I felt good yesterday afternoon. My friend S and I had spent a couple of hours going over the application for a two-bedroom Below Market Rate apartment that was available in Dogpatch. I was glad to have seen a property that I might realistically afford, but I did not feel excited in the way that I used to feel about any number of places that I had found to rent in years past. I remember that I would fall asleep thinking about all the great things in what was to be my new neighborhood and picturing where various favorite pieces of my furniture would go in the new place with a giddy sense that it was just perfect and that I was meant to live there.
There were a couple of reasons not to feel giddy. First, S and I were applying for this apartment together because neither of us has enough income to qualify for the Below Market Rate (BMR) studios and one-bedrooms that become available from time to time. The rent on such units is $950 to $1050 per month. (The market rate for a one-bedroom apartment is currently $3500 to $4000.) The discount is good, but the Mayor's program requires that one show proof of income that is at least twice the rent, and on apartments with really low rents, the program usually requires income of two and a half times the rent.
Since many San Franciscans pay considerably more than 50% of their income in rent, it seems unrealistic to restrict the poor in this way. The underlying assumption is that one needs 50% of one's income for other expenses, but such may not be the case. For one thing, food is available free in many places throughout San Francisco. So even for less expensive apartments, it is not true that a tenant would have to spend $1000 a month on food. And if we are talking about a place renting (below market) at $2,000 a month, it would be hard for most poor people even to imagine spending $2,000 on food and other expenses.
Furthermore, since many poorer San Franciscans work at informal jobs (e.g. house painting, gardening, cleaning, running errands as a personal assistant) for which they are paid in cash that goes unreported, the Mayor's Office again discriminates against those whom it is supposed to help by requiring them to prove their income by showing pay stubs or a copy of their tax return from the previous year.
Luckily, the unit for which S. and I were applying was a two-bedroom renting for $1084 and requiring only $2168 in combined income, which together we could show.
The second factor keeping our animal spirits from optimistic volatility was the fundamental fact that we were applying to be in a lottery for the property. Our application would, along with many hundreds or even thousands like it, be merely tickets in a game of chance, and the chances that our application would win were so slim that they would (as my father used to say of skinny people) have to stand twice to make a shadow. What's more, my personal experience has been, I am sorry to say, that the only lottery I would ever win is the one Shirley Jackson describes in her short story of that name.
Still, S. and I felt good because we were taking concrete steps toward a better life in better housing. We have both been homeless in the recent past, and living in that kind of poverty takes its toll on one's ability to do anything. Poverty, like incarceration, drains the will out of a person, and being released from either condition does not restore the will power that has been lost. Even though I am no longer homeless, it is still easy to leave important tasks undone from day to day. Day to day becomes week to month -- and longer. When you have endured for a long time without a place to set your feet, it isn't easy to start taking steps again, no matter how small. But there we were, huddled over the stack of papers we had to assemble, Xeroxing extra copies of everything. We felt happy to be making some headway on our wobbly little legs.
Then this afternoon what little hope we had for this spin of San Francisco's "Wheel!-of!-Housing!" dissolved. S. had taken our papers to the designated office while I was at work. The girl at the counter rejected us immediately. She said that our application lacked the proper documentation establishing residency.
As proof of residency, I had included a letter from the Housing Authority addressed to me which stated the amount of my monthly rent. This official letter was not good enough because it was not one of the three documents listed on the application as establishing residency. Nowhere on the list could one find "Official Letter from the City's Housing Authority." Acceptable forms are (1) a utility bill for a San Francisco address; (2) a paystub showing a San Francisco address; or (3) a completed lease for a residence in San Francisco. As for the first option, I live in an SRO and utilities are included in my rent, so I receive no utility bills. As for the second, I drive a cab and as an Independent Contractor receive no paychecks and have no stubs. I do have a lease, but I will need hours to search through the dozens of boxes in my storage unit for a copy of that lease which, after all, covers the room to which the Housing Authority letter was addressed and for which that letter stated the current rent.
You might think that given the depth of The City's housing crisis and the appalling spectacle of thousands of people sleeping on sidewalks and in doorways every night, the "Mayor's Office on Housing" would think its mandate included working with applicants such as myself whose particular lives do not fit so easily into a few bureaucratically defined boxes, but such is not the case.
God forbid that anything should be provided for the poor easily! Handouts lead to moral depravity! Make the lazy sons of bitches work for their food stamps and their SRO rooms, even if the work consists of shuffling papers and meeting arbitrary deadlines, waiting in endless lines in dreary offices. Ronald Reagan taught us all about those Welfare Queens and Kings, and thank God the Clintons ended "welfare as we [knew] it." We have got to do everything we can to keep them from getting their idle hands on our money!
