Struggling for Shelter: Resistance to California’s Housing Crisis Grows

Counterpunch - In an age of worsening income and wealth inequality, a supply of affordable shelter for workers and their families is low while demand for it is high, the conditions for price-gouging. Just ask Dominique Walker, 34, of Moms 4 Housing, one of the unhoused women who occupied a vacant home in West Oakland that Wedgewood Property Management, a real estate investment company, owned.

Oakland police forcibly removed M4H from that abode; meanwhile, wildcat graduate student strikers at two of the 10 campuses in the University California system are withholding their labor, demanding higher pay for skyrocketing rents.

“We are trying to build a coalition,” Walker, a full-time organizer of the Black Housing Union, a chapter of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), told me. “That effort has resonated with people globally.” Movement politics is the name of this game.

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“We have been in solidarity with M4H from the start,” Nell Myhand of the Poor People’s Campaign Bay Area Supporters Steering Committee, told me. For Myhand and Walker, collective mobilization is the key to waging struggle against the wealthy few making shelter unaffordable for the working class and poor folks.

“We know that you only get what you organize to take so we see M4H’s bold action as a strike against corrupt corporate profiteers who are more than willing to monopolize the real estate market while people are sleeping on the street. We also condemn the policy makers who have defunded and destroyed public housing leaving poor people, women and children like M4H to their own devices to provide for their need for decent housing.”

A scholar at UC Berkeley has taken a deep dive into the crisis of unaffordable shelter. Geographer Richard A. Walker is the author of Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area (PM Press, 2018). His three-part book weaves the threads of this social contradiction, using standard data, statistics, plus helpful charts and graphs.

“The popular resistance is completely understandable,” Walker told me, speaking of M4H. “The economic boom of the 2010s created a tsunami of demand, mostly from the upper classes, that overwhelmed the housing markets around the region, led to wholesale makeovers of neighborhoods (‘gentrification’) and driven thousands of working people out to the fringes of the metropolis —or beyond.” In the urban core, those unable or unwilling to leave are fighting back.

“Oakland has been a center of resistance for a long time,” according to Walker, “most notably in the Occupy Movement (that President Obama ended in coordinated nationwide police violence against peaceful demonstrators), and the protests against the murder of Oscar Grant (a handcuffed, unarmed black male who a transit cop shot to death on New Year’s Day in 2009). Housing activism in Oakland, especially pronounced over the last decade, gained some protections for renters—but not enough.”

Speaking of renters, graduate student teaching assistants in the United Auto Workers Local 2865 have been on a wildcat strike at University California Santa Cruz, south of Oakland, since February 10. The strikers’ demand is for a cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) of $1,412 per month to use for rent.

The striking UCSC graduate student strikers are picketing, and refusing to teach, grade, hold office hours and do research, actions that the UAW has not sanctioned, swim in the same water as M4H. Neither groups of working class want to be homeless.

The spirit of dissent is spreading. On February 27, UC Davis graduate students began a grade strike for the winter quarter to demand a COLA. They are in the famous words of Fannie Lou Hamer, the legendary community organizer and leading figure in the civil and women’s rights movements who co-founded and was vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

At the other end of the income pole, UC managers live large. Consider this. “UC Davis Chancellor Gary May receives a salary of over $500,000, which does not include subsidized housing and other benefits,” according to a statement from UCD4COLA. Nice work if you can get it.

In the UC system, the expanding collective mobilization for higher pay to afford escalating rental prices is spurring a reaction from management. We turn to UC President Janet Napolitano, Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security and Arizona’s governor before that. She has threatened to fire the wildcat strikers if they fail to return to work. International graduate students on the wildcat strike could face deportation.

UCD4COLA has called for UC to rescind its threats of retaliation against wildcat strikers at UC Santa Cruz. In the blue state of California, collective actions against unaffordable housing in low supply as demand and prices for it rise higher, is growing. What the state Democratic Party does and does not do in response bears scrutiny. One thing is clear. The class conflict in California is heating up.