Monday, April 25, 2016

Oakland’s Housing State of Emergency & The Legacy of the Black Panthers

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party here in Oakland, CA. While this is being commemorated in many ways (library and museum events, a PBS movie, lectures by Black Panthers, study groups, college courses, and even Beyonce’s superbowl halftime show), the civic leaders and elected officials in the city in which they were founded still show no interest in truly acknowledging the legacy of this legendary organization.

Certainly the publicity campaigns the city and the Chamber of Commerce design in hopes of luring new residents, tourists and businesses here try to avoid any mention of this important chapter in Oakland history. Instead, we are given billboards selling Oakland as “The Wild Side Of San Francisco,” and books like Oakland: The Story of a City (a whitewashed version of Oakland history in which the existence of the Black Panthers merits one sentence). On the rare occasion the Panthers are mentioned, they’re often tucked safely in the box of history (as if the problems the Panthers strove to address have been solved).  

Yet, looking at the 10-Point platform written by Huey Newton with Bobby Seale and Melvin Newton in October of 1966, with 50 years’ hindsight, it’s clear that the 10 issues the Black panthers pinpointed and diagnosed are at least as profound today as they were back then. It may even be worse. Given the state of emergency affecting Oakland’s black community today, The Panthers still provide a useful template for considering possible solutions.

Today, Oakland is facing massive displacement of its black residents. The African-American population has declined from roughly 45% percent when the Panthers were active, to 33% in 2001 when I moved here from NYC, to less than 25% today, and this trend is continuing. This development-driven displacement, as people are increasingly priced out of neighborhoods they’ve lived in for decades due to inflated “market rate” rents, has spread beyond the black community to include the Latino communities, and even the Asian and lower-income white folks (many of whom are teachers, artists and other culture workers of the creative class).

As a result, some housing activists argue that the current crisis is more about class than race, and often plead their case in “race neutral” terms, but it clearly has a racial component if looked at historically: from the redlining and “urban renewal” policies of the mid-20th century (which the Panthers were well aware of), through the “war on drugs” since the 1980s to the current seizure of the inherited property by the Berkeley Probate court,[1] black owned real estate has been disproportionately under siege.

Nonetheless, I maintain that even lower-income whites and other non-black citizens will stand to gain by acknowledging the racist roots to the issue of gentrification in today’s housing emergency. To my fellow whites, I argue that it would be simply intelligent self-interest to seriously consider how the demands and proposals that the Panthers brought before the city, state and federal governments in the 60s and 70s could do much to address Oakland’s housing crisis and would benefit the vast majority of Oakland’s citizens.

In Point 4 of the Ten Point Platform, they write, “we believe that if the capitalist landlords will not give decent housing to our black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives, so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.”[2] Rooted in the recognition that adequate housing is a right rather than a privilege, the wording of this demand and/or proposal would perhaps have to be fine-tuned to apply to the scope of today’s crisis, but it shows that, contrary to the claims of many politicians and the corporate media, that the Black Panthers were not an anti-government organization, but were willing to work with (and in) the government to help make it more truly democratic, more responsive to citizens and voters than it was in their time, and remains today. It also must be mentioned that they are not advocating taking the property of all landlords, only those who do not imply decent, affordable, housing.

2. Compromising The Panthers’ Demand in light of current proposals for Impact Fees and Rent Control

Many argue that, in today’s economic and political climate, the government would never concede to the possibility of seizing the property of landlords. And certainly the landlords, who wield a disproportionate influence on city, state, and federal governments, would never consent to acting on such an ultimatum. Therefore, it’s argued, this demand should be left off the table. Yet, even if today’s housing activists consider “seizure of landlord property” unfeasible or even absurd, at the very least we could demand that the government use the public land it already owns, that has not yet been sold to big development (not ma and pa landlords), and work with community organizations to help create the housing cooperatives the Panthers demanded,[3] where people can build and make decent housing for themselves.

This alternative proposal can be represented by the battlecry, “Public land for the public good.” It is more compromised (some would say, watered down) than the Panthers’ call for seizing land, but the developers have so narrowed the terms of the debate, that even this more compromised position is, apparently, too “radical.” Even the East 12th Street coalition’s demands to the city not to sell-off public land, and their well-thought out proposal for affordable housing, have gone unheeded.

Meanwhile, many housing activist organizations persist in trying to get City Hall to act for the public good while also trying to galvanize residents directly affected by this Housing Crisis into a more organized, or coordinated, movement. One proposal that is being floated to address the city’s mismanagement of the housing situation is the requirement that market-rate developers pay a one-time “impact fee.” Such a fee would require developers to acknowledge (contrary to their claims that their mere presence is a ‘community benefit’ as Bay Development and Wood Partners have argued), and attempt to redress, the negative impact their luxury “market rate” towers have on the majority of Oakland’s renters. Since two-thirds of Oakland’s renters are considered lower-income, earning less than $40,000 a year, this impact fee could generate tens of millions of dollars to build affordable homes for them.[4]

In contrast to the Panthers proposal, or even my more modest plan that would not necessitate seizing private property, but would place a moratorium on selling public property, the compromise position of the “impact fee” would allow developers to continue to build their luxury towers in the heart of The Black Arts and Business District and elsewhere. But at least it could conceivably pave the way for the kind of community owned—or at least leased—cooperatives that could foster “development without displacement.”

