reposted from the critical theory and information studies PhD seminar blog
For the past several months, a network of bay area activists and artists have been staging protests surrounding a fleet of luxury coach buses. These private buses regularly use public bus stops to pick up hi-tech employees from San Francisco and shuttle them to Silicon Valley. The buses are used by a range of tech companies, but the protests have become known as the “Google Bus” protests.
Following the initial protests, local officials were relatively quick to come to an agreement that involved the shuttle companies paying the city a one dollar fee for every time a bus uses a public bus stop. The particular details of this private-bus-on-public-bus-stop situation are somewhat banal, to the extent that most highways and roads in the US, could be described as public infrastructure that supports the use of private automobiles. But such a reading, fails to get to the heart of the matter, nor does it allow one to fully appreciate why the “Google Bus” is a fascinating object to put at the center this discussion.
As a site of protest and class antagonism, the “Google Bus” functions as both a literal expression of privatized infrastructure, and a symbolic expression of economic inequality. Through this lens, the buses should be read as one small part of a complex set of entangled systems, that define the current conditions and flow of urban life. While an account of the these systems would include food, education, healthcare, waste management, water and power, communications, and transportation, it is housing, or housing policy, that is arguably at the center of this discussion. While there are a range of rent control and preservation policies that are unique to San Francisco, the unbridled “success” of the one percent, the suppression of real wages for working and middle class households, and a failure of civic imagination, are national trends, and have directly translated into rising rent and greater precariousness for working people. The average rental costs, for most major US cities, has exceeded the recommended 30% mark of household income. In Los Angeles, where I’m writing from, the median rent has increased by 25% in the last 12 years, and more than half of the population pays rent that exceed 30% of their income. Across California, roughly 20% of households spend more than 50% of their income on rent.
The architect-artist Teddy Cruz argues that we have entered into an era of “urban crisis,” where most major cities around the world are characterized by dramatic social-economic inequality. In a collaborative lecture with political scientist Fonna Forman, the two argue that historic notions of happiness have directly translated into the design of cities. From Aristotle’s conception that happiness coming from our capacity to collaborate with our peers, to modernist notions of happiness coming from personal pleasure; the urban landscape has shifted from cities that centered around public commons, to enclaves of private space. For Forman and Cruz, this spatial architectural shift, is accompanied by the decline of “civic imagination,” and our sense of social responsibility.
In San Francisco, like many other cities, the social contracts of solidarity have long been broken. Whether it be personal stories of senior citizens and longtime residents being evicted, or the gradual erosion of opportunity for working people, the Google bus protests mark the continuation of working class protest and struggle. While one could situate, some of the more expressive moments of the Google bus protests within a genealogy of activist art, or regional traditions of San Francisco pranksters and interventionists, the critical themes motivating the work has a strong connection to the history of rent strikes. While the labour movement has been largely organized to combat worker exploitation – abolition of child labour, promotion healthier work conditions, fair wages, job security et cetera; residential rent is also one of the major ways wealth is extracted from the working class.
The history and logic of urban life can largely be understood as an expression of class hierarchy and antagonism. The very systems that support and manage urban life, often reinforce the socio-economic divisions of privilege and oppression. Reflecting this structural dynamic, there is a history of socialist and union organized residential rent strikes. In the UK and other social democracies, rent strikes are identified as part of the historic prelude to the formation of publicly owned social housing. In the US, rent strikes played a direct role in the short-term lowering of rents and the promotion of regional rent protection laws.
In the case of the recent bus protests, locating the protests along the transportation system, foregrounds an intuitive understanding that urban life is defined by an assemblage of related systems. When taken to its rational conclusion, one will inevitably arrive at a socio-ecological orientation. That is to say, the accounting of corporate profits, doesn’t acknowledge the true social and environmental costs enabling business as usual to happen. A holistic account of urban life is a prerequisite of a more equitable “civic imagination.”
In California, many have been quick to present a supply-and-demand analysis of the “rental crisis,” but a free-market approach is not going to resolve the layered problems we face. For one, there is little incentive for for-profit real-estate developers and landlords to undo the very market conditions that are creating substantial profits. Nationally, the US federal government should make considerable investments in affordable housing, to be released as regional grants. Regionally, the combination of a affordable housing trusts, that would keep large collections of housing stock outside of the market, along with universal rent control, and the creation of rent-to-own policies, or the expansion of subsidized mortgages for the remaining private housing stock, are a few possibilities for addressing the issue of affordable housing.
I want to conclude this text, by directing our attention to the “Freedom Budget,” a comprehensive proposal written by civil rights and labour activists in 1965. The “Freedom Budget” summarized its goals with the following list:
1) the abolition of poverty
2) guaranteed full employment
3) full production and high economic growth
4) adequate minimum wages
5) farm income parity
6) guaranteed incomes for all unable to work
7) a decent home for every American family
8) modern health services for all
9) full educational opportunity for all
10) updated social security and welfare programs
11) and equitable tax and money policies
Dewan, Shaila. “In Many Cities, Rent Is Rising Out of Reach of Middle Class.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.
“Freedom Budget.” – Social Justice Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. http://socialjustice.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/index.php/Freedom_Budget#The_Budget.27s_Proposals
Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. New York: Verso, 2012. Print.
“High Rent, Few Options: Rising Rents and Short Supply Have Angelenos Weighing Their Choices | 89.3 KPCC.” High Rent, Few Options: Rising Rents and Short Supply Have Angelenos Weighing Their Choices | 89.3 KPCC. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.
KPCC in Los Angeles, produced an interactive map illustrating the rental costs and income ratio for the greater LA region. http://projects.scpr.org/static/longreads/high-rent-few-options/
“How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained) | TechCrunch.” TechCrunch. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. An overview of the regional dynamics and history of San Francisco’s housing crisis. http://techcrunch.com/2014/04/14/sf-housing/
Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.
Nichols, John. The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism. Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2011. Print.
“The Urbanization of Happiness and the Decline of Civic Imagination with Fonna Forman and Teddy Cruz.” YouTube. YouTube, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. Lecture about the history of happiness and urbanization https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KK33-qDLCow
“Why the Private Market Can Never Solve SF’s Housing Crisis – 48 Hills.” 48 Hills. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.
SF housing crisis and affordable housing alternatives. http://48hillsonline.org/2014/04/14/private-market-can-never-solve-sfs-housing-crisis/