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¡Todo el Pueblo al Sueno!

Behind a chain link fence on 35th Ave, the man who gardens every day for other people grows his own roses, gathered around a statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Off 98th Ave, backyard barbeques are legendary, as is the young cousin who always wins the battles of wits and words that break out after the hot links are finished. The elders on 8th Street trace smooth Tai-Chi flows into the crisp dawn air, pivoting on one heel to turn towards the sunrise. These are the flatlands of Oakland. These are the places we call home and they are now at great risk.

In the space of only a couple of years, the Oakland flatlands went from being the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis, losing tens of thousands of long-time Black and Latino residents welcoming a wave of corporate investment that will not only fill the gap left by those who were pushed out, but reshape working class neighborhoods in Oakland, and transform the city as a whole.

Corporate investors are ahead of the game. They have descended on Oakland and snatched up a shocking 42% of homes lost to foreclosure, 93% of which are in the flatlands . And finance capital is creating the conditions for a growing bubble in the housing market — rent securitization, a way for investors to trade on rents the way they did on mortgages . They will profit from the new renters created by the foreclosure crisis, and from an entire new class of people coming into redeveloped neighborhoods, attracted by highly paid tech jobs in the region.

Proclaiming that "a rising tide lifts all boats" even city officials who identify as progressive have embraced and facilitated this ruthless brand of corporate investment, anxious to bring revenue in, without enough consideration of the impacts those investments will have on neighborhoods vulnerable to the dynamics of gentrification.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan recently unveiled a new project — 10,000 new units of housing aimed explicitly at housing tech workers priced out of San Francisco. This is Oakland's second "10k Plan". Mayor Jerry Brown (1999-2007) implemented the first in the early 2000s. It ushered in the first wave of widely criticized gentrification in Oakland, and reshaped the area spanning Old Oakland, Chinatown, and downtown, that developers renamed "Uptown."

The second 10k plan stretches into adjacent areas like North Oakland, and the light industrial zone between downtown and East Oakland. The plan's vague promise of "up to 25% affordable units" is inadequate to address the urgent and overdue needs of the neighborhoods that are being targeted for this development.

In North Oakland, for example, 40% of residents are under the poverty line. New housing at 29th and Telegraph should be built for those working class residents. We need to have stronger protections to keep the housing they rent affordable and in livable condition. It somehow seems beyond the limits of local officials' political imagination to prioritize housing and development for people who built this city and need it the most. Or perhaps is it just easier to let the problem of poverty, and its survivors, get pushed out to underserved working class suburbs, where they become someone else's problem.

Causa Justa :: Just Cause member Mustafa Solomon has lived with his daughter near Market St. in North Oakland for 17 years. "We like living in Oakland," he says. "I'm a photographer and it's close to the cultural scene that I work with. I have lived in the same neighborhood all these years. It's where I'm the most comfortable." He and his daughter were displaced after an accidental fire in their kitchen. They lacked a smoke detector, which is a landlord's legal responsibility to provide. The landlord took advantage of the situation to evict them. Without relocation assistance, Mustafa lived in his car for a week while coming up with the resources to move him and his daughter to a motel in Vallejo for 6 months while the unit was being repaired. Now that he's back in the unit, the landlord is trying to pass through the cost of repairs by raising his rent.

As this new wave of investment comes into Oakland, situations like Mustafa's are commonplace. Thousands of other African American tenants face similar challenges, as do immigrants, senior citizens, disabled people, queer people, and other tenants vulnerable to discrimination and harassment.

Causa Justa's tenant rights clinics have recently seen a sudden and significant increase in these types of cases. While investment money floods in to build luxury lofts, what's left of the affordable housing stock is in deplorable condition, and tenants lack the legal tools, or political power to defend themselves against the pressure of displacement. Tenants who pay more affordable rent due to long-term tenancies are finding themselves unable to get basic repairs, are being harassed and discriminated against, and living in unhealthy conditions.

