Reimagine | Vol. 19, No. 2 – 2013 | Credits

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Who Plans Our Cities?

By Marcy Rein

Traditionally, residents of Richmond, California have had little voice in planning their city; the process being dominated by Chevron, real estate developers, and other corporations. But in the past six years, a community-based coalition—Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI)—working with a constellation of community organizations and regional experts has successfully incorporated a solid set of community priorities into the new General Plan approved by the City Council in April 2012.

“The Plan is our vision for the next 30 years,” says Jeff Rutland of the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization (CCISCO). “It ties together all the things we want to see happen in our city.” Almost every section of Richmond’s new Plan includes policies and actions that promote health, addressing everything from quality food stores and urban gardens to air quality monitoring and living- wage jobs. (See box: What REDI Won in the Richmond General Plan.) The Plan also has a standalone “Health and Wellness” section, a first in California.

To shape the Plan, REDI members had to persist- ently push back against bureaucratic and interest group opposition. Certain key city staff have long- standing ties to Richmond’s corporate-friendly political elite, so the people’s priorities kept getting written out of the Draft Plan until REDI mobilized. When the General Plan finally came before the Planning Commission and City Council for approval, the Chamber of Commerce and Council of Industries launched a full-throttle attack.

However, the REDI Plan prevailed, thanks to a strategy that combined education and activism where REDI members thoroughly familiarized themselves with the Plan, then educated and lobbied decision- makers—turning out in force to advocate for their priorities at every public hearing over a six-year plan- ning and approval process.

How Inequity Developed in Richmond

With 32 miles of shoreline and sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay, Richmond is a beautiful place. It’s also a desirable place with several acres of unde- veloped land, a deep-water port, and bus, rail, and freeway links to the rest of the Bay Area and beyond. But thanks to its development policies, inequity is etched deep into the landscape of Richmond, host to Chevron’s main West Coast refinery.

RicOccupy Chevron demonstration in Richmond on October 3, 2012. ©2012 Joe Feria Galicia/Urban Habitathmond’s decline began as World War II ended, winding down work at the shipyards post-1945. But instead of investing in new industrial uses for the old shipyard site, in the mid ‘70s, Richmond sank redevelopment money into a high-end Marina Bay condo complex, and rather than revive the downtown corridor next to the new BART system, it opened the Hilltop Mall in the northwest corner of the city.

The oil-refining and chemi- cal-processing industries that remain continue to provide well-paying jobs but few of them go to Richmond residents.1 “The connection between residents as employees and industry was slowly but surely severed,” said Alex Schafran, a graduate student of planning who worked with REDI from 2007 to 2009. But it’s the residents, particularly those hard against the industrial corridor, who bear the brunt of the pollution from the Chevron refinery, the diesel truck traffic from the Port of Richmond, the Burling- ton Northern-Santa Fe railroad, and the 350 other industrial polluters that surround the city.2 It’s worth noting that two-thirds of Richmond res- idents are people of color3—and more than 16 percent fall below the official poverty line.

Educating to Build Power

REDI Forum, July 2007.   ©2007  Brooke AndersonREDI was formed in 2003 to reverse the trend toward inequitable development. Urban Habitat and its original core partners4 began with research, policy development, and advocacy.5 When Richmond began updating its General Plan in 2006, REDI saw an opportunity to put equitable development policies to work and reached out to base-building groups to engage in the planning process, forming a coalition whose members—Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), CCISCO, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Communi- ties for a Better Environment (CBE), and Faith- Works—represent a cross-section of Richmond today.

The campaign began in February 2007 with a six- week long Leadership Institute for the grassroots groups where an array of interactive exercises present- ed in English, Spanish, Mien, and Lao helped equip the community to engage with the General Plan. Forty-four people aged 13 to 80 took part in the seven-week program where they plotted their daily activities on huge wall maps of Richmond to see how planning shaped their lives; drew their visions for the future over photographs of the city’s vacant lots and boarded-up buildings; learned a lesson in basic plan- ning lingo; and played “Richmond Jeopardy” to pull together the new concepts and language they had learned. “I learned so much about things like zones and how they are chosen,” said ACCE’s Ina Mason. “At first it was a bit overwhelming, but then I looked forward to the sessions.” She stayed with the cam- paign to the end. REDI also organized a three-part institute for elected and appointed officials later that year, attend- ed by many city leaders involved in the planning process, including Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and five members of the City Council, the city manager, the redevelopment director, the community and econom- ic development manager, the planning director, the principal planner, and the senior planner. Throughout the campaign, REDI continued to educate and dialogue with decision-makers in both informal and formal settings—from offline conversa- tions to public meetings.

Learning to Engage in the Process… and to Wait

A child coloring at the REDI Forum, July 2007.  ©2007 Urban HabitatThe City of Richmond announced the General Plan update in early 2006, intending to complete the process by late 2007 . It did not issue the first Draft Plan until July 2009. The document addressed some of REDI’s priorities, but left many untouched. It included language supporting affordable mass transit but did not speak specifically to the needs of youth, seniors, low- income people, and others who depend on transit. It provided for air-quality monitoring but did not address the need to reroute diesel trucks away from neighborhoods. REDI responded with a detailed public comment in writing at the Planning Commission meeting in October 2009, but those recommendations were gutted in a new Draft General Plan issued by the Planning Department in early December. REDI members then visited individual City Council members and testified at a January 2010 Council study session on the Plan, which resulted in the recommendations being temporarily reinstated. The group repeated the lobbying and mobilizing cycle several more times before the Planning Com- mission produced the Final Draft General Plan in October 2011. At that point, the Chamber of Com- merce and Council of Industries—anchored by Chevron, the city’s largest employer—came out in the open with their attack.

99% vs. 1% at the Planning Commission

At the October 2011 Planning Commission meeting, right after the city planning staff ’s presenta- tion, the head of the Richmond Chamber of Com- merce kicked off the public comment period with a slick 90-second video featuring three teens (black and Latino) sitting on a hill overlooking the Bay, dis- cussing their future. One hopes he can get a job after finishing school. Another says she’s working two jobs to help support her family because her dad was laid off when his workplace closed. “Stay strong!” the other two encourage her before a voiceover declares: “We can work together; by not regulating business, we can keep jobs in Richmond for these young people’s future.” To the 18 REDI speakers present, a healthy future for the young people meant business would do its part in cleaning up toxic sites and accepting cleanup as a condition of reuse, and monitoring air quality and tracking its cumulative impact over time.

REDI speakers also took issue with the Planning Department’s attempt to soften air quality monitoring language by adding “to the extent feasible.” “How feasible is it when our children have asthma?” asked Jeff Romm of Richmond Vision. Others who testified tied their recommendations to health in different ways, speaking in sChildren opposing Prop 23 in Richmond, CA. ©2010 Urban Habitatupport of: safer streets with better lighting, bus shelters, and benches; local hiring and job training with a focus on those with barriers to employment; urban gardens; which now needed to attract one swing vote. The Chamber of Commerce promptly ratcheted up its attacks on the REDI proposals and in an email to the City Council and Planning Director Richard Mitchell, blamed “Oakland-based CBE” for stirring up “the Plan- ning Commission’s attack on Richmond business.” Representatives from business and labor, along with REDI members and allies, flooded an adoption hearing on the Plan in April 2012. Everyone, it seemed, wanted the same things but disagreed vehemently about how to get them. Predictably, an economic consultant hired by the Chamber of Commerce painted a dire picture of businesses jumping ship if the Plan imposed new rules, while union members pleaded with the Council to avoid action that would imperil jobs, especially at Chevron. REDI speakers, meanwhile, kept bringing the focus back to health matters, rejecting the idea that the com- munity needs to choose between life and liveli- hood. “We are Richmond… insiders, not outsiders,” LOP leader Lipo Chanthanasack said through his translator. “We thoroughly support the Planning Commission. We need a good job, a healthy job, and we don’t need pollution.” Mayor McLaughlin closed the hearing around midnight and a week later, the Council reconvened and voted 5–2 to adopt the Plan as recommended by the Planning Commission. “The community involvement was very productive,” said Councilmember Tom Butt. “The Planning Commission was getting pressure from Chevron, the Council of Industries, and the Chamber of Commerce to do certain things. There needed to be some counterbalancing advocacy and REDI played a big part in providing that.” With the rest of the General Plan passed, the city returned to consideration of the Housing Element, which it had put on hold. REDI advocated for more detailed and directive language to commit the city to stronger renter protections, amendments to the inclusionary housing ordinance, and more comprehensive code enforcement. APEN members protest at Chevron on October 3, 2012.  ©2012 Joe Feria Galicia/Urban Habitat

The Planning Commission overwhelmingly supported these changes at its November 1, 2012 meeting.

Organizations in REDI are now working to translate Plan policies into laws and programs. CBE backed two City Council resolutions responding to the August 2012 Chevron fire. The Council passed both measures. (See sidebar)

“Air quality monitoring and local hire language in the Gen- eral Plan strengthened the community's leverage in getting the City Council to act,” says Urban Habitat Land Use and Housing Coordinator Christy Lefall. But the 2012 election has shifted the balance of power on the City Council. Nat Bates’ reelection and the victory of Gary Bell over the Richmond Progressive Alliance’s candidate Ed- uardo Martinez gives the pro-Chevron forces another shot at undoing important elements in the Plan. Going forward, the Initiative’s success will hinge on its ability to sustain its coalition and broaden the base for equitable de- velopment policies in Richmond.


(1.) Poverty and Pollution: The Numbers Speak Loudly

The results of Richmond’s inequitable development show up in the most basic statistics. In the Iron Triangle neighborhood1 surrounding the city’s decimated downtown, 31.52 percent of the residents live in poverty. When measured against the higher cost of living in the Bay Area, the poverty rate in Richmond is closer to 27 percent rather than the 20 percent overall for the East Bay. That’s according to the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), an Oakland-based research institute that provided technical assistance to the REDI campaign.3 Roughly one-third of Richmond’s African American and Latino residents are poor. Even before the current economic meltdown, more than one-third of the city’s young African American men were unemployed.4 As of January 2012, 15.4 percent of the people in Richmond were officially unemployed, compared with 9.3 percent in Contra Costa County as a whole. Children in Richmond are almost twice as likely to go to the hospital with asthma as children in other parts of the United States.5 City residents have higher rates of death from heart disease, diabetes, and stroke than people in Contra Costa County as a whole; they are also more likely to contract AIDS, give birth to underweight babies, and die from homicide.6 At present, Richmond doesn’t even have a major supermarket or grocery store, pointed out Ina Mason, an ACCE activist and local resident, because they closed down the Lucky’s and Safeway.

