Youth Activist “Knowledge is Born” leads School-to-Prison Pipeline protest, April 2009.  ©2009 Abdul Aziz/ Haymarket Books



Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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Floodlines: Preserving Public Housing in New Orleans

Among the roughly 15,000 people gathered in Detroit for the U.S. Social Forum (USSF) this year were some 250 grassroots activists and organizers from New Orleans. They were seeking insight from activists in Detroit—the other U.S. city with the largest percentage of empty or unlivable housing—albeit the Rust Belt took several decades to achieve what Hurricane Katrina did overnight.

Of all the housing issues that New Orleans faced following Katrina, the battle over public housing developments stands out for its blatant bigotry and unfairness. Not long after Katrina, politicians, developers, and planners began talking about tearing down all the remaining public housing in New Orleans because, as Baton Rouge Congressman Richard Baker gloated, they had “finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans! We couldn’t do it, but God did.”[1] In truth, a lot of the public housing had made it through the storm in solid condition and with a few repairs could have been used for many years to come. But the decision-makers had their own agenda and chose to follow their prejudices and stereotypes with city council president Oliver Thomas (who later went to prison for a corruption scandal involving bribes related to a city contract for a parking lot) stating, “There’s just been a lot of pampering, and at some point you have to say, ‘No, no, no, no, no’!.. We don’t need soap opera watchers right now.”[2]

Nadine Jarmon, the appointed chief of the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), seconded Thomas’ opinions. If “they don’t express a willingness to work, or they don’t have a training background, or they weren’t working before Katrina, then [we’re] making a decision to pass over those people,” she declared.3 Meanwhile, thousands of undamaged housing units sat empty six months after the hurricane as homeless New Orleanians and those whose homes had been damaged and had nowhere to go faced eviction from FEMA hotels and trailers. Quick to blame the victims, Thomas, Jarmon and their supporters did not even make exceptions for the elderly, injured, and disabled.

Effects of Race and Class on Public Housing
The attack on public housing residents was based, without a doubt, on race, class, and gender. And at a certain point, the attacks crystallized into an outright support for eugenics when Representative John LaBruzzo of Metairie proposed tubal ligation and vasectomies for public housing residents and people receiving government aid. “What I’m really studying is any and all possibilities that we can reduce the number of people that are going from generational welfare to generational welfare,” he told a Times-Picayune reporter.4 While LaBruzzo’s proposals may have been too extreme even for the right-wing Republicans in the Louisiana legislature, his comments reflect the attitude held by many toward poor residents.

“LaBruzzo talks about poverty as though it were an infectious disease rather than a condition people are condemned to by Louisiana’s lack of investment in education, employment, affordable housing, and quality health care programs, services, and resources,” countered members of the Women’s Health & Justice Initiative (WHJI).

Before the evacuation, more than 14,000 families in New Orleans were receiving some form of housing assistance from HANO. Over 9,000 families were in Section 8 housing and of the 7,700 public housing apartments, 5,146 units were occupied—the rest being vacant, supposedly awaiting repairs and refurbishment. Most of the occupied units were in the so-called Big Four developments:  Lafitte, B. W. Cooper, St. Bernard, and C. J. Peete. Although large, these developments were not like the anonymous housing towers of Chicago or New York. They were  two- and three-story houses with porches and balconies set among pedestrian walkways, courtyards, and in the case of Lafitte, large oak trees.
Following Katrina, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced a plan to tear down almost all the remaining units in the Big Four—over 4,500 apartments—and build 800 new units, only a fraction of which would be set aside for former residents. The battle had begun, and the city would never be the same again.

During a demonstration at the St. Bernard development in April 2006, former resident Pamela Mahogany expressed surprise at the city’s sudden concern over unlivable conditions. “We’ve been having mold, mildew, and backed-up sewers for years,” she said. “I’ve been here 42 years and it’s been a hazard the whole time. They never cared before!” Furthermore, as a working nurse, Mahogany busts the myth about public housing residents being inveterate “soap opera watchers.”

In the months following the demonstration, many former residents of the Big Four—some of whom had returned from exile in Houston—and activists who wanted to stand in solidarity, moved into some of the allegedly unlivable homes. Occupants of Lafitte and St. Bernard developments were quickly arrested but at other locations, they remained for months—even without electricity, as in the C. J. Peete complex.

A Masterplan Aided by a Hurricane
The effort to tear down the city’s public housing was part of a national trend that had begun in 2000. In eight years, HUD demolished 100,000 units of housing but rebuilt only 40,000 of them.5 In New Orleans, public housing had been under threat for decades, facing declining services and demonization by the media.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the big housing fight in the city had been over the fate of the St. Thomas development in the Tenth Ward. Built in 1937 and expanded in 1952, it was originally one of several “White-only” developments integrated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many White families moved to the suburbs in response to integration and soon after, the federal government began to cut funding for maintenance and to evict people for having too much income. By the time developers got involved with St. Thomas, HUD had been undermining the community for nearly 20 years by leaving apartments empty—up to 50 percent of St. Thomas was vacant—which destroyed the sense of community and created a vicious cycle of bad living conditions. This approach reflected the policies of successive administrations since the 1980s and bolstered the case for tearing down all public housing.

Of course, if the government had taken half the money it would spend on tearing down St. Thomas and invested it in repairs, maintenance, and supporting community organizations like Black Men United, the development could have become a model community.

“HOPE VI [the federal program to transform public housing] is a joke!” says  Kool Black, one of the founders of Black Men United for Change, an organization active in the St. Thomas housing development. “This country is getting out of the public accommodation business. Look at health care; look at charter schools. Public education was developed for White people initially. In the ‘60s, people of color [were] integrated [into] the system, and it became time for the government to get out of that service. The country is downsizing public responsibility.”