Without legal protections, tenants cannot compete with the profit motive that entices landlords to push them out. Refusing repairs and harassing a tenant is an easy way to do so without having to follow any legal process. Building new housing doesn't address the problem of habitability that working class tenants face, and it often accelerates their displacement. More affluent people, many of them single, young white tech workers, quickly take up the space that is left when people like Mustafa are pushed out without so much as a legal eviction notice.

Gentrification – the profit-driven race and class remake of urban working class communities of color that have suffered from a history of divestment and abandonment – is evident all over urban centers in the US, where long-time communities are being pushed out of their homes. Can Oakland stand up and be a bold model of something different?

At the grassroots, people are ready. Resilient in the face of crisis, Mustafa is not about to give up, despite the odds stacked against him. "I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and if we keep moving out of Oakland, that means they win. Landlords have resources to get lawyers and work the system. We need some laws to protect tenants."

Tenants at the Hillside Apartments in East Oakland for instance, have organized to collectively demand remediation of the infestation of mold in their building and reclaim their right to healthy housing. Dansheeka was one of the first to stand up in her rent controlled building, moved to take action after her daughter was hospitalized for respiratory problems caused by the mold. As if it wasn't hard enough to deal with illness, mold, and a negligent landlord, Dansheeka's struggle is compounded by the lack of investment in city infrastructure to oversee and maintain rental housing in livable condition. Our city needs to prioritize direct investment into the housing that people who live here already have.

Without aggressive action on behalf of existing residents, gentrification will destroy the rich cultural fabric that Oakland, the most diverse city in the country, has always been so proud of.

The impact on Oakland's African American community is already evident, as documented by the Alameda County Public Health Department and reported by Wendy Georges at Oakland City Council in March of 2014: "Gentrifying neighborhoods have resulted in a substantial displacement of African American households in Oakland, including a loss of Black home ownership." She spoke the number of African Americans in Oakland decreasing by nearly half between 1990-2011, and how home ownership dropped from 50% to 25% and the decline of this population by 17 percentage points – from 43% to 26% — "the largest drop of any population group." She added, "The impact has clearly been disproportionate and favorable to people at the higher end of socio-economic income scale at the expense of people at the lower end of that scale."

The African American community is clearly the canary in the coalmine. A warning of what's to come for all of Oakland's working class communities if we don't change our approach to development.

Rather than step up to the challenge of addressing racialized poverty and investing in Oakland's longtime African American communities, immigrant communities, and communities of color, plans to streamline corporate development simply push people out. Out of the town, out of their homes and diverse cultural communities, and away from the network of community-based infrastructure through which they exercise progressive political power.

What we have in the Bay area housing market is not a simple problem of supply and demand; it's a problem of the lack of corporate and political accountability. We need aggressive, progressive taxation, regulation, and accountability in the housing market and from our city government. We need city officials and decision makers who will step up to the challenge of defending long term residents from gentrification, and partnering to support those residents in building a long-term vision and strategy for healthy, stable communities.

Oakland is now majority renters. That post-foreclosure-crisis reality needs to be reflected in the policies and approach the city takes to housing. We need strong regulations in the rental housing market.

Causa Justa :: Just Cause is proud to have co-created the Tenant Justice Campaign, a broad-based effort to improve laws regulating tenancies and rental housing. Earlier this month we were successful in forcing the Oakland City Council to strengthen rental laws by limiting the ways landlords can raise the rent, forcing them to register every rent increase with the city, and limiting total rent increases to no more than 10% a year, ever, for any reason . This is the first right tenants have gained in Oakland since 2002, the year our organization was founded here, through a broad community-based campaign to implement a Just Cause ordinance limiting evictions.

We will be back at the City Council to finalize and strengthen this victory against rent increases. And we are building towards a ballot initiative in November 2014, asking Oaklanders to support an ordinance creating legal precedent to protect tenants, immigrants, seniors, queer people, and families with children from being evicted and displaced by landlord harassment, including the neglect of basic repairs and maintenance.

