Gentrification Assault, Oakland Housing Market Out of Control

DARWIN BONDGRAHAM - Martin and activists outside of Community Realty's offices in April after delivering a letter requesting a meeting with Marr.

DARWIN BONDGRAHAM – Mr. Martin and activists outside of Community Realty’s offices in April after delivering a letter requesting a meeting with Marr.

Vicksburg, Mississippi   It was hard to believe a friend’s claim that Oakland, California has now become one of the three most expensive cities in the country in no small part because the housing market has gone berserk. He said that Oakland now only followed New York City and San Francisco, and had bypassed Seattle, San Jose, and other famously, exorbitant cities. What happened here? Oakland used to be where people moved for affordable housing who couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco, famous for its port, industry, and blue collar grit, and Jack London. The city where Gertrude Stein famously stated, “there’s no there, there.”

But, now they are all coming there. Suddenly, it is also one of the most diverse cities in the country with the population almost evenly split between Latino, African-Americans, whites, and Asian-Americans, so much so that one controversy, when I recently visited, had to do with racial profiling of neighbors in the Nextdoor.com application that is used by one-third of this highly connected city, exposing the well-known, little discussed racism that stalks almost all of these sites with their constant alerts of anyone with a hoody and a tan.

Not without a fight though. Visiting the weekly paper, the East Bay Express, I picked up a recent issue featuring a cover story on one of Oakland’s biggest landlords, Michael Marr, who had specialized in vulture investing of foreclosed properties after the 2008 real estate crash, ending up with 333 houses and apartment buildings in the city with 1300 rental units under management. Now he’s in federal court though for what the FBI characterized as a conspiracy to “rig foreclosure auctions” along with eleven other East Bay real-estate investors who “made a pact not to compete with one another at foreclosure auctions.”

Marr is letting his lawyers handle that mess and meanwhile is trying to jack rents in some cases by more than $1000 per month. Rent controls in Oakland only cap increases for homes built before 1983, as the impact of such increase would cause massive displacement of many long term residents. It was good to see that standing in the way and organizing the tenants was the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, known as ACCE, and formerly California ACORN. The tenants and the organization have demanded a rent freeze while the court case is pending, a sale of Marr’s ill-gotten properties to the Oakland Land Trust, and action on lingering issues with mold, bedbugs and other problems. ACCE is not only fighting these issues in Oakland either. Fighting a foreclosure with a late night rally at a vulture investor’s house in Los Angeles has found them defending their free speech and association rights in Los Angeles as well.

ACORN has recently won rent controls in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland with the Living Rent Campaign, and more landlord accountability in Toronto and Bristol, but there is little in any of our arsenals to prevent sweeping gentrification without a public and governmental commitment to diversity and affordability in a city. Oakland could become the battleground where we have a chance.

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James O’Keefe is Just a Clown Now

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Illustration by Mike McQuade; Source: Chip Somodevilla / Getty (man)

New Orleans    I’m tired of hearing anything about James O’Keefe, the discredited video scammer, whose one infamous claim to notoriety was his heavily edited attack on ACORN in 2009 in concert with conservative pundits and Congressional representatives. Luckily, I’m now in the vast majority as one escapade after another further exposes him as nothing more than an unethical, unscrupulous jerk. Even better than being little more than a boring footnote of these dark times, we can all find some joy in the fact that increasingly he is nothing more than an embarrassment to the conservative cause and a source of ridicule as the poster boy for sheer incompetence.

None of us can forget the Keystone Kops affair at former US Senator Mary Landrieu’s field office in New Orleans, where he and his co-conspirators were caught monkeying with the phones in a ridiculous effort to try and prove her office was not answer the phone about the Affordable Care Act. Huh?!? Well, they got off without having to do time on a felony beef for breaking-and-entering, and eventually pled out and outlasted his probation, but wow….what a bunch of boneheads.

He and his flub-a-dub crew have had one blunder after another to their credit from ACORN on. They stumbled around Texas looking for some evidence of mischief in Obamacare signups and were chased out of the Local 100 office in Dallas when busted. They bought a Hillary t-shirt with cash and claimed it was dirty money. Small potatoes. Thin soup. No one’s eating any more.

The latest from the O’Keefe gang that can’t shoot straight was some kind of attempted sting they were planning on George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. Supposedly they were trying to make a point about how groups are networked or something, but god only knows.

Anyway, according to reports in The New Yorker and on the Media Matters website, they were trying to set up their operation claiming some Hungarian émigré wanted to work with them, as if that’s the way OSI operates. They had someone with a British accent who was going to pretend to be Hungarian. The whole scene already sounds unbelievably bizarre.

