A Blueprint For Dislocation: Mayor Jerry Brown’s Preferential Option For The Rich

POOR correspondent - Posted on 30 June 2010

Terry Messman
Thursday, June 1, 2000

Suppose a surreal scene (for, in Oakland, politics is the art of the surreal). Suppose an elitist city planner goes out of control after watching the film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the real inhabitants of a town are replaced, one by one, with aliens and no one is supposed to even mention the sinister plan. In a frenzy, said city planner decides to create a master plan for the secret removal of the unwanted poor from Oakland and their one-on-one replacement by white, affluent dot-commers.

Quick shift of scene to the Oakland mayor’s office, where the blueprints for the removal of the poor have already been drawn up by the landlords and city planning officials working in tandem to slowly replace the longtime residents of downtown Oakland, one by one, with outsiders…

A city report leaked to Street Spirit by Lynda Carson, an anti-eviction activist who works with Just Cause Oakland, shows that Mayor Jerry Brown ordered his housing development staff to conduct a survey of all 24 Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels in the Central District and analyze how much it would cost to remove and replace them, presumably with market-rate housing and upscale commercial developments.

Outrage among advocates

Housing advocates in Oakland are expressing outrage that Brown would even request a secret report to analyze what it would cost to eliminate low-income hotels in the downtown area. The analysis, conducted for Brown by city staff in the Housing Development Section, surfaced recently in activist circles, although it had circulated among a small inner circle at City Hall considerably before then.

Even though the price tag for eliminating all 24 SRO hotels in Oakland’s Central District may be prohibitively expensive and therefore unworkable, tenant advocates called it a betrayal by Jerry Brown of his poorest constituents and a blueprint for increased homelessness.

"I found it to be chilling," Carson said. "When I first got wind of that survey, I tried to visualize all these people being forced to move out of their homes and relocate. It really sunk in on me that if all the SROs are gone, there will really be no place in Oakland for those of us who have hit rock bottom."

Staff members of several Oakland housing agencies confirmed that the report was prepared because Jerry Brown and the redevelopment officials in charge of pushing his plan to bring 10,000 new residents into the downtown believe it will be very hard to "market" Oakland when so many poor people are on the streets. Advocates close to the mayor’s office say that Brown had told his staff that SROs are the culprit and should be closed down because there are too many low-rent hotels and, therefore, too many poor people.

"Jerry Brown is under the influence of wealthy developers who may fear that it’s very difficult to bring a lot of rich new residents into a downtown area dominated by poor people," said Carson. "I think the mayor’s office is full aware that it’s discouraging to his plans to bring in 10,000 rich people to see so much poverty in their face night after night."

Blueprints for gentrification are nearly always designs for dislocation, eviction and homelessness. The moral blindness of this mayoral administration is that it would remove real, flesh-and-blood citizens of Oakland who have lived downtown all their lives for fantasized hordes of upscale people who have never yet lived in Oakland. "It’s a pipe dream of Jerry Brown," said Carson. "His slogan is ‘Oaklanders First.’ But Oaklanders first are being run out of town."

The stages of gentrification

The first stage of this blueprint for gentrification and homelessness requires a mayor willing to turn a blind eye as Oakland’s avaricious landlords jack up the rents to unconscionable levels and unleash a barrage of no-cause evictions on poor renters and people of color. The second stage of this plan involves canceling the City’s lease with the Henry Robinson Multi-Service Center, the largest transitional housing program for homeless families in the East Bay, and negligently allowing many other homeless services to be driven out of downtown Oakland by escalating rents. But the Multi-Service Center is only one of an estimated 24 SRO hotels that provide the only housing still affordable to the poorest residents of downtown Oakland. Therefore, the third stage of this design for displacement is clear: Target the other SRO hotels for possible removal. Evidently, that is just what Jerry Brown began contemplating last summer. The report prepared for Brown by the City’s Housing Development staff estimated that it would cost more than $102 million "if the SROs were to be acquired by private developers" and more than $162 million "if the Redevelopment agency were to acquire these hotels given the additional, state-required relocation costs of $25,000/unit."

The study begins on an ominous note: "In order to assist our discussion of this topic with Mayor Brown, the Housing Development Section has analyzed the estimated value of all the Single Room Occupancy Hotels (SROs) in the Central District. In addition, we have reviewed the report prepared by the Police Department regarding crime reports and arrests near the SROs and have reviewed the Code Enforcement Division’s records with respect to building conditions."