These policy reforms are crucial to addressing the crisis of gentrification in the lives of everyday people. Both by providing legal handles for people to fight for their homes, and by building the political protagonism of directly impacted people. That said, these policy changes are just one aspect of the long-term transformative change we need. The difference between a policy on paper, and one that Mustafa or Dansheeka can count on to live in a healthy home, is organizing, and the collective power we build when we come together to defend our neighborhoods and homes.

As longtime West Oaklander, Causa Justa :: Just Cause member, retired bookseller, and Black grandfather Kokovul says "It's bigger than evictions. It's alienation. We've been convinced by capital that we are individuals, that we are consumers, that there is no collective future."

The struggle for healthy, stable housing shouldn't be an individual fight — a source of anxiety that jolts Dansheeka awake in the middle of the night and moves Mustafa to tears as he contemplates his future. In order to be successful the struggle must address the collective needs of the working class African American community they are both leaders in, and build the sense of community that Oakland as a whole is so proud of.

An individual approach to the gentrification crisis will not work. It will only reinforce our isolation, turning us from families and communities into consumers of housing, convinced that gentrification is natural, displacement is inevitable, and the best we can each do is try to save our own skin.

For the sake of our city, for the sake of the communities we thrive in, the struggle for stable, habitable homes needs to be a collective one; a people-powered process that shows us our power as creators of community instead of as consumers; a process that city officials accompany us in as allies of the people they represent; a process that builds grassroots institutions through which we build long-term progressive political power and grow in community with each other in the city we call home.


Join us April 26 at Met West High School for a people's forum to build the struggle for the flatlands.


San Francisco’s gentrification has reached a ridiculous new extreme, making it the most expensive city in the country,[i] outstripping even Manhattan, the home of Wall Street and its corporate tycoons.

The affordability crisis is so extreme that many of those who rode into the Mission District on the first wave of gentrification, during the dotcom boom in the 90s, are now crying foul. Even they can’t afford the 2-bedroom apartment on Valencia Street renting for $11,500/month.[ii] They find themselves priced out of their lofts and community networks, by a whole new wave of highly paid tech workers who ride in on the Google bus every evening, driving rents and home prices to dizzying new heights.

If a well-paid tech worker can’t stay in the Mission, what are the prospects for someone like Jessica, a student whose mother works as a janitor? Born living at 24th and Harrison, she came to Causa Justa :: Just Cause to find our what her family could do to keep their home. They battled valiantly, but were ultimately pushed out of their home of 23 years by an investor who forced them to accept a buy out, by threatening to Ellis Act the entire 9-unit building. The Ellis Act, passed by the real estate lobby in 1986 allows landlords to remove rent-controlled units from the rental market, and turn them into condominiums for sale. It’s a real estate speculator’s dream, and a long-term tenant’s nightmare. Particularly in gentrifying neighborhoods, where real estate prices spike and there’s a profit motive to kick out long-term tenants.[iii]

Jessica’s working class Latino family is deeply committed to staying in San Francisco. The city is more than just their home. It’s home to their extended family of aunties, godfathers, cousins and in-laws. It’s where they have worked in service-sector jobs since the 80s, when so many Central American immigrants arrived to the Sanctuary City[iv], infusing local politics with internationalist ethics. It’s the web of community networks, public schools, and neighorhood-based social services that supports kids as they grow up, and adults as they become elders. It’s that way-beyond-nuclear type of family we call “community.”

Community is that palpable sense of connectedness you feel at the Palestinian-owned corner store on Mission Street. At the Spanish-only Thai grocer on 16th street, where decades-long neighbors run into each, buying freshly fried plantain chips made by a Honduran neighbor, hard-to-find Vietnamese hot sauce, or prickly delicious Rambutan fruit, while catchy Arab pop and Northern Mexican Rancheras blare onto the street. Community is the lunch counter that has served southern Barbeque to SRO residents ever since the days that same building was a tenement, housing African-American migrants who came here from the South to build the naval shipyard in Hunter’s Point. Their descendants are now scattered as far as Antioch and Sacramento, over-represented in homeless shelters, absent from the streets of the Fillmore, SF’s former center of Black culture, now decorated with painfully ironic “Jazz Legacy” street signs for tourists.[v] Community is the traditional Mexican Tres Leches cake the inter-racial queer couple buys at the Chinese bakery every year, wishing a transgender partner “Happy Birthday” to celebrate their gender transition.

