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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Art and Activism

Agitprop

Oakland   Every once in awhile if you are searching for new paths, you are going to have to change directions in order to find the way.  At least that’s what I thought in agreeing to go to a day-and-a-half conference in Oakland on art and activism, organizing and culture.   An invitation from old friends and comrades, Gary Delgado and Gina Acebo, was too good to pass up since I needed to be in the Bay Area anyway, and it was a fascinating day.

Jumping to the bottom line, despite meeting a great bunch of talented, committed, and razor sharp artists and cultural workers, there is still no denying that there is a huge gulf that would have to be bridged to create genuine dialogue much less fruitful collaboration.  Nonetheless there were scintillating hints time and time that it could be worth the effort.

It was also fascinating to just be a part of the process and get a sense of the many ways that all of us as blind people are still groping at the elephant.  Listening to Jeff Chang of Stanford and a great panel of folks talk about the impact of Culture Strike on the immigration reform efforts around the DREAM Act and SB1070 in Arizona was significant, but essentially in their attempt to evaluate the impact of their contribution they were describing one room of a giant house without fully understanding the rest of the architectural layout around them.  It was also struck me as interesting that understanding the cultural process and how it evolved and created change, they were oblivious to the similarities of the same evolution and development on the organizing and political process believing it was simply marked by court solidarity events and feeling that cultural change preceded social changes rather than being inextricably linked together.  As I said, this was too short a meeting for people to really be able to learn a common language and see the linkages, but an education regardless.

Jeff Change of Stanford talking about Culture Strike

Among the highlights were seeing how guerilla artistic interventions had been so effective in the demystifying the Japanese experience at the Asian Art Museum, listening to a digital games designer who developed games that looked at gender roles and change, hearing the passion of labor photographer and journalist David Bacon for his efforts to effectively tell the stories of organizing today, participating in what seemed a hokey exercise that turned very powerfully into a lesson about how different experiences and work could connect in the same narrative, and more.

Big props to the organizers who pulled the pieces together with nothing but their own commitment and the willingness of all of us to come together (what a relief not to have outside funders involved or in the room distorting the discussion!).  This is the way conversations start and changes in perspective – and direction – develop.

Anna's digital games for social change
Connecting experiences into a story
David Bacon talking about labor photography and journalism
Gary Delgado one of the conference organizers

 

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