(2.) The Elephant in the City: Chevron

Chevron’s refinery sprawls over 2,900 acres, occupying 13.4 percent of Richmond’s land.1 The oil giant, far and away RichView from a Richmond resident’s front yard. August 2012: Chevron fire spews a toxic plume over Richmond, CA.  ©2012 Kelli Rosemond’s largest private employer and political contributor, anchors the Chamber of Commerce and Council of Industries. The business PAC it funds, Moving Forward, pumped $1.2 million into the 2012 City Council elections alone.2 “I call Richmond a ‘corporatocracy,’ meaning that it’s ruled by the corporations,” Planning Commissioner Soto said. “Whoever is in power, Chevron and the other corporations will buy them off.” Around 10 percent of the city’s revenue comes from Chevron’s payments of fees and taxes. The company hands out more than $1 million per year in charitable donations to community groups, though it has repeatedly disputed Contra Costa County’s property tax assessments. Chevron’s Richmond Refinery emits more greenhouse gas pollution than any other facility in the state, according to the California Air Resources Board. The EPA reported the production of nearly 100,000 pounds of toxic waste at the site in 2007.3 Many who grew up in Richmond carry memories of accidents and spills at the refinery and the illnesses they caused. “I remember being a kid and playing outdoors, then seeing smoke and smelling all these nasty smells from Chevron or General Chemical, and then getting an allergic reaction,” APEN lead organizer Sandy Saeteurn said. “Growing up, this was just a regular thing.” As recently as August 2012, a fire at Chevron’s Crude Unit #4 released toxic smoke that sent more than 15,000 people scrambling to emergency rooms.4 The federal Environmental Protection Agency launched a criminal investigation a month later to determine whether the company deliberately re-routed exhaust vents to bypass air quality monitoring. Chevron announced that it would repair the damaged unit using a chromium alloy, rather than more corrosion-resistant stainless steel. The United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board subpoenaed Chevron for more information about its choice of repair materials.5 The Richmond City Council has passed two resolutions requiring Chevron to prioritize the community’s health and safety when making plans to rebuild. Some of the General Plan provisions REDI fought for—including language on air quality monitoring and local hire—strengthened the community’s effectiveness. But the Council’s will to keep holding the company accountable may weaken in the coming year. Chevron saw a significant return on its election investment with Nat Bates’ reelection and the victory of Gary Bell over the Richmond Progressive Alliance’s Eduardo Martinez.


 (3.) What REDI Won in the Richmond General Plan

A General Plan sets a framework for a city’s long-term growth and development, which helps determine who will benefit from development. Strong language in the General Plan lays down a foundation that community groups can build on to win new laws and policies, such as city ordinances to protect residents from displacement by new development. The Plan also guides day-to-day decisions about land use, zoning, and housing development. The new Richmond General Plan puts community health front and center in order to address the root causes of health problems. It supports: n Living-wage jobs and job training with a focus on people with barriers to employment, including youth, those formerly incarcerated, and people with limited English. n Healthy food stores and urban gardens. n Stronger requirements for affordable housing in proposed development projects through amendments to the inclusionary housing ordinance. n Safer streets and more affordable and reliable transit. In addition, the Plan requires polluters to actively monitor, clean up, and reduce the toxics they put out. REDI members continue to pursue working to complete the General Plan campaign by ensuring the passage of an equitable Housing Element in Richmond. Richmond's Housing Element is three years past due. REDI has been involved throughout these years in advocating for inclusive and progressive policies for the Element, as well as advocating for an open and transparent process from the city staff. A Final Draft Housing Element was approved by the Planning Commission on November 1, 2012. REDI advocated for more detailed and directive language to commit the city to stronger renter protections, amendments to the inclusionary housing ordinance, and more comprehensive code enforcement. The Planning Commission overwhelmingly supported these changes at its November 1, 2012 meeting. The next step is City Council consideration of the Element with these changes. The Housing Element, which REDI members care about a great deal, was not included in any of the drafts of the General Plan. The City of Richmond did submit a Draft Housing Element to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) in March 2010, but the state found it incomplete and rejected it.

Endnotes Main Story

1. Growing with Purpose: Residents, Jobs and Equity in Richmond, California. East Bay Alliance
for a Sustainable Economy, April 2007. <>
2. Interview with Sandy Saeteurn, lead Richmond organizer for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network,
February 8, 2012.
3. City of Richmond, 2010 U.S. Census figures <>
4. FaithWorks! and the Richmond Improvement Association (RIA) were the original core partners.
RIA did not take part in the General Plan Campaign. The Greater Richmond Interfaith Project
(GRIP) stepped back after two years.
5. They drew on expert technical assistance from the Center for Community Innovation at the
University of California Berkeley, the East Bay Alliance for Sustainable Development, and East
Bay Housing Organizations.

Endnotes Sidebar 1: Pollution and Poverty
1. The Iron Triangle neighborhood in Richmond’s core takes its name from the railroad tracks that
surround it on three sides: the Burlington Northern–Santa Fe tracks that parallel the Richmond
Parkway, the Union Pacific–BART tracks, and the Santa Fe tracks (now abandoned and turned
into the Richmond Greenway). Eighty-five percent of Triangle residents are African American and
Latino, and more than 60 percent have incomes below 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
Statistics from “Iron Triangle: Concentrated Poverty Neighborhood,” U.S. Census 2010, compiled
by United Way of the Bay Area HELPLINK Community Information Center, accessed at
< printreport.php?nid="42">. Definition of 185 percent below poverty
from U. S. Census: <>.
2. Ibid.
3. Growing with Purpose: Residents, Jobs and Equity in Richmond, California. East Bay Alliance for
a Sustainable Economy, April 2007, p. 14. <>
4. Ibid.
5. Contra Costa Health Services: “Contra Costa Health Indicators 2005–2007.”
6. Ibid.

Endnotes Sidebar 2: The Elephant in the City: Chevron
1. Chevron: “About the Refinery.” <>.
2. Urban Habitat Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute, “Richmond Political Landscape”
presentation, December 3, 2011. See also Robert Rogers, “Richmond’s progressive
leaders look to future in wake of setbacks against Chevron, soda tax.”Contra Costa Times,
Nov. 16, 2012. <>.
3. “Appeals Court Upholds Environmental Justice in Richmond.” Communities for a Better Environment.
April 26, 2010 (Press Release). <>
4. Robert Rogers, “Richmond: Resolution calls on Chevron to meet higher standards in aftermath
of Aug. 6 fire.” Contra Costa Times, Oct. 2, 2012. <>
5. Stephen Hobbs and Rachel de Leon, “City Council Presses Chevron to Use Recommended
Material for Pipes.” Richmond Confidential, Nov. 21, 2012.

Related Stories: 
PDF icon 19-2.rein.pdf1.38 MB

REDI Document Archive

The Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI) ran a multi year campaign aimed at influencing Richmond decision-makersto adop equity principles in planning processes on  focus areas which include, equitable land use and planning, quality jobs and workforce training, affordable, safe and reliable public transit, greater community ownership and creating a healthy environment.

Research and policy the coalition produced to support its projects and campaigns are listed in reverse chronological order:

REDI Draft City of Richmond General Plan Public Comment

REDI Draft General Plan Public Comment
September 2009
The Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI) views the General Plan as an opportunity to incorporate policies that can lead to: a healthier community through affordable housing, reliable and safe public transportation that connects to quality family-supporting jobs, a cleaner environment, accessible community amenities from open space, health care, access to healthy food, and greater community ownership.






REDI’s Housing Platform
March, 2009

As our nation’s economy continues to decline and housing foreclosures continue to rise, local communities and working families are struggling to save themselves from total despair. Richmond has been greatly impacted by this crisis but it is not alone as California and the Bay Area have been especially hard hit. This crisis brings to the forefront the importance of having policies and strategies for long-term safe, affordable, quality housing and access to quality jobs.

Read the Full Platform

MARCH 2009

The Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI) prepared this report to show how the national crisis is impacting communities in Richmond, California and to emphasize the need for solutions that minimize this critical situation, especially for the city’s most vulnerable populations. Richmond has a long history of being a welcoming city where many working families can find an affordable home to buy or rent. Now, more than ever, is the opportunity to develop short and long term solutions that allow Richmond to continue to be a place for those who want to call it home.

Read the Full Report

REDI’s Policy Recommendations and Implementation Measures for Richmond’s General Plan Update
December, 2007

REDI developed a series of policy recommendations and implementation measures in the areas of land use, housing, transportation, economic development and health. The goal of these policies is to discourage displacement, segregation and gentrification practices that have occurred in cities that are undergoing similar change. When implemented, these policies can provide community benefits for all residents, specifically low-income communities and communities of color.

Read the Full Report (PDF, 638 KB) or Read the Executive Summary (PDF, 110 KB)

REDI Policy Memo: Equitable Land Use
November, 2007

Richmond, California is in the process of updating its General Plan which serves as the blueprint for city planning and development for California cities for the next 10- 15 years. This memo presents REDI’s ideas on how the City can rewrite its General Plan map to facilitate a reduction in poverty. Although it may be difficult, both technically and politically, we believe it can be done. One of the challenges in thinking about land use and equity is that there is no simple formula for creating a just city. However, over the past year, REDI has been participating in the General Plan update process and thinking about exactly what a fair land use plan for Richmond would look like.

Read It (PDF, 160 KB)

REDI Policy Memo: Richmond’s Ferry to an Equitable Future
July, 2007

The City of Richmond is in the process of evaluating and determining how a new ferry terminal can come to Richmond. This memo presents REDI’s ideas on how a ferry can help facilitate a truly equitable and public waterfront. The ferry is a wonderful opportunity for the City of Richmond to stimulate investment along the waterfront that could generate good jobs, affordable housing, and spectacular open and public spaces. Developing a plan that makes equity a priority by building in key land use, economic development, housing, transportation and environmental requirements not only helps make our case for funding for the ferry, but ensures the sustainable integrated waterfront that Richmond deserves.

