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Hotels in Times of Trouble

 

Glenapp-Castle

Not the Majestic Hotel, but very like

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.

PROJECT ROOMKEY

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.

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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.  

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Looking west over 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.

Lions, zebras, attack stagecoach

“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.)

Bouy Scouts of America 9th Annual Business Leaders' Breakfast

Center, Timothy J. Sloan, Greater Los Angeles’s Boy Scout Leader of the Year

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.”

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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.

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DEBT IN VENICE AND ELSEWHERE

venice & dolomites

Dispatch from the Laguna

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.

 

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Silvio Berlusconi & Amico

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

 

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Matteo Renzi (technically irreducible, perhaps politically as well)

Renzi has been intrepid in many ways, not least in defending the rescue and accommodation of many thousandof 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.

https://francessmithstarn.in/2016/07/18/dirty-tom-trump-tower-san-francisco-venice/

 

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