The St. Thomas neighborhood has since been renamed River Garden and is, according to lawyer Bill Quigley, a collection of “cute gingerbread pastel houses.” The redeveloped area has some housing—only a small percentage was reserved for former residents—several vacant lots, and a Wal-Mart. Some of those kicked out no doubt moved into non-subsidized housing. But it’s likely that most former residents were shifted to Section 8 apartments, moved in with relatives, or ended up homeless. “How many of the 1,510 families who used to live in St. Thomas have been allowed back in?” asks Quigley. “About a hundred. [And some of those] families have had to force their way in through litigation by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.”[6]

Elitism, Not Profit Is Motivator
Activists who came to New Orleans after Katrina often assumed that affordable housing was being torn down because there was money to be made. That high-priced condos, luxury hotels, and boutiques would be built in its place, as had happened in other major cities, from San Francisco’s Bayview to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green to New York City’s Lower East Side. But New Orleans’ housing market has never been that robust. The Lower Ninth Ward was not likely to be turned into a golf course or condominiums. The truth is, the elites simply did not want poor people back in the city because they were seen as criminals and parasites. And this attitude was not limited to White elites.

The final city council vote to tear down public housing was unanimous, with no apparent dissent from any council members. Cynthia Hedge Morrell and Cynthia Willard Lewis, the two Black city council members who between them represented the devastated neighborhoods of the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans East, and Gentilly had for a long time been reliable opponents of all affordable housing—public, Section 8, and low-income—in their districts. It’s a popular position among their base of middle class and wealthier Black voters. James Carter, a more progressive Black city council member representing the French Quarter, Treme, and the West Bank neighborhood of Algiers had seemed more open to arguments on behalf of former residents but in the end, offered no dissent.

From the day St. Thomas was evacuated, everybody—politicians, business leaders, and the daily paper—were united in calling for an end to big housing developments. Most White residents and a significant percentage of the Black community of New Orleans wanted to see public housing destroyed as well.

And suddenly, advocates who believe in decent, affordable housing for all, found themselves in a difficult position. For decades, political attacks on public housing had succeeded in halting most repairs and upkeep, making the housing less desirable. So when the demolition orders came, advocates had to choose between defending the people’s right to less than livable housing or accepting its destruction. Demolition proponents used this conundrum to their advantage, often recruiting tenants to make public statements about the unlivable conditions and the need to demolish and rebuild. But the truth is, however substandard the public housing, it is still preferable to homelessness.

Sound Strategies Bring Few Victories
In the two-and-a-half years following Hurricane Katrina, the public housing campaign used many tactics, from protests to lawsuits to direct action. Several organizations in the city worked on the issue, each with specific goals and approaches, but all of them utilized direct action elements, which often entailed former residents moving back into their sealed-off homes, and all secured some real victories.

One early victory involved the Lower Ninth Ward, which housing activists saved from mass demolition with a combination of legal action and physical occupation of a house near the levee break. “In January 2006, they were going to bulldoze the entire neighborhood,” said Kali Akuno of the Malcolm X grassroots movement. “But Ishmael Muhammed and the Praxis Project brought a lawsuit, the Common Ground people moved into a house in the neighborhood and ACORN [distributed] placards in the neighborhood saying ‘No Bulldozing.’ The placards got attention on TV. People were saying, ‘I didn’t know my house was in danger until I saw that story on TV.’” The fact that people still live in Iberville (though it continues to be under threat of demolition) stands as another important victory of these efforts. Located just outside the French Quarter on prime real estate near the high ground of the Mississippi, Iberville is in a neighborhood that once housed Storyville—an early twentieth-century red light district believed to be the birthplace of jazz.

In Akuno’s opinion, although the work to preserve public housing was strategically solid, organizing among the poorest and the displaced was a serious problem. “Understand what this displacement has meant,” he says. “We have 100,000 less people now. It’s hard to sustain actions like this while much of your base is in Houston.”

Over the years, however, the tide has turned some, bringing support for public housing from surprising quarters, such as New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, who spoke out against the demolition. Singling out the Lafitte development, he wrote:
“In its rush to demolish the apartment complexes—and replace them with the kind of generic mixed-income suburban community so favored by Washington bureaucrats—[HUD] demonstrates great insensitivity to both the displaced tenants and the urban fabric of this city…
“In arguing to save the buildings, preservationists point to the human scale of the apartment complexes, whose pitched slate roofs, elegant brickwork and low-rise construction reflect a subtle understanding of the city’s historical context without slavishly mimicking it.
“Tellingly, neither housing agency has closely examined alternatives to demolition, like renovating some buildings in the complexes and replacing others…”[7]

In the U.S. Congress, Representative Maxine Waters led House Bill 1227, “The Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007,” which would have saved much of the housing or at least provided one-for-one replacement. But the bill was killed in Senate, largely due to the opposition of Louisiana senators David Vitter and Mary Landrieu.

Deceit, Subterfuge Win the Day
The public relations battle was intense, with HANO stating that it was cheaper to tear down the developments than to rebuild even though their internal documents told a different story. As attorney Quigley pointed out:
The Housing Authority’s own documents show that Lafitte could be repaired for $20 million, even completely overhauled for $85 million, while the estimate for demolition and rebuilding many fewer units will cost over $100 million. St. Bernard could be repaired for $41 million, substantially modernized for $130 million, while demolition and rebuilding less units will cost $197 million. B.W. Cooper could be substantially renovated for $135 million, compared to $221 million to demolish and rebuild fewer units. Their own insurance company reported that it would take less than $5,000 each to repair the C.J. Peete apartments.[8]

“It’s clear that HUD and HANO have been routinely and regularly lying to the public,” Quigley told a reporter. “The discussions that they’ve had internally and with each other are completely different from what they’ve been saying publicly.”[9]

Quigley and civil rights attorney Tracie Washington were aided in their efforts by the Advancement Project, a national legal project, and others in New Orleans and outside. They succeeded in winning delays, buying time for activists to organize, but in the end, all legal strategies were exhausted. There were solidarity protests at HUD offices around the United States and White activists from the Anti-Racist Working Group and Catalyst Project chained themselves to the offices of HANO.

