James Tracy is a well-respected San Francisco social justice organizer who has been defending the housing rights of poor and working class people since the 1990s. A poet who also wrote the very useful The Civil Disobedience Handbook and co-authored Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power, Tracy’s new book is called Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes From San Francisco’s Housing Wars. This compact volume provides a broad overview of much of San Francisco’s grassroots political action against displacement (a term Tracy prefers to the blander “gentrification”) over the past two decades. It also cites examples of innovative housing initiatives in other parts of the U.S., including New York City, Boston, Albuquerque, Chicago, and Vallejo, California. Tracy calls it “an organizer’s notebook.”
In San Francisco’s current onslaught of real estate speculation, any resident of the city who isn’t rich and doesn’t own their dwelling can be forgiven for feeling nervous about their future housing. 2,000 tenants were evicted last year, and many others moved out of town because of the likelihood of eviction.
To walk or drive most San Francisco streets in the second half of 2014 is to be overwhelmed by the number of luxury condo developments that have sprung up like so many poisonous mushrooms. Entire city blocks have been razed to house the new elite of corporate casual Silicon Valley commuters.
San Francisco’s Mission District has long been ground zero for displacement wars. In the ‘90s, a handful of small neighborhood residents with strong track records in defending the rights of poor people came together to form the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC). Tracy writes, “MAC recognized that the fight was on multiple fronts, combining Direct Action with electoral mobilization. MAC could also turn out hundreds of people for planning commission meetings. Internally, the coalition defined gentrification as the local expression of global neoliberal economics and a continuance of domestic colonial practice.” MAC also “opened a new front by targeting the city’s planning process.”
The coalition saw seven of eight candidates they endorsed in the 2000 Board of Supervisors race emerge victorious. One of the most militant of those supervisors, Chris Daly, later explained how the electoral victories lead to a decline in street heat: “It’s just that so much of the energy went into mobilizing for meetings at City Hall, when in fact there was only so much that could get done there.” As is usually the case with coalition politics, many factors conspired to result in MAC’s demise.
Advocates for equitable housing policies in the city have taken a brutal beating this year. First, attempts to roll back the Ellis Act, which has facilitated a huge increase in evictions, failed at the state level. Then Proposition G, which would have instituted a city tax on speculators flipping residential buildings for massive profits, was defeated by an electorate fed a steady diet of realtor-funded lies via mailers and print, radio, and TV ads. Corporate opponents outspent Prop G forces by a factor of 12 to one.
In such a free for all of large-scale development for the rich, it’s tempting to focus on praying for a market crash. But building effective movements to turn such a situation around, or at least to preserve and develop as much housing as possible for the poor and working class, requires also looking at what has been done in the past twenty years to counter profiteering realtors and their various allies in plunder.
Tracy has collaborated with an impressive spectrum of activists over the years, and the various struggles they engaged in are well represented in Dispatches Against Displacement. It begins with his youthful immersion in the early 1990s Eviction Defense Network (EDN), a group of scrappy malcontents who devoted themselves to picketing the homes and businesses of eviction-happy landlords. Though initially disdainful of electoral politics, the EDN crew eventually developed a more nuanced analysis that allowed for working with individuals and groups pushing ballot initiatives and backing candidates for office. But Tracy argues forcefully that politicians are only as progressive as their base constituency forces them to be. He’s interested in the hard work of shoe leather organizing, not charismatic leaders or the promises of the Democratic Party.
Tracy isn’t dogmatic in his discussion of what might have been done better in the resistance to San Francisco’s first tech-fueled real estate gold rush. He sees the value of both reformist approaches and more radical street-centered politics. But he has especially keen insights into a “shift toward stewardship” through community land trusts, in which residents cooperatively run their own homes while a community-controlled organization owns the land the structures sit on. The San Francisco Land Trust, which Tracy co-founded, has a strong track record with this approach: incorporated in 2004, it has secured about seventy homes which are now off the market. Obviously this is not enough of a shift to come close to satisfying the city’s needs, but it’s a commendable accomplishment nonetheless. And it’s only one approach among many; as the this book notes, “Activists should resist the temptation to fetishize one organizational form as the only one capable of contributing to a housing movement.”
At the beginning of the book, Tracy quotes from radical thinker Herbert Marcuse: “The housing crisis doesn’t exist because the system isn’t working. It exists because that’s the way the system works.” Based on housing costs, the system benefits the wealthy throughout the country, not only in San Francisco. Tracy cites the work of the National Housing Law Project, which emphasizes the links between wages and housing and tracks what is affordable for the average worker. He writes that this group’s data “… has consistently shown that rents far outpace the means to pay not only in high-investment, hyper-gentrified cities like San Francisco, but also in shrinking cities such as Detroit.” Thus, “In 2014 … there is no state in the United States where a typical low-income worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment.”
So the majority of U.S. residents are in need of affordable housing. The work to turn that situation around will be long and arduous. This inspiring book, filled with useful insights and shrewd analysis, is a strong contribution to that struggle.
Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org