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The Ukraine elections, Putin, and Trump

Ukrainians can chose a crook or a clown as their new president. So far the clown is winning.

Volodymyr Zelensky, a prominent comedian without political experience, received 30 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate election last Sunday. Incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, a corrupt oligarch, came in second with 16 percent. They face a runoff election later this month.

Like Donald Trump and comedian Beppe Grillo in Italy, Zelensky capitalized on his entertainment fame to run as an outsider staunchly opposed to corruption. Zelensky campaigned as if he was the character in his hit TV series, according to Nicolai Petro, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island.

“He’s just an average guy who runs into increased corruption,” Petro told me in a phone interview. “He maintains fundamental honesty, and that’s what he’s saying as a political candidate.”

The election comes at a crucial time. The dispute over Crimea continues, and Russian troops back armed insurrection in eastern Ukraine. The conflict has killed 13,000 people and displaced millions.

Conflict between Russia and the US is also heating up as both sides compete for profits and spheres of influence in the region. And, interestingly enough, the conflict is connected to the Russiagate scandal. More on that in a bit.

Ukraine nationalism

During a reporting trip to Kiev on a blustery winter day I saw more than 5,000 young people waving huge yellow and blue Ukrainian flags as they converged on the city’s central square. They had just forced the prime minister to resign.

“It’s a great victory,” one student told me. “It’s a day I will remember all of my life.”

The year was 1990, when Ukraine was still part of the USSR. Ukrainian nationalists were convinced that forming a separate nation would lead to democracy and economic prosperity. It didn’t work out that way.

Ordinary people in the USSR were legitimately angry at the government and Soviet-style socialism because of a lack of housing, food and quality medical care. But opportunist leaders, backed by various western countries, manipulated that anger for their own power and profit.

Ukraine had the second largest economy among the Soviet republics with abundant natural resources, industry, and a rich agricultural base. A Soviet pipeline carried natural gas through Ukraine to western Europe. Nowadays, both the US and Russia seek to dominate Ukraine for geo-political reasons, according to Lev Golinkin, a journalist and memoirist born in Ukraine.

“The US considers Ukraine to be part of Russia’s backyard,” he told me in a phone interview. “The US believes that if you can turn Ukraine into a western democracy, then Russians will want the same.”

Russian officials have the same concerns, only in mirror image. Russia doesn’t want Ukraine to join NATO and have hostile troops posted along its border. Vladimir Putin often talks about combating discrimination against Russian speakers living in Ukraine.

“Putin has positioned himself as a protector of the Russian world,” said Golinkin.

Over the past 20 years Ukraine has seen a series of mass demonstrations, elections, and coups that have brought pro-western or pro-Russian governments to power. In 2004 the so-called Orange revolution replaced a corrupt, pro-Russian government with one backed by the US.

In 2013 elected President Viktor Yanukovych angered western powers by blocking plans for Ukraine to associate with the European Union. Ukrainians returned to Kiev’s central Maidan Square to protest against Yanukovych.

These demonstrations, dubbed the Maidan Revolution, included strong participation by Svoboda (Freedom), an anti-Semitic, pro-fascist political movement, as well as oligarchs bent on installing themselves in power.

The Obama administration played an active behind the scenes role in choosing Ukraine’s new leaders, as revealed in a tapped phone conversation between two high level US diplomats.

“Talk about meddling,” said Golinkin. “They are talking like corporate managers and the country is theirs.”

Petro Poroshenko, a pro-US billionaire chocolate manufacturer, won hastily called elections in 2014, campaigning as an outsider. Three members of Svoboda joined the cabinet, and one became deputy prime minister.

Russia retaliated by instigating an independence movement in Crimea, a key region of Ukraine populated mostly by ethnic Russians.

In Russia’s view, “the Crimean parliament had the right to self determination,” said Professor Petro. Crimea voted by a 95 percent margin to leave Ukraine and join Russia.

Meanwhile, according to the government in Kiev, out of uniform Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine, an industrialized area with a large majority of Russian speakers. Allied with local militias, Russian troops still occupy parts of eastern Ukraine.

The US denounced Russian aggression and imposed harsh sanctions. Russia has weathered the storm, however, and Ukraine continues to face a low intensity war.

Enter Trump – stage right

During the 2016 US presidential campaign, Donald Trump opposed pretty much anything Barack Obama supported. Obama had made Putin into a major US enemy. Trump promoted a right-wing isolationism that included sympathy for strongman Putin. The Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia over the issue of Ukraine. Within days of taking office, Trump explored lifting those sanctions.

The possibility of warming relations with Russia freaked out the Washington establishment. FBI Director James Comey initiated a secret investigation of the Trump presidential campaign. I think officials such as Comey and CIA Director James Clapper used the claims of Russian manipulation of the US election as a cover to prevent warming of US-Russian relations.

Mainstream Democrats jumped on the anti-Russia bandwagon and attacked Trump from the right. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi infamously said, “It seems that Putin is Trump’s puppeteer, and that House Republicans have decided to join the charade.”

That’s very dangerous indeed.

Imagine if a progressive Democrat wins the 2020 presidential election and adopts policies opposed by the Washington establishment, say withdrawing US troops from South Korea. Would the FBI investigate Bernie Sanders for colluding with North Korea?

The FBI and CIA actions are completely unconstitutional, notes Professor Petro.

“Senior political appointees can really undermine the president’s policies,” he said. “I’ll give you three words: The Deep State.”

Ukraine’s future

Presidential candidates Zelensky faces Poroshenko in a runoff election April 21. Zelensky has expressed willingness to negotiate with Russia while Poroshenko has publicly refused. Right wingers in Ukraine oppose any reconciliation with Russia and will seek to prevent talks no matter who wins.

As the world has seen, independent outsiders have a much harder time governing than campaigning. Nevertheless, a peaceful resolution of the Russia/Ukraine conflict is essential. Let’s hope that either side can make some headway.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48Hills. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

 

Some humanity for people without homes

Police and DPW workers force homeless campers to get rid of or move their belongings. Now, they want to get rid of their RVs. Photo by John Youll

In the past week, we’ve seen some very disturbing things that have shown just how bad things are in terms of the lack of empathy and humanity in the hearts of many.

The other night we saw scores of angry people in Berkeley come out in full force to protest people who are living in their cars and RVs. These uncaring folks were pounding the tables demanding that houseless folks not BE ALLOWED to park on city streets overnight. The Berkeley City Council, under great pressure, responded and voted to basically shut down those who can’t afford $3,000 rents.

Police and DPW workers force homeless campers to get rid of or move their belongings. Now, they want to get rid of their RVs. Photo by John Youll

Berkeley joins a host of other cities, most notably Mountainview, which led the charge, that forbids folks from sleeping in RVs and cars overnight. You will find signs even in various parts of Oakland disallowing this as well.

During the City Council meeting, you had all sorts of folks stepping forward talking about they are scared for their safety and that folks living in their RVs are messy, while others were crying about how they paid all sorts of money for their homes and don’t want the homeless around. It was disgusting and just underscores how out of wack we have gotten.

A few things to keep in mind. Long before we saw this crazy meeting at Berkeley City Council, we saw war being waged at Cal students living in RVs who were parked over at the Marina in Berkeley. Many students, from Cal to San Jose to SF State, cannot afford high housing costs that go along with high tuition. 

They are among the houseless population as they are trying their best to improve their lot in life by attending school. Sadly, people complained and laws were found that led to the eviction of those car and RV dwellers.

