The Uhuru House and the Battle for Community Control of Housing in the 1980s: Traces of the Oakland Commune

Rent control has a long history in the United States. Implemented by various municipalities during WWI and the federal government during WWII, it was initially a means of addressing wartime “housing emergencies” and neither a source of great controversy nor strongly linked to social protest.  This changed after the tumult of the 1960s, when a new configuration of “the personal” and “the political” emerged that made our homes into sites of contestation in novel ways. Many began to see rent control not only as a tool for regulating a particular financial transaction but also as a means for asserting community—however loosely defined—against capitalism. In California, this impulse was evident in rent control movements in Santa Monica, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and—last but not least—Oakland.

Oakland’s best known tenants’ movement culminated in 2002, when housing activists persuaded voters to approve the “Just Cause” ordinance (Measure EE). Though it did not provide rent control, it gave renters crucial protections against arbitrary (“no cause”) evictions. Fights over this statute took place in the shadow of San Francisco’s dot.com boom and, as such, provided a window into Oakland’s unique response to the seismic shifts in regional real estate that it had occasioned.

Oakland was also the location of a remarkable and largely forgotten campaign for rent control in the 1980s, when activists associated with the Uhuru House put two measures on the ballot that would have revolutionized the city’s approach to housing if they had been approved: Measure 0 (1984) and Measure H (1986), two virtually identical initiatives whose purpose was to create a form of socialized housing under the control of decentralized, autonomous “Community Control Housing Boards” that were to be spread throughout the city. Although Oaklanders rejected both by a large margin, they helped define a pivotal moment in the city’s history. They facilitated the emergence of what Adolph Reed has called the “Black urban regime” by prompting established Black leaders to clarify their attitude toward the radical Black movements that had helped put them in power and, secondly, they foregrounded the rich, decentralist alternatives to liberalism that had begun to appear with increasing frequency.

Oakland and Lionel Wilson

The Uhuru House in 2012. The faces on the building’s facade are (from left to right): Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Omali Yeshitela.

The Uhuru House was (and is) headquarters for a constellation of projects led by Omali Yeshitela, a Pan-African, revolutionary socialist who moved from St. Petersburg, Florida to Oakland in 1981. Positioning itself as a liberator of people of African descent worldwide, his group runs an evolving and elaborate network of organizations and businesses. There is the African People’s Socialist Party (its political wing), the African People’s Solidarity Committee (the Party’s White support group), as well as numerous companies that presumably finance the political endeavors (Uhuru FurnitureUhuru Foods, among others). Like many socialist sects born of the 1960s, the group has a propensity for grandiose rhetoric, which, given its negligible influence on current affairs, suggests an exaggerated sense of self-importance and also that it inhabits a highly idealized political space. Its distance from prevailing political discourse in Oakland was especially conspicuous when it lauded Lovelle Mixon as a hero because he murdered four policemen after a traffic stop in 2008. Continue reading

The Development Without Displacement Report: Some Strengths and Shortcomings

This first appeared on the Project Oakland blog on April 25, 2014.

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1Social discord tends to get people writing. Books and essays become especially vital tools when the world seems out of order and doesn’t work in the way that you think it should.

Indeed, the housing crisis in the Bay Area has unleashed a torrent of writing on housing costs, displacement, and changes in local culture. It seems like new articles on these issues appear daily, if not more frequently. A lot of the work is forgettable, some of it is pretty great, and all of it enriches the massive discussion that we are having throughout the region about how our lives, homes, and the economy interact.

The recent publication of Development Without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area is a landmark in the maturation of this dialogue. Produced by Causa Justa / Just Cause with help from the Alameda County Public Health Department, it sets a new standard for reflection on gentrification. Attractively packaged in a glossy, four-color binder, it is well-written, thoroughly documented, and full of instructive, compelling graphics. It sets out to explain what gentrification is, how it operates locally, and what can be done to stop it. It is the most comprehensive, insightful treatment of gentrification in the Bay Area to date and will likely serve as a key reference for people grappling with the issue in the years to come.

Like any text, it has strengths and weaknesses. In the interest of encouraging dialogue about it, I will note three of each below.

