board. A handful of the charter members remain in the Village, and many of their younger relatives have stayed, but the Village has changed a lot in the last dozen or so years. Artists, activists, and professionals have come fleeing the sky-high rents and home prices of Berkeley and San Francisco, and many Latino families have moved in. Latinos now make up about a third of the residents.

“I have a name here,” says Esthela Diaz. “If I were somewhere else I would just be ‘the Mexican lady.’ And I love raising my daughters here, where they can see two women or two men together being happy. I don’t have to tell them anything about it.”

Board of Directors Faces Challenges
The present Board of Directors includes two lawyers, an accountant, three union organizers and officers, and three in healing professions. Only one is African-American; none are Latino, though past boards have been more representative.
The 11-member board deals with a mind-numbing pile of problems, meeting at least once a week. It budgets and hires and fires, working with an office staff of two and a maintenance crew of six. It has to ensure that changes to the units conform to the Village’s planning guidelines. It mediates sticky disputes over barking dogs, rambling cats, noise, fences and all the other things that come between neighbors.

It does all this in a group that changes with annual elections and has few written policies and procedures to fall back on.
“When new members start, they don’t have anything to check out to see how things were done before,” Singleton says. “We need rules and procedures. We don’t do things in a businesslike way.”

Only about one-fourth of the members vote in the Board elections, and fewer come to the monthly meetings—which range from effective to quietly dysfunctional to wildly chaotic. At one low point a few years ago, several people started shouting at once, ignoring the banging gavel, and a member was swinging a heavy flashlight menacingly in the back of the room. White-bearded Peter Brown, the Board’s elder, took off a battered sneaker and banged the table to try to restore order.

“We need to create an environment where everyone in this diverse community feels comfortable expressing their points of view,” says Vicki Sawicki, who served as Board president in 2004-2007. “When we can wade through our differences, the end result can be better for us as a whole,” she says. And sometimes, neighbors don’t hear each other. Sawicki recalled the meeting about the fence in September 2005.

Co-operation In Action?
Shootings just outside the Village had touched off an eruption of worry and fear. Members, many of them Latino, packed the Board meeting. The group vented and brainstormed. They decided a fence along one edge of the Village would help protect them. Rafael Casillas offered to put in $500 and work on the fence. Several other members chimed in with offers of money and help.
But the Board responded stiffly, with a request for an estimate and worries about liability and permission from the city. The moment passed. The fence hasn’t been built.

Since then the Board has changed almost completely, and the new Board has made a point of translating meeting notices into Spanish and hiring bilingual office staff. The fence issue sticks in people’s minds as a lesson in how members’ energy could be put to work.

“We could take on simple, short term projects that would help with upkeep of our common areas,” Board member Marcie Zellner suggested, adding that the common work could help bring people together, and possibly save money at the same time.
Savings would be welcome, because the last two Boards had to take the unpopular step of raising fees so the Village could begin long-deferred maintenance on roofs, windows, and plumbing. Longtime maintenance director Joseph Clark is optimistic.
“These are very well-built houses, solid wood buildings,” he says. Other members are cautiously upbeat about Atchison’s social structure as well. One new committee is building a community garden, and another is linking with Communities for a Better Environment to oppose the expansion of the Chevron refinery. Board meetings have calmed down and Board members have been helping re-organize the office.

“With modern-day technology and all the brains we have here, we should be able to make it work,” Randle says. “They did it before. We can do it now.”


Who Owns Our Cities? | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Spring 2008 | Credits
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Visions of Richmond, California

Scott Braley et al.

Richmond, California spans 32 miles of shoreline along the San Francisco Bay, with stellar views of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, and Marin. It boasts a mild Mediterranean climate, a diverse population, and easy access to everything from the Napa Valley vineyards to Silicon Valley. It’s also home to the largest refinery in the Bay Area (owned by the Chevron Corporation), has a violent crime rate that has led to its being labeled the third most dangerous city in California, and has an unemployment rate of 36 percent for Black men between 16-24 years of age.

The lens through which one views Richmond depends on one’s experiences. There are those who have lived in the city for generations and relish its cultural past and promising future. There are those who have remained in the city after many industrial and higher paying manufacturing jobs have left and are struggling to survive. And, there are the newly arrived—new immigrants seeking some affordability in one of the nation’s most expensive regions, or those who seek the beauty of living close to economic and cultural centers like San Francisco.

In this photo essay, photographer Scott Braley gives us a glimpse of Richmond, its residents and workers, while Sheryl Lane asks them about their visions for the city. What do they like or dislike about Richmond? And by the way, who owns Richmond?

“We need to get off the petrochemical treadmill,” says Dr. Henry Clark, executive director of West County Toxics Coalition, and a community activist for over 25 years. Clark sees Richmond residents “taking back the community that is theirs” and overcoming Chevron’s long held dominance. “I see Richmond continuing to become the leading green community in the Bay Area. It’s leading the charge that is now coming to full green blossom with the development of green jobs and renewable technology that can be transferred around the world and to developing countries.”

“I love Richmond because of its community, especially the Laotian community who call Richmond home. I also enjoy the weather here. My vision for Richmond is a city that improves its roads and provides safe and affordable housing, especially for seniors.”  Thangsoun Phut Ama, 84 years old, came to Richmond 30 years ago from Laos. “What I dislike about Richmond is that you have to worry about block territory. If you cross the lines, you can get shot. My vision for Richmond is a city that is drug free. I like Richmond for its diversity—a lot of people of different races and backgrounds live here.

“As far as employment, you have to go outside of the city to find a job because what is mostly here are retail, minimum wage jobs. I am trying to get back in college; I had to drop out to take care of my family.”

Ramone McKneely, 21 years old, has lived in Richmond his entire life and works for UPS in Richmond. 

Harland Masters, 72 helps his community by helping kids and parents cross safely to Ford School at one of Richmond's busiest intersections, 23rd Street and Clinton Avenue. Retired from the United States Army, he lives in neighboring San Pablo where he is raising a granddaughter.

“I want to see a cut down in crime and violence in the city, more police are needed.”  When asked what he likes about the city, he says, “I like the climate.”  I like Richmond for its good community and the good jobs coming to Richmond. A lot of developers are coming and building here, such as the new Civic Center project and development along Macdonald Ave.

"I dislike the drugs. It is something that we need to get out of the city. We need more after school programs so that our youth can have places to go and play.

“We, as a community, own this city and I’d like to see companies like Chevron helping the community. For example, they can help us get all of the drugs out of the city.”

William William has lived in Richmond for 25 years. He works for the Richmond Rescue Mission and on construction projects throughout the city. “I would like to see economic empowerment for Richmond residents and increased bus lines so that people can get around; better and more affordable housing; safer communities and streets."   “We need more quality jobs for Richmond residents in the city. We need more youth programs and reentry programs for the large population of parolees. We need more opportunities for seniors and economic programs to keep them from losing their homes.”

When asked who owns the city, she responds, “Chevron. They are doing just enough to keep people off their tail. They used to do more, such as more apprenticeship programs and more money for scholarships. Chevron can give more back to the community because they are making a large profit, but they are not doing enough.

“Developers are coming in but they are not giving opportunities to residents—providing low-income housing or job training to the community.”

Lorie Chinn, community activist and president of ACORN, Richmond Chapter has lived in Richmond for 20 years.


St. Mark's Church. © 2008 Scott Braley

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