After decades of struggle, the future of New Orleans public housing came down to a meeting at city hall, just before Christmas 2007. Despite low expectations, activists found the events of the day traumatic. Supporters of public housing were for the most part denied a chance to speak and most were not even allowed in the building. Those who insisted on speaking were tasered and arrested. But ultimately, it all came to naught. The council voted unanimously to demolish the housing and within weeks, several public housing developments across the city were torn down.

Meanwhile, homelessness was on the rise. An estimated 11,000 or almost five percent of the city’s population was believed to have been rendered homeless.10 A new homeless-led group—Homeless Pride—set up camp across from city hall, serving as a daily reminder to the city’s politicians of the consequences of their policies. But the mayor’s office just closed the park. When Homeless Pride set up a new encampment under a highway overpass a few blocks away, officials worked with UNITY for the Homeless, the city’s main homeless advocacy alliance, to place the people in temporary housing. Although this brought immediate relief to those people, it also served to silence the larger debate about systemic solutions.

1.    Charles Babington, “Some GOP Legislators Hit Jarring Notes in Addressing Katrina,” Washington Post, September 10, 2005.
2.    Editorial, “No Welcome Mat?” Gambit Weekly, February 28, 2006. www.bestofnew
3.    Ibid.
4.    Mark Waller, “LaBruzzo: Sterilization plan fights poverty,” Times-Picayune, September 24, 2008.
5.    Katy Reckdahl, “Critics question whether new New Orleans public housing will meet needs,” Times-Picayune, December 08, 2008.
6.    Deon Roberts, “Developer, public housing advocate engage in e-battle,” New Orleans CityBusiness, January 2, 2007.
7.    Nicolai Ouroussoff, “History vs. Homogeneity in New Orleans Housing Fight,” New York Times, February 22, 2007.
8.    Bill Quigley, “Tale of Two Sisters,” CommonDreams,  December 28, 2006.
9.    Katy Reckdahl, “Like A Ton of Bricks,” Gambit Weekly, October 24, 2006.
10.    Source: UNITY for the Homeless.

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist and community organizer based in New Orleans and an editor of Left Turn magazine, a national publication dedicated to covering social movements. This article is adapted from his book Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six published by Haymarket Books, Chicago, Illinois, 2010. 


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Public Housing Residents Fight for their Homes

Charlotte Delgado is on a tear. “They have run public housing into the ground until it is so bad they cannot begin to fix it,” she tells her audience at the U.S. Social Forum. Delgado wound up in HUD multifamily subsidized housing after being diagnosed with cancer 25 years ago. She beat the disease seven times and now serves as vice president/west of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT). From her toes to her carefully rolled blonde “do,” Delgado exudes indignation. “What they intend to do is give it to the banks, let the banks fix it up and rent it out—and in a maximum of 30 years, they can get out of the [public housing] program!” she says, stabbing the air with her finger.

“I live in Sacramento, eight blocks from the state capitol and my building was the first in the state taken over by a for-profit in 1998,” Delgado continues. “My rent went from $595 to $825 overnight. And out of the 103 families who lived in my complex, there are only 29 of us left.”
The supply of housing for low and very low income families in the U.S. is melting away, even as people lose jobs to the recession and homes to foreclosure. (Unemployment and foreclosure rates are even higher in communities of color.) The damage from decades of official neglect of the housing stock is piling up and still-solid structures will soon become unlivable if nothing is done to repair them.

Government contracts with landlords are expiring, as in Delgado’s case, which lets owners put tens of thousands of units back on the private market and out of the price range of low-income families. Plus, a new Obama administration proposal threatens to privatize the country’s remaining stock of government-owned housing. Faced with escalating threats, public housing residents are using every tool at their disposal—from lawsuits and lobbying to mobilization and direct action—to keep their homes.

Families Call the Projects Home
About six million families in the U.S. live in some form of social housing—2.3 million in developments that follow the original New Deal model of government-owned buildings operated by local housing authorities, and the rest in subsidized housing under 13 different federal programs. Since President Richard Nixon declared a construction moratorium in 1973, the government has been contracting with private developers and property owners who agree to keep housing affordable for a specific period of time in return for subsidies.

Since the mid 1990s, the U.S. has lost 150,000 units of government-owned housing.1 Some have fallen to demolition under HOPE VI and other projects that promised newer and better mixed-income housing.2 Others have been lost to “disposition,” when local housing authorities decided to dispose of their housing stock by selling it to private owners. (Atlanta and San Diego have completely eliminated their public housing stock.)

The loss of public housing scatters people who have deep roots in a place, tatters the social fabric, and shatters community, according to a 2010 report entitled “We Call These Projects Home,” by the national Right to the City Alliance (RTTC).3 To produce it RTTC drew on the voices and expertise of public housing residents to inform the analysis and ended up with a picture that defies the media-fed stereotype. (See box  on page 48.)
“Our research shows that public housing is and always has been a vital and necessary option for low-income communities of color. Overall, residents believe that public housing provides a strong sense of community and want to see public policies that strengthen rather than dismantle it,” wrote RTTC’s HUD workgroup.

