Their Land Grabs, and Ours

These are the notes I prepared for a talk at Counterpulse on 2/14/07. The talk was part of a series on urban life and resistance co-sponsored by City Lights Foundation and Shaping San Francisco. Thanks to Chris Carlsson for inviting me to speak and Erick Lyle for rounding out the evening with an inspiring talk about housing takeovers in the Mid-Market redevelopment area.

save homes

Patterns of displacement as resistance remain pretty constant throughout the centuries. They are revised, re-ramped and remixed; given a different face. The political economy in which each story occurs in is often very different from the last. But the blueprint of domination, the strategies of the elites, the response of everyday people tends to remain quite constant.

Take for instance, settlers on this continent clearing the prairie of Native Americans. For the most part they were those of limited resources who bought the lie that the land was theirs to take, and that no-one of any consequence was there before, just savages a notch or two above animals. Then the settlers too were largely displaced, often urbanized as robber barons cleared their claims to make way for railroads.

Jump to today where the presence of young artists and bohemians is manipulated in order to soften up a neighborhood, make it appealing for the truly rich to walk in and finish the process of destroying a working-class neighborhood. The process is of course, economic but is far more complex than political economy of a ‘hood.

In order for their land-grabs to be successful, the Real Estate Industry breaks bonds of solidarity neighbors might develop with one another by amplifying anxieties of community safety, immigration, and sexuality to warp the discussion about how a city can develop. This masks a discussion that is about class hatred and white supremacy in the codes of revitalization.

Then debates around housing to boil down to “supply and demand” without ever asking “what kind of supply, and what kind of demand?” The discussion hardly ever arrives at what it takes to make an open, egalitarian city that honors its workers, preserves communities of color, and develops a strong artistic life that cannot be manipulated to help destroy all desirable areas of life.

I’m reminded of the scene from the Matrix III movie where the hero Neo finally gets to confront the white bearded man behind the sham. The white bearded man, informs our hero that all forms of resistance have already been planned for and co-opted far in advance. It was probably one of the most subversive moments in cinematic history since the scene in the Wizard of Oz when those following the yellow brick road found out that they already had what they needed collectively, and didn’t need to petition The Man for anything.

Our Landgrabs and Theirs

What kind of urban politics can unleash the power for communities to unleash their own landgrabs? What does it take to not only be on the defensive?

For starters, if you look at the history of resistance to displacement in San Francisco, the only preservable gains combine when communities are organized, using three main tactics working in tandem as part of a strategy.

1) Direct Action including mobilizations and protest,
2) Civil Society—by that I mean electoral, legislative and legal and;
3) Principled coalition and alliance building;
4) Building counter-institutions to preserve housing in perpetuity.

I’m going to speak about one kind of counter-institutional approach, the community land trust model and an organization I helped to co-found the San Francisco Community Land Trust. We have been able to accomplish one humble yet massively important “people’s land grab”. I don’t want anyone to come away from this talk thinking that the CLT exists as a utopian solution, and that all other approaches to community preservation are invalid; however I think you will agree that the CLT is a fantastic addition the organizer’s toolbox.

A Community Land Trust is a community controlled cooperative housing organization. The organization holds the land in trust in order to preserve affordability. The residents own a “limited equity” stake in the building structured to preserve affordability forever. The residents have collective power to determine most things that solely affect their own lives. However, they are only one stakeholder in the larger organization as we balance the interests of residents with the interests of at-large, non-resident members who have a self-interest in preserving affordability.

This model isn’t just rhetorical. In April of 2006, we purchased our first building, at 53 Columbus. On this site, the residents mostly mono-lingual Chinese immigrants had organized since 1998 to prevent City College of San Francisco from destroying their home for a new campus.

The mechanics of victory were complex, but it was due mostly to the self-activity and commitment of residents, excellent legal strategy by Asian Law Caucus, and outstanding community organizing support from Chinatown Community Development Center. The SFCLT, as a counter-institution was there to provide an alternative for the residents that fit their desire to preserve their community and self-manage their own lives.

The building was sold to us at a rate that will allow residents to pay very close to their existing far-bellow market rents. We have begun a process that will convert the building to cooperative ownership and provide some simple things, such as lead abatement and an elevator that shouldn’t be out-of-reach of anyone.

At 53 Columbus Street, we have been able to see victories beyond just preserving housing. Residents have collaborated on the re-design of their building with the archetecht. When was the last time that low-income working-class folks were able to have power over their own built environment. These questions are usually answered in a top-down fashion, not a bottom-up one.

The CLT model has a lot of support across the political spectrum. The right doesn’t attack it because it is a form of homeownership. It also advances the progressive agenda of preservation of community, stopping displacement, and economic justice. Oftentimes, when an idea builds such a consensus, it is a reason for suspicion. I would like to think that the work of the SF Community Land Trust is instead igniting a dialogue about housing, property and community and has the possibility of pushing our understanding of these issues beyond simple notions of the market and the state.

The process of building this counter-institution is extremely difficult. I can understand how similar experiments have failed under the many tasks and hard work that needs to be done just to preserve one building. I can understand how many who have attempted this before have sacrificed movement building for management of one bureaucracy. However, I wholeheartedly believe that the SFCLT can evolve into an organization that does not check out of the social justice struggle at the same time being an efficient, and effective provider of social housing.

Whether or not the land trust is just a common-sense housing solution or something much deeper—a sneak preview of a city and a world worth fighting for—one where working people don’t have to worry about being evicted from the city that they love and build–remains to be seen. I suspect that it is a bit of both.

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