Read it (PDF, 134 KB)

REDI Brochure
May, 2007

This brochure provides information on the projects and campaigns that REDI has actively worked on since it is inception. It briefly describes REDI, its vision and some of its projects, including the General Plan Campaign, Leadership Institutes, Local Employment and Tenant Rights campaign.

Read It (PDF, 466 KB)

Growing with Purpose – Residents, Jobs and Equity in Richmond, California
April 2007

This informative report produced by the East Bay Alliance for Sustainable Economy (EBASE) for REDI, documents the many economic challenges impacting Richmond residents. It provides economic and demographic information about population, workforce, jobs and industries that provide a basis for understanding the strategies that need to put in place as well as the opportunities to lift residents out of poverty.

Read the Full Report (PDF, 4 MB) or Read the Executive Summary (PDF, 1.7 MB)

REDI Equitable Development Framework and Principles
February, 2007

REDI developed framework and principles to guide its work in advocating for policy and projects in Richmond that will build a path to a vibrant, holistic, and just community. Richmond. The REDI Equitable Development Framework and Principles document pieces together the intersections among critical elements of the city, including land use, housing, economic development, transportation and health.

Read It (PDF, 466 KB)

Racial Equity: New Cornerstone of Transit Oriented Development

By Rebecca Saldaña and Margaret Wykowski

It’s just after dawn when Naravisaya “Al” Les flips on the lights at his restaurant. There’s a rhythm to his routine— the same one he watched his father play out 15 years ago. First, he kicks off his rain-soaked shoes on the front mat and walks across to the cash register. Next, he presses his palms down on the laminate counter and sighs deeply as he looks out at the cool grey Seattle morning before starting to count his cash.

Elder working in her garden next to Seattle’s light rail link.  ©2012 Carina A. del RosarioThe Les family has been in the restaurant business since 1987. In 1992, they became the first tenants in the newly developed Southeast Seattle King Plaza where they renamed their restaurant “Olympic Express” to highlight its multiethnic cuisine. Les is Cham Muslim from Vietnam and his restaurant is the only one in Washington State to serve halal Asian curries, teriyaki, noodles, and Mediterranean gyros. Olympic Express is located in the Rainier Valley neighborhood of southeast Seattle—the most racially diverse area in Puget Sound where 57 percent of households speak one of 40 different languages.1 Rainier Valley was the first community to receive a light rail line, which stretches 15.7 miles from SeaTac—the region’s largest airport—to Downtown Seattle and cost the region’s commuter transit agency, Sound Transit, $2.71 billion at the first phase of construction. When construction began in the late ‘90s on this highly anticipated transit system many small business owners like Al suffered financial hardship owing to reduced customer traffic. Unfortunately, even after construction was completed, some local businesses continued to struggle.

Light Rail: Heavy on Promises, Light on Delivery

Local government and transit advocates sold the light rail to Rainier Valley residents with the promise of investment in new transit-oriented development (TOD). In the minds of TOD advocates, people living in these areas should be able to get to a park, grocery store, and other activities on foot or by hopping on transit that’s no more than a quarter mile away. While the TOD model emphasizes walkability, density, and transit access, racial and social equity are not its cornerstones.©2012 Zach Davis Photography

Despite the downturn in the economy, the light rail spurred some new TOD in Rainier Valley and in 2010, private developers built the area’s first multifamily apartment building in almost 40 years.2 Since then, several similar projects have entered the planning and construction phases. The tangible benefits of light rail and TOD for communities of color, however, are still in flux. Strong evidence suggests that Rainier Valley is being gentrified, threatening a crisis of displacement.

A report published by Puget Sound Sage in May this year—“Transit Oriented Development That’s Healthy, Green & Just”3—found dramatic changes to Rainier Valley over the last decade. The strongest evidence of gentrification and displacement is in the Valley versus the region as a whole: n In King County, the population of color grew by 47 percent, while the population of whites shrank by 2 percent. n In Rainier Valley, the population of color grew by 5 percent (42 percent below the county as a whole), while the white population increased by 17 percent (19 percent above the county as a whole). The numbers illustrate that the growth in white population is outpacing that of people of color in Rainier Valley.

Rising property values in the light rail corridor provide stronger evidence of gentrification. Since 2005, land values surrounding Southeast Seattle’s light rail stations have risen by over 50 percent.4 Property values have increased even more at Rainier Valley stations that are hosts to new development. Assessed land value at the Othello Station, the site of a major luxury apartment building, appreciated by 513 percent between 2004 and 2011.5 In Rainier Valley, communities of color are disproportionately low-income, and gentrification will only force them to move out into the less expensive suburbs where they will experience decreased access to good jobs, schools, and other services, which will further push them into poverty. Conventional Focus of TOD Must be Replaced A major force in determining how the light rail will impact Rainier Valley is whether the development will be conventional or focus on economic and racial equity. Currently, TOD in the U.S. caters largely to higher income households as private developers and investors want to mitigate the associated costs.6 Mainstream TOD literature and planning guides often limit social equity provisions to affordable housing. Community-based needs of stabilization and culturally relevant amenities rarely make the list of priorities.

Additionally, conventional TOD planning ignores access to quality jobs for low-income residents. Transportation and land-use planners often make an assumption that as long as a wide variety of jobs are located along a rail line, workers of all incomes will be attracted to station areas. However, recent evidence indicates that in transit areas, low-wage service sector jobs are growing faster than any other sectors, causing a deficit of quality jobs that can actually pay the bills of a working family.7

It does not have to be this way. When Rainier Valley communities were at the helm of the neighborhood planning process, they developed a vision for TOD that surpassed typical limitations on development. The plans included elements that could maintain and nourish the community, such as familysized affordable units and expanded access to living wage jobs for area residents. The plan fit the community’s needs because its focus was on benefiting them, as opposed to the developers.

Including a racial equity framework in TOD plan ning and policy can help break the cycle of historical disenfranchisement and institutional barriers to prosperity; but ensuring that TOD leads to real equity outcomes requires a sharper focus on what equity means and determined leadership to achieve those outcomes.

Proactive Approach to Avoid Displacement

Rainier Valley TOD planning and policy must go beyond mere inclusion of community members in the process and take a more proactive approach to ensure racial equity because once displacement by gentrification occurs it cannot be undone. Puget Sound Sage has put forth the following principles to inform planning and public policy around TOD. While it is not comprehensive, it provides a good starting point to deepen public and private sector commitment to incorporating racial equity into TOD initiatives.

Existing area residents should benefit from TOD investment around the light rail and be able to thrive in place.

Creating quality jobs for neighborhood residents should be elevated as an equity strategy on par with creating low-income housing. This includes both construction jobs as TOD occurs and permanent jobs accessible throughout the light rail corridor.

Affordable housing that meets the needs of lowincome families and communities of color should be incorporated into the TOD. Furthermore, it should include units large enough to house children and multigenerational families.

Community-serving institutions and businesses are needed to stabilize existing low-income communities of color as gentrification occurs. Affordable commercial space should be prioritized within the TOD and surrounding areas for community and cultural centers, service providers, and culturally relevant businesses.

Racial equity outcomes, not racial diversity goals, should drive the TOD planning. Only by creating racial equity will racial diversity be able to thrive in Rainier Valley and to achieve this, people of color need to be instrumental in determining priorities and making decisions.

History has shown that when communities organize and speak out, they will have more influence on outcomes. As a result of the light rail development, Al has become a leader in Rainier Valley and Olympic Express has become a community hub, serving his religious community and the diverse residents of Rainier Valley. And Al’s work with the local community development fund has already benefited other small business owners in the neighborhood. The success of the Olympic Express is linked to growing a community where all families thrive and that is only possible when you replace the traditional forces of development with the brighter promise of racial and economic equity.

Rebecca Saldan?a is the community benefits and development program director at Puget Sound Sage. Margaret Wykowski is the trategic researcher. The full report can be found at

1. City of Seattle, “HUD Community Challenge Grant Application Abstract for the
Neighborhood Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Initiative,” (2011).
2. Ibid. The City refers here to the Station at Othello Park development by Othello
3. Download the full report at
4. Ibid 1.
5. Puget Sound Region Council, “Assessed Land Value Appreciation—Othello Station,
Housing,” (April 2012).
6. Stephanie Pollack, Barry Bluestone, and Chase Billingham. “Maintaining Diversity
in America’s Transit-Rich Neighborhoods: Tools for Equitable Neighborhood
Change,” Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, (October 2010).
7. Dena Belzer, Sujata Srivastava, and Mason Austin. “Transit and Regional Economic
Development,” Center for Transit Oriented Development, (May 2011).
From 2002-08, the highest job growth (14 percent) of all sectors was in arts,
recreation, food service, and accommodations—traditionally low-wage service

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PDF icon 19-2.saldana-wykowski.pdf1.29 MB

Advocates Compel Facebook to Like Affordable Housing

By Rene Ciria-Cruz

Facebook’s decision last year to relocate its corporate headquarters from Palo Alto to Menlo Park gave social justice activists a welcome opportunity to challenge the affluent city’s long-standing neglect of affordable housing.

City officials were eager to accommodate the social networking behemoth because it promised jobs, prestige, and millions of dollars in capital projects and taxes to the city of 32,000. But affordable housing advocates said, “Not so fast!” Menlo Park many not proceed with new development initiatives until it had rectified years of violations around state housing laws. And city officials stopped and listened. What compelled them was the 2010 Superior Court decision in Urban Habitat et al., v. the City of Pleasanton et al. “We essentially shut down Pleasanton’s planning powers until they met their legally required obligation to plan for affordable housing,” explained Richard Marcantonio, managing attorney for Public Advocates who represented the affordable housing coalition that took Pleasanton to court. Now Marcantonio was poised to take on Menlo Park on behalf of a Silicon Valley-based coalition. Refusal to Permit Affordable Housing Challenged Like Pleasanton, Menlo Park at the eastern edge of San Mateo County has long been noncompliant with state housing laws.

