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People’s Park, Berkeley, August 24, 2021
From the street in front of my house I can see the encampment in People’s Park a block and a half away. The smoky haze does not hide a new red tent that appeared this morning, although the university campanile and its celebrity falcons are almost obscured behind the scrubby trees.
Fifty years ago, two blocks of old houses like my own were demolished for student dorms that were never built. In time the space became a parking lot, morphing into People’s Park, a famous forum for antiwar protests, drugs, and what remained of Sixties counterculture. Now the university hopes to build again on the site. Chancellor Carol Christ, a popular and trusted administrator, proposes dormitory towers, “supportive housing” for selected homeless, and recognition of the park’s significant past in the design of the project. University of California regents, park neighbors, and the advocates of a People’s Park historic district are weighing in, both in and out of court.
Tent camps are both the latest and the oldest response to California’s housing crisis. But colonies of new trailers intended for the unhoused have sat vacant, and tiny houses are expensive. Gavin Newsom’s optimistic program, Project Roomkey, placing vulnerable unhoused in vacant hotels and motels, was only tenable with federal support. What seem to be working, still and again, are these tent communities, whether scattered and scruffy or–not often–in neat grids, with services.
Homelessness in this affluent society is hardly a new phenomenon. What is new is the emergence of these encampments in city centers and at highway intersections, where their high visibility and persistence painfully signal, any way you look at it, a broken social contract.
In 1971, having just moved house, we went with friends to break up asphalt in People’s Park to plant trees. Shortly thereafter, we marched against Nixon’s mining of harbors in Cambodia. About then we were also recruited into Berkeley’s new architectural preservation group, too late to save the twenty-five houses levelled on Block 1875, People’s Park. Of course we had no problem reconciling our protests for and against the Establishment: we oozed righteousness on both counts. I ascended to be president of the Berkeley neighborhoods’ coalition, my husband led the preservationists.
Many of the demolished family homes in People’s Park had been re-purposed as rooming houses, and when our kids eventually emigrated to points east, we rented rooms to students. The university, receiving ever less funding from the state, was forced to raise ever higher tuition from ever more students. All kinds of housing were already scarce by the 1980s, no little thanks to the continuing NIMBY concerns of neighborhood groups and preservationists like us. The median home price in Berkeley had bloated 300 percent in less than a decade. The twenty-five houses on Block 1875, People’s Park, would today be worth well upwards of $50 million and could have housed hundreds of students.
While we were passively amassing real estate, I was writing about local soup kitchens and shelters as well as local literary matters. This soon led to fewer poetry readings and more time with homeless support groups and a food recycling network. I wrote a novel, Soup of the Day, about homelessness in a gourmet culture, folding in feuding academics and a failing newspaper. While the novel is out of print, its themes remain relevant. I wrote a sequel unlikely to appear in our Cancel Culture–involving competing native American and Mexican land claims on a campus not unlike, as they say, the University of California, Berkeley.
The founding myth of the University of California describes eminent clergy shading their eyes as they gaze across the bay, quoting Bishop Berkeley: “Westward the course of empire….” More recently, the University has been described as a group of entrepreneurs seeking a parking place.
In 1868, joking aside, the location of the new university campus vastly inflated the property values of four local investors. Francis Shattuck, William Hillegass, and their partners had divided a square mile of land just south of the projected campus, for which they had paid about $31 per acre. The loser in this deal was ultimately the holder of the Mexican land grant, Jose Domingo Peralta–not counting the few surviving natives, whose history is piously noted in historical plaques if not in property ownership records.
Francis Shattuck’s eventual heir was philanthropist Weston Havens, a childhood friend of the maiden lady who sold us her family home. When we moved in, he gifted us with sacks of fertilizer meant to sustain the viciously rampant Silver Moon rose over the driveway trellis. He wanted to soften the view of the four-story apartment building south of us. But in 1940 he built a radically modernist house on Panoramic Hill which he left to the university.
Meanwhile, our clapboard manse on Hillegass was continuing to increase in value as the Bay Area economy boomed. A century past the Gold Rush, there was the pulsating prosperity of Silicon Valley and its garage geniuses. And in California, especially, the rich grew richer, billion by billion, and the poor poorer, year by year, decade after decade.