As they reported:

Conservative media darling James O’Keefe accidentally detailed his plans to infiltrate and smear progressive organizations on the voicemail of Dana Geraghty, an employee of liberal philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, continuing a string of embarrassing missteps in his attempts at undercover stings. After leaving Geraghty a voicemail claiming to be “Victor Kesh,” a “Hungarian-American who represents a, uh, foundation,” O’Keefe held “a meeting about how to perpetrate an elaborate sting on Soros,” unaware that his phone was still connected to Geraghty’s voicemail. During the call, O’Keefe outlined plans to send an “undercover” operative posing as a potential donor to the foundation in a project he named “Discover the Networks.” O’Keefe’s plot involved using an English orthopedic surgeon with “a real heavy British accent” to secretly film Soros-linked progressive organizations. He later admitted that “some of us just forget to hang up the phone. The New Yorker continued:

 

The accidental recording reached farcical proportions when Kesh announced that he was opening Geraghty’s LinkedIn page on his computer. He planned to check her résumé and leverage the information to penetrate the Soros “octopus.” Kesh said, “She’s probably going to call me back, and if she doesn’t I can create other points of entry.” Suddenly, Kesh realized that by opening Geraghty’s LinkedIn page he had accidentally revealed his own LinkedIn identity to her. (LinkedIn can let users see who has looked at their pages.) “Whoa!” an accomplice warned. “Log out!” The men anxiously reassured one another that no one checks their LinkedIn account anyway. “It was a little chilling to hear this group of men talking about me as a ‘point of entry,’ ” Geraghty says. “But—not to sound ageist—it was clear that these people were not used to the technology.”

I mean, really, need I say more?

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A Book Provides a Good Excuse to Celebrate Organizing and Organizers

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La Familia Peña-Govea

San Francisco   As luck would have it, I had gotten a notice that there was going to be an event to publicize Gabriel Thompson’s excellent book, America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century, at the Crossroads Café in San Francisco on one of the nights that I was in town, so I stopped by. Thompson ably presented the book and a bunch were sold, but this was this was more of a reunion, than a reading.

Dr. Mimi Silbert of Delancey Street Foundation

Dr. Mimi Silbert of Delancey Street Foundation

The Crossroads Café turned out to be a of the signature efforts of the justly famous Delancey Street Foundation, one of the bright lights of the rehabilitation movement for prisoners and others. Dr. Mimi Silbert, the general and CEO of this all volunteer, self-help operation, was one of the livewire story tellers, introducing the program and cementing the bonds between the farmworkers and the foundation and its people. Fred Ross, Jr., also a career organizer, didn’t give an inch of ground though in telling stories about his father as well, including one legendary family tale that Thompson had not been able to authenticate, but had famous Hollywood moviemaker Cecil DeMille seeing Fred Ross and his brother in their youth and muscle building stage working as extras in one of his productions where they were Roman slaves, and reportedly saying, “who are those two assholes with the Hollywood haircuts!”

Gabriel Thompson

Gabriel Thompson

Thompson did a fine job of understanding the crowd and focusing on a few of the Ross’ axioms and reading several sections of the book and taking the opportunity with this group of thanking many for paving the road to getting the book done. Social Policy in its most recent number did a special feature on the book, but somehow hearing from Thompson that June 9, 1952 was the exact date that Fred Ross recruited Cesar Chavez, speaks volumes in and of itself about the value of the book and the wealth of its information.

But the night belonged to the people who came to share their memories of Ross and the work, and that was a special celebration to be able to witness. There was testimony from old comrades remembering the struggle and what they had shared, shoulder to shoulder with Ross, and what it had meant to them, while also making it clear when speaking of Ross that there was no sacrifice involved, no regrets expressed, because he “loved organizing.” What a wonderful truth, rarely realized!

Fred Ross Jr.

Fred Ross Jr.

Henry Weinstein, the veteran, former labor reporter from The Los Angeles Times told the story of the Gallo fight with great vigor, and his anger, even as a supposedly objective observer, subtly demonstrated another, often missed, truth that universally motivates organizers and animates the work. Christine Pelosi, one of the daughters of the former House Speaker, told a story about taking off a semester from Georgetown to help in her mother’s first Congressional election. Ross and Ross, Jr. were both working in the guts of the campaign. Ross, Jr. had told an earlier story about Pelosi’s father having sent someone over from Baltimore where Pelosi’s father had been mayor to make sure the “house meeting” strategy was for real. Christine described showing up to work on a phone bank and telling Fred Ross that she didn’t know what she could do, because she didn’t have a phone list. Ross told her, “Use the book.” He meant the phone book, which he sat in front of her. She described him sitting there, silently, arms and legs crossed to observe her as she began doing what she had felt impossible and ridiculous moments before, and started cold calling through the numbers. She also told about a boot camp preparing for the 2008 election and bringing the Clinton and Obama teams together, and the fact that using house meetings came up in the discussion. The Clinton team, said, why bother, “we didn’t use them in South Carolina.” The Obama veterans shouted, “We did!” Obama had of course won the South Carolina primary, a turning point in his campaign.

