8th and Mission, last night

Deep puddle, green traffic light, illuminated bus stop, ghostly impression of a bicyclist. Windowless PG&E building with spiked iron fence and strip of bright light. So very Fritz Lang.


P.S. Been seeing that SFSU banner ad everywhere: “We make discovery happen. ” Clearly not written by lawyers.


Remembrance Day — Heart Mountain

I posted a 12-item photo essay on Twitter from the trip J & I took to Heart Mountain in July 2016. Here’s a link to the top of the thread. It’s about how injustices shape landscapes, and fade into them, and afterward have to be consciously accurately remembered.

A lesson for Harvey from the Katrina housing recovery

I’m reading and retweeting the Harvey news, thinking of Hurricane Katrina.

[Update 8/28/17: This post is a “lessons learned” comment, not current advice. For early news you can use, see:

Although Houston had no initial mass evacuation, some people in the Harvey flood zone are going to need temporary places to live if their housing has become unusable, especially as mold begins to form.

Whatever keeps people closest to their own homes is best — if people in low-density areas can get trailers to live in next to their houses or apartments, for example, that’s great — but it seems likely some may have to leave the area outright in search of a safe place to stay while they recover.

For those kinds of moves, individualized conventional housing is always better than mass states of exception — camps, barracks or stadiums. Remember the Superdome and shudder.

With all that in mind, I want to note a lesson from twelve years ago:

When Katrina hit in late August 2005, I was blogging from San Francisco about federal subsidized housing for a trade magazine, Affordable Housing Finance. It has been some time since I’ve written professionally about housing regulatory issues on that level, so I don’t know how many lessons from Katrina may already have been worked into current federal policy. Your mileage from the following may vary.

But in case it’s helpful, I want to talk about a problem with the Katrina housing recovery. One whose memory got buried under later public discussion of the worse errors and crimes in that recovery process.

The problem is that in 2005, FEMA, IRS and HUD authorities imposed a bottleneck on connections between displaced tenants in need, and public officials in areas outside the storm damage who wanted to make individual open units available as emergency housing. They required, but mismanaged, a central registry system for available units of public and subsidized housing, including housing subsidized with low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC).

For example, if you ran a subsidized building in a city in Georgia where ten units had just been renovated, and those units didn’t yet have tenants, you could offer those units to Katrina evacuees. Announcements were made providing addresses of Web sites and email accounts to receive the offer. But then time passed, and it was not clear that the units were being promptly offered to anyone in need.

Part of the problem in the September 2005 Katrina recovery was that owners and managers of available tax credit properties were required to list them on particular emergency management sites, mainly one run by the SWERN regional disaster management entity, to receive tax waivers for use of LIHTC properties as disaster housing. The National Multi-Housing Council eventually helped in getting some clarity on this — it ended up advising housing managers to list the properties both in the officially required places and also with an online referral entity that had actually begun to work pretty well.

The online referral entity that best combined authoritativeness with effectiveness in 2005 was the “hurricanehousing” referral site, created by New Orleans area university and real estate people and belatedly adopted by federal emergency responders. That, and Craigslist, and a few other privately created registry efforts, finally started to connect actual displaced people with actual small-scale offers of conventional housing.

The 2005 housing referral picture was all needlessly difficult, and it seems likely that the confusion caused some people to end up in those notorious camps who could have ridden out the recovery in individual conventional housing units instead.

Another emergency measure taken in 2005 — one that probably wasn’t used sufficiently — was to open up closed foreclosed houses owned by Fannie Mae as emergency housing. HUD itself also is an owner of foreclosed houses, and I don’t know if those were used for storm evacuees then. It would be worth finding that out, and worth considering whether it can be done now.

In case it’s worth reading how the confusion developed and was eventually addressed, here is the archive of my September 2005 AHF housing blog.

Hoping people have learned. Hoping it will help that we now have far better referral systems run by entities like AirBnb.

Hoping this time better housing connections can save some lives and keep some people out of awful conditions in the next several weeks.