Community is the social fabric made up of each of these inter-twined threads. It’s not something you can put a price on. But there is a price - a huge price.

In order to stay in San Francisco, Jessica’s family now pays 40% more for their housing. Did janitors' wages go up 40% this year? Did the cost of living decrease 40%? Did mom-and-pop stores that serve families like Jessica’s get a 40% decrease in skyrocketing commercial rents, so they could lower prices? Not a chance. Instead, Jessica’s family makes it work the way thousands do, by living in more crowded, less habitable conditions, cutting costs on everything from healthcare, to transportation, to food.

For the thousands of families like Jessica’s, the battle to expand tenant rights is more important than ever. Yes, building affordable housing is important. But, by itself, it is just not enough. Non-profit developers struggle to make ends meet and keep units off the market, and, ironically, they need to raise money from the very same corporate interests that are razing our communities. Inclusionary zoning – a few affordable units within huge market-rate developments – is at best a drop in the bucket, and, most often a window-dressing used to justify huge luxury developments that accelerate the pace of gentrification. While all of these reforms have a place in a larger strategy, tenant rights are crucial today more than ever. The single most aggressive way to increase affordability and defend thousands of working class families in San Francisco is to regulate the rental market.

Last year, Causa Justa :: Just Cause lead an effort to win a “hassle-free” housing law -penalizing landlords who harass, making it harder for them to push working class people out & double the rents in gentrifying San Francisco. We also won a subjective battle. We proved to ourselves, to elected officials, and to our communities who are under attack that displacement is not inevitable, that regulations in market housing can curb displacement, and that impacted communities can lead the fight to build a different kind of San Francisco – one that holds community at its heart.

Who are we up against?

Is it tech corporations, real estate developers, local government? Recent protests against the Google Bus highlighted this question, and made national headlines. Some blame tech workers - highly paid, primarily young white people who are pouring into long-time working class communities of color; workers who too often treat our communities like a colorful “ethnic” backdrop for their corporate lives. Some blame the real estate industry - the most active wing of the finance sector that has a stranglehold on California’s economy. The ruthless industry is famous for creating the foreclosure crisis, embodied now by “flippers” that circle like vultures around Mission District Victorians after a working class family has been evicted, setting up sandwich board signs that signal the conversion of a rent-controlled unit into a million-dollar condominium.

This question came up at a meeting I recently attended, where Mission-district community-based organizations met with tech sector representatives, convened by District 9 Supervisor, David Campos. Google, Facebook, AirBnB, and a host of smaller crowd-source start-ups approached Supervisor Campos, wanting to fix the image problem tech has earned for itself in the Mission District. Rather than letting the big companies make a token gesture for PR purposes, to his credit, he brought mission community organizations together so we could express our concerns directly.

It was enlightening, to say the least, to speak directly to representatives of these companies. I noticed that smaller start-ups tended to have a very different character than the big corporations. And yet, somehow, in the public eye, huge tech corporations retain a kind of “perpetual start-up” image – as if its passion, creativity, genius, that drives them, not the billions of dollars they make in profit. A little research revealed that the giant tech corporations are, in fact, known for cartel-like behavior. A huge lawsuit is currently pending, seeking compensation for tens of thousands of engineers whose wages were kept artificially low. CEO’s from Google, Apple, Intel, and Adobe are being sued for violating the Anti-Trust Act, conspiring with each other so that none of them would recruit engineers at each other’s companies with higher wages, thus repressing engineer wages throughout the industry in order to increase profits.[vi] Not to mention wi-fi buses that shuttle workers from SF to Silicon Valley squeeze at least two more hours of work out of each employee. It was ironic, then, to hear company reps defend tech employees from community criticism. If you wanted your employees to be treated more respectfully, shouldn’t you start by doing so, yourself?