Those are chilling words to anyone who knows the history of how city officials in Oakland’s code enforcement division have worked hand-in-glove with the police and fire departments to close down unwanted SROs, such as the El Centro and the Royal, in the past. Police crime reports, coupled with complaints received by the code enforcement division, can be used to close down these buildings. Once an SRO has been red-tagged, its market value plummets, and it becomes more feasible for a private developer to buy it out and remove or renovate it.

A brake on Brown’s ambitions?

Reportedly, this study was completed under the direction of Oakland Housing Director Roy Schweyer, a longtime supporter of affordable housing, and that may have resulted in some cautionary observations that placed at least a momentary brake on Mayor Brown’s ambitions.

The report warns, for instance, of dire consequences if SRO units are eliminated entirely: "The elimination of these units, which provide shelter, and in some cases, social service resources would create an increase in homelessness. The impact then could be a larger presence of displaced people on the streets of downtown."

Yet despite this warning, the report recommends developing a comprehensive strategy that would include "continued and stepped-up code enforcement activities," and even more chillingly, "marketing the areas and the privately owned SROs to private developers."

That marketing strategy may be Brown’s best hope to begin removing SRO hotels in a piecemeal fashion, rather than in one fell swoop. When the city staff put the numbers together (reportedly, sometime last August), it became apparent that finding $100-$160 million to remove all 24 SROs at once was nearly impossible. Affordable housing advocates say that Brown’s real game now is to implement this plan incrementally by encouraging private developers to buy out SROs one by one and replace them with new commercial offices or market-rate housing.

Also, sources close to Mayor Brown say he was set back on his heels by the community outcry against his plan to bring in 10,000 new market-rate housing units while rejecting any low-income housing in a time of rising rents and eviction rates. Because of this widespread criticism of the potential loss of affordable housing, homeless advocates say that Brown has backed off somewhat and now is supposedly more open-minded about including a modicum of affordable housing in his master plan to perform cosmetic surgery on downtown Oakland. But boona cheema, a longtime homeless advocate and social services provider, warns that even when the mayor talks about supporting bonds for affordable housing, he is talking about housing for people at 80 percent of the median income – housing that will never help homeless people remain in Oakland.

A Trojan Horse

All too often, that is simply gentrification by another name – using the promise of affordable housing as a Trojan Horse to smuggle in higher-rent units for middle-income renters in a city with a crying need for housing for very low-income people.

Cheema, the executive director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), has seen and studied the secret city report on SRO hotels. She commented, "I think Jerry Brown is really misguided. We have poor people and disabled people and mentally ill people who he wants to address from a law-and-order point of view, and not a public-health point of view."

BOSS provides a comprehensive array of services, shelter, long-term housing, counseling, job training and referrals to homeless people in Alameda County. Because of rising rents, cheema said, the poor people her agency serves are facing a far greater struggle to remain housed and avoid eviction than ever before – so Brown’s proposed tampering with some of the last truly affordable housing in Oakland comes at the worst possible time.

"We need more services for poor people," cheema said. "We need to create a downtown in Oakland that is truly mixed. Poor people have lived there for years. The SROs are their only home. So in a way, Jerry Brown is ass-backwards in his approach. By removing the SROs, he will create more poor people on the street, like in San Francisco."

Brown’s highly touted plan to upgrade Oakland’s downtown has always consisted of an overt agenda and a covert agenda. The publicly announced agenda is to work with large real estate developers and contractors to build market-rate housing for 10,000 new residents – middle-income and affluent people who would create a "more desirable" populace when the mayor tries to entice big business to move into downtown Oakland.

But the hidden part of this so-called "10K" plan is to drive away all the social problems and poor people that might make downtown Oakland an unappealing place to live for your average, upwardly mobile dot-commer.

The people advising Brown on his 10K plan to redevelop and upgrade downtown Oakland, said cheema, have made a fundamental error in judgment. "They’re up to no good, because their thinking is flawed," she said. "Instead of putting in resources to help people, they go at the problem in a way that will create more problems. Who is thinking for this man? He’s not thinking with long-term vision. He’s just thinking, ‘We’re really wired. Let’s bring in the techies.’"

An urban removal project

Brown has definitely chosen a new approach to the age-old problem of poverty – not an urban renewal project, but a flat-out attempt at urban removal.

Housing developers and homeless advocates labored intensively for years to create an umbrella of support services for poor people in downtown Oakland. Programs for poor people blossomed, including the Henry Robinson Multi-Service Center, the First Step recovery program, St. Mary’s Center for Homeless Seniors, Sentinel Fair Housing, the Oakland Independence Support Center, BOSS, Traveler’s Aid, Dignity Housing West, and Oakland Community Housing, Inc.