More than 70 percent of public housing residents are people of color. “For sure, racism is always there. Lots of people feel it,” says Anne Washington, an activist with Community Voices Heard in New York City. She has lived in General Grant Housing on Broadway near 125th Street for 22 years and raised her children there.
“People have this negative stereotype about public housing, even friends of my kids, my daughter-in-law... People think of us as drug addicts, drug pushers, prostitutes. Most of the people in this building work. They have families. They stay here because it’s affordable,” Washington says.

LIFFT Wins Landmark Agreement
In Miami, Fla., the Scott-Carver public housing project was no worse than other poor neighborhoods, says Yvonne Stratford, a former resident and activist with the Miami Workers Center. “We had lots of generations there—grandparents and great-grandparents. We had a big yard, people sat on their porches, barbecued… That housing stood for 54 years and would’ve lasted another 54. The buildings were made of concrete. People used to run to the projects in a hurricane because they were safer.”

But starting in 2003, Scott-Carver was crushed by the wrecking ball after the Miami-Dade Housing Authority got a HOPE VI grant. For the 850 units torn down and the 1100 people scattered, the Housing Authority was only going to offer 50 units of replacement housing on the site. Former Scott-Carver residents worked with LIFFT (Low Income Families Fighting Together), a project of the Miami Workers Center, to fight for one-to-one replacement and their right to return. They lobbied the Miami City Council and Dade County Commission and sat in at the HUD office. In 2007, they occupied the last standing Scott-Carver building and launched the “Find Our People” campaign. By putting up an eight-foot board around the building and putting out the word, they succeeded in tracking down 400 of the 600 former Scott-Carver residents that the local HUD office had “lost.” People simply came by and wrote names, addresses, and numbers on the board—with crosses next to the names of those who had died.

After a 10-year campaign, LIFFT won an agreement from the city to make public housing available for all the displaced residents—177 to move back on site and others to go into subsidized housing being built in the neighborhood. The activists’ challenge now is to remain in contact with the displaced residents and ensure that the housing authority follows through on its promise. “We wrote signs that say ‘We’re watching you!’ and put them on the gate where they’re supposed to be building,” says Stratford.

Miami razed Scott-Carver before the real estate bubble burst. “This was a time when Liberty City was one of the ground zeros for gentrification,” says Tony Romano, former organizing director for the Workers Center. “You had these hawks, these investors from all over the country turn to real estate, buy stuff up, and start flipping it.”

As cities become desirable living space and white flight reverses, building owners see the chance to profit from opting out of their affordable housing agreements. At a U.S. Social Forum workshop, Judy Montanez, an NAHT Board member and co-chair of the tenants’ association at Castleton Park—a mixed-income subsidized apartment house on Staten Island, New York—told the audience, “My building faces the Statue of Liberty. It’s convenient, it has waterfront views…All of a sudden in 2003, we have new management [saying] they want to opt out of their Section 8 contract. They wanted to sell to Lawrence Gluck, who’s known for predatory equity. He wants to turn public housing into luxury properties.”

Montanez and another tenant hooked up with housing coalitions in the city and began asking questions. They found a clause in the National Housing Act that requires buildings with insured mortgages, such as Castleton Park, to remain affordable unless they can prove that there is no need for affordable housing in the community. So, with the help of Legal Aid, they sued HUD to enforce the federal law. They talked to local and state politicians and to their congressman. They brought busloads of people to rally in front of HUD’s office. In 2007, HUD agreed to enforce the law. The owners appealed twice and lost, but the case is still in court awaiting a final appeal.

Montanez credits the tenants’ association—which they built and sustained—for their success. “It’s a lot of work,” she says, “but you have to become knowledgeable.” Lots of tenants will need to learn quickly.

PETRA Points to Privatization
Around 260,000 federally subsidized units are in buildings whose HUD-subsidized 40-year mortgages expire by 2013, according to NAHT Executive Director Michael Kane. Since 1995, at least that many units have been lost to expiring contracts while another 100,000 have been lost to foreclosure.
The Obama Administration’s proposal for the “Preservation, Enhancement, and Transformation of Rental Assistance” (PETRA) widens the path to privatization that was opened when the federal government started contracting with private companies. The proposal appears to put both housing stock and residents at risk.

PETRA would allow housing authorities to convert all their stock to privately owned subsidized housing and mortgage the properties to pay for repairs. In its current form the proposal fails to provide Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insurance on the mortgages and makes no provision for keeping the housing under public control should the owner default, thus raising the specter of a foreclosure crisis in public housing. Moreover, PETRA does not guarantee that subsidized units will remain permanently affordable.

“When they only require a 20- to 30-year use agreement for private developers, then give them the option to pull out, that is not permanent affordability,” Montanez says. “What happened to the concept of public housing? You won’t have it any more if you offer it to private developers and private financing.”

Even when affordable, market-based subsidized housing is less stable and secure for residents. They must search for housing, hope to find landlords who will take vouchers, hope to meet the screening criteria. They have to come up with deposits and utility payments, often a hardship for very low-income people. And under some programs, landlords are free to terminate voucher holders after a year.

And since it merges the rules and funding for all 13 housing programs, PETRA could replace the stronger rights afforded to public housing residents with the weaker safeguards available to people in subsidized housing.

HUD Breaks Promise, Congress Avoids Decision
In December 2009, HUD officials began meeting with a group of public housing residents to get their input on PETRA, according to Erik Crawford, president of the Davidson/Site 166 Residents’ Association in New York. HUD promised to bring the final proposal to the group before giving it to Congress, but when the residents reconvened in April they found that the bill had been submitted the day before.

