Resistance in the Neoliberal City

San Francisco is rapidly shedding its radical bonafides as a second dot-com boom evicts more and more of its working class.

San Francisco is the most expensive city to rent housing in the United States. But even putting nostalgia aside, it was not always this way. The second coming of dot-com wealth, venture capital, and neoliberal development has eviscerated the right to the city for its working class members. San Franciscan city politics, once famously radical, have become dominated by bourgeois interests and exclusionary projects. Its civic structure now serves the desires of only those who can afford to live in a city where Twitter receives a $22 million tax break but the working class are increasingly pushed out to suburbs. But San Franciscans also have a history of fighting back.

James Tracy, a long-time housing and anti-poverty organizer, writes about the past 35 years of collective organizing in San Francisco in his new book, Dispatches from Displacement: Field Notes From San Francisco’s Housing Wars. The book is a rich trove of extensive field notes on the various housing campaigns Tracy has been involved with, and the alliance-building across race, class, and political ideologies necessary to make them happen. He reflects on the tactics he has learned to deploy successfully, from direct action like occupying vacant houses and showing up at landlords’ homes to participating in electoral politics. Here, Tracy offers lessons and goals for building a future city envisioned by “alternative urbanism” and anti-capitalist resistance, where housing is no longer a commodity to be inflated for profit on the speculative market, but just a place where working class people can live.

In your experience organizing for affordable housing and against eviction and displacement over the past 35 years, what has “the right to the city” meant? And what does it mean in light of the recent tech takeover? What is urban life in San Francisco and what should we expect from it, a city that supports the “enterprise zone” development strategy and Twitter tax breaks?

The concept of the right to the city was first articulated by Henri Lefebvre. To me it means that those who make the city work (through formal and informal labor) have the right to determine the future of their city in a way that serves their interests. What can we expect? Without a popular urban uprising, you can expect more displacement. There are plenty of organizations out there doing hard work to promote the right to the city and prevent displacement, but none of which are in a position to substantially change the course of the city—yet. San Francisco’s situation is only unique in its intensity. The massive amount of income inequality fuels a situation where the city remakes itself in the image of the affluent.

The tax breaks you refer to were given to tech companies such as Twitter when they threatened to move to another county with tax structures more favorable to business. This was contingent on moving such companies to a specific area on Market Street. In effect, this wasn’t just a subsidy for new money, but more the established downtown interests who had held much of their properties vacant.

A lot of very progressive people supported this move. I wouldn’t say that they were right-wing or corrupt. It’s just that the project of neoliberalism is efficient in the way that in constrains the imagination of what is possible in a city. No one wants a neighborhood to be largely boarded up. But San Francisco as a whole really didn’t see any alternative ways to develop itself outside of this model.

Can you elaborate on why San Francisco finds itself in a “situation unique in its intensity”?

This tech boom is receiving far more assistance from the the local government than the previous one did. The tax breaks, the special exemptions from affordable housing payments mean that the pace of change is extremely rapid. Also, and this is anecdotal on my part, there seems to be a shift in values between Tech 1.0 workers and the Tech 2.0 end set. In the 1990s, tech workers were far more likely to respect and like the communities they were moving into. This created certain political openings. Sasha Magee started up a Digital Workers Alliance that explicitly allied itself with Mission activists. By and large, the libertarian ethos is much stronger now. The “get out if you cant afford it” mindset is prevalent.

SF has in the past benefitted from a mythology of radical politics, but in my experience it has always felt like a racially segregated city. What are the racial politics like in housing organizing today? There’s the long history of anti-black “redevelopment” that destroyed the Fillmore district. How is it targeting the black community today?

I wouldn’t say that SFs radical politics is a myth, but you are right, it has always been a racially stratified city. African-American outmigration speaks to how racism can still exist in a liberal city. Roughly the total black population is about 6%, though the city’s shelter population is over half black.

The redevelopment of the last century was far more linear than today’s displacement. Then, the city legally declared an entire neighborhood “blighted,” seized property through eminent domain, and in many cases turned the properties over to hotels, convention centers, and tourist destinations. Today’s assault is diffuse, much more market driven, but enabled by a local government again unwilling and unable to place community preservation at the center of public policy.

As a whole, displacement is something that assaults the entire working class, cultural life, and parts of what could be considered the middle class. But racial politics are almost always front and center in displacement equation. Displacement tactics are often piloted on black and brown communities first. For example, the public housing residents who were offered homeownership opportunities in the 1990s were often shuttled to subprime lenders and later became the victims of the foreclosure crisis.

In your book you describe “alternative urbanism” as a form of resistance to these damaging changes:

It can often be hard for radicals to think through what their own alternative urban agenda would look like. This is understandable as doing so brings us into unchartered waters, but there’s no reason why a strategy to take away capital’s ability to blackmail us through scarcity can’t be countered with a vision—a non-alienated city rebuilt by and for those whom the neoliberal project has failed the most.