Others started parking in other parts of Berkeley. Again the reason being, its damn near impossible to find affordable housing. 

Many others who sleep in their cars do so because they have two or three jobs and live far away, which makes commuting damn near impossible and hella expensive, now that we have all these toll lanes that do surge pricing, where prices can skyrocket to over 10 bucks just to ride one stretch of freeway. Let me give you an example, of how your car becomes a home of sorts, since I was one of those folks for a short spell.

To cross the bridge from Oakland and get out to SF/Daly City at the height of rush hour, that drive was taking more than two hours. Keep in mind, this was coming from Oakland, not Tracey, Modesto, Fairfield etc, where so many others are commuting from. In order to avoid that nightmare, it was actually more conducive to leave my house at 4 am and get over to SF by 4:30.

Only problem, nothing was open that early in the morning. That meant that I would park my car, sleep for a bit, read or do some work as I waited for nearby coffee shops to open at 6 am. Keep in mind, I didn’t have to be to work until 9 or 9:30 so I had 3-4 hours to kill each morning. I wasn’t alone in doing these super early morning commutes to avoid mad traffic. 

Like many others, I also found it was easier to stay and hang out later in the evening to avoid horrific traffic conditions to return home to Oakland. So rather than sit in traffic during peak rush hour times, it was easier to find a cafe or other establishment where I could park for free and wait for traffic to die down. 

Again, keep in mind, I’m commuting to Oakland. Imagine the plight of folks who been displaced to Tracey, Stockton, Modesto. Many of those folks have two jobs — which means rather than make a 2-3-hour commute only to come back, they will park their car and sleep somewhere before heading to their next job. Others will literally live out their cars for a few days and stay near their jobs rather than do the crazy commutes. 

That’s just one scenario. Many others simply don’t have $10,000 sitting around to pay first and last months’ rent plus deposit to move into an apartment, even if they can actually afford the rent, so they are living out of cars and RVs. Folks like me have a home, it’s the traffic that keeps us in cars. These other folks have no home at all. Their cars and RVs are home. But sadly greedy, unfeeling ruthless residents in all these cities are rushing to city councils demanding laws be passed so no one can sleep in cars and campers. The refrain you hear over and over is “Not in My Neighborhood.”

Adding to the car dweller population are folks who are coming to the Bay Area from all over the state who are part of the so-called gig economy. Many people hold jobs that require them to drive their own cars. Many are Uber and Lyft drivers. Others are delivery folks. I’ve met folks who are living out their cars while hustling for gigs three or four days a week before returning home to one of those outlying cities. They have been told over and over again, that the money is here in the Bay Area. 

Every day they are bombarded with gleeful news reports about how the Bay is brimming with millionaires with thousands more soon to emerge after some tech companies go public. So folks are driving their cars from all over the state trying to cash in. Ain’t too much money to be made in Modesto and Stockton. 

For many car dwellers, cafes and coffee shops have become essential and important additions to their lifestyle. They are the new living rooms and water cooler spots where car dwellers use the washroom to freshen up, grab a snack, a drink, and use the wifi while working their gigs.

Sadly, many of these establishments are also reacting to the complaints of unfeeling newcomers who are complaining that all the seats are taken or that there are lines for the bathroom. So now we see cafes putting time limits on your stay and combination locks on the bathrooms.

Complicating all this are the thousands of folks who don’t live in cars or RVs but now live in tents under freeway overpasses, alleyways, and storefronts. These folks are being pushed from one neighborhood to the next, which has resulted in contentious fights in cities like San Jose and SF, where we’ve seen stiff opposition to not only the encampments but also to proposed service centers and facilities to help those living in tents in our streets.

Last week we saw rapid angry folks in San Jose yelling and getting hysterical: “Not in my backyard.” “Get rid of these people.” “They are gonna hurt my kids.” 

In SF we have all these elitist folks are pooling their money to hire a lawyer to stop the city from opening a center to help the houseless near the Embarcedaro.

What’s crazy about this entire situation is that many of the folks running around insisting that we have stringent laws in place to stop folks from sleeping in cars or to not have service centers in their neighborhood are one bad fire, one bad earthquake, or one or two missed paychecks away from being in a dire predicament where they, too, will be forced to sleep in cars or under a freeway. 

Those who oppose the help being given to others will be crying the loudest and be the most demanding and trying to get to the front of the line if they find themselves and their lives upheaveled.

Let’s not lose our humanity. It’s sad to see that so many others have already checked out and tossed theirs away.

The view from a homeless shelter

A shelter is not a home.

Will someone please adopt me? Take me in?

I’m going to be 45 at the end of this month and I’m trying to wade through a bog of mid-life crises. Will I ever be happy again in this city?

A shelter is not a home.

I’m a special education teaching assistant at an elementary school (dreams of becoming a full-fledged teacher someday), and I live in a women’s homeless shelter. I’m so depressed. Even after three years of being “housing insecure,” as some institutions like to call it, I haven’t lost any sense of decency.

I don’t have first, last, and security deposit. I just have enough to start out paying one month’s rent for a decent room  where I can close the door at least. To share a bathroom, if I must, with just a few people at most who clean up after themselves.

I need peace. The space to cry. And if it’s a cold, rainy weekend day, I want to be able to sleep in, stay in, enjoy warmth without being woken up with fluorescent McDonald’s-esque lights at 6am and kicked out at 7am to be thrown into the harsh cold of a ghost town of homeless people wandering the streets looking for a cafe to try and warm up in, not pay too much, and feel justified to be there, accepted, and try to wait and while away the time in a daze for hours until places open.

I am so sick of housing waiting lists and waiting lists to get on more waiting lists, and feeling rejected because of my credit report, when I know I can pay one month’s rent at the beginning of each month, if the rent is around $1,000 a month. My credit report is like a death sentence. Rental applications scare me. My rental history? It consists of staying in a women’s shelter on and off for three years.

I used to have my own apartment in this city for a long time, before lay-offs and few and far between freelance gigs back in the advertising industry. I used to feel like I belonged here, in this city that now makes me feel like the loneliest person in the world. And having a therapist and being on antidepressants isn’t enough.

I can’t breathe being homeless. Every evening when I’m on my way to the shelter and every morning when I wake there, I feel like crying rivers. It’s welled up inside me and I can’t express it because I have to stay tough in that environment, and I don’t want to go insane.

When I’m so tired after a long day’s work, I can’t immediately go home to lie down. I have to wait until the shelter opens. If I’m feeling sick at work or just need a personal day to rest (because I can’t seem to get enough sleep, what with all the distractions, you just never know what to expect), I can’t just go home and get in bed. I can’t lie down until the shelter opens. I’m at the mercy of the shelter’s hours.

I don’t know a way out. It depresses me so much that sometimes it clouds my thoughts when I’m at work, when I need to be present with the kids. The kids. What makes me happy. What helps me keep on living. I have friends, a few who know I’m homeless, and most who don’t because I don’t want them to think any less of me.

I just want a decent home, not transitional housing. I want to be around normal again. Invite friends over for tea. Have my friends’ children come over to spend time with me, in a normal place without scary roommates. I want to shop in the frozen food section again. Bake. Microwave. Cook. Clean. Have my toiletries waiting for me in the bathroom. Be able to stand naked in front of a mirror, not wrestle with clothing in a bathroom stall. Hang my clothes up and see them. All of them. Leave my backpack at home. Because my back hurts and even though I’m not one of the homeless who tote luggage and stuffed wheely carts, I feel self-conscious about looking homeless because my too heavy backpack (even when I’ve tried and tried to travel light) is oppressive and even if I don’t look homeless, I feel it, and it’s hard to shrug off.