A preliminary hearing before the Housing and Community Opportunity Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee at the end of May drew storms of criticism. According to DeAngelo Bester, the housing justice campaign coordinator for National People’s Action, Congress is unlikely to take action on anything so controversial before mid-terms, which throws the future of public housing into the uncharted waters of the next Congress.
National People’s Action organized meetings between HUD staff and public housing residents in several cities this fall and in Crawford’s opinion, the organizing, education, and strong recommendations have made a big difference so far.

“But we need to speak with a unified voice,” he adds. “Someone’s going to get hurt if we don’t get together.”
Back at the U.S. Social Forum, Delgado hit the same note: “The private owners believe they have enough clout to kill any bill they object to, but for every owner there are tenants and we should be speaking. United we stand, divided we’re homeless.”

1.    Western Regional Advocacy Project 2010 update: “Without Housing”
2.    Tracy, James. “Hope VI Mixed-Income Housing Projects Displace Poor People.” RP&E. Spring 2010.

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Right Wing Ballot Strategies Hit Cities

San Diego has become ground zero for the newly energized right wing attack on progressive policies. Right wing politicians and far right industry associations mounted several anti-union ballot measures this year and have pledged to continue the fight in the 2012 elections. Their goal is to make San Diego the first city in the country to repeal a Living Wage Ordinance and outlaw Project Labor Agreements (PLA), as well as effective local hire programs.

State ballot initiatives have always been part of the right’s political strategy. Each year progressives battle anti-tax initiatives (the so-called TABOR or Taxpayers Bill of Rights), environmental rollbacks, anti-labor and anti-immigrant policies, and other conservative wedge issues. But the attack on cities is a new and troubling feature of the right wing backlash and San Diego is the first phase of a conservative action to roll back and repeal pro-labor and progressive gains in California cities.

The Fight to Reclaim San Diego
Once the home of the John Birch Society, San Diego has long been known as a conservative city. In his book, While America Aged, Roger Lowenstein says: “[San Diego] was not historically a union town like New York. San Diego was Republican to the core—home terrain to both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. (Reagan, who made a point of ending each of his campaigns in San Diego, called it his ‘lucky city’).”
But in the last two decades labor, community, and environmental coalitions have made important changes to the political landscape in San Diego with significant new progressive policies, many of them first of their kind in the nation, such as: (1) An inclusionary housing law for affordable housing with aggressive in lieu fees; (2) A ban on the use of the toxic pesticide methyl bromide in low-income communities; (3) A living wage ordinance and a Community Benefits Agreement for the largest private development downtown; (4) Strict design guidelines on big-box stores, plus community and economic benefits assessments on community plan amendments; (5) An economic prosperity element within the city’s General Plan, which ties land-use decisions to self-sufficiency jobs; (6) A stringent ordinance applicable to all city contracts that sets up a legislative hearing process for addressing irresponsible contractors; (7) An expansion of the living wage law to cover low-wage construction maintenance.
In response, right-wing think tanks, anti-union contractors, industry associations, and political operatives have launched a series of local ballot initiatives that aim to roll back progressive gains and weaken the labor movement, creating new strategies for conservative and anti-union organizations to use in cities across the country.

A New Kind of Assault on Progressive Policy
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the new right wing agenda is that it seeks to make it harder to establish or reinstate progressive policies in the future by amending city charters. Examples include:

  •  A 2006 charter amendment encouraging privatization in San Diego.
  •  San Diego’s “Strong Mayor” amendments of 2008 and 2010 shifting power from city council members elected by district to a mayor elected  citywide where developers and the wealthy have the advantage.
  • A charter ban on Project Labor Agreements (PLAs)—the first in the nation—in Chula Vista, the second largest city in San Diego county with a population demographic that is quickly turning majority Hispanic.

Charters adopted by Vista and Oceanside—two large cities in San Diego county—enable them to contract for public works without paying prevailing wages, or having union agreements. (On the ballot this November is a similar charter amendment for San Diego county.)
Expensive ballot measures rather than grassroots power that wins votes on the city council are the only means to undo the damage done by the charter amendments. “If they win here, they will have momentum going into other fights in California,” says Mark Ayers, president of the national Building and Construction Trades of the AFL-CIO. “You can rest assured that we will see the strategy replicated in short order in other states.”

Right Wing Takes Fight to Cities
Right wing strategists, such as Grover Norquist (Americans for Tax Reform) and Steven Malanga (Manhattan Institute), who have studied the growth of the progressive infrastructure, have been arguing for cities to be the next battleground for “permanent conservative political control” of America. Norquist and Malanga want to adopt a political strategy for attacking and weakening metropolitan-level constituencies that are the “key pillars” of the Democratic Party (unions, trial attorneys, ‘federally-funded’ social service providers, and academics) and form the core of “pro-government coalitions.”

According to Malanga, “The national living wage movement decided that they had little chance to achieve policy victories in Washington (under a Republican Congress) and so should turn their attention to cities and states where the political climate was more favorable.” Progressives, he claims, “...rightly figured out that they could still achieve legislative victories that would bring tens of millions of Americans under laws that could never get passed in Washington.”

 A progressive municipal agenda, which encompasses living wage laws, responsible contracting laws, local hire policies, local environmental standards, inclusionary housing policies, and big-box restrictions is clearly a serious threat to the right wing’s efforts to weaken government.
Now industry associations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Associated General Contractors (AGC), and Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), have allied themselves with the fight to roll back progress at the municipal level. These organizations are also at the front-end of opposition to healthcare, environmental, workplace safety, and financial reforms at the federal level. And while Washington dithers, they have  energized their local and state chapters to focus at the municipal level.
San Diego Is Right Wing’s Ground Zero
Over the past decade, San Diego has gradually turned “blue,” causing great consternation in right wing circles, which have made it their favorite target. When Carl DeMaio came to San Diego in 2003, his think tank—the Performance Institute—was already closely connected to the national and state conservative infrastructure. He collaborated statewide with the Reason Public Policy Institute to launch a “Citizen’s Budget” for California, laying out an anti tax and antigovernment agenda that propelled Arnold Schwarzenegger towards the right. The plan outlined several constitutional reforms that would be approved by the voter under a referendum, including a Taxpayer Bill of Rights revenue limit, a modified version of the Gann Spending Limit, and an automatic balanced budget adjustment trigger when revenues fall short of expectations.  

