Defying displacement

May 28, 2024

I want to start responding more to things I read and listen to, so here’s a quick sort of critical summary of the It’s Going Down podcast’s interview with Andrew Lee, author of Defying Displacement.

Andrew thinks shifts in the economy have made it more valuable to organize collectively to defend homes and neighborhoods (organizing at the “point of reproduction”) compared to what used to be the strongest organizing setting: the workplace (or “point of production”).

He was part of an antidisplacement fight himself in San Jose, seeking to halt the sale of public land for Google’s downtown megaproject, which would include 20,000 workers, more than at Google’s entire Mountain View campus. In a region with a terrible housing crisis, this project seemed unsalvageable to Andrew’s small group of activists, so they tried to stop it entirely, not just extract concessions. That stance alienated them from all the city councilors and all the advocacy nonprofits. He begins the interview with the question: Since Google’s project was clearly bad for the councilors’ constituents, why their unanimous support? Why the disconnect?

This is where I frantically wave my hand at the back of the lecture hall, eager to shout the answer: Because they depend on businesses locating there and paying local taxes in order to be able to fund public services! They see the development as good for San Jose because landing Google is good for city finances. Local politicians, even when they lean progressive, are under incredible pressure to adopt that mindset or else end up cutting services.1

Andrew sort of gets there—implicitly. Cities, he explains, can go down one of two paths: they can build post-industrial economies based on tech research and development, like Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and Austin, or they can become de-industrialized and depressed like Detroit. They want the former. Compared to an industrial city, this requires far fewer, and highly paid, workers. He calls this the gentrification economy. Even Shenzhen, he says, where microchips once built in San Jose are fabricated today, itself wants to shift toward R&D and export its manufacturing. It’s an interesting point, but he doesn’t quite tie it back into a satisfying answer to why his efforts to fight Google were unanimously opposed. He concludes only that cities have to reconfigure themselves in this way to be “profitable cities.” That seems to beg the question of why city councilors support it, since they aren’t the ones making the profits.2

In any event, Andrew notes that most low-income workers now work for small “mom-and-pop” businesses, not large businesses like Ford. If workers successfully organize one coffee shop, it might just go out of business because it now has to pay for better healthcare plans than the 500 other coffee shops in that city that aren’t unionized. (For me, this simplistic picture is uncomfortably close to standard union-busting propaganda. Better healthcare isn’t a pure cost; it leads to healthier, more motivated workers who, having built connections through organizing, work better together. But the kernel of the argument—lots of tiny companies are harder to organize than a few big ones—seems sound.)

Conversely, tenants facing displacement are now likely to have a landlord that’s a multinational corporation. They’re fighting not for better conditions or lower rent, but just to stay where they are. And they’re fighting not just the local slumlord, but global capital. Those new conditions create new opportunities for tenant organizing.

He might be onto something. Here in San Francisco we’ve seen the rise of the Veritas Tenant Association, which has brought the massive Veritas Investments firm to the bargaining table, aided by our city’s first-in-the-nation 2022 “Union at Home” ordinance. For the book, Andrew talked to a dozen activists across the U.S. and more around the world who are on the front lines of anti-displacement struggles.

Another shift we’re seeing is suburbanization of poverty: increasingly, working-class and poor people live on the outskirts of a metro area around a wealthy core city. That’s new for the U.S., but in many cities around the world, Andrew points out, it’s been that way for a long time. So this isn’t uncharted territory. There are organizing models we can look to around the world now that the U.S. increasingly reflects that global norm. He notes that service workers who now have two-hour commutes from sprawling suburbs into the urban core will struggle to make connections with co-workers, because after work they have to immediately rush home. Another challenge for workplace-based as opposed to neighborhood-based organizing.

Is urban housing speculation a bubble that will eventually burst? Andrew declines to speculate on the future, but elites clearly don’t think so, he says. He cites Atlanta’s Cop City and similar paramilitary police training facilities as evidence. These are the latest escalation of “half a century of intensive repression and counterinsurgency” since the 1960s to forestall a potential urban uprising. Elites fear urban uprisings because cities are profitable. Police murders of Black people that inspired the summer 2020 protests and rebellion were often linked to gentrification, such as in the case of Breonna Taylor, whose ex-boyfriend was an alleged drug dealer who the city of Louisville viewed as a roadblock to a redevelopment of the neighborhood.3

At several points, I felt Andrew was too quick to dismiss tech workers as too affluent to organize. Highly-paid tech workers are increasingly organizing at work, as chronicled in Ethan Marcotte’s new book You Deserve a Tech Union. They/we have more reason to organize than ever, in light of brutal layoffs at firms like Google/Alphabet and Meta in recent years. After one round of layoffs, an investor wrote an infamous public letter saying it was a good start, but Alphabet needed to lay off even more workers, and while they’re at it, reduce pay. Software engineers and designers seem to be entering a process of proletarianization, like professors and nurses before us.

Andrew ends the interview by suggesting listeners get involved by helping out a local anti-displacement or tenant organizing effort, noting how few resources are available, with nonprofits and foundations reluctant to support this work. You can order Andrew Lee’s book Defying Displacement: Urban Recomposition and Social War from AK Press or your local bookstore.

  1. See also the “doom loop” lately being invoked by corporate media and centrist politicians here in San Francisco: the prospect of losing so much downtown business (and the local taxes it pays) that city finances collapse. 

  2. I’d distinguish between cities wanting to be “profitable” and cities wanting sufficient tax revenue to fund quality public services. By blurring that, Andrew’s explanation overlooks how the dilemma (gentrification vs. austerity) could be resolved: Localities could receive sufficient funding for public services from the federal government, paid for by steeply progressive taxes at the federal level, where capital flight to evade the taxes would be much less of an issue. Thomas Piketty makes this point in Capital and Ideology, and it’s basically how cities used to work in the postwar United States before Reagan. 

  3. Andrew edits a website, Anti-Racism Daily, that has made the case for this connection, and the historian David Helps has also written about it for The Nation

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