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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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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Was the Weird Labor Dustup over Airbnb Housekeepers a Trojan Horse?

Protesters at a rally against illegal hotels Jan. 21. (Photo: Jaime Cone)

Protesters at a rally against illegal hotels Jan. 21. (Photo: Jaime Cone)

New Orleans   Over recent weeks there has been a spit fight involving the controversial in-home rental app, Airbnb, and various labor unions, including the frequently controversial Service Employees International Union and its even more controversial former president, Andy Stern, and the now much less widely known hotel workers union, Unite HERE, and a bunch of housing groups. At issue was a potential deal, now scuttled, that would have had Airbnb recommending union cleaners to its hosts and guaranteeing that they would be paid at least $15 per hour and “green” certified. What in the world was this all about, other than perhaps the easier work of making a mountain out of a mole hill?

What’s the beef? SEIU has been the driving force in the “fight for $15” campaign and they have long “owned” the jurisdiction on many types of cleaners. This could not have been a big deal for them. Maybe they would have gained a couple of members or more likely a couple of more hours for work for already existing members, and that only in jurisdictions like New York and California where they have fought and won high union density for such workers. Largely though this would have been little more than a press flurry for a couple of days that then would disappear from consciousness. For Airbnb operators this would have been a fix looking for a problem, since most are either cleaning their own places or already have cleaners, many, if not most of whom are already making more than $15 per hour since they are on-demand workers with more individual bargaining power.

What SEIU seems not to have fully realized is that the fight around Airbnb in tight housing markets like San Francisco, New York, and others where there are active housing groups is intense and polarized, and there is no demilitarized, neutral zone. But, SEIU certainly was well aware that these same areas are also areas where Unite HERE has significant organization among hotel workers, so they have common cause in seeing Airbnb or any service that takes guests out of a union hotel as the anti-Christ. Going back to the jurisdictional wars within labor what was a close labor partnership between the unions went way, way south, when SEIU offered a safe haven for parts of UNITE and its former leader, Bruce Raynor, in an internecine struggle with John Wilhelm. To put another finger in Unite HERE’s eyes, the architect of that shotgun merger was Andy Stern, who reportedly was also representing Airbnb in these preliminary negotiations about this deal.

Neither Airbnb nor SEIU had much to gain other than a couple of props and press releases from this deal, so it is no surprise that current SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, saw this as a distraction, and quickly went to current Unite HERE president’s Dee Taylor’s Las Vegas stronghold to, in all likelihood, get her hand slapped, apologize, and hope the whole mess would die like other things in Vegas. This was all much ado about nothing.

Unfortunately, this let’s-make-a-deal love affair between some unions and Silicon Valley tech operations is worrisome still. Airbnb doesn’t really have a labor problem in any classic sense, but something like Uber, the ride sharing app really does. In a recent court settlement on Uber, in exchange for pretending their drivers were not employees, Uber agreed to some vague language about being willing to meet with – or help create a forum – for associations of their drivers to discuss issues. Actual unions of Uber drivers have been in formation in Seattle and other West Coast cities. Was it a lawyer or a union advisor that thought these meetings and company “unions” were a good idea as anything but a union-avoidance strategy? Certainly, the campaign master and deal maker for Uber is someone with rich Democratic politics experience from the Obama campaigns and relationships with a lot of current – and former – union leaders. I would worry that Airbnb might have been a Trojan horse for an Uber type problem, since too many are painfully fuzzy about the hard core anti-labor, job destroying, disruption philosophy that is the dominant ideology of Silicon Valley.

The next shoes that fall could hurt a lot more than this one.

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Is Co-living About Affordability or Gentrification?