As Henry George, 19th-century economist and social reformer, observed: . . . the tendency of what we call material progress is in nowise to improve the condition of the lowest class in the essentials of healthy, happy human life. George saw the root cause of inequality as wealth increasing through unearned land value, whether near the new transnational railroad lines or next to the projected campus of what would soon become the world’s top public university. Henry George’s solution, a single tax on land value, soon proved flawed, since land’s value also depends on its potential and its improvements. In 1880 George left the west coast to try out his progressive ideas in New York City. In the mayoral race, he finished well ahead of Republican Theodore Roosevelt, but lost narrowly to a Democratic candidate whose name I and many others have forgotten. * *
Real estate profiteering, hard to regulate, remains a prime cause of homelessness. A group of homeless mothers in Oakland, California recently defeated eviction efforts by a major speculator and gave a boost to community land trusts
While property tax remains the main source of funding public services. California voters have repeatedly rejected any tax increases, even on the fattest commercial and industrial property. As the state budget shrinks support for public schools and colleges, the University of California, already short of housing, raises tuition costs and expands enrollment to fund its programs. And hopes to build on the now-historic site of protests against our misguided wars. That there was never any protest in People’s Park against US policy in Afghanistan suggests that local historic memory may be on life support.
Trouble at the Majestic
The year is 1919, the scene a decaying imperial spa in County Cork, Ireland. The owner of the Majestic Hotel is an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who cares more for his dogs and piglets than for the starved villagers who raid his potato patch by night. His beloved piglets are housed in the former squash court and fed yesterday’s pastries.
The Majestic Hotel figures in Trouble, a tragicomedy about the Irish rebellion against British rule–performed against a background of guerrilla attacks by the rebels and vicious reprisals by the British. The “Troubles” exploded again in 1970, the year that J.G.Farrell’s remarkable novel appeared.
A century after the partitioning of Ireland, amid the planetary chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, California’s vacant hotels suddenly figure in a social and economic crisis of survival.
California governor Gavin Newsom, confronting the vulnerable and potentially infectious mass of 150,000 homeless in the state, has engineered an ingenious deal. Hotels and motels, most notably Motel Six, have made available for lease some 15,000 hotel rooms for housing the most fragile homeless–the aged and those with underlying health conditions.
Newsom announced Project Roomkey at a press conference in front of a Motel Six in Campbell,California. Campbell is an unremarkable Santa Clara Valley town where I went to high school, when prune orchards were just giving way to housing tracts, highways, and the garage startups that transformed the farmland suburbs into Silicon Valley.
In the early days, Campbell, California had at least one street of “affordable housing,” inhabited by poor people, then generically called “Okies”. Gilman Avenue was a few blocks of small greyish bungalows, some with junked cars as lawn furniture. Betty the Moocher lived on Gilman. She was pallid and grimy with a plaintive, small-featured face. During lunch hour she would stand nearby, gazing silently at your sandwich. Sometimes we would give her something. It never occurred to me that she could actually have been hungry, though there were no free lunch programs then.
One of those Gilman bungalows is for sale right now as a “vintage” fixer-upper, for $1,220,000. Down half a million from its earlier listing. Most people cannot now afford any sort of home in California, but there are more free lunch programs. Just no housing.
Given the continuing pandemic lockdown, Project Roomkey hotel rooms would have been vacant anyway–a seemingly perfect solution, with FEMA ready to pay 75% of the costs. But two weeks ago only some 4,000 of the 15K available rooms were occupied. Tidy charts showed how many rooms had been leased for the project, how many were being prepared for occupancy, and the relatively few which were actually occupied.
It is not a simple process. The first challenge is the vetting of would-be occupants, by experienced social workers already overstretched by the Covid crisis. Applicants range from the responsible but roofless and medically fragile to lifelong addicts who may trash their rooms if not regularly supplied with their drugs. Medical records and background checks are needed. Staffing has to be arranged to provide food, housecleaning, medical help–and security.
Several counties have already signed onto Project Roomkey. But a number of southern California townships have rejected any use of their local hotels as homeless housing, either temporary or permanent. And anecdotal reports from some of the occupied lodgings are not good. Social distancing, along with housekeeping and private property, are unfamiliar concepts for many formerly homeless folks.
California has the fifth largest economy in the world, one of the highest costs of living in this country, and the largest number of homeless of any state. Some see this as flagrant evidence of a failed government–the inability to provide for the welfare of its least able citizens. Newsom, as governor, and earlier as mayor of San Francisco, took on homelessness as his central issue. There was the controversial Care Not Cash, which reduced cash support and increased shelter and social services. Now there is Project Roomkey.
Here in my present hometown of Berkeley, 40 homeless have moved into two Oakland hotels that are part of Project Roomkey. Each room is $186 per day, to be 75% reimbursed by FEMA. For whatever reason, Berkeley jokes aside, these are not Motel Six rooms like those claimed by other counties, which normally rent for $76 per night. Meanwhile the proposal for 16 stories of housing to be built at People’s Park brings out opponents pointing to its 50-year history as a political symbol and a refuge for the homeless.