All local governments have to zone for their share of regional housing needs at each income level. The requirement, known as the Housing Element in the local General Plan for development, is called for by the state’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA).

Menlo Park had not updated its affordable housing plan since 1992 and not granted building permits for a single new unit of lower-income housing from 1999 to 2007. Consequently, only 17 percent of low-wage workers with household incomes below $88,000 can afford to live in the city, according to the Association of Bay Area Governments. About 21,000 others must commute long distances to their jobs, which further strains the budgets of low-income families and adds to traffic congestion and exhaust pollution in the Silicon Valley corridor. The city’s neglect came home to roost when Facebook sought approval to raise the cap on the number of employees at the facility it acquired from Sun Microsystems and to build a new campus to accommodate 9,400 additional workers, an estimated 28 percent of whom will be low-wage earners. Where would these thousands of new workers live? With the post-Facebook demand for local housing boosting prices, what was to become of current low-income residents in nearby communities? “We were worried that upper income Menlo Park would reap all the benefits from Facebook, while just across the way, low-income East Palo Alto would be disproportionately burdened by the housing crisis and increased traffic,” explained Jennifer Martinez, executive director of the Peninsula Interfaith Action, which has advocated for health care access and affordable housing since 1997.

East Palo Alto has a per capita income of only $18,000 according to the recent Census, compared with Menlo Park’s $67,000. Quick Settlement Avoids Long Legal Battle On January 30, a coalition of affordable housing advocates with a long working relationship—Penin-sula Interfaith Action, Urban Habitat, and Youth United for Community Action—initiated moves that called to mind the Urban Habitat v. Pleasanton battle.

“We knew for certain Menlo Park was in the wrong,” said Vu-Bang Nguyen, a land use coordinator with Urban Habitat. “But they also knew that the problem with their Housing Element was glaring.” The coalition sent the city a lengthy response to its Draft Environmental Impact Report on the Facebook project, criticizing the “shortcomings in the analysis of population and housing” and cited the city’s “long-time failure to meet its affordable housing obligations under the Housing Element Law.” According to city planners, Menlo Park needs to zone for 1,975 market price and affordable housing units to add to its current stock of 12,500 units to fix its Housing Element.

On May 16, Public Advocates filed a lawsuit on behalf of the coalition to stop any new commercial development until the city updated its Housing Element and plan for affordable housing. “We’re about 10 years behind,” Menlo Park City Manager Alex McEntyre admitted to The Almanac, a local periodical. “We should have taken care of the Housing Element before now.” With Facebook threatening to walk away if they didn’t get the approvals by June, city officials scram-filed, in fact—paving the way for Menlo Park to accommodate Facebook, meet its housing obligations, and avoid extended and costly litigation reminiscent of Pleasanton.

Menlo Park Settles

Prior to the city council’s unanimous vote to approve settlement on May 22, Mayor Kirsten Keith declared, “It’s not a defensible case; I do feel we need to approve this or else we’ll probably suffer some severe repercussions.” In exchange for not pressing the lawsuit so the city could proceed with the Facebook projects, Menlo Park agreed to: n Facilitate the future development of nearly 2,000 homes accessible to the very low-, low-, and moderate- income households. (In San Mateo County, $56,000 a year for a family of four is considered a very-low income.) n Adopt a Housing Element plan by March 2013 and rezone sites in or near the downtown for affordable housing close to job sites and transit facilities. n Provide funding for nonprofit housing developers, including a $1.85 million interest-free loan to the nonprofit HIP Housing to turn an apartment complex on Willow Road into affordable housing. Jurisdiction over the settlement’s implementation lies with the court. Facebook, eager to proceed with its expansion, also entered into some agreements with the coalition with promises to: n Launch a youth summer internship program in East Palo Alto and the Belle Haven section of Menlo Park. n Cooperate with job training programs. n Seed a local community fund, and n Help affordable housing efforts in Silicon Valley.“Afforable housing is one tier in our approach,” said Annie Loya, executive director of Youth United for Community Action in East Palo Alto, a group seasoned in campaigns against toxic plants and environmental health hazards. “The other is how to make new business developments help bring tech training to underfunded schools, develop contracts with local vendors, and so on.”

From left to right, Evelyn Stivers, Richard Marcantonio, Annie Loya, and Vu-Bang Nguyen at the BCLI Issues Advocates Speakers

In the past, some big businesses that came didn’t do much for East Palo Alto, she noted. “That has to change, especially with the many new tech companies that we expect to come in. We need to get them into a partnership to benefit our community. Facebook is a good start.”

Urban Habitat v. Pleasanton Precedent is Key For affordable housing advocates, the Menlo Park settlement proved that their victory in Urban Habitat v. Pleasanton could be a potent weapon in getting local governments to heed what Marcantonio calls “the power of state housing laws.”

In Pleasanton, a middle class city of 70,000 in Alameda County, various ordinances and zoning decisions had contributed to the shortage of affordable housing. Then in 1966, voters approved—and later reaffirmed—a cap on housing, which barred the city from allowing more than 29,000 units. The imbalance between commercial development and affordable housing forced nearly 90 percent of the 47,000 people who worked in Pleasanton to live elsewhere and commute to their jobs, thus exacerbating road traffic and greenhouse gas emissions. Ironically, Housing Cap proponents had touted it as a slow-growth environmental measure. Critics also characterized Pleasanton’s refusal to zone for highdensity housing as a tool to avoid racial diversification among a population that was 67 percent white in 2010.

In 1980, at the urging of housing activists, California passed the Regional Housing Needs Assessments (RHNA) law requiring cities to conduct periodic assessments (every eight years) of its housing needs to more evenly distribute housing availability among all income levels.

From “Moving Silicon Valley Forward.”Pleasanton’s 1999-2007 RHNA required it to have a Housing Element of 5,059 units—729 of them affordable for very low-income and 455 for low-income families. But the city had not even rezoned for such housing by 2006, despite persistent requests from housing advocates, particularly Citizens for a Caring Community. It eventually became clear that the city’s Housing Cap was obstructing its ability to meet its RHNA obligations, so the housing advocates went to court.

Public Advocates sent a demand letter to the City Manager, while a regional coalition formed to press for policy change. In October 2006, Public Advocates sued the City of Pleasanton for violating a law requiring localities to adequately share regional housing responsibilities. Urban Habitat et al., v. City of Pleasanton et al., also accused the city of discriminating against low-income families of color who were disproportionately burdened by the lack of affordable housing.

The Alameda County Superior Court dismissed the suit the following year, but it was reinstated on appeal. Significantly, the California Attorney General’s office joined the lawsuit in 2009, citing the lack of transit-oriented affordable housing as an impediment to meeting the region’s state law mandated greenhouse gas reduction goals. It sent a strong signal that the Attorney General intended to enforce the state’s affordable housing statute.

Finally, in March 2010, the Superior Court ruling for the plaintiffs overturned Pleasanton’s Housing Cap. The city settled, agreeing to add new housing to its general plan and rezone sites near the city’s BART station for affordable housing. Since then, the city has approved 500 units of new housing, with 70 units for very low-income households. It also passed an ordinance banning housing discrimination against families with children.

Palo Alto Takes Hint—Updates Housing Element

Pleasanton came to terms with its housing responsibility only after five years of litigation, which cost its taxpayers $2 million in legal fees. It’s a cautionary tale that Menlo Park took to heart. It’s also a timely tale. In the Bay Area, more than a dozen localities have yet to adopt a Housing Element that complies with state law, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development. The cities of Benicia, Brentwood, Colma, Daly City, Hercules, Millbrae, Orinda, Pacifica, Richmond, San Anselmo, Sausalito, Sonoma, and all of Marin County can expect to be next in the cross hairs of the affordable housing movement. In all of California, some 138 localities still do not have legally compliant Housing Elements. “These laws are not optional, they are mandatory,” stresses Marcantonio. “Those that fail to follow Menlo Park’s lead and continue to drag their feet should be aware of the consequences they face for being out of compliance.”

Menlo Park’s neighbor Palo Alto has taken the hint and rushed to update its Housing Element. “While asking approval to submit their draft Housing Element to the State Department of Housing and Community Development for review, officials attached a copy of the Menlo Park settlement to their request,” reports Nguyen.

Rene Ciria-Cruz is a Bay Area freelance journalist and a regular contributor to New America Media. Moving Silicon Valley Forward, by Urban Habitat and the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California can be found at urbanhabitat. org/research/movingforward.

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Racialized Public Space

An Interview with Maya Wiley by Ron Shiffman

Maya Wiley is the founder and executive director of the Center for Social Inclusion. A civil rights attorney and policy advocate, Wiley was a senior advisor on race and poverty to the director of U.S. Programs of the Open Society Institute. She has worked for the American Civil Liberties Union National Legal Department, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Human Rights Watch, and the Council on Foreign Relations, among others. She currently serves on the Tides Network Board. Wiley was a contributing author to the National Urban League’s The State of Black America 2006. Ron Shiffman conducted this interview for publication in Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space, published by New Village Press. (See Research and Resources, page 87).Cover of Beyond Zuccotti Park, published by New Village Press. ©2012 New Village Press

Ron Shiffman: Can you describe the work you do at the Center for Social Inclusion (CSI)?

Maya Wiley: The Center for Social Inclusion is a national policy strategy organization whose mission is to dismantle structural racial exclusion. We think about the ways multiple institutions, policies, and actions serve to exclude communities of color from opportunity and from full participation in society—politically, economically, socially—and what the policy strategies are that could change or transform that into inclusion and opportunity.

Shiffman: In what way does CSI address space as a place for expression or debate of race?

Wiley: We think of space in three interactive, interconnected ways. There is psychological space, political space, and physical space. They are all interactive, and none of them are race-neutral—they are highly racialized, even when we’re not clear how they are racialized. For example, the structure of physical space is driven by politics and attitudes. Once you say, “Occupy the Hood,” everyone knows you’re talking about people of color. The reason that is true is how we’ve racialized physical space through housing policies, land use planning, and many other public and private actions. Our politics are also driven by how our communities are defined. We have districts, and elected representatives represent a geographic area. To build political power, communities try to build racially identifiable districts. And that then racializes politics, although sometimes in positive ways. Space then drives psychological space around our identity and who “we” are. It’s very difficult to disentangle the idea of space and how people see themselves in relationship to each other, what sorts of problems we create, and how we solve them. For CSI, none of those issues are race-neutral; they’re not only about race, but they drive how we see space and who gets to be seen as part of the idea of that space. Those three realms of the physical, the psychological, and the political are all wrapped up in each other.