Three Strengths

  • It portrays gentrification as a social process and, by doing so, breaks with the highly individualistic approach to the subject that is so common among Bay Area leftists. That is, a lot of the discourse about gentrification looks like this: first you identify the “gentrifiers,” then you counterpose them to the authentic “community,” and then you agonize over how these two groups relate to one another. Are the “gentrifiers” being arrogant or insensitive? Should the “community” actually welcome them? And how exactly do you distinguish a real “gentrifier” from a real “community” member anyway? Who gets to decide? Questions such as these drive much of the dialogue about the topic locally. Focused on existential matters of identity, they trigger lots of posturing and handwringing but have little relevance to housing justice. Fortunately, Development Without Displacement dispenses with this approach altogether by zeroing in on the economic forces and government policies that make gentrification possible.

Continue reading

SPUR comes to Oakland: expect three things

Originally posted on the Project Oakland blog on November 17, 2015

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The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association—or SPUR—will open its Oakland branch at 1544 Broadway this December. SPUR has had a huge influence on San Francisco’s politics over the years and will probably have a big effect in Oakland too.

What can we expect?

Dr. Robert Ogilvie, director of Oakland SPUR

SPUR’s mission is to promote “good planning and good government in the San Francisco Bay Area.” To them, this means championing government policies focused on ensuring a dynamic and stable capitalist economy in the region. They pursue apparently “progressive” goals like “transit oriented development” (think: bike lanes) and resist things like strong unions or other assertions of working class power. Made up mainly of planners, architects, academics, lawyers, and real estate people, SPUR advances its agenda through research, education, and advocacy— reports, ballot recommendations, and public forums on development issues. They have already released a study on downtown Oakland and have begun holding regular talks.

I suspect that they will impact Oakland in the following three ways:

First, SPUR will shake up the dominant political class. SPUR’s people are professionals who specialize in being professional—their fancy reports and declarations are usually coherent, well-argued, and fact-based (even when wrong politically). As such, they will put pressure on Oakland’s politicians, who have gotten away with loads of buffoonery for decades. Thanks to SPUR, we will be less likely to see things like Jean Quan’s totally invented “100 block” crime plan, Rebecca Kaplan’s vapid cheerleading for the Raiders stadium, or Mayor Schaaf’s ridiculous ban on nighttime protests. Continue reading

Progressive Urbanism and its Discontents in Oakland

This post first appeared on Project Oakland on September 5, 2012.

From Blacks to Brown and Beyond: The Struggle for Progressive
Politics in Oakland, California, 1966–2011
by Robert Stanley Oden
Cognella Academic, June 2012, 352 pages

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Oakland’s recent history is rich in contradictions. When voters elected Lionel Wilson—the city’s first Black and Democratic mayor—in 1977, they took a decisive step in the ouster of the white, Republican, pro-business regime that had run Oakland as an exemplar of American municipal apartheid for decades. Wilson’s ascendency was part of a vast transformation in the composition of local political elites, who now largely reflect the political and racial background of the population that they govern. Indeed, since then, most of Oakland’s mayors have been “minorities,” all have been Democrats, and several have had roots in social movements. Similar claims can be made about those who have occupied the posts of City Manager, Chief of Police, Economic Development Director, and Port Director, to cite only the most significant positions. In many respects, there was a revolution in city affairs, one that we can analogize, with some justice, to the 1994 defeat of apartheid in South Africa.

And yet, despite these momentous changes, the city has been and remains a site of profound inequality, bitter racial hierarchies, state violence, and environmental breakdown. Although people of color and Democrats sit in every level of local government, Oakland is a profoundly brutal, unfair, unjust, and crisis-ridden place.

How is this possible? To answer this question, and work our way toward a more comprehensive emancipatory politics, we must explore how such apparently antithetical processes could unfold simultaneously in the course of the city’s history. And this is why the recent publication of Robert Oden’s Blacks to Brown and Beyond is an event to celebrate. Despite some weakness, it has much to offer this inquiry and will hopefully become a point of reference for Oakland activists. Continue reading