JJ Chez Hacker House in San Francisco

JJ Chez Hacker House in San Francisco

New Orleans        Talking on Wade’s World on KABF  with Michael Robinson Cohen about his Yale School of Architecture studio project to design a hundred thousand affordable housing units for San Francisco, or any other city that understands the problem and the potential, led us naturally to co-living.  Michael and his gang believe there is tremendous promise in co-living for the emerging young precariat, drawn into the “gig” economy to a portfolio of jobs in tech and elsewhere that combine good prospects with speculative wages and a boom-and-bust income instability.  For these emerging young architects smaller spaces with increased common space holding both the necessities of kitchen, laundry, and even work spaces along with amenities to wash it all down more easily, points towards a potential solution on affordability that those of us working in the midst of a desperate shortage of affordable houses for low-and-moderate income working people also find attractive.

            Sadly, there currently seems to be more slips between the cup and the lip as the promise of this idea confronts the reality of developers who seem determined to warp co-living schemes into an upgrade in price and performance of college residential houses in the high-priced, red-hot real estate markets in New York, the Bay Area, Seattle and the like.  In post-Katrina New Orleans,  there had been a number of interesting proposals for affordable “worker housing” to help get the necessary labor into the city at affordable prices when rents had doubled in the wake of the storm.  None were built, though some smaller unit style developments for artists, largely white unfortunately, with section 8 certificates did emerge in several places. 

            Reading about co-living schemes in New York City and the Bay Area, developers seem to be rejecting affordability in favor of charging premium rents and reshaping co-living almost as connection clubs.  The New York Times talks about “hacker houses” like the ones touted in movies about Facebook.  In New York co-living seems also like staying in the Yale or Harvard Club, except on a longer timeline with interviews by the owners and potential house or suite-mates and probably the kind of blackballing still common in the fraternity scene.  As one of these smaller developers says, “…you can get a bedroom in New York for less than $2500.”  You can buy a mansion in many cities around the country if you’re willing to pay $2500 per month!

            A hipper and hungrier developer called Stage 3 Properties wants to build a co-living operation with 180 units to house 400 people and describes its mission as “passionately disrupting the housing industry by reimagining its process, product and price points and curating an all-inclusive cosmopolitan living experience designed for today’s creative class.”  I can guarantee that anytime you have the words, “reimagining,” “curating,” “cosmopolitan,” and “creative class” in the same sentence you better hold your wallet and purses with both hands because you are being shaken down for every penny while walking in knee high cow manure. 

            These rent-a-room hustles also are likely to have some problems with existing landlord tenant laws and single-room-occupancy rules in San Francisco and New York City for sure.  In the age of Uber though a lot of the hustlers think that rules to protect consumers or tenants are just rocks in the road on their way to riches, and therefore easily ignored.

           Co-living in practical and affordable housing could offer huge potential, but our friends and allies among planners and architects need to run, not walk, to beat the developers away from get-rich-schemes for themselves where desperate tenants and workers are overpaying and left again on the short end.

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Has the Tenderloin Built a Poison Pill Against Gentrification?

hotel_unionNew Orleans   While in the Bay Area I made a point of dropping by to visit with Randy Shaw, the longtime director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, the neighborhood filled with SRO hotels, union offices, bars, and whatever within blocks of City Hall, the Opera, and other civic monuments. Shaw had recently published a book on the history of the Tenderloin called, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime, and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco. I wanted to get him on tape for a radio interview on Wade’s World and Social Policy had excerpted his book in the current issue, so this was all on my mind. Randy is also a veteran organizer with thirty-five years under his belt, so always has some insights. Besides, San Francisco is a case study of gentrification where real estate costs are constant conversation, so how has the Tenderloin fared?

The Tenderloin Housing Clinic is a serious institution with a budget of $23 million mostly through local city contracts to manage and support a host of SRO hotels in the Tenderloin. Shaw says they have three-hundred people on staff, importantly including tenant and community organizers assigned to each of their buildings. It goes without saying the residents of the single room occupancy hotels are a reserve army ready to be mobilized by the THC and its on-site organizers at any provocation. Undoubtedly the ability to couple those two forces has been part of Shaw and the THC’s recipe for success and is something that Mayors and council members keep constantly in mind. It is probably also the reason that the City of San Francisco pitched in the first million and change to build out the 3500 square foot Tenderloin Museum that Shaw and the THC team are opening in mid-July on the history of the area.