Will someone please adopt me? Rent me a room without judging me? Meet me and know that you can count on a friendly, considerate, and respectful tenant?

I’m healthy. Never done drugs, not unless you count my antidepressants that aren’t addictive, just necessary for the time being. I’ve taken all the tests and shots necessary to work with children. I’ve passed countless background checks (despite my credit report), I’ve never gone to jail. I’m a Berkeley grad. I even dabbled in law school right after college. How normal and safe do I have to prove myself worthy enough to get a normal and safe home?

I’m just a very sad woman right now because of these horrible circumstances, a sad woman craving peace in San Francisco.

I want to live.

The Democrats in Sacramento want to deregulate housing — but that has never worked

Tenants urge Assembly members to repeal Costa Hawkins -- which is not part of the CASA agenda. Housing Rights Committee photo via Twitter

Of all the information that came out of the hearing on homelessness last week, when several supervisors said the Mayor’s Office and its Department of Homelessness isn’t doing the job, the most poignant, I think, was this:

The city is finding housing for about 50 homeless people a week. And every week, another 150 wind up on the streets – 100 of them San Franciscans who used to have a place to live.

Tenants urge Assembly members to repeal Costa Hawkins — which is not part of the CASA agenda. Housing Rights Committee photo via Twitter

That’s why, despite the mayor’s applause line that the city has taken 1,000 people off the streets since she became mayor, the crisis isn’t getting any better.

Think about it: 100 San Franciscans lose their housing every week. That’s 5,000 a year. Many find other housing eventually, but many don’t. And if we can’t solve that problem, we will never solve the problem of homelessness.

Let us make no mistake: Many of the people who lose their homes are victims of the tech boom that the late Mayor Ed Lee promoted, and that the current Mayor London Breed supported.

We know from the data that gentrification causes homelessness. We know that, in some neighborhoods (like the Mission) new luxury housing leads to gentrification.

And if this city continues to allow more office growth than housing, continues to attract businesses that hire workers who move here from somewhere else (instead of doing community-based economic development), it’s going to be hard to solve the problem.

The Chron, which has made a huge point of writing about the crisis but has done nothing to promote real solutions, says there are lots of “far out solutions,” which it rejects. Among them: Use the Cow Palace, which is often vacant and when it isn’t, hosts things like gun shows.

The Cow Palace also has a vast parking lot, right on the SF-Daly City line. Using that empty space as a place for people who live in cars and trucks to stay at night makes perfect sense. Why are these “far-out” ideas? The Chron has never suggested any better ones.

Which brings me to SB 50.

State Sen. Scott Wiener’s bill will be heard this month in the Senate Housing Committee, which he chairs. He has plenty of co-sponsors, including both SF Assembly members, Phil Ting and David Chiu.

SB 50 is a new, updated version of SB 827, which died in committee last year. It’s part of a large package of housing bills introduced this year – and almost all of them are about, in one way or another, deregulating the housing market in California.

Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, who are one point in her life was part of a left/progressive majority on the Berkeley City Council that supported strict rent control – that is, regulation of housing – has a bill that would suspend local rules for ten years.

The measures would, in essence, force cities to approve more dense – market-rate – development.

They include no significant new money for affordable housing.

The flurry of bills is related to the CASA compact, a deal put together by regional planners that calls for

  • Increasing housing production at all levels of affordability

  • Preserving existing affordable housing

  • Protecting vulnerable households from housing instability and displacement.

The idea was to push the Legislature to produce a series of bills that would address all of those issues – including protections for existing vulnerable communities.

Guess what: The bills that would allow developers to build more, with fewer restrictions, have all been introduced. There are no bills to protect existing affordable housing or protect vulnerable tenants from displacement.

This was supposed to be a package – a “grand bargain” — but the pieces that would regulate housing and protect vulnerable communities have vanished. Why are we not surprised?

The Wiener bill seeks to upzone cities and parts of cities that have mostly single-family housing. He argues that if we can just “legalize apartment buildings,” housing prices will come down.

There is absolutely zero evidence that this is the case.

In fact, the evidence shows that allowing market-rate developers to build more dense housing drives up land values and leads to displacement.

And what kind of crap is this “increasing housing production at all levels of affordability” when there is no state money for affordable housing – and nothing that gets built under these bills will be anything except high-end apartments and condos?

Remember: If developers can’t get enough return on their investment to build, they won’t build. The tech boom in San Francisco has driven up land values so high that the only kind of housing that “pencils out” is housing for rich people. And upzoning just makes the situation worse. It also makes land more expensive for affordable-housing developers.

The Wiener bill doesn’t change that basic fact of economics.

He and the other Democrats who run the entire state could easily have introduced the “grand bargain” as a package: Developers get to build more housing, more quickly, and at the same time, cities get to regulate existing rents and prevent evictions. There’s no deal unless both parts of the package pass.

But no. And the CASA folks have not spoken up to say: We are opposing SB 50 until it is connected to Ellis Act and Coast-Hawkins repeal. And Nancy Skinner and David Chiu and Phil Ting are going along with this farce.

I am not against density. I grew up in a suburb, with single-family homes and no way to get around without a car, and I hated it. As soon as I could, I moved to a city – a dense city.

San Francisco is the third densest urban area in the country; I love it here. I can’t speak for all progressives in the city, but most housing activists i know aren’t against density, either. If we could come up with a plan to build, say, 50,000 new units of social housing – nonprofit affordable housing, limited-equity co-ops, land-trust housing, all types of housing affordable to working-class people and none of it in the private sector – and the rich people and corporations in this city would pay their fair share to provide the very expensive public transit, schools, and other infrastructure we would need to support that increased population, I think a lot of progressives would line up to testify in favor.

But this isn’t about density. It’s about a ridiculous argument that the private sector, freed from those pesky regulations, will somehow work in the public interest.

We have tried that, in the US, many times since the 1980s. We are trying it again, under Trump. It never works. It never will.

Meanwhile, in a housing market that is deregulated by the Ellis Act and Costa-Hawkins, more people become homeless every week than the city, despite massive spending, can house.

What happened to the “grand bargain?”

Do I have to ask?

Community celebrates the life of Jeff Adachi

More than 1,000 people marched in the rain to remember Adachi

On Monday, March 4, Mayor London Breed will host a formal City Hall memorial for Public Defender Jeff Adachi. Politicians (some of whom were not allies of the fiery public defender) will show up to pay their respects. That’s just fine, and it’s what happens when an elected official dies.

 

But tonight, in the cool, light rain, in front of the office that Adachi built, the community had its turn.

More than 1,000 people marched in the rain to remember Adachi

More than 1,000 people, including many who Adachi and his staff had helped, saved, kept out of jail, and many others who his activism had touched – showed up for a vigil and march to City Hall.

 

Some elected officials were there – I saw Sups. Hillary Ronen, Matt Haney, Gordon Mar, and Shamann Walton. But most of the people were not politicians; they were folks who realized what a difference Adachi made in the lives of so many who were marginalized, criminalized, cast aside by society.

 

Aztec dancers launched the celebration of his life with a dance that remembered the warrior for social justice.

A memorial in the Public Defender’s Office

The speeches were short – and powerful. “I have known Jeff for 28 years,” Gonzalez said, “and I never saw Jeff back away from a fight. I never saw him run from injustice. He ran toward fighting injustice, and he brought everything he had with him.