Shiffman: How then does that translate into how we view spaces in our own city? How would you advise decisionmakers, urban planners, policy makers, or even urban designers in how they plan and design space, keeping these ideas in mind?

Wiley: In the interaction between physical space and social/political space, who we are and who we think we are is shaped by space: how we organize it, who we are in it, and how we include or exclude people from it. That is both in the process of creating it and what we do with it: what purposes does it serve, who should it be for, what solutions it should help create. At this point, people of color have to fight very hard to be included in real discussions and decisions about space: what it’s for, how it should be used, and how it can be used to help us solve problems. If people of color are not formally included in a process of thinking about what spaces we need and what kinds of relationships they drive, then we will ultimately have not only racially identifiable and segregated space, we will have a fragmented social and political community. So much of how we identify who we are— who we should be in relationship with, and what their value is to the larger community, city, region, nation—is so often expressed in space. Who is the space for, and whose needs does it meet? All of those questions need to be part of the decision-making process.

Shiffman: How can spaces be used to build up solidarity in neighborhoods—even spaces in the “hood”—and be used to create social cohesion and political awareness?

Wiley: Having physical space is important. Fundamentally, most space is exclusive: people have to find, and have ways of contesting that, and build on what we’ve got as assets in the community. There needs to be space for people to come together to contest that exclusion. I think about this as civic engagement… civic engagement is more than electoral politics. It’s how we come together to solve problems we need to solve. In communities of color in particular, there are very few such spaces for that sort of civic engagement. The schools are actually one of the few institutions in communities of color, but it can be very difficult to access that space as a community space, outside of the school day or school use. Very few community centers exist, and there are very few parks and recreational spaces for people to gather—let alone whether they are comfortable gathering there, which is another issue. There are so few spaces that it is often difficult to create the opportunities for people to come together and do that level of civic engagement. I’m reminded of one theorist who, in relation to the Black liberation struggle, said that space has to come together as critique of the dominant order, or else it is just idle talk. It’s not just about physical space. Spaces that bring about the opportunity to think more collectively, to critique, and to challenge are the spaces we have the least of in communities of color. But we also need leadership and institutions that help that become a critical and constructive space, as well as celebratory space. We also need space for joy and appreciation of one another and the richness that is community, even if its income is poor.

Shiffman: There are also spaces like sidewalks, where an exchange can take place, but a lot of that has to do with how it’s programmed, how it’s policed…

Wiley: This is part of the psychological aspect of space. You are deemed a criminal or dangerous too often, for people of color, just because of how you look or the street you live on, not whether or not you’ve actually done anything. The Center for Constitutional Rights documented that 90 percent of police stop-and-frisks in New York City don’t result in any arrest. And of the arrests, many people are released later without charges. Almost all—87 percent of New Yorkers stopped—are African American and Latino. I know one kid who wanted to be a lawyer, but dropped out of school because he was harassed regularly by the police when he had never even committed a crime, and police were in his school. To avoid the police, he dropped out. People of color have very small activity spaces. They don’t go very far. Some of that is affordability— but some of that is psychological, because of the criminalization of space and an imposed order. This harkens to gang criminalization, and how just wearing certain colors can exclude you. Two people wearing certain colors cannot stand together on a sidewalk because they are deemed to be in a certain gang. That history of criminalization is so endemic to so many people of color’s experience living in this country, without even addressing class. It does matter how the government mechanisms of control respond to the space.Stop-and-Frisk in New York City. Courtesy of Brooklyn Movement Center

One more point we should make about race, particularly how it relates to physical space, is the changing demographics of the city. Even this notion of the “hood” is starting to change… where people are increasingly being priced out of not just their neighborhoods but also the city itself. People that fled the cities in the 1970s are now coming back into the cities, and the city itself is becoming wealthier and whiter, while inner-ring suburbs have become a place of low-income people of color. Dominicans from Washington Heights are moving to eastern Pennsylvania, and people from Williamsburg are being pushed up to Nassau County—they are physically leaving the city and not necessarily by choice.

Shiffman: The pressures on low-income people are felt in many ways beyond housing affordability. The businesses have changed and they can no longer find the services and goods that they need. So it’s not only the civic spaces but also the space of one’s own community, the streets, and commercial businesses that need our attention.

Wiley: When those small businesses that provide “cultural commodities” get priced out, this affects the identity of the community. On the one hand, we’re happy to see the nice restaurant open up, but then you start to worry about the 99-cent store next door. We need to have different levels of affordability of commercial space, which is actually a pretty radical idea. We think about affordable housing that way—we have private housing, public housing, quasi-public housing, but we don’t address commercial space in the same way. Those businesses serving and owned by lowincome people need to be able to stay viable in the community.

AT CSI, we are trying to build this model of community economic development for social good. We are exploring how federal policy in broadband technologies can drive more opportunities for local employment in communities—everything from searching for and applying for employment using the Internet to the development of new job opportunities resulting from the technology itself. We believe that some of the money set aside for broadband activities should be going directly to communities to do this. We are also trying to help the elected officials, particularly ones representing communities of high need, to understand this, and we are also trying to help communities themselves understand the opportunities, so that community innovators can engage in this technological opportunity at the outset. We are working with lawmakers to find ways to support a federal-to-local incubation strategy, a ground-up strategy that can get to scale and reach large numbers of people.

Shiffman: Anything else?

Wiley: The demographics of many places [are] changing—becoming younger and with more people of color, where white people are predominantly sixtyfive and older. If we don’t think about these spaces, we really are going to create this new form of apartheid, where the vast majority of people will be excluded while they are carrying the remainder of the country. It is really quite scary, and quite real. We need to reevaluate the current trajectory.

Ron Shiffman, FAICP, AIA, is director emeritus of the Pratt Center for Community Development and a professor at Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment. He coedited Beyond Zucotti Park from which this interview is excerpted.
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Foreclosure Struggle Continues

Campaign Wins Foreclosure Program in Oakland, Concessions in LA, Sets Sites on National Change

By Robbie Clarke

"I am taking an arrest to call attention to my demand for community control of housing,” says Nell Myhand. “As Ella Baker said about the courageous young people who sat in at lunch counters in the segregated South during the Civil Rights Movement to challenge unjust law, ‘it’s bigger than a hamburger.’” who went to jail fighting for their homes and for the homes of millions of other victims of the foreclosure crisis.

The arrest came at the end of a month of actions against mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac organized by the Take Back the Peoples’ Bank Campaign, which is fighting for secure and affordable housing for homeowners, tenants, and homeless families while holding WFannie Mae and Freddie Mac demonstrations.   Courtesy of Causa Justa::Just Cause [2]all Street and the government accountable.

As the foreclosure disaster enters its fifth year, housing rights organizers scored some welcome victories in California and are setting their sites on national change.

In September 2012, bowing to multi-city protests, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac reversed their position on principal reduction and announced that they will begin to allow their borrowers to participate in the taxpayerfunded Keep Your Home California program. In Oakland, the city launched a new foreclosure prevention program in collaboration with community organizations. More than 1,500 impacted residents and supporters protested at the regional (Chicago, Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles) and national (Washington, D.C.) headquarters of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Between them, the two agencies own over half of all mortgages in the U.S.—7 million of which are currently under water—and hundreds of thousands of vacant foreclosed homes. Among neighborhoods across the Bay Area where the foreclosure crisis continues to wreak havoc, half of all the residential properties in foreclosure in Oakland and San Francisco are controlled by them. Although 80 percent publicly owned, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are loyal to Wall Street rather than Main Street and rank first among lenders in kicking people out of their homes. There is now a national campaign led by groups, such as Right to the City, Occupy Our Homes, Home Defenders League, and Alliance for a Just Society, to build a movement to demand that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac serve the 99 percent rather than the corporate interests that continue to benefit from the evictions and displacement in our communities.

Local Impacts of a National Crisis

Homeowners pushed out of their homes by the banks and investors have been forced into the rental market. Currently, the average rent in Oakland is above $1,800—a 14 percent increase since 2010—and in San Francisco it’s more than $2,700—a nearly 13 percent increase in the same time period.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac demonstrations. Courtesy of Causa Justa::Just Cause Foreclosures among tenant-occupied properties have also been rising steadily. In their report, “Total Renters Directly Affected by Foreclosure,” Tenants Together, a nonprofit working to advance and defend the rights of renters, claims that more than one million tenants have been directly impacted by foreclosures in California— 175,000 of them in 2011 alone. San Francisco and Oakland—both majority renter cities—have been hit hard with residents at greater risk of homelessness, displacement, and other forms of housing insecurity.

Foreclosure-related evictions have also increased the number of homes that sit vacant, attracting vermin, illegal dumping, and blight, which in turn lead to a rapid deterioration in the health and safety of neighborhoods.

According to a report (“Who Owns Your Neighborhood: The Role of Investors in Post-Foreclosure Oakland”) by the Urban Strategies Council, an Oakland-based support and advocacy nonprofit organization, 42 percent of all foreclosed homes in Oakland have been purchased by private, out-of-town investors. Ninety-three percent of those properties are located in the flatland neighborhoods. The foreclosure crisis apparently has generated another wave of real estate speculation that has benefitted investors at the expense of local homeowners and tenants. In every case, homes are being sold at prices far below what is owed on the loans. But rather than help the people who already live in these homes refinance their loans, the banks are choosing to sell the properties to investors, often leaving the families with nowhere to go.

Local Support for Communities Fighting Back

Causa Justa::Just Cause (CJJC), a grassroots organization fighting for racial and housing justice for lowincome residents of Oakland and San Francisco, is pushing for the resurgence of a national housing movement to address the root causes of the current crisis, while simultaneously working to develop local strategies to help tenants and homeowners fighting to stay in their homes.

