Housing, Street Sellers, Rif Protests, and Political Prisoners

Housing Committee Activist

Casablanca  We could almost say this was an “easy” day for the Organizers’ Forum, because we finished earlier than usual, but we packed it full.

We started talking at length to an organizer-activist about the organizing of a housing committee to protect against evictions and displacements of lower income families, many of whom had traditionally lived in the old city, called the medina. His was an interesting story, but one that is all too common around the world as city after city fails to confront gentrification and the soaring values of properties in their central business core, whether it be Vancouver, Mumbai, or New Orleans.

His story was couched in the language of conspiracy and drama, but it stripped down to a fairly usual, but sad tale with some twists. The state using eminent domain condemned land. It contracted with private companies to build housing for displaced families on the land and market the properties to them at prices running about $20,000 for the land and $7000 USD for the construction of the fairly small places. These properties were more than a dozen miles from the city center where families had lived, so they now were staying at a considerable distance from their livelihoods. The housing scheme was somewhat similar to Delhi except the distances are often twice as far away, taking hours of travel each way. We could say at least there was alternative housing, often not the case in the USA or what we are now seeing in the Canadian and United Kingdom housing markets.

The displacement was an interesting version of the demolition-eviction schemes around Vancouver, British Columbia now with a New York City rent control twist. In Casablanca the rents have been frozen for several generations since families were allowed to inherit not only the apartments, but the actual rent. There were only four ways a landlord could change the terms of this frozen rent ranging from personal or family occupancy to forced rehabilitation and dangerous habitation. Not surprisingly some landlords were selling out and sometimes speculators were coming in, and both were often allowing units to deteriorate to the level that they could then fix-and-flip. Our friends organizing in these conditions often mounted resistance to the evictions, but seemed to still be uncertain of a successful long term strategy in a difficult situation. We found much the same as he discussed their work in trying to organize street sellers. The state had organized market places, but these cost money, and there were pressures against the union which seem to make the work of volunteers difficult.

We had promised to observe and join an action at the prison where political prisoners were not being allowed visits from their families. We were warned continually about not talking to what seemed to be reporters because many were thought to be employed directly by the security forces. In fact as we left and waited for our cab we watched a security official taking pictures of our delegation at length.

Prison Protest

Security taking pictures

Interestingly, we talked to an activist-organizer from the Rif where there have been protests in the northern, Berber part of the country for months involving tens of thousands of people, the largest demonstrations since the Arab Spring and the 20th of February. The demonstrations began around corruption and governmental inattention. The organizer told us the real issue now was, if anything, more fundamental. The water was no longer safe to drink, so the organizing was increasingly grassroots and demanding potable water so that people could maintain the simple, basic right to life.

It’s a big world, but the more we listened, the more we knew it was still one world grasping for change.


Organizers from the Rif


Sorting Out Substance from Scams in Relief Funds

Residents are evacuated from their flooded apartment complex Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in Houston. Storms have dumped more than a foot of rain in the Houston area, flooding dozens of neighborhoods. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

New Orleans  I’m looking forward to driving to Houston this week to finish a trip that was unbelievably storm delayed. Even though Beaumont, Texas not far across the Louisiana border is still without potable water, and neighborhoods in Houston are still flooded, Interstate 10 runs through it all on an open road from New Orleans to the Pacific Ocean, and I’ll be pedal to the metal to get there.

I’m hoping to sort out who is really on the ground doing the job. Having been too intimately involved in post-Katrina work in New Orleans, that is the key to recovery, not necessarily the heroes and goats in the first wake of the storm and the tally of dollars for relief. There were plenty of both though. A local mattress company and an Academy Sports location have gotten rave reviews for their open arms and generosity, just as Joel Osteen and his megachurch and gospel of prosperity has been pilloried for the lack of both. Houston is a big time corporate headquarters and some big timers have stepped up including the Michael Dell of Dell Computers with a pledge of $36 million and the John and Laura Anderson Foundation of Enron energy trading fame with $5 million. JJ Watt, the Houston Texas NFL star, supported by his mom back home in small town Wisconsin has soared from a goal of $200,000 to crest $18 million and rising. An equally enjoyable story is the complete embrace of far right conservatives like Texas governor Greg Abbot and cantankerous Senator Ted Cruz of as much money as they can score from their much hated and abused federal government. Abbot has set the price tag at $180 billion wanting Texas to have the record in this category as well.

Watt’s mom is worried about how to spend the money as well she and the donors should be. At least President Trump didn’t endorse specific charities in the way that George W Bush propped Habitat for Humanity and the Red Cross. Habitat raised over $300 million after Katrina and a dozen years later is still accounting for how it spent the money since its sweat equity model was out-strapped by the need for housing PDQ, rather than in the by and by. Houston is likely to have a similar problem with public housing displacements at over 30,000 and schools and jobs still inaccessible for many people. People will need housing, but where do you build on the same flood plains, and who is making the plans and where are people in the process? These are critical questions with 50,000 in hotel rooms now and only 1500 still in the George Brown Convention Center. These are also questions that were poorly answered after Katrina over and over as we continually had to fight against displacement and for quicker movement of funds.

People need to be at the table. In Houston under Mayor Bill White after Katrina, he wisely convened a daily morning meeting to make sure up to 100,000 Katrina survivors were welcomed and housed. At that meeting were chief executives of Fortune 500 companies and the business elite, as well as representatives from ACORN. White strong armed the Houston real estate interests to open up all of their available rental units to Katrina survivors. Current Mayor Sylvester Turner needs to do the same thing.

While doing the right thing, avoid the scamsters. Social media and crowdfunding are hot with appeals, but beware. Websites are springing up willy-nilly as always. Money is going to be needed for a long time from Houston to Beaumont. There’s no harm in making sure that your few dollars are going where the impact will be the greatest, but it may take some time to sort that out. That’s one of the things I’ll be doing this week, so stay ready and willing, but be careful.