 

“He fought the powerful, battled with the police, the district attorneys, the judges. He made a few enemies – and a lot of friends.”

 

Brendon Woods, the public defender for Alameda County, said that Adachi “crashed and reshaped all of the negative stereotypes of what a public defender is. He elevated what it meant to be a public defender. He created a legacy of advocacy for all of us.”

 

Angela Chan, former police commissioner and attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said that Adachi understood “the injustices that happen when people are looked at because of the color of their skin of where they immigrated from.” His parents and grandparents were locked in internment camps during World War II.”

 

“When Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the juvenile justice system to turn over young people to ICE, Jeff was the only public official to come to City Hall and testify against it,” she said.

 

“And he was relentless in his efforts to expose police misconduct.”

 

Those were some of the speakers. But walking around the crowd, I saw so many people who have never been elected to anything who took the time to come and celebrate his life – because he was a champion of people who had nobody else to be their champion.

 

The most important message I got tonight was that the work of Adachi must continue. Of course, politics is politics, and and several people asked me who I thought Mayor Breed would appoint to replace him. The general attitude was this: The mayor can’t be allowed to screw up this office or undermine Adachi’s legacy for her own political purposes.

 

Breed and Adachi were friendly; the mayor understood, and I hope still understands the importance of what the Public Defender’s Office does.

Matt Gonzalez, the obvious choice for the job, endorsed Jane Kim for mayor (no surprise – they have been friends for many, many years) and Dean Preston for supervisor when he ran against Breed.

 

But at a certain point, many people told me tonight, the mission of the office, and the importance of the work that the PDs to save the lives of indigent defendants, ought to rise about person politics.

 

“This,” one official said, “will be a huge test for the mayor.”

Has Breed made an impact on homelessness?

Yes, some homeless people have been housed -- but many more are taking their place.

On Feb. 12, as the SF Chamber of Commerce announced a new CEO, Mayor London Breed announced that her administration is making great strides in addressing homelessness:

“While we have work to do, what we are doing is actually working. Since July, when I took office, we have been able to get almost a thousand people off the streets in San Francisco,” Breed said, prompting thunderous applause.

Okay, then: If that’s the case, why is there no significant decrease in the numbers of homeless people in San Francisco?

Yes, some homeless people have been housed — but many more are taking their place.

It’s tricky.

The city has spent a lot of money, and done a lot of good work, getting people off the street and into supportive housing. This is the data on how many people went from the streets to some kind of housing in the year before Breed took office: The number is 2,218.

Also, about 15 people a week get housed because someone else moved out of that housing – possibly back to the streets.

From Board of Supes Budge Analyst report

So it’s easy to say that 1,000 people have been taken off the streets in the past six months; that’s about the standard number for the city, over the past several years. Nothing new. No reason for Breed to brag that she is doing anything different or better than her predecessor.

I asked the mayor’s press office to provide me with the specifics of where that number came from. They declined.

The bigger issue is that more people become homeless every day, every week, every year, through evictions and loss of jobs and the price of living in a city defined by a tech boom that Breed supported.

“For every person they house, two more become homeless, so prevention is a big hole,” Jennifer Freidenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, told me.

And let’s look at what Freidnebach calls “churn.”

This is where already traumatized homeless people are further traumatized when they are sent from the street to a program and back to the street again. It further destabilizes them, erodes trust in the system, and does further harm, often exacerbating addiction and mental health issues.

City studies show that roughly half of the people who are given supportive housing wind up back on the streets within five years. That, Friedenbach says, is because the city doesn’t provide enough services to those residents:

 Prop C will allow us to give intensive care on the streets that follow people into housing – ensuring a higher level of care then is typically available in supportive housing, with a larger system for residential treatment when needed.

Then there are the people with acute mental illness who are taken to SF General and then sent right back to the streets:

From Freidenbach:

Almost 1800 folks brought into Psychiatric Emergency Services (generally by police in handcuffs) because they were thought to be in danger of harming self or others/gravely disabled, then found to by medical professionals not to be, and released back to the street with NO referrals to services at all. Prop C will expand behavioral health dramatically, and ideally, the expanded system would be able to care for those in this situation instead of sending them back to the streets.

Breed opposed Prop. C, but is now talking about funding it. Her opposition is one reason that the issue is in court; if she had actively backed the measure, it might well have gotten a two-thirds vote, and would be in effect right now.

We have seen this problem over more than two decades. The city provides (some) shelter, (some) affordable housing, increasing numbers of navigation centers – and the total number of homeless people on the streets doesn’t come down.

Generations of mayors – Dianne Feinstein, Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom, Ed Lee – decided that promoting economic development that helps a few rich people is more important that protecting vulnerable communities from displacement (and often homelessness).

I have not yet seen any indication that London Breed has a different approach.

So Breed can celebrate and get applause for taking 1,000 people off the streets – but 1,000 more San Franciscans who are evicted, displaced, released from SF General, and generally cast aside by the tech boom are taking their place.

That’s nothing to celebrate at all.

Save the Redstone Building!

My first job in San Francisco was in the Redstone Building, at 2940 16thStreet, near the 16thand Mission BART plaza. I worked as a canvasser for the Abalone Alliance, the antinuclear group fighting PG&E’s Diablo Canyon plant. And every low-budget, grassroots nonprofit in town seemed to have offices in the building.Theater Rhinoceros, an early LGBT theater company, did shows in the basement. I think we paid something like $100 a month for our office.

The Redstone was an amazing place – and back then, I didn’t even know its history.  Which is also amazing.

The 1934 General Strike, which changed the labor movement in the United States forever, was planned and executed at 2940 16thStreet. The building was known as the Labor Temple, constructed by the Labor Council, and occupied for much of the 20thCentury by lavor unions.

Now it’s a community center, with unions (the United Taxicab Workers), community groups (the Western Regional Advocacy Project) and media (POOR magazine) occupying some of the last affordable space in the Mission.

There are, Paul Boden, a tenant and organizer, estimates, 12 nonprofits, 60 artists/community organizers, and six small businesses. Boden, who runs the Western Regional Advocacy Program, said some 50,000 constituents are served by the tenants of the Redstone annually.

And the history and the community is facing an existential threat.

The owner of the building wants to sell, and is asking for $25 million.

To put that in perspective: Documents in the city Assessor’s Office show that David and Sandi Lucchesi bought the place in 1992; it’s assessed at a little more than $2 million, and they paid even less for it.

The Mission Economic Development Agency wants a chance to buy it. The negotiations continue, and MEDA has made a final offer of $18 million.

At the price the owner wants, all of the leases would rise dramatically and it’s likely all of the existing tenants would be displaced. “None of us have long-term leases,” Boden said. “We are all on month-to-month.”

And now, the Redstone supporters are facing even more problems. From a Facebook post this week:

Due to some tax loopholes, our landlord is discovering that he could sell the building for more money than what we are offering. We need your help to convince the city that preserving San Francisco’s 100+ year old center for arts and human rights advocacy is critical to preserving the socio-cultural fabric of this city itself. SPECULATORS OUT! SAVE THE REDSTONE LABOR TEMPLE.

On Wednesday/27, organizers are holding a rally and community event to honor 104 years of economic and social justice at the Redstone and to work for a community solution. 6pm to 9pm, free.

This matters, a lot. It’s a key statement about whether there’s still a future for a Mission District that has room for the community-based organizations that have served and defined the neighborhood for decades – and whether history and public service matters more than cold cash.