[Update August 28, 2017: Texas Appleseed, working with the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, published a densely informative “lessons learned” paper two years ago: “Lessons from Texas: 10 Years of Disaster Recovery Examined.” Detailed advice on structures, rules and application processes for relief and recovery programs and why it is especially a mistake to waive civil rights and fair housing rules.]

The ‘Great Red North’ vs Northern CA

Early this month the New York Times‘ Thomas Fuller wrote up a round of interviews with prominent men from the old-school power structures of Northern California inland towns. He portrayed them as speaking for a “Great Red North” (red as in Republican) that feels unrepresented by California state government, viewing it as dominated by urban liberals.

Casey Michel, a writer focused on right-wing nationalisms, almost immediately noted that one interviewee in the article, Mark Baird, was not identified as a leading figure in the State of Jefferson secessionist campaign. A proposed statewide ballot initiative to remove California from the Union is again in early qualification stages with the California Attorney General’s Office.

Newspapers covering rural northeastern California in the first half of this year have reflected not only small-government and anti-environmentalist politics, but also fears of losing Affordable Care Act subsidies in rural towns, criticisms of the White Jefferson fundraiser poster - redacted - scaled.jpgHouse budget proposal, and reporting on news such as wildfires fought with state mutual-aid and prisoner labor programs, an April water dispute between Klamath Project farmers and the Klamath Tribes, and fears of immigration raids shared by Northern Californians targeted due to their immigrant status, and also by farm labor employers.

The aggrieved right-wing voices that Fuller encountered are real. At the Pollard Flat diner above Shasta Lake on I-5 there’s a wall covered with right-wing, gun-celebrating, sexist and anti-Clinton bumper stickers — some of them edgy enough that after consideration, I decided not to reproduce them here. The same diner, as of June, displayed the flyer shown here for a Jefferson statehood fundraiser. The flyer, with its conspicuously blond child holding a U.S. flag, was real enough.

But northeastern California is a varied place. Fuller heard from one side of a region that does have other sides. Rather than take the words of local big men, it’s important also to look for voices of people who hold quieter, subtler kinds of stakes in  rural small towns, whether or not they are customarily offered the privilege of speaking for their region.

Worrying about jitneys

Monday’s Twitter Urbanism Bone to Pick was about Lyft reinventing the bus line. If the Lyft “shuttle” wasn’t a public bus exactly, then — as suggested by Tarin Towers and Ed Parillon among others — it sounded a lot like a private jitney. A really exclusive kind of private jitney. As Jeremy B. Merrill wrote, “it’s a bus route that excludes people without a smartphone or plastic money.”

I’ve been bellyaching for a while about how jitney services might do harm in the wrong hands, especially if they’re not taken up as nonprofit or public services. Because if unscrupulous van route operators are just out for profit at all costs, they may find extortion pinch points in the expulsion of poor, disabled and aging people from conveniently walkable center cities to low-density, service-deprived places like Vallejo or Tracy.

The cheap housing is now where transit isn’t. The people being cast out by rich cities are often carless or unable to drive. Some with mobility impairments. Some getting by on narrow margins of safety, with low tolerances for paperwork and administrative fuss. To get to the supermarket, the doctor, the Social Security office, the senior lunch program — ex-urban expellees will have to travel long, inconvenient routes: timing trips according to bus schedules, changing routes by way of lonely bus benches, asking rides from family, neighbors and caregivers.

So if there’s a good paratransit service, great. If there’s a nonprofit public health shuttle, especially with light case management such as appointment reminders, that’s lovely. If there’s a nice person with a van who doesn’t charge too much, great. But if there’s a hard-souled greedhead running a fleet of vans, charging what the market will bear? It would be too easy for someone like that to cause too much harm.

Hence the worry about jitneys. Looking at results from this Twitter search link, I see I’ve been repetitive about it, going back to some thoughts on my old blog in October 2012.

So, I won’t repeat myself further here except to say, this is an issue to watch.


A reluctant UBI dissent

I’ve been posting mostly on Twitter for a long time. A problem with Twitter is, when you manage to say a thing right, it slips away down the timeline at the same rate as everything you said wrong or halfway.