DeMaio is now on the San Diego City Council and with his eyes on the Mayor’s seat has become the face of the San Diego Tea Party, stirring up populist anti tax sentiments. He is hooked up with the well-heeled contractors’ associations (ABC and AGC) to lead the assault on labor and progressive gains. Both associations were involved with Proposition 23, the attempt to repeal California’s global warming law.
A ballot measure that DeMaio and his supporters failed to get on this November’s ballot for lack of valid signatures has been described as “the most far-reaching effort ever to ban living wage ordinances or anything similar to them in a permanent way,” by Joel Foster of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. The ballot measure that DeMaio and supporters have vowed to revive in 2012 aims to:

  • Repeal the city’s Living Wage Ordinance and place a prohibition in the city charter on any contract standards above the state’s minimum wage.
  • Give full authority to the Mayor (without City Council or public input) to outsource city functions, making it easier to privatize city services.
  • Outlaw Project Labor Agreements, Construction Workforce Agreements, Local Hire Agreements, and requirements for the use of apprentices on city projects or projects using city funds.
  • Neutralize Community Benefit Agreements in development deals by outlawing all of their essential features, such as living wages and local hire agreements.

Their agenda is simply to “…create minimum wage jobs with no benefits so that we can line the pockets of Mr. DeMaio’s friends in big business,” says City Councilmember Marti Emerald. “This is about maximizing profits to big contractors who are lining up at the government trough right now.”

Progressives Fight Measure for Measure
San Diego’s progressive infrastructure is gearing up to defeat the next round of initiatives in 2012 and prevent the model from spreading. “We’ve got to have bigger coalitions, larger-scale one-on-one organizing in our neighborhoods, churches, and workplaces, and a smart communications strategy,” says Tom Lemmon, business manager of the Building and Construction Trades Council of San Diego-Imperial counties.
According to San Diego’s progressive leaders, there are three fundamental tasks they have to tackle in the next two years:
1.    Expose the right-wing agenda as one that will harm the economy, close off opportunity for low income and middle class San Diegan’s, and allow neighborhoods and infrastructure to deteriorate.
2.    Advance policy campaigns that can win with a progressive agenda that is pro jobs, neighborhoods, and the environment.
3.    Create a movement with the capacity to engage tens of thousands of people and win citywide elections.
“Our success in the future will depend entirely on what we do between now and the next election,” says Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

Donald Cohen is the co-founder and president of the Center on Policy Initiatives. He has over 25 years of experience as an organizer and trainer in strategy, policy, and organization. Murtaza H. Baxamusa has a Ph.D. in Planning from the University of Southern California and a Planning Certification from the American Planning Association. He is a member of the Urban Land Institute and serves on the board of directors of the San Diego City-County Reinvestment Taskforce.

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Social Cartography: The Art of Using Maps to Build Community Power

By Eli Moore and Catalina Garzón

It was November 2008 and eight leaders from environmental justice community organizations were scrutinizing a map of southeast San Francisco showing areas experiencing problems with diesel trucks. Hand drawn blue and red lines indicated the locations of freeways and truck routes in the neighborhood. “Why do you think these problems exist here?” asked the facilitator. The response was immediate: “Because the people who live here are poor! And the people in charge don’t listen to us.”

In recent years, mapping has increasingly become a key strategy for analyzing and communicating issues in public health, urban planning, environmental justice, and human rights. In mapping their own communities and reflecting on the maps they create, people can develop and advocate for solutions. Developments in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and internet-based mapping, and greater accessibility of digital data sets have made mapping feasible for people with moderate resources and technical training. Also, a growing appreciation for geographic thinking and the value of looking at social and environmental problems through a geographic lens have helped, even as concepts of space and place become mainstream.

Not all mapping processes, however, are participatory and it is still rare for non-professionals affected by the issues being mapped to be involved in the decisions guiding map creation, analysis, and distribution. In the U.S., there is such an abundance of easily accessible data that asking residents to generate their own seems redundant. Yet, we believe that this type of mapping holds great potential for shifting the relationships of power that are the root cause of social and environmental injustices.

A mapping process—which includes selecting labels and symbols, choosing the scale, and layering—guided by the people most affected by the issues being mapped has the potential to develop critical consciousness and generate collective action because:

  • Participants develop their own language to describe their reality, producing terms and definitions that reflect their values.
  • Shared personal experiences enable groups to analyze patterns and identify collective experiences.
  • The role of institutions and the extent of their power in shaping collective experiences becomes more obvious.

A Tradition Older than Writing
People have been creating maps to understand their surroundings since before the invention of writing. As Margaret Wickens Pearce and Renee Pualani Louis write in Mapping Indigenous Depth of Place, “Indigenous cartographies are as diverse as indigenous cultures... Indigenous mapping may be gestural, chanted, or inscribed in stone, wood, wall, tattoo, leaf, or paper. Indigenous maps may be used to assess taxes, guide a pilgrim, connect the realms of the sacred and profane, or navigate beyond the horizon. Clearly, indigenous cartographies are process oriented as opposed to product dependent.”[1]

However, the maps that most people get acquainted with in elementary school reflect the legacy of colonization, resource extraction, and state control. Maps were instrumental in the process of making desired resources visible and people invisible for imperial bureaucracies. But today, indigenous people, such as the Nunavut of Canada, are at the forefront of using mapping to reclaim their land and resources.[2]

With the widespread use of internet-based maps and GPS units in cars and cell phones, mapping is more a part of people’s everyday experience now than ever before. Mapping by social and environmental justice organizations has also mushroomed. Some mapping involves elaborate GIS analyses, such as the opportunity mapping developed by the Kirwan Institute.[3] And interactive mapping websites allow users to choose from numerous datasets and create custom maps.4 Other online maps use a Google platform, such as the Pacific Institute’s Impacts of Sea Level Rise on the California Coast5 and the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s maps of the genocide in Sudan.[6] These developments have made mapping more relevant and powerful, but also raise questions about when and how to use its many possible forms.