Why can't they just get a job!
It seems to me as though what is unraveling is the illusion of America. The myth and the propaganda originate in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson's rallying cry designed to sell the lower classes on the idea of going to war against their king for the benefit of a landed aristocracy. The actual founding document of the nation-state, the rule book setting forth the operations of the federal government, is the Constitution, which in its original form (i.e., before the first ten amendments) mentions no rights or liberties belonging to individuals but instead concerns itself with property and the interactions between the various state governments, through which the landowning aristocrats already ruled each colony. The Declaration's blather about liberty and about the rights of man was forgotten in the formation of the government. The government concerns itself only with power relations and property. The "American Dream", it turns out, has been just that -- a dream. The reality is property. What is real is real estate.
But every revolution that stirs up the common folk to fight and die on behalf of the upper classes ends up suffering the consequences of the rhetoric it used to do that stirring up. And so we live in a plutocracy whose stability is threatened by the promises its founders made and never delivered on.
The promises of the Declaration live on, inspiring the people to keep pushing the government to realize the powers which the Declaration says belong to the people by divine right. Despite institutional resistance, "we the people", organized and willing to sacrifice even our lives, as has often happened, keep moving the United States closer to its promise. We expanded the electorate to include men without property, members of minority races including former slaves, and women. Nevertheless, the full realization of the Declaration, the dream that called the masses from around the globe to these shores, the American dream, continues to be deferred.
We must ask with Langston Hughes, "What happens to a dream deferred?" To Martin's dream? To my dream? To yours?
In these United States, there is a level to which neither charity nor common humanity descends. America has its Untouchables, as is necessary in any society whose goods are not shared unconditionally. What little "safety net" still exists in this country is not available to those who are most in need.
Mayor Lee, like so many of the tech industry's other cheerleaders, touts "The Sharing Economy" (a bit of Orwellian doublespeak) as an example of technology opening new opportunities for work. He suggests that it may provide a remedy for unemployment and under-employment. But the "sharing" companies do not benefit the poor. They benefit the middle class, which is rapidly being driven into poverty, but not the untouchably poor. You have to have money to earn anything in this new economy: you have to own a car to drive for Uber and you have to have a place to live to make any money through "Airbnb". The so-called "Sharing Economy" has no place for the homeless.
The sharing economy does not offer an alternative to regular work. Instead it allows the increasingly pressured middle class to monetize assets. Although I personally suffer from the decline in the taxi business due to the (I think) illegal operations of Uber, Lyft, and other "ride share" companies, I cannot blame the people who are ferrying rich kids around town in their own cars. I doubt that they are following their passion by doing this work. I doubt that they would be giving up their homes to Airbnb or working extra hours driving for Uber after their regular jobs if they could make a comfortable living without doing so, in other words, if they were paid a living wage.
Class trumps all other considerations in this town, and at this point class has come to determine one's eligibility to call oneself a San Franciscan. Our avaricious and mendacious Mayor, a true Gollum*, fawns on the rich and casts the poor aside. In his San Francisco, those who can least afford to lose their home, those most dependent on social services both private and public, are being evicted left and right, by Ellis Act, by fire, and even by neglect.
The Mission neighborhood's bi-lingual newspaper, "El Tecolote", in Volume 45, Number 16, tells the story of 20 people evicted from a boarding house because the landlord had failed to make repairs mandated by abatement orders dating back to 1995. Eventually the city's building inspectors ruled it uninhabitable. The landlord who failed to make the repairs died; his daughter inherited the two unit structure and sold it to a developer who has also failed to make any repairs. Instead he evicted the 20 residents, giving them no time to pack their possessions or find new accommodations, and then chained and locked the doors. The following day he removed the front staircase, which allowed access to the building, without bothering to get a permit for the work. He then sent checks for $1800 to each of the evicted residents, but the day after mailing them stopped payment on them all. The various parties involved, the former and the present owners and the city, argue in court about who is responsible for what, but still none of the repairs have been made and the 20 people who used to live in the building are unable to gain access to retrieve their belongings. Ignored by the government and the land owners, they continue to live on the streets.
In Ed Lee's San Francisco, the poor are not wanted. If there were a newspaper in this town that was not owned by the same bosses who own City Hall, we might see headlines such as this:
MAYOR TO POOR:
TO WORKERS EARNING UNDER $30,000
[*I heard Lee interviewed on the radio a couple of weeks back and noted that he pronounced sibilant terminal consonants with a prolonged quiet hiss. I almost thought I heard him muttering under his breath, "My Precious, My Precious."]