When the foreclosure crisis started in 2007, CJJC and several local organizations demanding accountability from banks for their role in creating and sustaining the problem decided to take on Wells Fargo Bank, one of the major culprits. The movement began as a regional coalition staging protests at the bank’s Annual Shareholder Meetings but quickly matured into a local force advocating for people to remain in their homes. Now Oakland is gearing up to implement the “Oakland Comprehensive Foreclosure Prevention Plan”1 encompassing local adaptations of policy wins from the Homeowner Bill of Rights—including a law authored by Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco (and sponsored by Tenants Together) barring unfair evictions when new owners of rental property fail to communicate with the tenants—and the Attorney General’s Settlement. Also included are increased legal and counseling services for homeowners an extensive outreach program targeting over 3,000 Oakland families in foreclosure; and an innovative program (ROOT) for buying homes in danger of foreclosure to negotiate affordable mortgages for struggling borrowers.

On Every Block, In Every Barrio, Organize!

Although the results of the efforts so far have been inspiring, the foreclosure crisis is far from over and our communities are still struggling for true housing security, community health, and well being. The effective solutions that our communities need require a commitment to sustained collaboration and coordination between housing advocates and impacted residents. We have to organize neighborhoods and bring in as many allies as possible into our coalitions to sustain the fight to keep as many families in their homes as possible. n

1. This effort came together with the support and work of people and staff at the City of Oakland, ACCE, OCO, Alameda County Public Health Department, East Bay Housing Organizations, Enterprise Community Partners, Community Housing Development Corp., HERA, LISC, One Pacific Coast Bank, Wells Fargo Bank, Urban Strategies Council, California Reinvestment Coalition, OCCUR, Allen Temple Housing and Economic
Development Corp., Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom Center, Family Bridges, Centro Legal de la Raza, SEIU 1021, East Bay Community Law Center, Housing Group of East Bay Move On, and California Housing Finance Agency.

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Oakland City Council Joins Fight Against Toxic Interest Rate Swaps

By Darwin Bond Graham

In 1997, the city of Oakland, California entered into an interest rate swap agreement with Goldman Sachs. The bank promised that the swap would provide savings and allow Oakland to better fund crucial services. But the swap became a toxic liability in 2008 when Wall Street’s greed crashed the economy and neither the bank nor the federal government helped the city unwind the deal.

“It’s a second bailout for the big banks,” said Yvonne Michelle of Decolonize Oakland. “They were first bailed out by the administration when the market crashed. Now we’re in limbo with one foot in recovery and one foot in recSEIU Oakland “Drop the Swap” banner. Courtesy of seiu1021.orgession mode, and Goldman Sachs continues to prosper from our monies a second time over.”

“We think that this is outrageous when our city is suffering from budget cuts to basic services,” says Luz Calvo, another Oakland resident and member of Decolonize Oakland. “We think it’s time to fight back.” Oakland is by no means alone—hundreds of local governments nationwide face onerous payment obligations under interest rate swap deals struck in the 1990s and 2000s—but Oakland has led the fight against this injustice. Organizers Calvo, Michelle and others have educated their friends and neighbors and pressured elected officials to address toxic financial contracts. They have shamed the bankers reaping profits off swaps and debt and succeeded in politicizing municipal finance. As the swap crisis continues to harm communities nationwide, grassroots organizers have managed to lift the veil on the structural racism of public debt, advancing efforts to build a movement for financial justice.

Oakland Takes On the ‘Vampire Squid’

In early 2012, propelled by the energy of the Occupy movement, a diverse group of organizers from ACCE, Bay Natives for Peace and Justice, Decolonize Oakland, ILWU Local 10, Occupy Oakland’s Interfaith Tent, Research Group, and Labor Solidarity Committee, Oakland CAN, SEIU Local 1021, and ROOTS, among others, formed the Coalition to Stop Goldman Sachs. Overcoming differences in organizing styles and political beliefs, they utilized a variety of tactics—from meeting with and educating city officials, to disrupting Goldman’s San Francisco office with street theater protests—to wage a simple but highly effective campaign, which culminated in a demand for Goldman to terminate the swap with Oakland at zero cost to the city and return the profits.

“We broke down the city’s finances [into] accessible and understandable information for everyone,” said Déborah Santana, a member of the Coalition. Last October, the City Council announced plans to implement a moratorium on swaps, and in November, after further lobbying from Coalition members, it began the process of barring the bank from future business with Oakland unless it agreed to terminate the swap at no cost to the city. Although the Coalition’s success has worried Wall Street titans, according to an article in the Financial Times—the world’s leading business newspaper—Oakland is not a massive debt issuer, so the impact is small. One professional financial analyst quoted in the story said, “It would be a bigger deal if it were San Francisco or Los Angeles; if you have more than a handful of issuers asking for concessions, it becomes more of an issue for banks.” Oakland’s organizers are in fact working to create a broader coalition to take on the banks. A City-Sized Problem of National Proportions Oakland is by no means the only or the most affected local government. The Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has lost over $100 million because of toxic rate swap deals with banks, such as Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley. Since the MTC funds public transportation systems across the Bay Area, cuts and fare increases indirectly linked to toxic swap liabilities have disproportionately impacted communities of color. Activists with ACCE, SEIU 1021, and Urban Habitat have held multiple protests at banks in San Francisco demanding “bus stops, not swaps,” and called on the MTC’s directors to “refund transit.”

Elsewhere in the U.S., swaps have sucked billions from local governments caught in similar Oakland City Council Chambers. Courtesy of Oaklandlocal.compredicaments. In Philadelphia, the city and its school district have lost more than $331 million to the handful of Wall Street banks that sold 90 percent of these toxic deals to local governments. Goldman Sachs, Morgan made tens of millions off Philadelphia’s taxpayers while the school district and city were forced to lay off teachers and employees and slash essential services at the bottom of the economic collapse in 2010. City officials held investigative hearings on swaps last fall, with a goal of canceling the deals and possibly taking legal action against the banks and financial advisers who profited from them. In New York, unions and community groups have focused on how swaps are harming transit services. In Boston, activists brought attention to their metro transit agency’s $26 million a year loss on swaps, leading the Boston Globe to call on city officials to end the deals using Oakland as a model.

(See Sidebar: Why Did Cities Fall for the Swap)

How Did We Get Here?

In response to white flight, capital flight, and the nationwide “tax rebellion” that began with California’s Proposition 13, local governments throughout the U.S. have been forced over the last three decades to do a lot more with much less. Cities, counties, and other local agencies increasingly rely on heavy debt loads and complicated financial strategies just to pay for the most basic public goods and services. The worst affected have been jurisdictions populated by working class people of color where, because of racist disinvestment, unemployment rates are higher, property values are lower, and tax proceeds routinely fall short of actual needs. The result is that the poor, as always, pay more. Swaps were supposed to be a clever solution to local fiscal problems, making it easier for debt-strapped governments to pay their bills. The financial crisis that began in 2008 precipitated a series of events that caused esoteric financial products, such as interest swaps, to blow up, costing cumulatively tens of billions. But the federal government has not stepped up—as it did with the big banks—to bail out cities, school districts, and transit authorities.

How Do We Get Out?

Oakland’s financial justice activists say that resisting Wall Street requires building broad coalitions of community, labor, religious, and advocacy organBanner at a New York Strike Debt demonstration in September 2012. ©2012 Nicholas  Mirzoeffizations. Progress in campaigns around injustices hidden in local government finances and debt depend on whether activists can develop strong critiques of the means by which banks exploit the public and extract wealth from tax and revenue mechanisms. Such a movement will need to focus on much more than just swaps and other onerous examples of financial exploitation. For lasting impact, a movement for financial justice centered around city government will need to shift the thinking of local officials and residents, so that whole communities are more vigilant against the financial sector. Some positive signs in this direction include the recent adoption of responsible banking ordinances by numerous local governments, and the proliferation of stricter local rules pertaining to public finance contracting. Cities must also build coalitions with one another, to create broader fronts against the banks. Ultimately, however, the only thing that can really empower local communities against banks will be a rollback of the chronic austerity imposed on the public sector as a reactionary means of sabotaging the integrationist push of the Black freedom movement. Only when local governments are freed from the logic of privatization, regressive taxation, and the suburban exodus of the affluent middle class, will they be able to free themselves from the bondage of debt finance and its various instruments of wealth extraction.

Darwin Bond Graham is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to RP&E.


SIDEBAR: Why Did Cities Fall for the Swap?

An interest rate swap is a contract between two parties in which they agree to trade interest rate payments on a certain sum of money called the “notional amount.” The notional amount corresponds to the debt payments associated with a specific bond, but the swap itself is actually a free-standing contract (or “derivative,” because it derives its value from another asset) that works independently of the bond with which it is associated. Imagine that a government issues a $100 million bond with a variable interest rate to build a school. The city has to pay a rate of interest on the debt that varies depending on market conditions. In some years, interest payments could be as low as 3 percent but in others it might rise to 6 percent. To hedge against the danger that the variable rate might spike at some future date—to upwards of 10 percent, for example—cities agree to interest rate swaps. The swap obligates the bank counterparty to pay a variable rate that mirrors the variable rate on the city’s bond debt. So, the bank essentially ends up paying the city’s variable interest rate on the bonds, while the city only has to make fixed rate payments to the bank.

To understand why local governments ever agreed to such a strange arrangement it’s necessary to understand something of the history of municipal finance.

Local governments have always borrowed money to pay for infrastructure and services. This debt was paid back over a span of about 10 years with interest. Until recently, most public borrowing came with a fixed interest rate period after which the bonds in question were “callable,” and could be refinanced with new loans, or retired.