It’s also a sign of what is to come if the Monster in the Mission moves forward. Already, investors are eying property in the area: “It took the Valencia Street gentrifiers a while to get the claws in this part of the Mission, but it’s starting to happen,” Boden said.

One of the big problems with projects like the Monster is that they drive up property values in the surrounding areas. Even the prospect of the area gentrifying is making it possible for the owner to ask for such a stunning amount of money for a building with only 33,000 square feet of rentable space. Just to cover the mortgage on a $20 million note, the rent would have to go up to almost $40 a square foot – at least ten times what current tenants are paying. Nothing in the North Mission now rents for that much; any buyer would clearly be expecting massive demographic changes in the area.

So there’s a lot at stake. See you on the 27th.

The Sierra Club and the luxury-housing developer

Are you a Sierra Club member who lives in Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville, Alameda, Piedmont or San Leandro? If so, you fall under the aegis of the club’s Northern Alameda County Group, which is nested within the larger Bay Chapter.

Be aware, then, that the NAC Executive Committee is currently dominated by a pro-growth coterie that’s exploiting the Sierra Club’s cachet to push a pro-development agenda that violates the club’s commitments to affordable housing, neighborhood integrity, and democratic governance.

If you’re a Sierra Club member who lives elsewhere in the Bay Area, you should also be concerned. The growth boosters on the NAC Ex Com include two men who wield considerable influence in the Bay Chapter, Igor Tregub and Andy Katz. Tregub also chairs the chapter Executive Committee. Both he and Katz sit on the Bay Chapter’s Political Committee, which makes the Sierra Club’s endorsements of political candidates and ballot measures. In the Bay Area, where the club claims nearly 60,000 members, and environmental values are widely embraced, Sierra Club endorsements carry a lot of weight.

(UPDATE: Tregub tells me he has stepped down from the Political Committee, which only makes advisory recommendations on endorsements.)

A crowd packs the San Leandro City Council chambers to oppose the project. Photo by Stephen Cassidy.

This is an alarming trend for the club; already in San Francisco, Yimbys have tried to take over the local chapter (and so far failed). But the pro-development forces know that placing people on the boards of all-volunteer organizations is not that difficult. There’s little doubt that “smart growth” advocates are trying to shift the influential Sierra Club in their direction, locally and nationally.

1388 Bancroft Avenue, San Leandro

The motives of the local leaders were on display on the evening of January 28, when, after a perfunctory discussion, the NAC Ex Com voted 5-3 to send a letter to the San Leandro City Council expressing partial support for the controversial housing development at 1388 Bancroft Avenue. The developer wants to replace the existing office building with a new rental apartment building comprised of 43 luxury units and two officially affordable units.

Since the project was on the council’s Feb. 4 agenda, the letter had to be drafted, reviewed, revised, approved, and sent in a bare week—in other words, before the Ex Com would meet again in late February.

I went to the January 28 meeting to comment on the NAC’s peremptory treatment of another item on the agenda, development at the North Berkeley BART station. But it was the group’s similarly cavalier disposal of the San Leandro project that captured my attention. Until then, I’d never heard of 1388 Bancroft. I got the impression that, except for Tregub and outgoing NAC Chair Andy Kelley, neither had members of the Ex Com.

The collective ignorance was understandable. For one thing, Kelley had only posted the evening’s agenda online on the afternoon of January 28. He was acting under duress: he’d stepped into the chair’s position after his immediate predecessor in the office had abruptly departed. On January 28, Kelley happily voted with the rest of the Ex Com to have Berkeley Councilmember Sophie Hahn succeed him as chair. Hahn then presided over an agenda that she had not set.

More important, the NAC Ex Com relied on a single informant who championed the project. At the meeting, the case for endorsing 1388 Bancroft was made by Tim Frank, a Berkeley resident and self-described “sustainability consultant.” A representative of the sheet metal workers union spoke briefly in favor of the project, but it was Frank who carried the ball.

Frank often speaks at public comment before city councils, regional agencies, and other public entities, urging the approval of developments. He’s been cheering on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s frightening CASA project since its inception.

On January 31, I emailed Frank asking if he’d been paid to advocate 1388 Bancroft. He replied:

I have no economic tie whatsoever to the developer of 1388 Bancroft in San Leandro. The same is true of 2190 Shattuck, which I supported at the Berkeley City Council hearing this last Thursday. These are very green transit-oriented development projects that will be built by union labor. Spending a few hours supporting these projects is a small contribution towards the larger goal of creating a greater and more equitable economy.

What you should know about me is that I am Director of the Center for Sustainable Neighborhoods, and am the board chair of Good Jobs First, both of which are organizations that support economic development strategies that emphasize good jobs and make our region more sustainable. This has been my vocation and passion for more than two and a half decades.

I emailed back: “Thanks for the ambiguous reply. I asked whether you were paid to advocate a Sierra Cub NAC Group endorsement of 1388 Bancroft. Tom Silva [the landlord-applicant via his business, Eden Realty] aside, were you paid to speak in favor of the project?”

To date, Frank has not responded.

The Center for Sustainable Neighborhoods is not incorporated as a tax-exempt nonprofit in California, so there are no public filings showing anything about its finances. On its website, the group seeks donations, but says they are not tax-deductible. I asked Frank where his group gets its money; he has not responded.

The NAC Ex Com buys Frank’s pitch

At the Ex Com meeting, Frank first stated that he directs the Center for Sustainable Neighborhoods, chairs both the board of Good Jobs First and the Sierra Club’s National Challenge to Sprawl campaign, and is helping the national club update its infill development policy.

He then pitched 1388 Bancroft. He highlighted the project’s access to transit—the site is on two bus lines, he said—its unbundled auto parking and bike lockers (tenants will have to pay extra to park on-site) and its GreenTRIP certification from TransForm; and noted the developer’s promise to use union labor.

After NAC Ex Com member Chris Jackson observed that only two percent of the units at 1388 Bancroft would be affordable, Frank said that the city had a shortage of luxury residences, but that market-rate housing “hasn’t penciled,” meaning it hasn’t did not yield the returns that developers demand. He also said that San Leandro’s inclusionary ordinance requires that 15 percent of the units in new housing developments be affordable, and that the city has not been “supportive of multi-family housing.”

Nobody pointed out that the last two of these claims do not compute. In today’s Bay Area, no city has an ample stock of low-income housing without having required that new developments include a substantial amount of such housing. In fact, San Leandro has supported multi-unit housing.

As Frank spoke, I Googled “1388 Bancroft.” Up came an article describing neighbors’ concerns about parking. In the ensuing discussion—initially everyone in the room was invited to make a comment—I mentioned those concerns. They elicited no interest from Ex Com members, who went on to pass a motion to send a letter to the San Leandro City Council that supported aspects of the project that were consistent with Sierra Club policies.

Voting Yes were Tregub, Katz, Kelley, Jonathan Bair, and Aaron Priven. Xavier Johnson was not present but later weighed in with a Yes. Voting No were Hahn, Jackson, and Toni Mester.

The unrecognized opposition

A bit more Googling also turned up the email address of the group that was fighting the project. The next morning, I sent the group a brief report of the Ex Com’s action. About an hour later, I got a reply from one of the neighbors, Stephen Cassidy. Cassidy said he’d been a member of the Sierra Club “on and off over the past 15 years,” and that he’s currently a member who “strongly support[s] the club’s mission” and “donate[s] to the club on a monthly basis.” He also said that from January 2011 to December 2014, he was mayor of San Leandro.

