The Northern California Land Trust (NCLT) has announced new plans to demolish the building housing the Long Haul and replace it with an 8-story building of co-op apartments, condominiums, and ground-floor space which they promise will be similar to the ones that exist now.
Almost everyone is torn up about it. The planning process only focuses on the shiny new thing, but doesn’t offer opportunities to reflect on what we have now or grieve the possible loss of a beautiful building.
But I think saying that this project is simply ‘gentrification,’ or ugly condominiums, is sloppy and something to be more thoughtful about. Under the private property regime, every new development opens up some opportunities for use of the land and closes off other possibilities.
My grandparents moved to California in the late 1950s, around the time the amerikan housing market was starting to be formally ‘de-segregated.’ Previously most new construction would have covenants for buyers, “No Jews, No Blacks, No Mexicans.” This change allowed a lower middle-class mexican family, both unionized workers, to think about buying a house in a new subdivision.
Today, the plan proposed by NCLT is clearly designed to provide opportunities to lower-middle class Black families for home ownership in South berkeley. South berkeley has experienced significant Black displacement over the past decades, despite few dramatic changes in the built environment besides BART. Within the current system, there is little hope of reversing this besides constructing new housing. Even eviction defense and so on cannot create opportunities to reverse 30+years of demographic change.
Anti-development radicalism has a troubled history when it comes to housing in the Bay Area. In San Francisco’s Western Addition in the 80s, some radical queer activists aligned with the local neighborhood and property owner groups to oppose the re-construction of a large public housing project which had been demolished. (Before its demolition it was squatted by traveling anarchists attending a conference.) While the activists and property owners had major differences, they were united around opposition to what was considered to be a tall and ugly tower. The project was almost spiked, but eventually got built as SF’s first new public housing in a quarter-century. Read about this in Lorenzo Gomez’s book Full City: Gentrification, Hope VI, and the end of Public Housing Communities in San Francisco: 1970-2003.
Most people get their needs met (or NOT met) through mainline housing markets. Without projects such as this, there are limited opportunities for many non-white people to find housing in these areas. And as long-time advocates on homelessness recognize, housing availability and homelessness are intimately connected. WRAP (Western Regional Advocacy Project), the group who opposes sweeps and anti-poor street laws, often point out how giving tax subsidies to homeowners has basically replaced the amerikan government’s spending on building housing.
For example, WRAP points out in House Keys, Not Handcuffs, that from 1996-2005, less than 2,000 units of affordable rural housing were built by the government. That’s only 6% of how many were built in the same time from 1976-1985. State run housing has plenty of problems, like bad maintenance and management, but its abandonment is clearly one reason for displacement and growing homelessness of low income people as the general population continues to increase.
By declining to acknowledge some of these facts, radicals often cede the territory to sold-out politicians and non-profits – whose ideas are for sale, and many of whom are all too eager to facilitate any real estate deal that can line their pockets or pad their prestige.
What radicals have to offer is a dedication to genuine social transformation: revolution, and the abolition of the class system. The Long Haul is one of only a few spaces where it is possible to think about revolution, without somebody breathing down your back to stay on script, or trying to buy you off. It’s the best kind of (un)development, that’s led by the people who use it, rather than the state or some company. That’s something worth fighting for.
The NCLT’s history of broken promises and poor communication with tenants does not seem to bode well for the future of the Long Haul post-demolition. So there are very good reasons to oppose this project all together.
Usually, the people who oppose projects like this are local property owners who at best are concerned with keeping a good thing going. We need to look beyond political alignments which seek only to prevent or reverse forms of privatization happening now or since Reagan, but to create coalitions which can meaningfully oppose private property altogether.
Anarchism was once a powerful multi-racial, working-class movement in north amerika. Millions of people dedicated their lives to fighting to abolish the wage system and the state. In the early 20th century, these efforts revolved around rank-and-file trade unionism and got crushed by the Red Scare government crackdown. Today, the state is using divide-and-conquer tactics to keep people away from each other and possibilities to change life as we know it.
Rather than accepting it as a given that anarchism will be limited to a small subcultural milieus, we should be welcoming everybody to the table for shelter from the terrible landscape of pollution, mass shootings, war, and so on, in order to fight the common enemy – the system and its rulers – together. Rather than playing into the property system’s game of scarcity, or mocking those who want safe and decent housing for their family, we should be thinking about how to rejuvenate our radicalism to take over urban land being squandered. What if we could take land away from distant owners to turn parking lots into community parks, or sprawling bank branches into housing? How about side streets being liberated from asphalt to meet everyone’s needs? This seems impossible on a large scale. But what if there were more of us? How do we get there?