In the 1990s, Wall Street’s biggest banks convinced local governments that they could borrow money more cheaply if they issued bonds that had floating interest rates. (The shift paralleled the banks’ insistence on adjustable rate mortgages for many home buyers.) At the time that the banks sold the variable rate loans, interest rates on variable rate bonds were less than on fixed rate bonds. Public borrowers eagerly agreed to the cheaper variable rate loans, not anticipating either of the following scenarios that would derail the balance:

  • If the economy heated up too much, the Federal Reserve might hike up the Federal Funds rate which determines the cost of borrowing money for the financial system’s biggest banks, a possibility
  • that would cause variable rates to spike.
  • In the event of some kind of serious financial shock, interest rates could spike as banks withdrew liquidity from money markets.
In either case, cities would pay enormous sums on their variable rate bonds. If they carried too much debt, cities could be forced to make severe budget cuts or even go bankrupt. As insurance against either possibility the banks sold them interest rate swaps, which promised local governments both the cheaper price of variable rate loans and the security of a fixed rate payment that would be slightly below the interest rates attached to traditional fixed rate bonds. The arrangement seemed to work throughout the ‘90s and the first part of the 2000s. Cities under severe budgetary constraints— especially the ones harmed by decades of deindustrialization and suburban capital flight; or with large Black and immigrant communities— were ready to follow the advice of financial corporations and sell variable rate bonds with interest rate swaps attached because they promised access to levels of credit that had previously been denied them. When in 2008 the financial markets crashed, interest rates were artificially depressed by central banks to virtually zero. And while big financial companies benefitted from government assistance to offload their toxic assets, cities that had bought interest rate swaps were forced to pay out huge sums as the very tools that were supposed to give them access to cheaper loans and provide insurance against interest rate volatility became expensive liabilities. —DBG


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California to Direct Clean Energy Funds to Low-Income Communities

By Vien Truong

In September 30, California took a big step toward giving all residents access to clean energy and green jobs when Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 535 and AB 1532 into law. The new laws—which are the result of a four-year campaign by a broad-based coalition—will invest hundreds of millions of dollars towards greening underserved areas and in the process, support small businesses and bring clean energy jobs to disadvantaged communities each year.

The story begins in 2006, when lawmakers passed the landmark law AB 32 [1], which requires California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. To achieve this goal, the California Air Resources Board [2 ]established a cap-and-trade program, which puts a cap on the amount of air pollution that a power or industrial plant can produce and requires the facilities to purchase credits when they exceed it. The program is projected to generate $1 billion in revenue for the state next year.[3]

To ensure that a meaningful piece of this new resource would go to the low-income and communities of color primarily affected by the pollution, a coalition consisting of the Greenlining Institute, the Coalition for Clean Air, California NAACP, Natural Resources Defense Council, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and Asian Pacific Environmental Network sponsored legislation that became Senate Bill 535, introduced by Senator Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles). Among the bill’s stakeholders were public agencies, business associations, public health organizations, labor, transportation, environmental and conservation groups, ethnic and immigrant organizations, and economic justice, housing, and faith-based organizations. While not every group backed the cap-and-trade program—it was held up in court for over a year due to its possible negative impacts on environmental justice communities—these groups shared the belief that if the program is to go forward, it must be done in a way that maximizes benefits to communities that need them most.

Maximizing Benefits of Cap-and-Trade 

To reinforce SB 535, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez Speaker John Pérez at a Sacramento press conference. ©2012 California State Democratic Caucus(D-Los Angeles) sponsored AB 1532 for a twopronged approach to maximizing the benefits from revenues raised by cap-and-trade.

In essence, SB 535 [4] will determine where a portion of the funds will go, while AB 1532 [5] will guide how the funds will flow. Specifically, AB 1532 creates a public process that structures how funds from AB 32 should be allocated by providing parameters on the green sectors to invest in, and guidance on the fund distribution process.

SB 535 ensures that at least 25 percent of cap-andtrade funds benefit “disadvantaged communities,” with at least 10 percent of the funds being invested directly in those areas. Officials will identify disadvantaged communities based on geographic, socioeconomic, public health, and environmental hazard criteria. They may include, but are not limited to, areas disproportionately affected by pollution and other hazards that can lead to negative public health effects or environmental degradation and areas with a concentration of people who have low-incomes, high unemployment rates, low levels of homeownership or educational attainment, and a high rent burden. Since AB 32 was signed, venture capital for clean energy has been flowing into California in record amounts and the two new laws are expected to help maintain that momentum in addition to providing transparency, longevity, and certainty to California’s climate policy. Delivering Promises If there’s one thing communities of color know very well, it’s that passing a law is not the same as implementing it effectively and making sure it delivers on its promise. Fortunately, opportunities for public input are built into the implementation process for these bills. The California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), which is charged with identifying the disadvantaged communities for investment opportunities, has already begun its work. Under its direction, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) is conducting a series of regional public workshops to get input on a draft “cumulative impacts screening tool,” which is a means for identifying and mapping the communities hardest hit by pollution. [6 ]

The organizations that cosponsored SB 535 are committed to closely following the technical and complex process of implementing the laws. However, they need to hear from organizations that are working on environmental and clean energy issues in disadvantaged communities about what works and what is needed, including information about current funding from various state agAssembly budget hearing.  © 2012 California State Democratic Caucusencies, effective programs that should be continued, and the gaps in funding, if any, that need to be addressed.

Creating An Equitable Green Future

SB 535 is an important step towards ensuring that California creates an equitable green future for itself. Creating a green and equitable economy is not just a political or legislative challenge, it’s a moral obligation. There are communities in California (and around the U.S.) that suffer disproportionate levels of pollution, poverty, and unemployment. We have to make sure that those areas are prioritized because it’s where we will see the highest return on our investments. By investing in local businesses and creating good-paying jobs, we will see significant improvements in the economy while simultaneously seeing a reduction in energy use and reliance on dirty fossil fuels—foreign or domestic.

With AB 1532 and SB 535, California has the potential to set a nationwide trend on how to transform disadvantaged areas from pollution sites to solution sites. We just need to be vigilant to ensure that the process fulfills its promise.

1. <>
2. <>
3. <
4. <
5. <
6. To find out how to get educated and engage in the process, visit

Vien Truong is Green Assets Director at The Greenlining Institute ( To get involved, contact

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Planning for Climate Diaster: Resilient Communities Respond

After months of silence on the presidential campaign—preceded by years of denial by big industry—climate change was forced back into the national political conversation last October by Hurricane Sandy, which swept across the northeastern U.S. A New York Times opinion piece entitled, “Is This the End?” ran with a photo of the Statue of Liberty underwater;[1] and a front page story in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that “water levels in San Francisco Bay could rise 16 inches or more by 2050, inundating shoreline habitat and infrastructure.”[2]

Meanwhile, 14,000 public-housing tenants in New York were left for weeks without electricity or running water in the wake of Sandy.
After President Obama’s reelection, California Senator Barbara Boxer predicted that several of her colleagues would be quick to introduce climate legislation in the new Congress—a move that had been considered political suicide since the Waxman-Markey bill was killed by a Republican Senate in 2009.[3]

But will legislation considered politically realistic be enough to address the scale and urgency of the climate crisis? And will it address the equity crisis? Imara Jones wrote in Colorlines, “Sandy smashed into the world’s wealthiest city but hit its poorest neighborhoods the hardest.”[4]

Climate change has been called the “greatest market failure in history,”[5] but as with all market failures, those most affected have historically been excluded from the benefits of the market.

“The reality of ecological disruption is that instability and unpredictability, not just in the climate, but in the economy itself, are the new normal,” says Gopal Dayaneni, an organizer with the Bay Area-based Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project. “We have to innovate on our organizing strategies if we are going to navigate these changes.”

To that end, as organizers in New York set up emergency relief efforts following Sandy, Movement Generation released a statement calling for a focus on community resilience in the age of climate disasters.

 “There will be many more shocks—acute moments of disruption, such as extreme weather events—and slides—incremental disruptions, such as sea level rise—that play out over longer timeframes in devastating ways, if we are not prepared,” they wrote. “The question is how can we prepare to harness these shocks and slides to win the shifts we need in favor of people and the planet?”[6]
The statement went on to cite the work of organizers from New Orleans to Haiti to New York and beyond, who offer both practical solutions and a larger vision of a “just transition” to “new economies defined by public transit, zero waste, community housing, food sovereignty, wetlands restoration, clean community-owned power, and local self-governance: all efforts that foster community resilience and to cut the carbon emissions and change the economic system that is driving global warming.”[7]

Frontline Communities Demand Real Solutions
“Communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis have never been silent about the solutions that will save our planet and our soul as a society,” says Cecil Corbin-Mark of WE ACT for Environmental Justice in West Harlem. “We have advocated for bus rapid transit, affordable safe housing and resilient communities, green jobs through public investment, and policies that cut and eliminate carbon.”
But resiliency-based responses to the climate crisis are nowhere on the mainstream policy agenda.

On November 14, as communities in New York and New Jersey were still shivering in the dark without electricity, food, or gasoline, one of the nation’s most closely watched efforts to regulate climate pollution—an auction of carbon emissions allowances—was launched in California as part of the state’s new cap-and-trade system.

More than 70 companies submitted bids for the price they were willing to pay to continue releasing greenhouse gases, with the price for a ton of emissions swinging as low as  $10.09, just above the $10.00 floor price set by the California Air Resources Board (ARB).[8] Of the total number of emissions allowances distributed, 10 percent were sold and 90 percent given away, in an effort to maintain a comparative advantage between California companies and out-of-state businesses, and to appease utilities.[9]

ARB Chair Mary Nichols declared the auction a success.[10] Groups, such as Environmental Defense Fund, agreed, noting that the demand for credits was a market signal that the cap-and-trade program was here to stay.[11]

Bill Gallegos, executive director of Communities for a Better Environment, rebuts those assertions. “The cheap price of credits in the recent auction came as no surprise—they follow the pattern that [occurred] repeatedly in Europe and offer an ‘out’ for big polluters like oil refineries to buy their way out of cleaning up local and global pollution without providing an environmental benefit. This system could even allow big polluters like Chevron’s Richmond refinery to refine dirtier grades of crude oil.”

Cap-and-trade means putting a declining “cap” on total emissions, while allowing trading of pollution permits. Regulators in California will set a ceiling on CO2 emissions from utilities, oil extractors, and fossil fuel-burning factories and require them to pay for their pollution by buying carbon allowances in quarterly auctions. In year one, the program is expected to generate between $660 million and $3 billion in auction proceeds. By 2020, cap-and-trade could send $8 billion into state coffers annually.

But will it reduce climate pollution?

Cap-and-Trade: More Loopholes than Benefits
Although environmental justice groups rallied to keep the fossil fuel industry from overturning AB 32 in a referendum in 2010, they have been deeply critical of cap-and-trade.