Cassidy wrote:

When we hear neighbors are opposed to a particular project, some immediately conclude the neighbors must be unreasonable, from the filter that any local opposition to a project is irrational and intended simply to protect the narrow-minded interest of the immediate neighbors who do not want change (or worse).

The 1388 Bancroft does not fit this mold. Context is critical.

He went on to provide that context: In 2016,

the San Leandro city council revised the San Leandro Zoning Code to allow new housing in areas of San Leandro formerly and exclusively reserved for offices and commercial uses, including at 1388 Bancroft Avenue (the property at the corner of Estudillo and Bancroft immediately across from Bancroft Middle School). We, neighbors of 1388 Bancroft Avenue, supported this change.  Our support helped expand sites for housing in San Leandro.

While new housing was encouraged, the City set limits to ensure that no project would be too dense or too large for the neighborhood. Specifically, projects were limited to:

  • 24 units per acre (which means 31 units at 1388 Bancroft)
  • A parking ratio of 2.25 parking spots per 2-bedroom unit
  • 10 foot setbacks
  • 30 feet in height

In response, the developer sought to build a project far in excess of these limits, close to 75 two-bedroom units, nearly 50 feet tall and with grossly inadequate parking. It was so deficient that city staff opposed the project. See https://sanleandrofocus.blogspot.com/2017/11/city-staff-analysis-of-1388-bancroft.html

Critically, the developer said he could not afford to build any project that was smaller.  However, the developer reversed course and withdrew his proposal.

Fast forward to the present, the developer is back with a smaller project. City staff is recommending that they be set aside for a “Planned Development” to be built at 1388 Bancroft Avenue.

The 1388 Bancroft Avenue Planned Development is better than what was first proposed but remains in violation of the 2016 expanded and pro-housing provisions of the city zone code.  The new plan calls for an apartment complex containing:

  • 45 units at the site … 50% denser than allowed
  • 55 parking spaces … less than half of the required number
  • 4 foot setbacks on Estudillo … 60% less than required
  • 37 feet tall … 23% taller than allowed

The affordable housing component of the planned development is a fraud.  The developer has another apartment on the opposite side of San Leandro that is decades old and serves the low end of the market. He plans on adding two units of affordable at this site, eg not at 1388 Bancroft.  And he will write a one-time check to the city to satisfy its in lieu fee for affordable housing units. That’s how he gets to claim 4% affordable housing at 1388 Bancroft. The reality is there will be no affordable units on the property. Many of us object to the project for this reason. We welcome affordable units at the site.

1388 Bancroft is not within the City’s Transit Oriented Development zone. It will bring significantly more cars to the neighborhood, as almost all units will be 2-bedrooms with 2 baths priced at the highest end of the market. In many cases, 4 adults owning 4 cars will be occupying units.

Furthermore, we have the right to rely on the assurances and promises of our city officials.  Integrity matters.  Approval of the 1388 Bancroft Planned Development without modification would create the precedent that any project, no matter the location, how dense or tall, or the lack of sufficient parking, could be built in San Leandro as long as it is labeled a “Planned Development.”

We continue to support housing at 1388 Bancroft and would be willing to compromise but the project must be brought closer to the zoning code restrictions.

I forwarded Cassidy’s email to the Ex Com members whose email I had at hand: Hahn, Kelley, Tregub, Katz, and Mester, stating that, except for Kelley, “it was clear” that before January 28, none of the Ex Com members had heard of 1388 Bancroft. I added:

I understand why it was placed on the agenda. I do not understand why the majority voted to send a letter to the council, given that you heard only one person advocating its approval. To support a project such as this, with a long and controversial history, without hearing from opponents, and after a short discussion which could not possibly suffice for anyone involved to understand the situation, was wrong.

I suggested that they reconsider sending a letter to the San Leandro Council endorsing any aspect of the project. I also left Tregub a voicemail.

No reporters allowed

Nobody took up my suggestion to reconsider the letter. Tregub, however, emailed a reply that addressed two other matters. First, he said that “three separate people reached out to me about placing this on the agenda, including former San Leandro Councilmember (previously endorsed by the Sierra Club) and longtime member Michael Gregory.”

Then Tregub tried to nail me for violating Sierra Club rules. “[D]id you attend the meeting as a member as a reporter?” he asked. “As you know, our policy welcomes members but does not allow reporters to attend our meetings, so I guess it sort of depends which hat you wear (since you’re both). Thanks for clarifying!”

I was indeed aware of that policy, which however I find nowhere in the Sierra Club’s posted rules and bylaws. If, like me, you’re both a journalist and a Sierra Club member, before attending a club meeting, you have to decide which hat you’re going to wear. What’s unclear is whether club rules forbid non-journalist members from reporting what they witness at club meeting. Tregub and his pals on the Ex Com were well aware of my dual identity, yet they said nothing at the meeting, and Tregub only raised the issue after I revealed that I’d contacted opponents of 1388 Bancroft.

For the record, I attended the January 28 meeting and am writing here as a Sierra Club member; and this is an unsolicited, unpaid op-ed, the likes of which are routinely composed by non-journalists who happen to belong to the Sierra Club and are published by varied media outlets.

I emailed back that who asked to have 1388 Bancroft placed on the agenda was irrelevant, and that the issue was why he and others who voted for the letter did so,

given that only one side of the story was presented—and that, as Stephen Cassidy’s email made clear, even that side was partially presented. On Monday evening, the NAC Ex Com was not qualified to take a position. Why, then did it do so?

I also noted that the national Sierra Club has adopted the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing, and I cited the first three:

  • Be inclusive
  • Emphasis on Bottom-up organizing
  • Let people speak for themselves

“It’s striking,” I wrote,

that you offer no response to Cassidy’s argument. Instead, your concern seems to be that I will write critically about what transpired on Monday evening. Why aren’t you worried that what transpired contradicted club policy—not only the Jemez Principles of democratic decision-making but also the club’s stated commitment to affordable housing and neighborhood integrity?

This, by the way, is the same Igor Tregub who ran for the District One seat on the Berkeley City Council last year. Voters in that district may recall his reiterated enthusiasm for community input regarding development at the North Berkeley BART station. When it came to 1388 Bancroft Avenue, such enthusiasm was nowhere to be seen.

The Ex Com’s letter to the San Leandro council

On February 4, the NAC sent a letter to the San Leandro City Council regarding “the Planned Development at 1388 Bancroft Way” [sic] signed by “Andy Katz, Member, Northern Alameda County Group Executive Committee.” It differed, however, from the one that the NAC majority had approved. Rather than endorsing aspects of the project that complied with Sierra Club policy, the letter stated: “We have not taken a position on the project.”

Indeed, except for the opening reference, the letter didn’t mention 1388 Bancroft at all. Instead, it “comment[ed] on relevant land use and housing policies” embraced by the Sierra Club:

[T]o address regional sprawl, promote environmental justice, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, land use patterns should be designed to prioritize walking and biking, reduce vehicle miles traveled (MVT) increase public transit use, enhance the economic viability of public transit and decrease private motor use (auto mobility).

“In particular,” the NAC wrote, “zoning should:”

  • Promote desirable, affordable, dense, and equitable mixed-use infill development;

  • Integrate pedestrian-oriented amenities into residential neighborhoods;

  • Promote affordable housing;

  • Eliminate minimum parking requirements to encourage shifts to biking, walking, scooting, carpooling and transit;

The Northern Alameda County Group of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club supports infill, mixed-use, relatively dense development within urbanized areas that encourages transit, walking, and bicycling and that minimizes private automobile parking. We also support greater density where appropriate, and at least 20% of the housing must be affordable.