In some ways that said it all about Ross, a legacy written in the work and in the leaders he developed and trained. Fred, Jr., still organizing as well, understood that the book is simply a platform, almost an excuse, to call the troops back from memory lane and into battle.

In the rare opportunities to celebrate, there is a rekindling of conviction.

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Glenn Beck Says Facebook is Cool, No Problem

 The entrance to Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., where a group of 16 Republican pundits and politicians met with Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and other top executives on Wednesday. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

The entrance to Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., where a group of 16 Republican pundits and politicians met with Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and other top executives on Wednesday. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

San Francisco    So, Mohammed went to the mountain. Supposedly a dozen or so big name conservatives were rolling into Silicon Valley and, more specifically, Facebook’s headquarters to meet with be top brass there to make sure the Facebook news feed and trending stories weren’t being slanted to the left. There was a lot of buildup to this peacekeeping mission before the meeting several days ago, but pretty much radio silence after that.

Somewhat surprisingly, I was sent the report from one of the big names at the summit, our old nemesis, Glenn Beck, dot connector and conspiracy hunter on radio and television. Beck’s report boiled down to the bottom line was, no problem, this is a much ado about nothing, they’re making a mountain out of a molehill.

He reports that between 25 and 30 folks met with Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. He listened to what they had to say, and though being clear that he was a techno-peasant like most of the rest of us, he had listened carefully to his own tech people, and he thought it was one of those things where they were sincere, and it was just one guy with one beef crying that the sky was falling, and not a real problem to his lights. He was clear he had been a long time Facebook fan, and was nothing but positive about Zuckerberg. All of the concerns in the mainstream media about the responsibilities of Facebook as major news source without the proper protocols and accountability to be whispering in the ears and infiltrating the eyes of 1.6 billion, didn’t faze Beck in the least. He was good on all that.

On the other hand, he had some worries he wanted to share, presumably not with the likes of me, but with his conservative readership, that offered an interesting peephole into what the other folks and the room might have been saying. And, what his compadres were saying was worrisome to Beck, because they sounded like a much liberals to our guy, Glenn.

Reading between the lines some of the fire breathers must have seen a meeting with the big whoops of Facebook as a chance to put their noses under the tent and convert this dustup into a permanent presence. They had demands about diversity, Mormon representation, a 6-month training program for the employees so they understood conservatism, etc, etc. In Beck’s words,

It was like affirmative action for conservatives. When did conservatives start demanding quotas AND diversity training AND less people from Ivy League Colleges. I sat there, looking around the room at ‘our side’ wondering, ‘Who are we?’ Who am I?

He also mentioned some folks that must not have left the meeting in the same “happy place” that Beck had found, like the CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Committee and some other people unknown to me.

But, before you think, wow, Glenn Beck, what might a meeting have been like where he was the voice of reason, the more worrisome thing to take away is not Beck’s astute note on the similarity of demands from any aggrieved group, but the fact that Beck felt at home with the political philosophy being expressed in Silicon Valley and at Facebook, the sort of libertarian, conservative anarchism that permeates the space. As Beck said elsewhere in his piece,

I understand why conservatives are suspicious of Silicon Valley. It can feel a lot like the main stream media. But I’ve told you many times that I feel at home in Silicon Valley. I love the energy. These are people who want to innovate and disrupt, they want the government to stop regulating their businesses, they want small business to succeed, they value personal responsibility, etc. Why they are liberal? I don’t know, but in general, they’re not Progressives, at least not the folks I met with today (though I’m sure there were a few).

For anyone who thinks Silicon Valley and tech-world is somehow a bastion of progressive folks because you like your IPhone and your Amazon Prime and your Facebook, Beck is giving you the skinny. He’s “sure there were a few” out there, but he’s still looking. He observed that the real problem that under-girded the meeting and this incident is that there was no trust between conservatives and Facebook. Progressives should have the same caution and reserve trust, and perhaps like Beck, even judgement, no matter how much we love the tools. These people are scary.

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Going Deep in the Tenderloin with Randy Shaw

DSCN1177San Francisco   When I lasted visited with Randy Shaw at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic about a year ago, the Tenderloin Museum was nearing opening day, and he offered a personal tour the next time I was in the Bay Area. Needless to say, I didn’t hesitate to take him up on the offer this trip.

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Randy is a now a long time fixture in the Tenderloin as a housing and tenant organizer and lawyer of several decades standing, as well as an author of several books on organizing and, more recently, on the Tenderloin itself. The Tenderloin, as the name of the neighborhood in downtown San Francisco implies, speaks colorfully to its own history as the favored location for the pursuit of sometimes open and sometimes illicit pleasure of different forms for generations whether that be dancing or gambling, wine, women, work, or song. It was also the longtime home near the heart of the San Francisco labor movement and of huge and important tenant struggles, some of which Shaw was in the middle of as well, which have arguably made the small, dense blocks of the Tenderloin perhaps the last working class, semi-affordable neighborhood in this high-flying executive city where average home prices now top $2 million.