How can SF become a non-alienated city if housing is still a commodity and developers are in no way incentivized to develop affordable housing?

It can’t. Alternative urbanism must be built on the decommodification of housing and the establishment of housing as a human right. How this happens can’t be prescribed; it is largely up to the future capacity of social movements to determine. Developers in SF are required to pay a certain amount to affordable housing funds—it is just that it creates a ratio where very few units, usually less than 15%, are anywhere near affordable. SF leads the country in the amount of affordable housing produced, but the housing crisis is still acute. This doesn’t mean that affordable housing construction isn’t necessary—just that it shouldn’t be mistaken for a community preservation strategy.

What does the division between the interests of homeowners and renters do to the market, and how is SF unique or not in regards to rentals? Can homeowners be brought into renters coalitions?

It depends on what kind of homeowner you are talking about. If a bank holds your note, and you are using your home for shelter, you have a lot in common with renters. It is the bank that sets up the foreclosures and finances evictions of renters. The trick in building such a coalition is to avoid having the goals and terms of debate formed around solely the needs of the homeowner.

You write: “When property speculation is allowed to destroy communities: sabotage speculation. When the commons are privatized: propose new forms of commons that exist beyond the market and state.” You argue that land trusts are a tactic to sabotage speculation, and you helped start the San Francisco Community Land Trust. How do land trusts serve as affordable housing, and work toward decommodifying housing as you suggest?

Our model of Community Land Trusts in San Francisco is a strategy to preserve existing housing and communities. It is a cooperative model where homes are held in trust in perpetuity and removed from cycles of speculation. For example, in one building we helped to establish as a CLT the residents were to be evicted first by a community college then by a private developer. Residents of the Columbus United Cooperative no longer have economic threats to their tenancy. Of course, CLTs are a tool, not the entire solution to the problem. The San Francisco Community Land Trust has established about 65 units of housing. It’s not exactly a huge intervention at this point.

What are some successful tactics beyond the Trusts?

Any strategy that disrupts speculation and sets out housing for use is worth exploring. Recently in San Francisco, a ballot measure (prop G) to stop the quick flipping of houses lost. It was the most holistic attempt to deal with the root of the problem ever placed on the ballot. The good news is that 45 percent of the electorate agreed that human rights trumped the rights of speculators. There is a lot of work to be done, and it must be done very quickly to see if a victory can be snatched from this defeat.

Some reformers claim that developing more public housing will help the current housing crisis. Does SF need to build more social (public) housing? What is the state of public housing today?

What hasn’t been privatized or downsized already is on the chopping block, and largely disinvested in. This will lead local governments, even those with an interest in housing preservation to seek out more public-private partnerships. The risks are immense as there will be an economic incentive to displace residents, especially low-income ones. San Francisco is involved in a risky plan to transfer management of public housing to non-profit organizations while retaining partial ownership and oversight. The Washington State Tenants Union is fighting an absurd plan to raise the rents in public housing far beyond what most tenants can afford. In Baltimore, over a third of the city’s public housing is in danger of being sold to private interests. Yes, almost all cities need to build more social housing. It should go back to the original vision of producing safe, decent and affordable housing for everyone ranging from people exiting homelessness to teachers and other workers.

In your book you include a history of housing and anti-poverty resistance, the different examples of collective organizing, the role of direct action, occupation of seized land, and participation in electoral politics. You offer a significant insight regarding organizing in your book: “There are some characteristics that should anchor all organizing in the city. All organizations should reckon with the confines that capitalism places on their best aspirations. Accountability to a participatory democratic practices and self-management to the greatest extent possible may be the best guarantees that a movement will be able to ‘keep it real’.” What kind of organizing is happening today?

There is a lot of great organizing on the local level that I would love to see explode and grow to scale. Eviction Free San Francisco is meaningful because it is the direct action section of the local movement. Just Cause/Causa Justa is formidable in the way that it is building coalition and beginning to work regionally. Nationally, Boston’s Vida Urbana is a great example of an organization using direct action and legal work in campaigns targeting banks and finance–not just landlords. Picture the Homeless NYC is reinventing the way that people are thinking about anti-poverty work through their housing and civil rights campaigns. The reckoning I’m talking about requires at a minimum an intellectual honesty with each about effective strategies and the real conditions of the day. The necessary reform fights ideally will help build a combative radical movement capable of establishing housing as a human right. This can’t happen in isolation of changes in the larger economy. Once one’s mind is made up housing is a human right, it is much easier to imagine a city built on the foundation of solidarity, not exclusion.

Is there any hope, or can we only wait for the market to crash again to save the right to the city?

Waiting for a collapse is almost always a bad idea. I used to think it was impossible, because of tech’s integration into the security state and advertising regimes. The more I look at the economy, I see some weaknesses that could one day lead to a burst bubble. But ask yourself what shape you want your city to be in if this happens. Acting now without banking on disaster might mean that something you love about the city will still stand.