Newsom and his allies would like to see Project Roomkey succeed and extend beyond the pandemic. This cannot happen without aligning funds from state, local, and federal sources. And so far, even money has not proven to be the answer. Homelessness was a serious problem in California long before COVID-19, and will doubtless increase afterwards, given the economic devastation of the work stoppage as well as earlier problems with local zoning and construction workers’ unions.
Bond issues for building affordable housing have been passed and then failed dismally to address the need. In California it costs $450K to construct one no-frills unit of subsidized low-cost housing. This is based on rising costs of labor and material and the expensive delays between securing funding and local approval of the project and the site. Given the cost of new construction, adapting ready-made housing seems a rational solution to the very immediate needs of California’s 150K homeless.
Some say that this apparent emergency will shrink back into perspective once our society returns to normal. Others point out that “normal” has included indifference not just to homeless encampments under our clogged freeways, but to the climate crisis, to enormous income inequality, to mass shootings, and to the continuing partitioning of our electorate that gave us Donald Trump. ∞
“Elizabeth Warren was not nearly as polite as I was…”
In February I posted an open letter to Timothy Sloan, the avowedly reformist CEO at Wells Fargo, regarding his company’s regrettable sales practices and its retrograde investments in fossil fuels, and our plan to divest ourselves of ties with his bank.
In April, Mr. Sloan himself published an open letter, listing the many ways in which Wells Fargo had been “ acting to regain its customers’ trust” after last year’s nasty scandals. No, of course he didn’t mention my letter, or many others he must have received. ( Nor did he mention his good works with the Boy Scouts of America, who have had their own image difficulties in recent years.)
My letter had circulated in the social media, while Mr. Sloan’s was a full-page ad in national newspapers. At the time, Mr. Sloan and the head of the Wells Fargo board purchased a total of $5 million of their company’s stock in a handsome display of good faith.
Meanwhile, lacking this good faith, my husband and I began laboriously to transfer our accounts out of Wells Fargo to more socially responsible banks. At least a few of my readers and friends said they were doing the same.
When the Wells Fargo fake- accounts scandal first erupted in 2016, it had mattered less to us than the bank’s short-sighted investments in oil pipelines and other destructive fossil fuel projects.
Later, in October 2016, the New York Times reported at some length how employees at various Wells Fargo branches had preyed upon the most vulnerable individuals—immigrants with little English, older adults with failing memories, students opening their first accounts.
According to Kevin Pham, a former Wells Fargo employee in San Jose, California, “It was like lions hunting zebras.” Pham mounted a Facebook campaign to hold Wells Fargo accountable. He scored 50,000 “shares”.
While there had reportedly been no systematic targeting of vulnerable groups, demographic patterns sometimes emerged, such as Native Americans near Phoenix, looking for a safe place to stow their quarterly distribution checks and being set up with several unnecessary accounts per capita. There were other cases, and dispiriting details.
The bank has been trying to channel new lawsuits away from the two million fake-accounts scandal, by moving them into private arbitration. We just received such a mediation offer and ignored it, having already closed the gratuitous account and shredded the card. Other customers, however, are indeed pursuing litigation.
Meanwhile, the revelations continue. Recently several plaintiffs have claimed that Wells Fargo changed the mortgage terms of bankrupt borrowers without their knowledge, much less their consent. Generally the changes meant smaller payments over longer time periods—but with immense finance charges accruing to the bank. As the New York Times reported in June, in its best imitation-tabloid style, “Wells Fargo, the $270 billion California- based lender, is driving its stagecoach further into the mud.”
Also in June, Senator Elizabeth Warren sent a letter, this one to Federal Reserve Board chair Janet Yellen, demanding the removal of twelve Wells Fargo board members who had been present and passive during the years when bank employees were setting up the infamous two million fake accounts. While 5300 lower-level employees were fired as a result of the scandal, $185 million fines had been paid, and the CEO sacked, the original Wells Fargo board members had remained in place, drawing their annual average base salary of $187,000— with bonus and additional compensation, $319,000. (An average Wells Fargo “personal banker” makes $37,000, a teller, $25,000. Why would one use “K” to signify all those thousands?)
Wells Fargo had been cited earlier for poor loan-servicing and foreclosure practices. In 2012 it was among the five lenders agreeing to a $25 billion settlement with the federal government and 49 states, to rectify these “poor” practices. In 2015 it settled $1.2 billion against claims of reckless lending under a Federal Housing Administration program.