DSCN1179The Tenderloin Museum does a good job in a well-organized, nicely crafted space in telling the diverse story of the community’s history and struggles, as well as importantly it’s people, whether immigrants or workers or writers and artists. Amazingly, as I walked through the museum with Shaw, I looked up and there was an illuminated map of the Tenderloin and its streets, dramatically underscoring the diverse history and stories of the space.

The quick tour of the museum turned out to be only a prelude to a fuller understanding of the way Shaw and the housing clinic have used their base and experience in the area to be developers steering the very future of how people will come to see the Tenderloin in coming years. The museum of course anchors the history, but walking these short blocks from Shaw’s office, we popped our heads into a construction site, where a restaurant, the Black Cat, is taking shape, which they support as cheerleaders and investors. Several blocks from the museum and the cat, at 236 Leavenworth we walked into an art gallery displaying work by Tenderloin artists or artists with a connection to the neighborhood that was surprise in and of itself.

DSCN1181Another couple of blocks away Shaw greeted the director of a space opening this week that they fondly called the Octopus because of the giant murals of fish and sea creatures dominated of course by the octopus itself. Dave Eggers, the noted author and another impresario in the literature, art, and cultural world, had found his match in Shaw as the primary promoter of the Tenderloin and its treasurers and was on the eve of opening a huge space to mentor young writers in one section, supported by retail in another. Last minute painting was still being done by the muralists, video crews were coming in, and the organizers saluted Shaw on his recent coup of getting the Mayor to the opening to launch the space.

Anywhere else in San Francisco all of this might have added up to the first shots coming from the guerrilla troops of the gentrifiers, but in these subtle statements behind numbered doors, it was clear that instead – at least for now – I was getting to watch value being added to the community that was understated, but appropriate and significant to what we can still hope is a bastion for the future of the city where people may still have a place.

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Overtime Rule is One Thing, Enforcement is Another

iStock_000015098858MediumSan Jose   It’s official now. Starting December 1st, a bit more than six months from now, salaried employees making less than about $47,000 per year or $913 a week will be eligible for overtime pay at time-and-one-half of their effective hourly rate. The last adjustment in 2004 was a bit over $23,000 or $455 per week. Importantly, embedded in the rule is a regular adjustment every three years, so in 2020 the Department of Labor estimates that overtime eligibility will be $51,000. Earlier estimates targeted the impact as potentially effecting more than 5 million workers. Restaurant and other trade associations have indicated continued opposition, but no matter the sound and fury, the impact of this new rule will be huge one way or another.

At the least the new rule mandates a much closer accounting of hours for workers that have been salaried in the range of an effective rate of between $12 per hour and $23 per hour, which will require an obvious adjustment for many employers. The reckoning will not just come in the area of the standard workweek. Any regular meetings, conventions, seminars, and other work-related events that had been automatic for salaried workers in that range will now potentially trigger overtime. And, if not, overtime adjustments in workers’ schedules or exclusion from such events. Travel time has always been a contentious issue for hourly workers, and we can expect a deluge of transitional controversies for such workers now.

Increases before 2004 were more minimal, allowing employers to potentially meet the overtime requirements by raising minimum salaries above the threshold, giving workers a nice raise and avoiding the problems. We can expect that a doubling of the rate will not be met by most employers with an across the board raise of ten or fifteen thousand a year, but some who are close might bump workers over.

Opponents insist that this will mean reduced hours for many salaried workers, and that sounds right, but that’s also fair. Reduced hours for salaried workers does not mean less income than they are receiving now, but at least it means less work for the same amount of money. Workers given fewer hours will either have more leisure or more opportunity to do other work rather than being tied to more hours at the same pay with their primary employer.

My bet though is that this transition will be hard and that the Department of Labor will be swamped with both questions from workers, newly eligible for overtime, and with complaints from many workers whose employers are hoping they can wink-and-nod rather than tightening hours or paying overtime. In city after city where minimum wage increases have been won, we have all found that often the key to whether or not workers actually benefit from the changes is whether or not there is real provision for enforcement. Enforcement means rules with teeth and personnel. There’s no indication that Congress has suddenly beefed up the Wage and Hours Division of the Department of Labor, and they are already lagging in enforcing the existing minimum wage and overtime rules.

For workers to get the benefits claimed by this new rule and actually see increases in real income, it will take a change in employer mindset and enforcement to make sure that employer hearts and minds are forced to change. That change will be harder to realize than the process of simply establishing a new rule. Until then the jury is out on whether or not real wages will increase for salaried workers at the level projected.

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