What these tech corporation representatives (many in new “community liaison” positions just created a few months ago in response to public pressure) heard from the community was how tech workers flooding into the Mission creates the profit motive for landlords to push people out. Whether the individual tech workers are conscious of it or not, they are complicit in the process of gentrification. The Google bus protests struck a nerve because they highlighted how the Tech sector is facilitating the forced displacement of families like Jessica’s, all while using city infrastructure built with taxes her family has paid, for decades, while tech companies have dodged taxation. The recent ruling by the Metropolitan Transport Agency requiring these huge corporate buses pay $1 per stop was like a slap in the face to the community. Jessica herself pays $2 each time she rides Muni or gets on the bus – each individual bus rider pays DOUBLE what these tax-dodging multi-billion corporations pay. [vii]

Both the Tech and the Real Estate Industries have to take responsibility for the affordability crisis in San Francisco. Blaming Real Estate is an easy out for Tech companies that claim to be “innovating for social good” but ignore the impact their boardrooms of innovation have on surrounding communities. Meanwhile, Real Estate happily lets Tech workers take the blame for their reckless profiteering, hiding behind the myth that the housing market is some kind of force of nature, instead of a real time series of power relationships that human beings have responsibility for. In the background of each wave of gentrification, each massive increase in rents, each conversion of a rent-controlled apartment into a luxury condominium is an incredibly powerful finance industry that shapes not just San Francisco, but California as a whole.

Who will defend the heart of San Francisco?

Local governments need to step up to the challenge of holding corporations accountable. Accepting gifts from Tech Industry tycoons as a way to let them avoid real taxation is neither sustainable as a strategy, nor defensible morally. Letting Real Estate throw in a couple affordable units as a way to avoid real regulation in the housing market is not just insufficient to meet the affordability needs – it’s fueling the displacement of working class communities of color.

In his “State of the City” address, Mayor Ed Lee promised to defend tenant protections, fight the Ellis Act, and build affordable housing. Without a strategy of corporate accountability, these promises will be impossible to keep. What does the city gain by depriving itself of tax revenue? Billions of dollars come through San Francisco this way, pushing working class communities out and filtering into private hands. Promising to provide “Housing for All” without an aggressive corporate accountability strategy is like handing out free umbrellas in the face of a Tsunami.

And it's bigger than just the Mayor. Every one of us has a role to play in the battle for the heart of San Francisco. Concerned individuals, direct action collectives, neighborhood associations, small businesses committed to the community, tech workers exploited by their bosses, we all have a responsibility. Causa Justa :: Just Cause organizes people like Jessica, people directly impacted by the crisis, who instead of being victims are, through community struggle, becoming protagonists in the fight for the heart of San Francisco. We know that supporting grassroots leadership is the only way we will change the balance of power in the long term, and we built an organization to play that role in the movement. And there are many more roles to play – from legal and policy work, to direct action in the streets, to building affordable housing, to cultural and community healing work. If we work together, we are stronger. As we learned in the late 90s in the mission, we must work together at a scale bigger than any one neighborhood if we are to contend with the powerful forces driving gentrification.

Today, we have citywide organizations like San Francisco Rising and the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition, poised to fight the battle for the heart of San Francisco. If local government isn't representing us well, then we can make ourselves heard – at the ballot box, in the streets, at corporate headquarters and bus stops, in church halls and city hall.

Gentrification is not natural. Displacement is not inevitable. Everyday people, when we come together, can change the course of history.

Join Jessica, and hundreds of impacted tenants as we come together to build grassroots power, Sat, Feb 8th, at the citywide San Francisco tenant convention!

Live elsewhere in California? Sign the petition to repeal the Ellis Act.

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About the Author

  • Raised in Buenos Aires, politicized in East Los Angeles, Maria Poblet is a nerdy Latina rooted in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Building off a decade of radical community organizing and movement building work, she lead the merger of the Latino organization she built with a Black organization, forming a single, multi-racial powerhouse called Causa Justa :: Just Cause ( Before organizing, she was Artistic Director of Poetry for the People, and had the honor of being mentored by June Jordan. Follow her on twitter @mariadelpueblo

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