Now, ironically, some of the very service centers set up to help the poor and homeless are themselves threatened by rapidly rising rents and face the same bitter fate of displacement and eviction undergone by those they set out to help.

Clearly, the SRO hotels are first on the endangered list. SROs are rarely popular in the halls of power. The fatally prejudicial notion in the elite circles of real estate developers, mayors, and city planners is that SROs contribute to urban blight and provide cover for the undesirable poor, the mentally disabled, substance abusers and street people. Thus, they are viewed as an impediment to Oakland’s long-thwarted progress towards becoming an affluent city of gleaming skyscrapers and thriving commerce.

In truth, much of this "housing of last resort" is far from ideal. SRO hotels run the entire spectrum – the good, the bad and the ugly. Nonprofit agencies have created architecturally attractive SROs that are models of decent, humane housing, while slum landlords have let SRO hotels deteriorate into rat-infested firetraps.

Hovel or haven

But, hovel or haven, one thing is certain about SROs: they’re an absolutely essential lifeline for the poorest citizens. They are indispensable in providing one of the last places of refuge where very low-income people can live without being forced to sleep on a chunk of discarded cardboard in an alley.

The growing tragedy of homelessness in modern America is inescapably bound up with the loss of SROs to demolition, gentrification, fires, and conversion to tourist hotels. In city after city across America, the equation couldn’t be more precise or chilling – the loss or destruction of every SRO hotel has always resulted in ever-greater homelessness.

When I worked with the Oakland Union of the Homeless from 1986-1994, we organized rent strikes and worked with attorneys to have successful lawsuits filed against some of the more slum-ridden SRO hotels. But make no mistake: SRO housing was essential then to the preservation of the lives of the poor in downtown Oakland. It still is.

To have a mayor come into Oakland from the outside – without understanding its problems or its history, without caring about the effect his grandiose plans will have on its poorest residents – is an outrageous misuse of political power. Every major study of urban homelessness has concluded that the loss or destruction of SRO hotels is an absolutely central cause of increasing homelessness.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors has released carefully documented reports every year tracing the rise in homelessness in the major U.S. cities for the past 15 years. A major component of this increase in homelessness documented by their reports is the loss of SRO hotels caused by gentrification.

So why is Oakland’s mayor so clueless about this phenomenon? He isn’t. He knows full well that bringing in his sleek crowd of yuppies and dot-commers will cause displacement of the poor. He asked for this study of SRO hotels precisely to see how fast and how far he could go to expedite that displacement.

Watch this administration carefully as it goes about polishing its image by encouraging big real estate developers to buy off entire city blocks. Watch every time a developer takes over a parcel of land in downtown Oakland that has a homeless program or a low-income hotel where poor people live. Where that happens, start an SRO death-watch. Maybe drop off a memorial wreath or decorate the block with black armbands to lament the lost housing of the urban poor. Better yet, sit-in at the mayoral offices of the Evictor-in-Chief responsible for these designs for displacement.

Preferential option for the rich

A deliberate choice is at work when Jerry Brown uses the full power of his office to attract the rich while he presides over the displacement of Oakland’s homeless programs and SRO hotels, and turns a blind eye to the growing evictions of poor people and people of color.

What should we name this fateful choice that the Brown administration seems hell-bent on making?

Jerry Brown, the former Jesuit seminarian, knows that all over the world, Catholic bishops and nuns and priests have made "the preferential option for the poor" a central commitment of their lives and faith. In Latin America alone, hundreds of priests, bishops and nuns have given their very lives to stand in solidarity with the aspirations of the poorest of the poor. And not just the clergy, but thousands of lay people in countless churches have dedicated their lives to this preferential option for the poor.

What then constitutes the core of Jerry Brown’s urban removal policy? A preferential option for the rich. And given that most of the people evicted in Oakland have been and will be people of color, it is inescapably a preferential option for the affluent white.

"For someone who puts himself across as having lived with Mother Teresa and being a Jesuit seminarian – excuse me, I know something about that spiritual path, and this man is not on it," said boona cheema. "If you look at the Jesuits, you see a whole order of people who go into the poorest communities and offer their service. But as far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t help the poor, and he didn’t learn anything in his time with Mother Teresa. It just didn’t register."

Under the Brown administration, said cheema, "the advocacy on behalf of the very, very poor – the homeless and disabled folks – is just not there. People are not politically motivated from their souls to reach out and help homeless people. That’s a great loss to our community."

A fateful question awaits Mayor Brown in the future: When did I see you hungry and not feed you, homeless and not house you, evicted and heartsick and not come to your help? But, of course, that question was already answered long before the mayor’s blueprint for gentrification was ever drawn up: "I tell you solemnly, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me."


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