So this morning I wrote a short Twitter essay on why proposals for a universal basic income are riskier in the United States than in some other places. UBI talk seems likely to persist, so my worries might bear revisiting. Here’s a link to the thread.  Midway in, it mentions an article about how UBI payments helped a village in Kenya. Here’s the link.

Would add that as an old public benefits advocate, I know means tests are terrible things. They’re intrinsically bureaucratic, demeaning and unfair. So it would be great if we could give everyone money instead of making poor people jump through hoops for cash aid. But in the United States of 2017, a UBI bill would be exploited to convert uncapped entitlements into individual block grants. In which case, what would happen to public support for long-term medical and disability needs?

It’s the old story: if we could trust each other in America, we could have nice things. It would be great if we could trust U.S. legislators to enact a UBI, but common sense says they would try to end more public entitlements in exchange. That’s an unpayable price.

What was going on at the Whitcomb Hotel

IMG_3625detailThe Whitcomb Hotel is one of these grand-old-lady buildings with a past that’s often forgotten or, at best, remembered selectively. One less remembered fact is that it served as West Coast headquarters for the systematic exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, beginning in 1942.


Whitcomb Hotel, side view

In a way the Whitcomb’s story is reminiscent of the history at Moscow’s Metropol. It’s not so dramatic — the Metropol was besieged for six days in 1917 and later hosted many of Lenin’s speeches — but there’s something parallel in the buildings’ 20th-century histories as hotels and head offices by turns. Both buildings are huge old piles created at the turn of the last century to serve as respectable long-term residences and meeting places as well as for overnight stays. Each has been an administrative center for painful and harmful official decisions, has outlasted a period of badly faded elegance, and today serves tourists and business travelers who may know little about previous occupants.

Above is a picture of the Whitcomb building seen in profile from Eighth Street, just to show how very far the Whitcomb extends into the block from its broad Market Street facade.


Whitcomb Hotel, front view

The easiest part to find of the Whitcomb’s history has to do with its very first years. Following the 1906 earthquake, it was built to serve initially, temporarily, as a “substitute city hall”. Despite its conversion to a hotel in 1916, “the original jail cells are located in the basement”. [This paragraph corrected August 2017.]

You have to use search terms specific to the incarceration of Japanese Americans to arrive at the building’s story during World War II.

The Whitcomb housed the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) and the War Relocation Authority (WRA) beginning in March 1942. As the Densho Encyclopedia recounts, both entities were concerned with the tracking and detention of Japanese Americans and administration of their confinement. Placing special restrictions on previously free people; bringing the restricted people, mainly by bus, to “assembly centers”; sending the assembly center inmates, mainly by train, to remote inland concentration camps. Keeping them there under guard. Setting conditions for their departure.

There are frequent references to the Whitcomb in a well-known official account of Japanese Americans’ incarceration: Lt. General J.L. DeWitt’s “Japanese evacuation from the West Coast, 1942: final report.” For example, it recounts with bland approval, “Almost overnight the Office for Emergency Management acquired office space in the Whitcomb Hotel, supplied and equipped these offices, and engaged qualified personnel to meet the requirements of the Director.”

A site of conscience in the neighborhood

The Whitcomb Hotel is in my neighborhood. It’s part of the faded elegance, now re-burnishing, at the corner of Eighth and Market Streets in San Francisco. For years we all knew it as the Ramada; now it has reverted to its old name. IMG_9412 Siting memo Whitcomb_detail

In Denver, at the National Archives, it was jolting to find the Whitcomb’s familiar name and address printed in the letterheads of routine but chilling memoranda about the creation of concentration camps.