We request that the San Leandro City Council integrate these principles into planning and zoning matters.

Most of these principles are ones that, according to Tim Frank, were incorporated into the proposed development at 1388 Bancroft.

The blatant outlier is the stipulation for a minimum 20 percent affordable housing. A glance at the project’s history makes clear that no way would developer Tom Silva agree to follow that injunction. When the NAC Ex Com voted to send the letter, it was ignorant of that history. But it knew that the developer had proposed only 4 percent affordable housing. You’d think that would be a deal breaker—but no. 

Dense TOD trumps all

I surmise that in today’s Sierra Club, the purported benefits of dense, transit-oriented development—above all, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions—trump everything else, including the concerns about neighborhood quality of life set forth in the national Club’s adopted policies about the “Urban Environment”:

Protection and Enhancement of the Quality of Life

  1. Protection and enhancement of the quality of urban life by preservation of our architectural and cultural heritage.

  2. Preservation and revitalization of urban neighborhoods, with residents protected from unreasonable economic and physical disruption; rehabilitation of housing and community facilities; jobs creation; a safe and healthy workplace environment; and elimination of “redlining” practices.

  3. Attractive, compact and efficient urban areas; with densities and mixtures of uses that encourage walking and transit use, and encourage more efficient use of private autos in balance with other transportation modes.

Not incidentally, the urban quality of life concerns, including the reference to “unreasonable economic and physical disruption,” specified above do not appear in the national Club’s draft “Urban Infill Policy” that’s currently under review.

Dense, transit-oriented development sounds great in the abstract. Done right, it’s great in reality. But doing it right means respecting reality, not trampling on it. Even the NAC letter urged “greater density where appropriate.” If members of the NAC Ex Com had attended the San Leandro Council’s hearing on 1388 Bancroft, they would have heard dozens of speakers explain in vivid detail why 45 units at this site, which is across the street from a middle school, was not appropriate; and why, as Cassidy indicated in his email, the proposed development would likely flood the already congested immediate, Estudillo neighborhood with cars owned by the project’s residents. With the developer estimating rents for the two- and three-bedroom units at $4,000 a month, the proposed 45-unit project would be likely to house far more than 45 residents. There’s no way to prevent any of them from owning a car. What’s more, the latest research indicates that densification inflates land values and the cost of housing in surrounding areas.

After listening to that testimony, the majority of the San Leandro Council made it clear they would not approve a 45-unit development. Mayor Cutter made a motion to approve a 39-unit project. The motion was seconded but withdrawn before a vote was taken. Some councilmembers said they wanted the affordable units to be onsite. Everyone lauded the “greenness” of the project and hoped that it could be built. The developer asked for a 90-day continuance to address the council’s concerns, and the council unanimously granted his request.

To my knowledge, nobody on the NAC Ex Com bothered to attend the meeting. Tim Frank did attend and speak at public comment. Defying the time limit, he had to be cut off by the mayor as he was holding forth on “climate catastrophe.”

To be sure, we are confronting climate catastrophe, at least a catastrophe for the fragile ecological niche in which our species evolved. But that daunting fact does not justify poorly informed, stealth decision making that ignores the threats of “unreasonable” growth, especially by an organization that is professedly committed to democracy and urban quality of life.

What Club members can do

Sierra Club members who live in the nine-county area under the jurisdiction of the Bay Chapter need to pay attention to the actions of the Club officials whom they’ve chosen to represent them. There’s nothing members can directly do about Frank, who’s a consultant.

But Tregub, Katz, Kelley, Bair, Priven, and Johnson were all voted into office. If they want to retain their positions in the Club, they will have to run again, either in 2019 or 2020.

Club members should ask that the national Club’s draft “Urban Infill Policy” be placed on the agendas of local group and the Bay Chapter Executive Committees in a timely fashion—the policy is supposed to be finalized this spring—so that, in accordance with the Jemez Principles, members can “speak for themselves.”

Zelda Bronstein is a longtime Sierra Club member who helped found the Northern Alameda County Group in the early Nineties.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will the state Democratic Party support public power?

Demonstrators opposing a PG&E bailout at the CPUC. Photo by Heidi Alletzhauser

The collapse of Pacific Gas and Electric Company is leading to serious efforts on both the statewide and the local level to replace the failed private utility with public-power agencies.

The grassroots movement is in place. The political and financial information is clear.

Demonstrators opposing a PG&E bailout at the CPUC. Photo by Heidi Alletzhauser

A group of Democratic Party activists, led by party delegates Glenn Glazer and Lowell Young, working through the Coalition for a Power Safe California, is circulating a petition asking the party at its May convention to approve a resolution calling for statewide public power. The current draft, which is still a work in progress, says the following:

Whereas the public good must always be the first consideration of the people and our government, and it is demonstrable that PG&E has been acting in wanton and probable  illegal disregard of the public’s health and well-being by differing maintenance and upkeep of their equipment as demonstrated by the roughly 40 fires and gas explosions known to have been caused by their unmaintained equipment, including the San Bruno gas explosion, for which it is on probation for causing, and because of its poor safety record, the PUC is considering the possibility of breaking up PG&E as well as other measures against it; and

Whereas PG&E faces financial ruin due to law suits that have resulted from their negligence and poor management and faces bankruptcy, which will disrupt the company’s operations and place the public’s well-being in great jeopardy, and PG&E has asked for rate increases to cover their losses rather than letting their stockholders bear those loses which is a risk of holding stock in any corporation; and

Whereas the State has shown that it can run an insurance company that competes on the open market successfully, and that operation, The State Fund, and the FAIR programs can be used as models on how to run a non-profit public utility owned by the people by keeping the existing employees of PG&E and installing a top management team initially appointed by the governor and the leaders of the state Senate and the Assembly;

Therefore we call upon the California State Government to acquire PG&E by Eminent Domain or to purchase the stock of PG&E at the lowest market value of the stock in the three years prior to the stocks purchase to prevent the manipulation of the stock’s price which would be unfair to the public, and any loss should be borne by the shareholders of recorded on the date of takeover, and 50% of the new board of directors shall be employees and union representatives and all current union benefits shall be honored and each union shall have their membership protected and all other PG&E employees would be encouraged to unionize. Said new management shall run the company for the benefit of the people and serve until replaced by the State Legislature and governor.

The state party controls resolutions pretty tightly, and I have seen party chairs deflect and quietly kill anything that might offend potential donors (and in the past, PG&E has donated to lots of Democratic Party officials, including the current governor, Gavin Newsom). But there’s momentum here, and this resolution will be hard to ignore — particularly with the growing number of progressives winning election as state party delegates.

I wonder if someone at the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee will introduced a resolution supporting this concept; it would draw some clear lines on that panel.

Meanwhile, Sup. Aaron Peskin has told me that acquiring PG&E’s distribution system – or at least starting that process – is a top legislative priority for 2019.

And on Thursday/14,the Board of Supes Rules Committee will hold a hearing on PG&E’s intransigence in providing connections to let the city use its own hydropower to power public agencies and affordable housing projects. That’s been an issue for more than a year, and Sup. Hillary Ronen is asking for an update.

Peskin’s suggestion, which will likely come up at the hearing, is that the city buy its own distribution system, so that PG&E can’t control the local power grid anymore.

The hearing starts at 10am, City Hall Room 263.