Building Maps for EJ
Like most EJ issues, freight movement involves complex relationships between land use, transportation, air quality, community health, race, and wealth. Maps often help make these relationships clear. As one workshop participant pointed out, “You can talk about all the different toxins in the air, but if you’re not seeing a map of all these facilities as they really exist, you’re missing out. Mapping is a great tool for myself as an organizer, and for my active members to inform their neighbors and keep that conversation going.”

To relate to a map, we must be able to see something of ourselves in the map. If we can recognize a street corner, a park, a hospital, we can begin to place our experiences on the map. Aerial photos help because they show the unique colors and distinct shapes of buildings, streets, and other features. Our base map in workshops is a poster-sized aerial photo of the neighborhood with the streets labeled. It is ideal because at larger scales, the details get lost.

For a map to respect a group’s knowledge and experience, it must use the group’s language. What this means is that the symbols and place names should come from the group’s own discourse. Critical geographers like Jay Johnson have pointed out that Cartesian maps limit our representation of space because they demand fixed boundaries, whereas many cultures value fluid boundaries.

To understand the root causes of a collective problem, the maps must make visible the factors shaping the problem. Being able to view different data sets layered on top of each other—for example, demographics, land use, and asthma rates—helps the exploration of their relationship to each other. In one workshop focused on freight transport, the groups mapped streets with heavy truck traffic and the businesses that attracted them on a transparency placed over an aerial photo of the neighborhood. When the same transparency was overlaid on a map of the same area with land use designations, it became apparent that the problems were wherever industrially-zoned parcels were mixed in with residential parcels. The layering of community knowledge over institutional and legal boundaries can help the community move beyond the immediate problem to an exploration of its political roots.

Mapping as Community Builder
Generating a “bigger picture” understanding of how an issue impacts an entire community can help strengthen relationships between residents affected by the issue. A key challenge in mobilizing around an issue is convincing people of the value of joining others to work together.
Map-making can be a useful tool in scaling up from the individual lived experience to building a shared analysis about collective challenges. Making maps together means piecing together collective experiences, discovering patterns, and arriving at a collective understanding of the root causes of these shared experiences.

1.    American Indian Culture and Research Journal 32:3 (2008) 107-126.

Eli Moore and Catalina Garzón are the program co-directors of the Community Strategies for Sustainability and Justice program at the Pacific Institute. 

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The San Francisco PUC: Working for the Community

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) provides water, sewage services, and municipal power to San Francisco and surrounding areas. It is also a huge job generator. When I joined the Commission in 2008, I identified three priorities: (i) achieving stronger local hire outcomes; (ii) adopting an environmental justice policy; and (iii) creating an agency-wide Community Benefits Program.

In 2002—following a bond measure approved by San Francisco voters that November—the SFPUC embarked on one of the largest water infrastructure projects at a cost of $4.6 billion dollars. The Water System Improvement Project (WSIP), which includes more than 80 projects, is working to repair, replace, and seismically upgrade deteriorating pipelines, tunnels, reservoirs, pump stations, storage tanks, and dams from San Francisco to the Central Valley by the end of 2015.

WSIP Under a Local Hire Lens
In 2008, the number of local residents being hired through WSIP fell far below the city’s goal of 50 percent. But pressure from San Francisco-based community organizations to increase the percentage of local hires—across all city agencies—has served as a catalyst and spurred a city-wide debate on how to move from showing “good faith” efforts in local hiring to requiring numerical results.

Supervisor John Avalos has introduced legislation that requires mandatory local hiring for city-funded projects. It comes at a time when the SF PUC is preparing to bring forward the $4 billion Sewer System Improvement Project for San Francisco. Unlike the WSIP, all of the work is to take place in San Francisco, which makes the issue of local hire all the more important.

Since many of the jobs on this project require skills, a key step is to increase the number of qualified residents available to fill the slots. So, the Commission has allocated over $1 million to City Build—San Francisco’s job training program—to scale up their training efforts targeted at unemployed and underemployed residents in districts, such as Bayview-Hunters Point and the Mission.

Bringing EJ to Waste Water
Historically, the SFPUC Waste Water Department has had an inconsistent relationship with Bayview-Hunters Point residents living adjacent to its sewer plant. It is the only waste water plant in San Francisco that is located across the street from people’s homes. Over the years there have been myriad complaints, including concerns about odors.

In October 2009, after working closely with the Environmental Justice (EJ) subcommittee of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee and the PUC staff, the Commission unanimously approved an EJ policy—the first of its kind for a utilities agency—which articulates the agency’s commitment to preventing and mitigating the disproportionate environmental impacts of its activities on communities. It also provides a tool for rate payers and residents to hold the agency accountable.

A Community Benefits Wrap Up

The discussion over ways to operationalize the EJ resolution resulted in the development of an agency-wide Community Benefits Program, which specifically identifies ways in which the SFPUC can support workforce development, community contractor inclusion, and environmental justice, and the promotion of sustainable practices, education, arts, and culture.

