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San Francisco affordable housing activist to speak in Portland

Photo Credit: COURTESY JAMES TRACY - Housing activist James Tracy will speak in Portland on Sunday and Monday.As Portland housing prices increase, it is being compared to San Francisco, another West Coast city where many residents have struggled to remain in their neighborhoods.

James Tracy is a San Francisco housing activists who sees similarities between the two cities — and is coming to Portland on Sunday and Monday to talk about them.

Tracy has documented what is happening in San Francisco in his new AK Press book, "Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes from San Francisco's Housing Wars." He will be reading from it and answering questions during two free public events. The first is called "Gentrification and Housing Insecurity in Portland" at 6 p.m. on Oct. 19, at Reading Frenzy, 3628 N. Mississippi Ave. The second is a gathering of members of Right 2 Survive, local advocacy group, at 5 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 20, at Floyds Cafe in Old Town, 118 Northwest Couch St.

Tracy is the founder of the San Francisco Land Trust, a membership-based, nonprofit organization whose mission is to create permanently affordable, resident-controlled housing for low- to moderate-income people in San Francisco through community ownership of the land.

Tracy is also the co-author of "Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power," which was published in 2012 and based in part of Portland Police Bureau archives first published by the Portland Tribune.

The Portland Tribune interviewed Tracy about similarities in the affordable housing situation between Portland and San Francisco:

Portland Tribune: What got you interested in the affordable housing crisis in San Francisco?

James Tracy: In the early '90s, I was drove a truck for a thrift store in San Francisco. I noticed that a great deal of the donations we received were from landlords who were giving us belongings left behind by the tenants they had evicted. This was the same in most of the neighborhoods we visited, and it was obvious that the problem was only going to get worse overtime.

Tribune: Are there solutions?

Tracy: Absolutely. Portland has a Community Land Trust which is an excellent way to protect homes and communities from displacement. A Land Trust is an arrangement that creates permanent affordability through cooperative ownership of buildings. The residents own a limited part of the building, and the Land Trust holds the land and creates the legal affordability structure. A robust Land Trust can also acquire foreclosed homes and develop other neighborhood amenities. Also, measures to encourage long-term stewardship instead of quick "flips" of property are essential.

However, I don't think that the housing crisis in any city will end until two important changes are made. One is national financial reform, holding banks accountable for the types of housing loans they provide. The other is the issue of grassroots economic development. The service economy creates a situation where even the most progressive governments support the constant redevelopment of the urban core just to keep a stable tax-base.

Tribune: Portland seems a lot different that San Franscisco, at least on the surface. What lessons did you learn about San Franscisco that might apply here?

Tracy: What San Francisco and Portland have in common is a problematic relationship with new development. Portland is set for an unprecedented amount of new market-rate housing construction. Portland will have to decide how serious it is about protecting existing communities as it builds up. If the response is a superficial amount of inclusionary housing, new development will rightly meet neighborhood resistance because only a few people will benefit. Portland needs to design its own plan to preserve many thousands of homes. This can be done through Land Trusts, creative zoning solutions, and long-term community planning.

In San Francisco, we've been told by many think-tanks that new construction of market-rate housing is the only solution to affordability. While Supply and Demand isn't a myth, there are many myths told about it. About 40 percent of San Francisco's recent construction is owned by people who live out of town. So always ask, "What kind of supply and what kind of demand?" in all conversations about development.

Tribune: Both San Francisco and Portland have liberal city council. The councilors say they are concerned about meeting the needs of poor people, including providing affordable housing. So how can there be problems with affordable housing in both cities?

Tracy: Yes, but it is more complicated than simple liberal-versus-conservative thinking.There are steps, such as building more affordable housing and requiring for-profit developers to pay for a part of this that most liberals are comfortable with. These measures are certainly helpful and better than doing nothing at all. It's some of the harder questions that liberal politicians fall down on. How do you deal with the displacement pressures of say a new stadium or the redevelopment of a port? The answers are going to mean telling developers to accept a set of limits and compromises. But in real terms, there is quite a consensus between liberals and conservatives when it comes to cities. Progress comes from jobs, and jobs come from redeveloping the city. Community organizations must advocate simultaneously for dignified, living wage work and community preservation. It is the only way not to get trapped in the world of false trade off that weight down liberal politics.

Here's and example of how to do rebuild an urban economy. Cleveland, Ohio, a town far less liberal than Portland, helped create a worker-owned laundry cooperative, Evergreen Co-ops. The business is growing and evolving new enterprises. When you build a local economy based placing human needs first, then everyday people don't have to choose between housing and jobs. They can evaluate new proposals based on the facts, instead of fears.

Tribune: What can residents do to fight back?

Tracy: I'm a big proponent of the kitchen sink method of organizing. Get to know your neighbors.The first step is to realize that most decisions that are harmful to your community are made when no one is watching. By all means, organize and show up at hearings and council meetings. But there are distinct boundaries in the formal electoral and legislative system. The people who are doing eviction blockades and anti-foreclosure actions may seem like the radical fringe now. But this is an important part of forcing the system to change. In the future, these the messages of these organizations may be seen as necessary and heroic, the way we think of Rosa Parks or ACT-UP today.

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