That committee will also hear an ordinance rescinding the authorization for the San Francisco Police Department to be a member of the National Rifle Association or collect NRA tournament fees. Sup. Catherine Stefani wants the city to sever all ties with an organization that opposes even the most modest restrictions on the ownership of assault weapons.

On Aug. 30, 2018, a student at Balboa High accidentally discharged a gun, setting off a massive law-enforcement response. In the process, three students were detained and questioned by the cops, and one student was (wrongly) identified in some news media as the shooter.

Now Sups. Ronen, Peskin, and Vallie Brown are introducing legislation to require than anyone 17 or younger who is questioned by police to be provided with a lawyer and to have parents present. The law would ban the cops from asking any questions of any minor until that person has legal (and parental) representation.

Current state and federal law say that cops can’t question anyone 15 or younger without a parent or lawyer present. But according to a Dec. 20 letter sent to Ronen from the National Center for Youth Law:

Law, science, and common experience all conclude that, as compared to adults, youth have less capacity to understand their rights and are significantly more vulnerable to giving false statements in response to routine interrogation. …

Currently, youth 16 and older in California can waive their Miranda rights on their own, as long as the waiver was made in a voluntary, knowing, and intelligent manner. However, research demonstrates that young people often fail to comprehend the meaning of Mirandarights. Even more troubling is the fact that young people are unlikely to appreciate the consequences of giving up those rights. They are also more likely than adults to waive their rights and confess to crimes they did not commit.

The Rules Committee will consider the legislation Monday/11 at 10am, Room 263 City Hall.

Sup. Sandra Lee Fewer has a far-reaching proposal: She wants qualified non-profit housing organizations to have a right of first refusal on any multi-family housing that goes on sale in the city.

That would mean anyone who owns a building with multiple tenants would have to inform the nonprofit housing community that they want to sell the property, give that nonprofit the first right to bid on it – and also give the nonprofit the right to match any private bid that the landlord is prepared to accept.

The legislation would guarantee that any tenant in any building purchased by a nonprofit would get to remain at the same rent and under the same lease conditions.

The law would be a boost to the existing “small-sites” program, which sets aside money (not enough) to help prevent evictions by helping nonprofits and land-trust operations buy at-risk buildings and take the out of the private market forever.

The Planning Commission will discuss Fewer’s proposal Thursday/14. The hearing starts at 1pm, City Hall Room 400.

Venezuela: Democratic uprising or US coup?

 

Tens of thousands of angry people march in the streets to protest lack of democracy. Women bang on pots to raise alarm over the economic crisis brought on by a socialist president. The United States denounces the leftist government and promises to help bring democracy to the country.

Venezuela in 2019? No, it was Chile in 1973.

Venezuelan activists who support President Maduro formed food co-ops to deal with high cost of groceries. Photo: Reese Erlich

Chileans had elected a Marxist president, Salvador Allende, and the US government was seeking to oust him. Allende’s platform rejected the anti-communist foreign policy of the United States and threatened the profits of US corporations. So, in a time-honored tactic of course, the Nixon Administration claimed Allende was an autocrat allied with the USSR.

With National Security Council director  Henry Kissinger as point man, the United States squeezed Chile economically, sponsored trucker strikes, fomented opposition demonstrations, and ultimately supported the coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power. The people of Chile would suffer under a brutal dictatorship for the next 16 years.

Perhaps the Trump Administration is hoping history will repeat itself, but so far Venezuelans aren’t going for it. Elected President Nicolas Maduro, while politically weakened by recent US maneuvering, still retains a measure of popular support. Unlike the Chilean army, much of the Venezuelan military remains loyal to the government.

As I reported from Caracas two years ago, Maduro survived violent attacks by upper-class opposition leaders on his government. His supporters hope he will do so again, despite massive economic chaos promoted by the United States.

Trump coup attempt

In January the Trump Administration intensified a brutal economic and political campaign to overthrow Maduro. It blocked the state owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, known as  PDVSA, from receiving payment for oil shipments to the United States.  The administration also orchestrateddenunciations of Maduro by US allies in Latin America and Europe.

Venezuela depends on oil exports to earn hard currency. The  Wall Street Journal reported that oil production has dropped10 percent since December. That means the government will have a harder time importing essential goods, like pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and food.

While the US has sanctioned PDVSA, it has also granted waivers allowing Chevron Corporation and two US oil service providers, Halliburton and Schlumberger,to continue operating and making profits in Venezuela. Hmmmm. The US promotion of democracy in Latin America seems, once again, to be attached to corporate interests.

“The Trump Administration is trying to asphyxiate Venezuela,” Carolina Morales, a Venezuelan immigrant rights activist living in San Francisco, told me. “The US claims it favors humanitarian aid to Venezuela, but the best aid is a functioning economy. The sanctions hurt ordinary people.”

US supports democracy – really?

Trump and the Venezuelan opposition claim that Maduro orchestrated fraudulent presidential elections in May 2018 and has become an autocrat. The Venezuelan constitution provides that if the presidency is “abandoned,” the president of the National Assembly can assume that office. On January 23, National Assembly head Juan Guaidó swore himself in as president, claiming that Maduro had abandoned his office by conducting fraudulent elections.

However, the major opposition parties had boycotted the 2018 elections because they were badly divided. They made no claims that Maduro had “abandoned” the presidency. The argument—a thin legal thread created to justify a coup—arose months later.

Guido, until last month, was a virtual unknown. He had never run for national office, and was head of the National Assembly only as part of a rotation system among the opposition parties. Guido’s party, Popular Will, is self-described as a social democratic party. The United States will certainly pressure Popular Will to adopt neo-liberal economic policies such as tax benefits for the rich, taking on onerous loans from international banks and privatizing state owned companies, particularly PDVSA.

Venezuelans have been down that path before. Neoliberal economic policies caused a massive economic crisis in the 1990s, leading to the election of Hugo Chávez, according to Luis Salas, a former minister of economy under Maduro. I interviewed him during my last trip to Caracas.

“That era only produced increased poverty and high inflation,” Salas told me.

Venezuelans will likely be worse off under opposition rule than under Maduro, as admitted by Fernando Cruz, a former White House official who worked on Venezuela policy.

“Things probably will get worse for the people of Venezuela before they get better when you actually start doing things for the greater good,” Cutz told The New York Times.

Serious economic problems

Surely, the opposition owes much of its support to the country’s deteriorating economy. Inflation hit a staggering 80,000 percent last year and is expected to go even higher in 2019.

That means workers’ wages are almost worthless. “It’s difficult to get enough money to buy food,” admitted immigration activist Morales.

Stringent US sanctions and fluctuating oil prices have impacted the Venezuelan economy. But the government also made serious errors, according to Rodulfo Perez, a former minister of education in Maduro’s cabinet.

“We should have invested our oil money in the domestic economy,” Perez told me during my last trip. “Such a policy would have strengthened the bolívar fuerte [Venezuelan currency] and reduced the need for imports.”

What lies ahead?

Trump’s Latin American policy is now spearheaded by John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, and a group of neocons determined to reassert US control of Venezuela’s oil. And, as Bolton has admitted, “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”

From a geopolitical standpoint, the neocons see overthrowing the government in Venezuela as a first step towards doing the same in Cuba and Nicaragua.

A US coup is by no means a done deal. “I am optimistic and hoping the government will survive,” said activist Morales. She then added, “I’m also worried. The US could send troops to Venezuela, which would provoke a civil war. There could be thousands of deaths in the streets. That’s why I’m speaking up against this coup.”

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48Hills. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy is now available. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.