The development of the Community Benefits Program and the accompanying policy have opened up a robust dialogue about what it means to be a good neighbor among SFPUC staff, commissioners, and community members. They have also prompted the creation of an inventory of all PUC work that falls under the rubric of community benefits provision—a timely exercise that will help pilot the program for the upcoming Sewer System Improvement Project.
Although my tenure on the SFPUC only lasted two years, I was struck by the scale of impact one can have through the public sector. Applying social justice values within a policy forum is something more of us should be doing because it creates institutional change that can outlast any one commissioner or administrator and result in long-term benefits for communities.

Juliet Ellis is the former executive director of Urban Habitat. She is now the Deputy General Manager for External Affairs at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. To listen to Juliet Ellis on implementing local hire policies visit:

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Wanted: Community Jobs Policy For San Francisco

A POWER demonstration in Bayview-Hunter’s Point. Courtesy of People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER).For decades, San Francisco has had a goal of using a workforce that is at least 50 percent local resident on its publicly-funded construction projects. But the city has always relied on the “good faith efforts” of contractors to deliver on this objective. Now, a report released in August of this year by Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Brightline Defense Project (“The Failure of Good Faith: Local Hiring Policy Analysis and Recommendations for San Francisco”) shows that the good faith approach has not worked.[1]  In fact, based on a survey of 5.3 million job hours, the report confirms something that community advocates have known anecdotally for years.

For the seven years since 2003, the average local hire figures on city-funded construction is less than 25 percent and actually dipped below 20 percent for 2009. Clearly, say community leaders and job advocates, it is time for San Francisco to come up with a Community Jobs Policy.

The term “Community Jobs Policy” is a new one, but the concept embraces some of the distinctive characteristics of the local hiring debate in San Francisco. While perhaps the most basic aim of local hiring is to keep local dollars circulating within the local economy, the push for reform in San Francisco is driven to a large extent by a desire to break up persistent cycles of poverty by targeting specific underserved and underemployed communities for career-building blue collar and green collar job opportunities. This call for a Community Jobs Policy comes loudest from southeast San Francisco, which includes the Bayview-Hunters Point community.

Community Hiring: a Dream Deferred
In many ways, a true community-driven local hiring policy would be the realization of a dream deferred for Bayview-Hunters Point. In 1972, the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, the San Francisco Contractors’ Association, and the Bayview-Hunters Point community signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), which states that 50 percent of the workers in each trade on public works projects in the Bayview will be local residents. That MOA is often circulated at community meetings. Community leaders Espanola Jackson, Oscar James, and others who were involved in the Model Cities Program that led to the historic 1972 agreement, make sure that every public discussion about jobs in the city’s southeast sector—where unemployment runs well over 20 percent and closer to 50 percent among African Americans—acknowledges the jobs commitment made nearly 40 years ago.

Guaranteed access to apprenticeship is a critical theme at these meetings, as union apprenticeship programs are the best way to develop the skills required to excel in a construction career. A Community Jobs Policy would ensure that community members have those opportunities and community apprentices and journey level workers have jobs on San Francisco’s public works projects. The 1972 MOA also dictates that local hire must be measured by trade and not by overall project hours, as opportunities for disadvantaged communities have historically been concentrated in the lowest-paying trades, with representation in the higher-paying skilled trades proving elusive.

As San Francisco prepares to spend $27 billion on public infrastructure projects over the next 10 years, a Community Jobs Policy can be a powerful tool to rebuild a Bayview-Hunters Point middle class that has steadily eroded since the phased shutdown of the Hunters Point Shipyard began in the 1970s. Such a Policy would create expanded home ownership opportunities, increase spending in local commerce, improve educational facilities, and build stronger community ties.

Local Hire Concerns Create Cross-town Coalitions
Concerns over local hire have brought together community groups from Bayview-Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley with groups from Chinatown, the Mission, and South of Market.

On the day that the “Good Faith” report was released, organizations representing African-American workers, such as the Southeast Jobs Coalition and the Osiris Coalition from the southeast came together with Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Chinese Progressive Association, PODER from the Mission, and the Filipino Community Center from the Excelsior district, to stand together in calling for change. Such a cross-town coalition working to advance local hiring suggests a common understanding that there is enough potential work in San Francisco to lift all boats.

There is also consensus among these organizations about the three fundamental aspects that a Community Jobs Policy must encompass: (1) Local Hiring: city-funded jobs for San Francisco residents within all construction trades; (2) Community Hiring: guaranteed opportunities for the city’s most disproportionately underserved and underrepresented neighborhoods; (3) Project Area Hiring: priority for residents on development projects in their neighborhood.

A successful Community Jobs Policy should also promote worker mobility within the city and the Bay Area to help apprentices advance to journey level status.

Call for Legislation Mandating Local Hire
The need for economic development where there is economic disparity binds San Francisco’s low-income communities and communities of color. Good union jobs with strong wages and benefits, and safe working conditions in trades that provide honorable and exciting work must be targeted as part of San Francisco’s overall community development strategy.

In October 2010, San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos introduced legislation that would mandate—rather than promote through good faith efforts—local hiring. [2] Avalos’ legislation builds on a series of local hiring reforms advanced by his colleagues Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Sophie Maxwell, and presents the possibility of a city-wide change that mirrors the consensus of communities across the city.

And to ensure a renewed community-labor partnership in San Francisco, any new policy must encourage local hiring of union members alongside a new generation of community apprentices.

Joshua Arce is the executive director of Brightline Defense Project, a San Francisco-based civil rights advocacy non-profit focused on environmental justice and green workforce development. Utuma Belfrey is a journey-level member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and currently sits on the San Francisco Hunters Point Shipyard Citizens’ Advisory Committee.



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