“Cap-and-trade has not been shown to actually work to reduce greenhouse gas emission,” says Sofia Parino, senior attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE).

Many cap-and-trade critics believe that the untested system is packed with loopholes and dangerous possibilities for financial gaming.
“CRPE and our communities are opposed to a trading scheme because of the inherent inequities for communities of color and low income communities, and the missed opportunities for real localized emission reductions,” Parino says.

These concerns led CRPE, along with Communities for a Better Environment, to take the Air Resources Board to court in 2011 to challenge AB 32’s cap-and-trade provision. The lawsuit eventually lost, leading some environmental justice groups to push for legislation directing a percentage of revenue from carbon allowances to vulnerable communities, enabling them to receive some benefit from the state’s new carbon market. (See story on SB 535 and AB 1532).

“The recent auction did not change our position on cap-and-trade,” Parino says. “A cap-and-trade system will not succeed in addressing the problem of superstorms. And, even if it were to reduce emissions, the reductions would not be enough to affect the changing climate.”

The most problematic aspect of the California system is that it allows greenhouse gas reductions to be made through carbon offsets rather than actual reductions in production.

Offsets are reductions in emissions made in one place or sector in order to compensate for emissions elsewhere: for example, a landowner is paid not to cut down his forest so that it can continue capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. Purchasing this offset allows owners of a coal-fired power plant to burn extra coal. While such offsets are considered indispensable to keeping cap-and-trade affordable, experience in Europe has shown no net reduction in greenhouse gases. By permitting burning above the cap for a given source, the likely result of a carbon offset is not a decrease in emissions, but an increase.

Overcoming the Fatal Flaw in Cap-and-Trade
Many of the climate policies promoted at state and national levels seek to tinker with the symptoms of the crisis without addressing root causes. Contrary to such approaches, Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan of Movement Generation says, “Our social movements need to be ambitious and bold—to articulate what is truly materially and culturally necessary to tackle the crisis at hand.”

A few bold organizing strategies that Movement Generation cites as key to building grassroots resilience include WE ACT’s fight for bus rapid transit and public sector jobs. There is also the work of groups—such as Right to the City, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, Picture the Homeless, and Make the Road—to end displacement and economic inequity, which they see as integrally connected to climate change. The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, for instance, works to protect communities from the compounded burden of toxic inundation when hit by storm surges like Hurricane Sandy.

There are widespread efforts to reclaim vacant lots for community gardens and build regional food systems by groups from Detroit to Haiti. “Zero waste” solutions are promoted by Ironbound Community Corporation, the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, to create recycling and composting jobs while drastically reducing climate and toxic pollution from landfills and incinerators. And, as a direct alternative to the false promise of cap-and-trade, the Indigenous Environmental Network works to free indigenous lands and communities—and our collective atmospheric space—from fossil fuel development, such as tar sands and the Keystone XL, Kinder Morgan, and Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines.

Such efforts do not fall in line with conventional legislative approaches, rather they mirror direct action strategies that are more common internationally—the land takeovers of Brazil’s Movimento sem Terra; or La Via Campesina’s international peasant farmers’ movement with its  slogan, “Peasant farmers cool the planet.”

“Social movements must be unafraid to put forth a holistic vision and real solutions, and build and model them in the world in a way that contests for power,” says Mascarenhas-Swan. “This means transitioning out of an economy that lets some populations and communities profit at the expense of others, toward an economy that works for people and the planet.”
That’s a far cry from cap-and-trading our way out of the crisis.

1.     James Atlas, “Is This the End?,” New York Times, Nov. 24, 2012. <>
2.     Peter Fimrite, “West Coast at risk for hybrid storms, too,” San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 3, 2012. <>
3.     Jean Chemnick, “Emissions legislation poised to make a comeback in new Congress – Boxer,” E&E News, Nov. 27, 2012. <>
4.     Imara Jones, “What Hurricane Sandy Should Teach Us about Climate Justice,” Colorlines, Nov. 15, 2012. < what_hurricane_sandy_should_teach_us_about_climate_justice.html>
5.     Nicolas Stern, “Stern Review on Climate Change,” Oct. 30, 2006. <>
6.    <>
7.    Ibid.
8.    < q4nov.pdf>
9.     Rory Carroll and Dan Levine, “California Chamber of Commerce seeks to stop cap-and-trade,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 13, 2012. <>
10.    Lynn Doan, “California Carbon Allowances Sold Out at $10.09 in Auction,” Bloomberg, Nov. 19, 2012. <>
11. Dana Hull, “California’s first cap-and-trade auction sells out, declared ‘a success,’” San Jose Mercury News, Nov. 20, 2012. < business/ci_22028077/californias-first-cap-and-trade-auction-sells-out>

Jeff Conant is a freelance writer based in Oakland,CA and a frequent contributor to RP&E.

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Right to Equity in a 21st Century City

Cardboard cutouts on the fenced MTA?lot at the Take Back LA! march and rally, September 13, 2012. ©2012 Sharis Delgadillo

Holding up a giant banner emblazoned with the slogan “Take Back LA!,” a crowd of several hundred bus riders and renters marched to songs and chants led by the Bus Riders Union’s Drum and Chant corps. Among late afternoon traffic, they marched for over a mile from the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (LAMTA) headquarters at Union Station to Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, carrying signs demanding “Community Control of Public Land” and “Restore 1 million hours of bus service,” along with cardboard cutouts of brightly painted buses, houses, trees, flowers, and people.

Union, the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, Union de Vecinos, and the national Right to the City Alliance performed a theatre piece about two caped crusaders, Super Pasajera (Super Rider) and Super Inquilina (Super Renter) taking on Moneybags Metro (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority). Following that piece of guerilla theatre, the crowd created an art installation on the fence of a vacant lot owned by LA Metro depicting bright buildings, community gardens, planter boxes, street vendors, and people in a community. When people were invited to write or draw the things that they wished to see in their community, the signs they tied with red and orange ribbons to the fence depicted a park, a butcher shop, and a youth and community center. The day’s activities closed with a community celebration on the plaza around the Metro Station complete with street vendors and dancing to local son jarocho and mariachi bands. By the end of the rally organizers had received an email, which was read out to the cheering crowd: a key demand had just been won and the local pharmacist would not have to worry about competing with a CVS in a planned development on Metro-owned land in the neighborhood. As one rally participant remarked, when combined with on-the-ground, long-term organizing and leadership development of impacted communities, “Direct action gets the goods.”

Cardboard cutouts on the fenced MTA?lot at the Take Back LA! march and rally, September 13, 2012. ©2012 Sharis Delgadillo [1]

The action took place as part of a fifth anniversary, two-day national gathering of the Right to the City Alliance of grassroots community organizations representing what Rachel LaForest, executive director of the Alliance, calls “The best hope for the 21st century city of the future.” She defines these cities as just, sustainable, and democratic. (See story on Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, “Forclosure Struggle Continues” on page 24). Community Control in Boyle Heights The march, theater performance, and art installation intended to highlight the role of LA Metro in making the lives of working families more difficult over the last decade, both as landowner and provider of essential bus services.

“In Boyle Heights alone, Metro has displaced 250 families, left empty lots to sit vacant for more than six years, and sanctioned private development plans that would bring in big box retailers at the peril of locallyowned small businesses,” explains Isela Gracian of the East LA Community Corporation (ELACC). In 2004, when the expansion of the Metro Gold Line into East Los Angeles got underway, Metro seized control of precious lands for the construction and demolished local businesses and housing. Metro’s growing real estate portfolio currently includes eight parcels of land in Boyle Heights that previously served the neighborhood, along with hundreds of other plots throughout the county.

The solution that Alma Salcido of Union de Vecinos offers is both, equitable and pragmatic. “Instead of giving publicly-owned land to corporations to serve their private interests, Metro should transfer the land back to the residents of Boyle Heights to determine how best to utilize it to address the community’s needs,” she says. “We deserve reparations for the fact that their actions displaced local businesses, reduced services, and created a loss of affordable housing in our community.” For former residents of Boyle Heights, reparations would include some version of a right of return to the neighborhood.

Public Transit for All is a Civil Rights Issue

The action was also designed to bring more community— and political—attention to the nearly 1 million hours of bus service cut from Metro’s operations over a span of three years.

Barbara Lott-Holland, a 27-year veteran rider of public transit and a member of the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, argues that the loss in bus service is a civil rights issue that affects low-income riders and communities of color at a higher level than more affluent and white communities.

“After a year-long investigation, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) found evidence that LA Metro knowingly discriminated against bus riders of color when they cut those nearly million hours of service from 2007-11,” Lott-Holland alleges. “This is why we say bus service hours must be restored as a civil rights issue.”

Social Movements in the 21st Century City

Five years ago, when the Right to the City Alliance was founded, fights around housing, transportation, and land were seen as separate by many of the organizations that gathered in Los Angeles in early 2007. Not any more, according to several of the Alliance’s cofounders. Gihan Perera, executive director and cofounder of the Miami Workers Center, says the city today is seen as the factory that produces social relationships that uphold or challenge capitalist power. How people are put into social classes, how race relationships play out, and the way cities work in the global economy—that is the main game, not a side issue to how capitalism changes and adapts and renews itself.

Gilda Haas, founding executive director of Strategic Actions for A Just Economy (SAJE), says that the importance of spaces in building movements that can scale up while remaining faithful to working against the root causes of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and racism requires that we continue to build “trust, alignment and vision.”

According to leading social theorist David Harvey, a distinguished professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY): “Capitalist urbanization and the kinds of cities that got constructed over the last 250 years are a crucial part of the reproduction of a capitalist society. If there is a major challenge to how these cities are built and rebuilt, then that is a major challenge to the persistence and reproduction of capitalism and capitalist class power.”

If our vision for the 21st century city—our city, not the capitalist city—is just, sustainable, and democratic, then the Fannie Freddie 99 and MTA actions at the Los Angeles Urban Congress revealed some additional ingredients for success. Both actions were grounded in the community’s experiences and demands; and they were also prefigurative, confrontational, and creative.

Diana Pei Wu is a long-time organizer and technical assistance provider on issues at the intersection of racial, economic, and environmental justice and a frequent contributor to Race, Poverty & Environment.

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