In this executive city with its legendary housing prices, banking, oil, tourism, and tech wealth, it is still surprising that the Tenderloin is allowed to exist at all. The THC and Shaw were strategic in this regard. They used the exorbitant cost of land to hedge against development by shrewdly campaigning and winning a height restriction blocking any development over eight stories, essentially trumping almost any developer’s financial models of what it would take to balance the books on a new hotel, office tower, or condo development. They also have rent control in force and a number of other measures in the Tenderloin, further preventing the SRO’s from simply being converted to condos along the New York City, Vancouver, or Seattle models.

Shaw also invested the time and energy in making sure that the Tenderloin and the city ordinances and developmental restrictions that protected it could not be swept away by shifts in the political wind at City Hall. Telling me the story, he described years of lobbying in Sacramento at the state capitol until they were able to win legislation that put some dead bolt locks on their housing protections for the Tenderloin. Naturally, I asked him why other communities in San Francisco had not tried the same strategy. He was clear that he thought the Mission should have done so and the sweeping gentrification occurring there now was somewhat the result of missing the opportunity. Talking to Mike Miller, a veteran community organizer in the area about Randy’s point, he disagreed, arguing that the Tenderloin was a relative small area compared to the size of the Mission, and the same strategy would not have worked.

Maybe? But, there are important lessons to be learned from the Tenderloin Housing Clinic about how to block developers, speculators, and the wannabes that inevitably follow by building the doors and securing the locks to keep them out while improving the housing stock for the existing residents at the same time, and these lessons are not in a museum but in thinking about how to adapt similar strategies and tactics to other neighborhoods in the same disciplined and committed fashion.

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Gentrification Outstripping Community Development

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Protest in Chinatown over Gentrification

 New Orleans      Josh Ishimatsu wrote an interesting piece for theRooflines blog managed by Shelterforce magazine that asks troubling questions about whether rapid development in the form of gentrification has outstripped community development efforts.  He might have even gone farther and asked whether community development corporations have too often been the nonprofit stalking horses for the gentrifiers?

He makes the case based on the superheated rents being charged in San Francisco’s Chinatown where rents of over $1000 per unit are being paid young people for SRO, single room occupancy, spaces of 100 square feet, allowing landlords to make huge profits, evict lower income tenants, and take advantage of the city’s desperate affordable housing crisis.   He could have made a similar case in any number of “executive” cities and neighborhoods in the throes of gentrification.   For example, community development corporations (CDCs) have long been headliners in Brooklyn in one neighborhood after another, many of which are now demographically unrecognizable compared to the same communities thirty or forty years ago.  The amount of federal, philanthropic, and city money poured into upgrading such communities now seems like little more than site-preparation expenditures for the current crew of developers.

David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, has made these points exhaustively in comprehensive studies of the work of CDCs that he originally prepared, ironically, on the foundations’ dime as an evaluator. He famously found that looking at a range of housing and economic indicators in scores of communities targeted by CDCs the only measurable progress in his study was in one community in Cincinnati.  Sadly, that neighborhood rang the bells because it was in the process of being gentrified, so that was less than good news.

Ishimatsu makes the point that mixed-income neighborhoods show economic mobility for lower income families, but concedes that the “return to the cities” is obliterating mixed income communities.  The mobility for low income families is largely now the fact that so many are being pushed out to somewhere else and these neighborhoods are becoming single income areas based on affordability.  Ishimatsu wonders if there are more programs and initiatives that can wedge affordable housing bunkers into these areas, but I wonder if these scare resources need to desert those fields and move to improve the quality of housing and development in lower income areas instead.

Why leverage more public and philanthropic funds with private dollars as low income site clearance when the private dollars will come anyway, sooner or later?  It might be better to finally create decent, affordable and livable neighborhoods for lower income families and improve living conditions and quality of life now, rather than mixing and matching.  He’s right that existing strategies are inadequate, but we need to rethink the places where we make our stand, not just the tools of the trade.

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Please enjoy the Jayhawks, Waiting for the Sun. Thanks to Kabf.

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