By casting 99% of the US population as collective victim of a miniscule minority’s monumental greed, the American branch of the Occupy Movement has provided a brilliant framework for bringing together a broad coalition to take on the worst manifestations of what, for the past 35 years or so, has been an almost entirely one-sided class war waged by the ruling elite. Students, their grandparents, heretofore apolitical people, the employed and unemployed, veterans, the housed and the homeless, and people of all ages and colors have partaken in the Occupy Movement (all, of course, to varying degrees).
This framing has profound limitations, however, which are evident in places like California’s Mendocino County (part of the marijuana-growing Golden Triangle on the North Coast), where the vast majority of those who identify themselves as being on the “left” seem to have little interest in delving deeper into the local class structure. As a result, the political interests of a large segment of the so-called 99% — needless to say, the bottom 50% or so — are almost entirely marginalized. It’s difficult to graft the Occupy framework onto each and every place.
Speaking only for myself, I’ve lived in inland Mendo for over three years, and I’ve almost never heard of or participated in a public discussion about structural inequality. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Occupy Movement so far is that it has changed the focus, opening up the national discourse so that frank exchanges about class in America are actually possible. A cursory look at the state of Mendo’s housing, employment, healthcare, education, and politics — in other words, its economic and social structure — is an important point of departure.
In short, although many of us here in Mendo labor under the conceit that we are more politically righteous than people in most other parts of the country, a look at economic conditions “on the ground” in our far-flung county paints a strikingly different picture. None of this is to take away the fact that the local counter-culture is decidedly anti-war, non-conformist, and environmentalist, and in many other ways far ahead of the curve as compared with the rest of the country.
Start with housing. Across the United States, a country devastated by several decades of virtually one-sided class warfare, 19 million housing units lie vacant. On the other hand, approximately 3.5 million people are homeless, according to data compiled by the federal government. The ratio of homeless people to people-less houses, then, is roughly one to five.
Of those who lack a place to rest their heads at night, roughly a third are younger than 18. Homeless shelters and other assistance for the young and poor are being rapidly de-funded, thanks to the austerity being fostered and promoted by both major political parties, with avid sponsorship courtesy of the wealthiest segment of the population.
Ponder for a moment this state of affairs and what it says about the violence inherent in the capitalist system, especially in its present toxic configuration. More than 35 years of “neo-liberalism” have gradually unleashed a quasi-neutron bomb when it comes to housing conditions, severely damaging or ruining the lives of the actual human beings, but leaving the buildings standing.
According to some reports, roughly half of the participants at many Occupy movement encampments are homeless. In what might be deemed the “early days” of the Occupy Movement (it is little more than two months old), author and sociologist Mike Davis noted in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “One of the most important facts about the current uprising is simply that it has… created an existential identification with the homeless.” He later added that “we’re seeing the rebirth of the quality that so markedly defined the migrants and strikers of the Great Depression, of my parents’ generation: a broad, spontaneous compassion and solidarity based on a dangerously egalitarian ethic.”
While such an ethic is manifest in places like Oakland and Zucotti Park, it has not gained much traction here in Mendocino County. Yet, homelessness is rampant here in Mendo, relative to the size of the population. There were 772 men, women, and children reporting homelessness in 2001, according to Project Sanctuary, and that figure is likely far higher today. In its 2010 Annual Report, the Mendocino County Community Development Coalition reported 280 families awaiting assistance — more than in previous years.
In many ways, housing inequality and houselessness are more severe here in Mendocino County than in the US at large, on average. Median household income in the county is roughly $36,000 — significantly lower than the national average of $54,000. In spite of this 50% lag in wages as compared with the US as a whole, Mendo housing prices are nearly equal to the national average. In the US at large, the average is $272,000 for a house; in Mendo, $254,500.
Marijuana and other sectors of the underground economy fill the gap for a vastly disproportionate share of the regional population, of course (something extremely difficult to quantify). Anyone who actually relies on the mainstream economy, though, is at a severe disadvantage right out of the gate.
A 2004 report by Mendocino Council of Governments, funded by California Department of Housing and Community Development (online at http://www.abag.ca.gov/planning/interregional/stateirp/state_program.htm ) for the purpose of documenting the “jobs/housing imbalance” in California, provides a devastating picture of the extent of gentrification in this region of California. The study looked at housing and employment trends in the so-called “California Wine Country Region,” which consists of Napa, Sonoma, Lake, and Mendocino Counties. The gap between prevailing wages and the cost of housing is severe. The study projected that in Anderson Valley, seven people would need to work full-time given the prevailing wages in order to afford an average house. The two-tiered economic system that has long been unfolding on the coast, dominated as it is by tourism and real estate speculation, is nearly as painful.
It’s not hard to identify those chiefly responsible for these conditions: that much-maligned economic sector known as the “1%.” Again, in the case of Anderson Valley, 82% of vineyard acreage was owned by people who don’t live in Mendocino County as of the early-2000s, when David Severn completed a study on the subject. These people are nearly all independently wealthy. In fact, most of them are not people at all, being corporations with hundreds of millions in annual revenue.
A similar dynamic is at play in the local rental market. Labor historian Cal Winslow, a founder and director of the Mendocino Institute based in Fort Bragg, compiled a valuable report on Mendo’s housing in 2002, available here.
His conclusions concerning the crisis in local housing are even more valid today than they were nine years ago. As Winslow points out in the report, the one% dominates the field:
“A quick visit to the offices of the specialists in vacation rentals is revealing. Between them, Shoreline Vacation Rentals, Coast Getaways, Mendocino Coast Reservations, Seacrest Properties, and Century 21 manage hundreds of such properties. Most often, they rent for $300 per night, more in the peak seasons. The economics here are clear enough — $300 a night equals $2,100 in a week, a high income, probably more than a month’s rent from a steady tenant. Of course, there are expenses, but there are also tax breaks and other incentives for landlords.
“The title companies and the realtors also list the addresses of property owners. I looked at addresses for Mendocino and Caspar, 1603 in all. 584 — more than a third — of these were owned by absentee landlords, people and companies found elsewhere, often in the Bay Area but also throughout the country and a few places beyond. Once again, there will be an overlap with vacation rentals. Still, it is clear that a considerable portion of the housing stock is not available to those who would like to live and work on the Mendocino Coast.”
Will Parrish is a political organizer and freelance writer from Northern California, much of whose work first appears in the Anderson Valley Advertiser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.