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Anti-gentrification resistance: Rent-control, public space and houselessness

Anti-gentrification movements exist in a multitude of forms in most cities across the US. 

While these movements have been unable to stop the decline in the quantity of rent-controlled dwellings, they have slowed it. In cities with a history of strong tenant movements like New York and San Francisco, anti-gentrification battles have been fought to preserve existing regulations, most notably rent control. In New York, nearly one million apartments are rent stabilized; and due  to grassroots pressure, the Rent Guidelines Board in 2015 made the rare decision to ban rent increases on many stabilized apartments for the next 2 years. In the minority of states where municipalities can legally enact rent control, the movement has soared. Richmond, CA has  recently imposed rent controls, and organizers in cities from Chicago to Long Beach, CA to Providence, RI are campaigning for rent control..

Linking anti-gentrification and houselessness

In Seattle, a new coalition called Housing For All/Stop the Sweeps has formed with two demands: end the city and police sweeps of houseless camps; and build 24,000 units of affordable housing. In New York City, the group Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network organizes protests linking racism and police violence to gentrification. “Springfield No One Leaves” in Springfield MA, prevents the eviction of foreclosed homes by occupying banks and blockading evictions.  “Homes Not Jails” in San Francisco has organized covert squats that directly house  people, and engaged in public protest squats in vacant public housing units. The Boston Displacement Mapping Project is an educational tool collecting data on the eviction and housing crisis in Boston.

Some of the most important and explosive examples of anti-gentrification resistance have occurred in the realm of public space.  During the Tompkins Square riots in New York in 1988, an eclectic grouping of houseless people, punks, squatters, radicals and neighborhood youth confronted police after the city government attempted to enact a curfew in Tompkins Square. After the riots, the city backed off, and the curfew was not enforced until years later.  Recent years have seen a spike in houseless solidarity organizing. In Berkeley, organizers with “First They Came for the Homeless” have been organizing protest encampments throughout the city. Across the bay, San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness organized demonstrations with others during the 2016 Super Bowl highlighting its role in contributing to displacement and criminalization of  houseless people.

Gentrification in Olympia: public space and luxury development

Gentrification is currently concentrated in downtown Olympia, though rents are increasing throughout the city. In downtown, there is little rental housing and a large houseless population. Thus, criminalizing houselessness and policing public space are fundamental to gentrification in Olympia. Multiple city ordinances ban or limit public camping, loitering and sleeping in cars. Public bathrooms are inadequate and often close by 8 or 9 pm. Public benches are routinely removed or fitted with dividers to prevent people sleeping on them. This winter, the government will not open its Warming Center, which has been a vital resource for houseless people. In this context it is crucial to organize on the terrain of public space in Olympia, and to see that struggles over public bathroom access, or against the removal of a park bench, are as essential as organizing to stop evictions or rent increases.

Downtown Olympia is currently host to various “market-rate” (luxury) housing developments. The 1-2-3 4th Project at 4th/Columbia St. and the 321 Lofts at Legion/Adams are completed. 2017-2018 promises to see massive redevelopment with the construction of nearly 100 units of market-rate housing on an empty lot on State Ave. and the conversion of the Mistake-on-the-Lake to almost 150 units of market-rate housing, known as the “Views-on-Fifth” project. Developers Walker John (a Thurston Co. resident who also built the 321 Lofts) and Ken Brogan are responsible for these projects, respectively. These developments increase property values, and with them rents and prices, leading to displacement and the shuttering of local businesses. Currently there is little organized opposition to luxury development, and less that is informed by a radical critique of gentrification.

Solidarity organizing in Olympia

Currently, much of the resistance to gentrification in Olympia is expressed through houseless solidarity organizing. During the past year, the group Just Housing has made a name for itself with its tireless advocacy and innovative direct action tactics. Just Housing has occupied public bathrooms to protest early closures;  shut down the OlyFed bank after they evicted houseless campers on their property; disrupted City Council meetings and city hall functions and staged perhaps two dozen “camp-ins” on city property in opposition to the camping ban. Just Housing also engages in advocacy, such as City Council speak-outs and writing letters-to-the-editor, which, while unable to obstruct the operation of  institutions in the way that direct action can, is useful in reaching a broader base of supporters.

The recently re-formed Olympia Solidarity Network (OlySol) also seeks to confront gentrification and the housing crisis by organizing direct action campaigns with tenants against landlords’ greed and abuse. OlySol could fight rent hikes or unmet  repair needs  by picketing a landlord’s home, occupying a landlord’s office, distributing flyers discouraging prospective tenants from renting from a particular landlord or by destroying a landlord’s online reviews. OlySol’s current campaign is demanding that a property management company return a stolen deposit to a former tenant.

Although little resistance to luxury development currently exists, Olympia Assembly has taken the lead in organizing against the luxury redevelopment of Mistake-on-the-Lake. Thus far a range of educational, advocacy and direct action tactics have been deployed or discussed, including anti-gentrification workshops and poster campaigns, City Council speak-outs or protests like shutting down city  meetings where building permits are issued, or occupying project construction sites.

To get involved, reach out to one of the following groups:

Just Housing
Weekly Meeting: Monday 3-5PM
United Churches 110 11th Ave SE, Olympia

Olympia Solidarity Network: 

Olympia Assembly
Email: Olympia

Robert Gorrill is active with several housing justice groups and projects in Olympia. This essay is the second part of an essay published in WIP’s December issue entitled “Causes and mechanisms of gentrification—a process inherent to capitalism.”



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