However, even this modest, and already compromised demand, is meeting resistance not only from developers, but from the city government, as was witnessed on April 19th, 2016, when voters and activists flooded the City Council meeting to pass an impact fee. The one the city finally passed is, according to Jeff Levin, member of the East Bay Housing Organization, “too low, is being phased in too slow and applied unevenly throughout the area,” with particular adverse affects for lower-income black and brown communities. In addition, city council (with Mayor Schaaf’s endorsement) made last minute modifications to redirect the fees paid so that they’d subsidize the housing of those who make $110,000 a year, rather than prioritize the low-income residents who make less than $40,000 a year.[5]

Another even less ambitious proposal being floated by some housing activists to address the city’s housing emergency is the Protect Oakland Tenant’s Initiative (or Renter Protection Act). This proposal doesn’t even go so far to address the crisis as the Impact Fee would in terms of providing economic resources that could be used for the community-managed (if not necessarily owned) cooperatives, but it at least does a few things that need to be part of any comprehensive proposal to address the housing crisis: 1) tie-up loopholes in the current laws that allow landlords to make illegal rent increases, and 2) grant eviction protection to all tenants in Oakland by capping rent increases to 5% per year. It doesn’t, however, create more housing for those already displaced, or the city’s growing homeless population (some of whom are Laney students).

The modest proposal to place the Protect Oakland Tenant’s Initiative (and/or Renter Protection Act) on the November ballot as a referendum hasn’t even made it out of committee, but is currently being shuttled through the hallowed halls of bureaucratic red tape, as the buck is passed from the City Council’s Rules and Legislation Committee to the Community and Economic Development Committee. Again, we see City Council heeding the “advice” of Big Property advocates such as the Oakland Chamber of Commerce who urge Council not to act, but rather “to do some analysis to determine what can be done.” After such run-around, even the most patient housing activists who would never dare to break the bounds of civic discourse and accuse city officials of negotiating in bad faith are having doubts: “Long-time Oakland residents are being pushed from their city,” a frustrated Bill Chorneau, of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), notes, “and some of our city leaders seem to be trying to prevent strong action on their behalf” (emphasis added).

Although Chorneau takes pains to speak the proper code of reasonable discourse (or “moral suasion”), with such tentative phrases as “seems to be trying to prevent,” others, including many students at Laney College, are more direct: They’re trying to drive us out! Chorneau, and ACCE, is at least trying to do something to address the housing crisis, yet even if the ACCE managed to get the 30,000 signatures necessary to place this on the November Ballot, it would at best scratch the surface in addressing what even City Council acknowledges as the current housing emergency.

Since these well-thought out compromised proposals for developer impact-fees, and rent protection are struggling to get through city hall, we may need bolder thinking, bolder strategies, and bolder language to supplement the more civil language Chorneau uses. If the government officials are trying to break our spirit by making us think we’re asking for too much when we’re, in reality, asking for much less than we need, and much less than what is their constitutional obligation to provide, what do we have to lose by asking for more? What do housing activists have to lose by considering the Panthers’ “more unrealistic” proposal to threaten the property owners with land-seizure (just as they threaten their tenants with eviction)? Perhaps it’s time, once again, to hold city officials accountable to the spirit and letter of the constitution as the Panthers did.

Since ACCE is already trying to round up 30,000 signatures for their ballot initiative, would it be too much to ask them to circulate, on another clipboard, a petition that would place the Black Panthers’ demand on the November ballot, and give folks the option of signing both? The demands/proposals for shorter-term, stop-gap measures, such as impact fees and rent control, could work in tandem, and compliment the Panthers longer-term, structural proposals. It’s possible that the Panthers more “extreme” position could gain more traction with the majority of Oakland citizens than the proposals you’re already circulating, and help you galvanize your base!

Even if you personally don’t agree that the Panthers’ demand would provide an unqualified positive social good, putting it before the people can provide strategic leverage for the passage of your more modest plans. At the very least it could widen the debate, and liberate it from the narrow terms the developers set so that real negotiations can begin. As many activists have known throughout history: if you threaten a more extreme position, you’re more likely to persuade the government to act on the more compromised one than had you only proposed the compromised one.

Furthermore, since we’re talking about the November Ballot, we also need a slate of candidates for city council who are willing to consider the structural changes needed to stem the tide of development-driven displacement, and to allow for a city with true development without displacement (perhaps “Shake” Anderson will consider running on this platform). These candidates will be forbidden from paying for advertising, but will be promoted through word of mouth and social media.

In conclusion, The Black Panthers’ housing demand (or proposal) should not be off the table, but should be seriously considered next time the City Council takes up the housing crisis. If it’s too much to ask for a council person to bring it up, at the very least housing activists such as Chorneau, James Vann, or Carol Fife should step up without fear of working with others who advocate for resurrecting, and publicizing the Panthers’ demand. I say, it’s time for the negotiations to begin---or would you rather honor the Panthers’ legacy by going to a museum to see yellowed copies of their amazing newspapers, and debate about their “Failure” over artisan brews at a Growler Shop where the Panthers used to feed the poor?

[2] There are at least two versions of the Ten-Point platform circulating on the web. In the original version, The Panthers use the adjective “white” to refer to the landlords, I choose the more “race neutral” word “capitalist” here only because there are more non-white landlords today, though the majority, it must be stressed, are white.
[4] Furthermore, ¾ of lower-income renters, who are disproportionately African American, pay more than 30% of their income for rent (“East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO),” Oakland Post, April 13-19; pg. 10.

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