Elizabeth Warren’s letter was not nearly as polite as mine, which may be why a super-pac has promised $10 million to “Deal Her Out” of re-election in 2018.
Meanwhile, it’s taken months to find what we hope are ethically (and fiscally) sound financial institutions, and to complete the tedious maneuvers of rerouting into new accounts our network of monthly payments to utilities, college funds, subscriptions, charities. Rerouting our monthly deposits was the easy part.
Why are we doing this, when we could be using more time to address climate change or health care, or at least to haranguing our legislators? Here’s the thing: our votes and our protests often seem more self-righteous than effective because they originate in the bright blue state of California. Our state is viewed quite negatively, it is clear, by the present Potus and his cronies—and with good reason, we hope.
Choosing not only where we spend our money, but where we keep it and who uses it, seems valuable leverage just now, in this thoroughly unhinged capitalist democracy.
To be continued, for better and for worse.
Italian friends have been most sympathetic about our recent election. After all, they say, we survived Berlusconi. It’s not the end of the world.
They offer us political asylum, but then say that of course we are needed in our own country. Meanwhile, we are still here to see them through their coming referendum vote on the so-called “Italicum” reform of their electoral system.
The dynamic young Italian leader, Matteo Renzi, has pushed for a “Si” on the referendum, but is canny enough to have backed off as “No” rises in the polls
Renzi has been intrepid in many ways, not least in defending the rescue and accommodation of many thousands of profughi, refugees, arriving in Italy during the current migration crisis. Renzi points out that while Italy pays hundreds of millions of euros in this humanitarian mission, most other European governments have used their euros to build walls.
At a pizzeria on the Strada Nova the guy behind the counter couldn’t decide whether to use English or Italian. I suggested Cinese and we both laughed. I asked where he was born and he said Romania. He has been in Italy for fourteen years and lives in Mestre, twenty minutes away by bus on the mainland. We talked about the high rents and long commutes in Venice and California. He said he could give my husband and me one room and shared use of his Mestre apartment for 350 euros a month. I said that unfortunately we already had a rental contract through December. He said that he really wanted to learn more English so that he could get a better job, and I said that I could give him lessons if I was staying longer.
I only had a 50-euro bill to pay for my pizza. He smiled and ran off with it to get change. I wasn’t really worried when he didn’t reappear for ten minutes, but it did occur to me that 50 euros was probably more than a couple of days’ take-home pay. He said his name was Nikolai, Nicola in Italian, he added. I said mine was Frances, Francesca in Italian. See you tomorrow? he said.
A hundred yards on, I stopped to let a herd of school children go ahead of me across a narrow bridge. Meanwhile I went to a kiosk to get a paper with news about the latest earthquake in the Marche, and about the crises with the new refugees. The earthquake had definitely won that news cycle; there was not a word about the town in the Veneto that had barricaded its streets against the arrival of a dozen refugee women and children to be billeted in an empty hotel.
The vendor gave me two papers even after I had said, conversationally, that my husband usually bought the Gazzettino so I would only take La Repubblica. I said that I was sorry my Italian was so bad. He said, no, MY Italian is bad. I asked where he was born, and he said Bangladesh. He had only been in Italy for six months, he said in English. Before that, he had lived in London for six years, but it was too expensive. His brother, who had been in Italy for a long time, owned the kiosk. He lived with the brother nearby, and planned to go to school to learn Italian so that he could get a better job. My name is Francesca, said I. His is Nabis. See you tomorrow, I said. La Repubblica is running a series on changes in the Italian language, so I will be back. (I wish that Nicola’s pizza had been better.)
Of course it was only an idle thought that Nicola and Nabis could exchange language lessons. But maybe with ingenious use of cellphones and social media…some kind of networking?
I had been hoping to make myself useful in the refugee crisis, perhaps teaching or translating, during our Italian stay, but that too was an idle thought. The needy refugees were not in la Serenissima, but in Mestre and smaller inland towns, Veneto, where, unfortunately, the locals are not always welcoming. In Venice the neediest refugees only come for the day trade, foreigners passing from Rialto to San Marco from cruise ship to gondola, who might need an umbrella or a carnival mask, or will drop a euro into an outstretched hand.
Many constructive responses to the migrant crisis are to be found in the 2016 Architectural Biennale in Venice, too soon closing. And note that funds for housing the homeless were voted in by healthy margins–at least in California. As Italian friends tell us, we’ll get through this somehow.