This one, for example, in April 1942. (Image at right.) On the WRA’s Whitcomb Hotel letterhead, WRA Regional Director E.R. Fryer writes to John C. Page in the Commissioner’s office at the Bureau of Reclamation. He mentions as a “problem” the “free agent” status of Japanese Americans in inland Grant County, Washington, outside the coastal military zone as of that time. He notes the WRA is considering two Bureau of Reclamation sites for camp sites: the Black Canyon project in Idaho and the “Tule Lake Project in Siskiyou, County, California” (sic). (Click to enlarge the document image.) In fact the WRA placed three of its ten large camps on Reclamation lands. One was the Tule Lake camp — which, to be technically correct, was in the Tule Lake Unit of the Klamath Project, just over the Siskiyou County line into Modoc County. The other Reclamation sites were the northernmost inland camps, Minidoka and Heart Mountain.

IMG_9413 - War Civ Control Admin 1231 Mkt_detailThis memo (at left) is on WCCA letterhead at the Whitcomb’s 1231 Market Street address. It’s a cover letter transmitting statistics on the West Coast Japanese American population. “Unfortunately similar data for alien Germans and Italians are not available.”

The letterhead gives a phone number for the WCCA: “KLondike 2-2611.” Lots of local-government phone numbers and some South of Market private phones still use that “KLondike” prefix of “55”.

Once you know what to search for, more significant WRA and WCCA memoranda sent to or from the Whitcomb Hotel are easy to find. This collection of scanned documents is at the Online Archive of California. It opens with a memo from WRA director Milton Eisenhower at the Whitcomb in late March 1942 complaining of disorder “due to the fact that a large number of agencies had their fingers in the pie, and without any great amount of over-all planning as to what was going to be done with the Japanese after they were evacuated.”

A fine old conflict, a funny old world

The officials who were dictating memos that would send their neighbors to camps in the desert were part of a larger bustle that arrived on Market Street with the start of the war. They may have felt their work was analogous to that of other wartime bureaucracies. Or not. Reportedly Milton Eisenhower couldn’t sleep at night while he headed the WRA, and eventually he declined to continue the work. His successor, Dillon Myer, claimed to have slept perfectly well.

As shown in the photo below, looking west along Market, the Whitcomb is separated by just one large building from the former Furniture Mart, now Twitter headquarters. During World War II, the Mart building, which is also a blocky stone-faced Deco monster of a place, housed branches of the Office of Price Administration and the War Labor Board.

At the Mart building, OPA employed Jessica Mitford, Doris Brin, and many others to enforce price restrictions for the duration. Mitford’s husband Bob Treuhaft was with the War Labor Board. In her second memoir, A Fine Old Conflict, Mitford gives a typically jaunty account of battling the Apartment House Owners’ Association over rent controls and innocently trampling the Fourth Amendment in a records search at a machine shop. She also recounts  physically tackling an Examiner photographer who meant to report on her status as a minor celebrity.

Ironies multiply here.

Jessica Mitford’s claim to fame at the time was being sister-in-law to the imprisoned head of the English Fascists, Oswald Mosley. Her family relation to an actual enemy leader (of whom she however disapproved fiercely) did not produce any restriction on her personal freedom of movement or residence — though her generic “alien” status did cause a brief hitch in her U.S. government employment.

Meanwhile, many in Jessica Mitford’s personal circle were Communist Party members or supporters.  Despite the Mosley business, the Communists let her join up.

Meanwhile the CP chose to suspend all of its Japanese American members after Pearl Harbor. Even devoted Communist waterfront organizer Karl Yoneda was suspended.

Yoneda writes in his memoir, Ganbatte, that he and other members who had been expelled for their ancestry “decided that this was not the time to register a protest” because they felt the “urgent priority” was to join the CP’s part of the war effort against overseas fascism. Later he realized he should have protested at once. Yoneda was threatened by some fellow inmates in Manzanar over his left-wing politics — where the FBI, unlike the CP, fully endorsed his loyalty. He got out of the camp system into the U.S. Military Intelligence Service, where he served with distinction.

A Fine Old Conflict, as far as it goes, gives a vivid picture of the “war work” world on Market Street, and of left-wing activists’ political environment during the war. Yet it doesn’t mention what was going on just a block away at the Whitcomb Hotel.

You wonder who heard what, who knew what, who said what, who spoke up quietly off the record, who consciously chose not to object. What could have been different. Why.