One of the cruelest things about poverty is the havoc it wrecks on your will. It galls me when I hear people suggest that the poor are lazy and have rightly earned their poverty because they don't have the will to work hard. These people have got it backwards: they have confused the cause with its effect. It is simply not the case that hard working and motivated people make money and that lazy people do not. If poor people are lazy at all, it is because poverty has made them so, and not the other way around.
Poverty erodes the will. Not having resources means that you gradually give up on things, give up on your hopes to do X, Y, or Z. A musician who cannot afford the equipment necessary to offer her music for sale online must soon lose her motivation to create music altogether. She may even have to pawn her instrument to pay for food or a month's shelter in an SRO. The more difficult a thing is to do, the easier it is to give up on doing it.
I cannot allow myself to think about how far I have to go before I will have what I used to consider a "normal" life again. If I think about that distance, I want to throw in the towel. So I have to break things down to the smallest steps and focus on doing those things one by one. People say "Don't sweat the small stuff," but often that is precisely what you must do. Do the small stuffs and let them accumulate over time to become the big deal.
"Them thats got shall get. Them thats not shall lose. So the Bible says, and it still is news. Momma may have, and Poppa may have, but God bless the child that's got his own."
I hear much enthusiastic talk about "disruptive" businesses and technologies. The talkers imply that this wave of "disruptive" products and business practices is something new, born from innovations that computer technology has made possible. Nonsense. The invention of the steam engine or of the internal combustion engine, the development of the electric power grid, the introduction of the telephone, of railroads, of literally thousands of products of the industrial revolution were just as disruptive to the ways people lived and the ways they made their living as mobiles, mega-data, and "The Cloud" are now. And all the disruptions of the last 300 years have not been progress: the have only manifest the capitalist industrial social order that ignores human values and counts only profit. It is an order that chews up and spits out individual lives.
I heard a history program on KALW a couple of weeks ago which included a discussion of the history of containerized shipping. The story is told in Marc Levinson's new book, "The Box". Levinson talked about the unintended consequences of containerization, among them the disappearance of large factories from the United States and the emergence of China as the workshop of the world. This was truly a disruptive technology. Levinson did not talk about the disappearance of the men who worked along the shore, the "'long shore men", who unloaded cargo by hand in the days before containers.
Actually, I should not use the word "disappearance": those Longshoremen did not "disappear" any more than the middle class in this country has "disappeared". True, the once powerful Longshoremen's Union may have disappeared (only a vestige remains), but the men did not. Those Longshoremen who lost their jobs stayed on in San Francisco. They became an invisible community of impoverished souls who stuck together, supporting and caring for one another, living in SRO hotels south of market. These proud workers who had struggled for a decent wage and decent working conditions, having lost their jobs to a "disruptive technology", found themselves disparaged as "bums" and their community looked down on as "Skid Row".
The men remained in SROs south of Market Street until the same elites who had "disrupted" their livelihoods and the work in which they took pride, got the city to exercise eminent domain and scrape clear the blocks where those hotels, those men's homes and community, had stood. The capitalists called this brutal displacement of people "Urban Renewal", and where the SROs had stood they built Yerba Buena Gardens and the Moscone Convention Center. Economically broken and separated from each other, the scattered individuals lost the power that they had had in solidarity with one another, the power that they had used in 1934 to win decent living wages for workers all up and down the west coast of the United States.
The Longshoremen's jobs were exactly the kind of jobs on which the foundation of the American middle class rested. Today the "disruption" of those middle class jobs continues apace, as corporations continue to drive down wages and cut payrolls. And again the workers whose jobs are lost to increase corporate profits are abandoned by the society at large. Politicians propose strengthening the middle class by granting tax cuts for education and by instituting programs of "reeducation" and "retooling", responses that are entirely beside the point. The jobs that paid a decent wage are gone, and the jobs being created are mostly low-paying service jobs. Few high-paying technology jobs are being created.
So the people who made up the middle class did not "disappear" like honey bees and Monarch Butterflies. The middle class was a cohort of individuals, and those individuals live on as the newly poor. We buy groceries with food stamps and live in whatever marginal housing the State is still willing to subsidize. And we too, like the Longshoremen before us, are now being subjected to the second step of the program: we are being driven apart from one another, and our communities (the Mission, the Tenderloin) are being broken up by gentrification, while we ourselves as individuals are scattered in a general diaspora.
