Book Review! James Tracy's "Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes from San Francisco's Housing Wars" (2014 AK PRESS)

Review by Kathy Labriola

When I mention James Tracy’s name to anyone anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, they invariably respond enthusiastically about how they worked closely with James on a specific housing or tenant-related struggle or in a particular progressive organization. They go on and on about what a fantastic organizer he is and “such a great guy, too!” He apparently has been involved in every affordable housing or tenants’ rights struggle in San Francisco over the past quarter century. I’m even more amazed that he seems universally loved and respected by every activist left of center, which doesn’t seem possible in the fractious housing wars that have continuously rocked the City in recent decades.

Since he was directly involved in nearly every struggle covered in his book, he is not a dispassionate scholar. But he pulls off the feat of being “objective,” as much as anyone who hates capitalism and landlord and developer greed could be. He places each organization and each fight against displacement in a historical context, and describes the myriad strategies, tactics, goals, and outcomes of each specific struggle. He has some sound hypotheses about why some tactics worked better than others in certain situations or at a particular historical moment. He acknowledges the euphoric successes as well as the spectacular failures, and, more often, the limited gains that were so hard-won but later swept away by yet another wave of gentrification a few years later. Applauding the many dedicated and brilliant activists and groups, he also criticizes strategic errors and his own perceived deficiencies. For instance, “One of the biggest ironies about our organizing is that we could be so ecumenical and so sectarian at the same time!”

Tracy (and the reader) remain painfully aware that the cards are stacked very heavily against low-income and working-class tenants in San Francisco. The law and the political power is always on the side of developers and landlords, who will always throw us under the bus because the obscene profits are just too irresistible. Starting with the displacement of African-Americans from the Western Addition in the 1950’s through “Redevelopment,” he then chronicles the 1990’s “dot-com boom” forcing Latinos out of the Mission, to the current wave of mass evictions fueled by the new tech companies. In many housing struggles, the City government as well as Federal housing policy colluded with property owners to evict low-income residents to make way for luxury condos, upscale restaurants and stores, tech office buildings, or other more “profitable” uses.

Among the most current bad news Tracy delivers: the 2013 numbers show that a resident would have to make at least $37.62 an hour, nearly 4 times the city’s current minimum wage, in order to pay the average rent in San Francisco.

At every step of the way, diverse coalitions of activists and organizations have waged pitched battles against being forced out of their homes and neighborhoods. This book is a real page-turner! Despite some heavy losses, the courage, hard work, and dizzying array of organizing strategies are inspiring and eye-opening. Ever present is the debate and tension between “direct action” approaches such as squatting buildings, taking over City offices, and camping out on the lawns of developers’ mansions, or “working through the system” strategies of testifying at public hearings, lobbying elected officials, lining up support from churches and unions, or writing ballot measures and campaigning for electoral change.

He also discusses some solutions, including Community Land Trusts. Tracy co-founded the San Francisco Community Land Trust (SFCLT) in 2001, and I am involved in the Bay Area Community Land Trust, so neither of us can claim to be neutral. Tracy says SFCLT was founded on the question, “What if we could win the housing war?” If tenants controlled their own buildings, they could not be evicted and communities could not be displaced, so SFCLT has spent nearly 15 years procuring funds to buy buildings and training the tenants to take over self-management. He cautions against seeing this as a substitute for a larger movement against capitalist property relations. “It is important that land trusts be viewed as a sneak preview of a better world, instead of a utopia on a single city block.”

Despite the subject, this book is very upbeat and often laugh-out-loud funny. My only complaint is that it is too short and each chapter left me wanting much more information, as he is really trying to cover the waterfront in a brisk 119 pages (scrupulously footnoted).