Communities are being broken up and the nexus of relationships in each of them destroyed. Evicted and driven from our homes and neighborhoods, we are forced to move to places where we do not know our neighbors and are not known by them. Thus are we prevented from coming together in trust and solidarity. Thus are we kept from organizing and from resisting.
A viable resistance can only grow up among people who know each other and know that they can trust each other. Such trust and such knowledge are possible only among people who live together in one place and can observe one another day to day and month to month and year to year. The much heralded new "connectedness" that people think they find online cannot replace the connections people make by living in a shared public space. Online, you can never be sure who the person with whom you are chatting really is. Men create online personalities as women, and women as men. Pederasts pretend to be teenagers. The person with whom you are planning political action may be an officer of the law. The person may be a robot. The online world is one of smoke and mirrors, not one of truth.
The revolution will not be televised.
The resistance will not be organized online.
We have become commodities consigned to trash bins of remaindered items. And I don't care what industry you work in, what company you work for, or what things you own, you too will be tossed aside for a newer model long before your spirit or your mind are ready. In our economic system, nothing about you specifically is unique or uniquely valuable. You can easily be replaced. And you will be.
Work is first and foremost one's means of surviving. Genesis tells us that labor, whether woman's in childbirth or man's in earning his bread by the sweat of his brow, is Yahweh's curse on humanity. Like any curse, labor is something to be endured. What is more, one cannot endure without labor. As they say, there is no free lunch -- or breakfast or dinner for that matter. No free shelter or clothing or regular dental care either.
One of the fundamental injustices in "free" market capitalism, specifically in the handling of labor as a marketable good, is that the relationship between employer and employee is completely one-sided. The boss holds the power of life and death over the working woman or man who is powerless. If I quit my job, my employer faces the minor inconvenience of hiring a replacement. If my employer fires me from my job, I face possible homelessness and starvation. Believe what I am telling you because I know. I have spent nights walking street after street through the city because falling asleep in a park or on a sidewalk or in a doorway leaves one terrifyingly vulnerable to predators.
I have been hungry enough to experience the struggle between hunger's weakness (the body's fuel spent, the lamp flickering out) and hunger's deep, visceral, aching pain. I wanted only to surrender to my fatigue and stay in my makeshift bed, however uncomfortable, and let the cold and the darkness rise like water around me, lapping at my sides, yet the knife and the rack and the thumbscrews of hunger drove me to stumble out and search for food. This is the condition in which humans subsist when we cannot find work.
Those who know this condition, those who know poverty, know also that rising above such a level, acquiring housing and food, is not the same as a cure, that a reprieve is not exoneration. Those who have lain in their bed listening to poverty scratching at the doorway, heard it pacing on the other side of the cardboard box in which that bed is made, smelling its rancid hot breath in the cold night air, know that the relative safety of climbing a step or two up the ladder is just that: relative safety. Those of us whose parents struggled through the Great Depression know that the behavior poverty necessitates does not change with subsequent wealth and comfort. My mother and father spent their retirement touring the world by air and by sea, traveling first class, and yet they still scraped every last bit of jam from each jar, kept every rubber band, used and repaired and reused everything as a way of life.
Once poor, one cannot breathe freely or live without a debilitating degree of anxiety until one can feel secure in having a regular income that is sufficient to one's immediate needs and additionally includes enough to pay for the unforeseen necessities, to cope with accidents, with disease, with upheavals of society and of nature. People need a secure predictable wage in order to enjoy physical and mental health and to have at least a chance at happiness.
The "gig" economy, piece work, the treatment of employees as "independent contractors", in short, the "Uberization" of work, is nothing but vicious oppression of the working man and woman. This new economy of "disruptive" businesses is celebrated by the capitalist class, who are made richer by this aggravated exploitation of labor, and by the media whose mouths are fed by the capitalist's checks, and by politicians, who are on the payroll of the rich as surely as anyone else. But here in San Francisco, under the heel of this booming tech economy, as that heel grinds down on us harder and harder, the talk about having the "flexibility of making my own schedule" and "being able to work when I want to, allowing me to pursue my other interests as well" is the rhetoric of a macabre Doctor Pangloss. Those phrases are a cruelly disingenuous pretense that "All is right with the world." The reality is that we struggle to find opportunities to work, and when we find them, we exhaust ourselves working every minute that we possibly can trying to afford the minimum necessary for subsistence -- and working just as hard trying not to collapse in despair.
And the attitude toward those of us who cannot find work -- because of their age or race or gender or the educational system that neglected them in their youth -- is, as a young man in my taxi said one night, that "they'll die off soon anyway."