Housing and Policing: the Creation of a Criminal Class

Editor's Note:

In this watershed moment not only for the world, but San Jose the author connects housing and policing from the discriminatory practices of redlining to San Jose's elected officials holding up systemic racism.

#Defundingpolice has bent the ears of so many who could not or would not hear the call before the current crises that we are living in. It straight tossed our worlds in the spin cycle. The level of inequities many of us have been living through is spilling onto center stage, and this watershed moment will not allow for a return to normal. I am born and raised in San Jose, and I have seen my whole family struggle here year after year. It is incredible that even with the tribulations, the human will refuse to quit, so we are still here. My grandfather moved here from Mississippi and was one of the first black garbage men in the Bay Area. He and my grandmother worked their whole lives against the first, exclusionary and then, predatory housing markets to own a home up off 15th St. – right next to Sam Liccardo's humble abode.

During COVID, we have seen how the people always pick up the slack when the local politics is slippin'. My grandmother used to juggle between church food programs, volunteering, and when she got home, she helped run a lunch program at Backesto park and had families rollin' up to the crib to pick up boxes of food. She did all that, and we were mixing powdered milk with water for our Cap'n Crunch. It's not 'hustling' what she was doing; it was 'mutual aid,' and it didn't need the name because it was what we've always done. Eventually, that home was taken from my grandma by the banks. She died in an apartment miles away from where she built her life. My dad has worked his whole life, and he can only afford communal housing in a city where he helped create the culture others so easily buy up. My cousin, Tommy, was killed a couple of weeks back off Branham while crossing the street. You may have read about it, but probably not. He was a black man in and out of the system and became houseless because resources were behind a wall he could not reach. The struggle becomes a defining characteristic of our hoods and families, and all we get for it is increased policing and scarce housing.

For as far back as I remember, and at every point, I turn, we are struggling! And at the source of that struggle is housing and policing. I know some people have read about redlining practices and the generational trauma it caused. In this moment, DeBug and other community folks have been doing tenant rights work, filling the gaps left by neglectful governments. Seeing Liccardo and the council wade through hours of public comment feigning sincerity, and ultimately pivot to the same ol' B.S. made me want to straighten up some stuff. What do we mean by 'systemic racism"? Not just the word, but what does that look like? When we say defunding, we look at how policing as an institution exists to reconsolidate power and protect wealth; it reveals that landlords are cops, and politicians are cops, too. Cops who co-sign and finance police departments, displacement plans, and surveillance. Defunding is the only way to smack this whack system at its knees. As an abolitionist, I know that each new step will contain new hierarchies and power dynamics to destroy. As we destroy them, other sectors will melt away as we discover they are no longer needed if we believe that abolition is a process, not an event.

Redlining - The Exclusionary Phase

I want to start by fleshing out what redlining was, and its residual effects on our blocks. Redlining was a systematic rejection of housing loans to Black and Brown communities. Franklin Delano Roosevelt created The Home Owners Loan Corporation coming out of the Great Depression. It was a way to combat foreclosures during the economic disaster. Later it was institutionalized under the name Federal Housing Association (F.H.A.). The F.H.A. highlighted areas they saw as "high-risk investments" and color-coded them. Those high-risk spots were red, and the big problem was that the residents' income levels did not define those areas; instead, they were defined by the racial makeup of the area. They essentially standardized a false belief structure that class was determined by skin color. They then shared these color-coded exclusions with savings and loan associations, banks, and insurance companies. Targeted hoods with majority Black and Brown populations were denied housing loans deepening the wound of disinvestment and dispossession. Workers, people who were building this city, were denied the same opportunities at generational wealth as white/European populations.

This lasted from the 30's til the late 60's when finally, after years of pushback from those same disinvested populations during the Civil rights movement, they were able to essentially outlaw redlining by the early '70s. This is an example of how the state doesn't save us, we save ourselves. Although the Fair Housing Act canceled redlining, the damage was done, and because of those practices, Black and Brown neighborhoods absorbed generational setbacks. It is a significant cause of segregation within our education system, look at all these failing schools in our communities. For example, the schools in the more affluent communities where the racial makeup is predominately white, with higher incomes, are usually "better" not because those people are necessarily smarter, but because the access is better than those in lower-income hoods. Our city funds public schools through taxes, so undoubtedly the capability of a school to be a "good" one entirely depends on the income of the people in the community. This is how redlining affected housing and funding.

Gentrification, a term we have been using for a while, is the switching out of our population with more affluent ones. When we talk about displacement or gentrification, we have to recognize that those hoods renovated are the same ones that were treated like trash for years; the affluent blocks are untouched. Eighty-seven percent of today's gentrifying areas in San Jose were rated as "hazardous"–red or "definitely declining"–yellow. They make gentrification sound beautiful by talking about neighborhood investments, stores, and art, but what comes with all that is extra policing and an increasing class divide. The struggles of people living in lower-income communities deal with crime, drugs, and police brutality, all of which are symptoms of poverty and disenfranchisement, not moral failures.

Why is this important to recognize? Housing has always been about control and power. I think it is essential to make these connections. As a result of redlining, our hoods face increased police surveillance. The police take a lion's share of the public funding while other sectors, including housing, receive scraps. There is a growing budget for police that increases surveillance and violence in our communities. Gentrification looks like reinvestment in communities, but it reinforces the class and racial divide that redlining created and perpetuated. While the police are the violent arms of property investments. If there is a problem at your house, the landlord will call the cops, and they are not there to protect you. The police project, as we know it currently compounds the issues of poverty and houselessness. Funding that could go to proactive community initiatives goes towards the growing police budget. At this moment, houseless numbers have risen, and houseless deaths have gone up steadily each year. And now, during the COVID crisis where the economy is taking a precarious nosedive, many are without income. So many people are being punished by this order to stay at home. Landlords are harassing tenants. There is limited access to adequate information, and tenants are faced with housing insecurity and growing rent debt. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it strikingly clear how vulnerable low income and working-class tenants are in a housing system that prioritizes profits over people.

Loan Crisis- The Predatory Phase

After redlining, the pinch on the marginalized, my family, our families, faced another monster. After beating out the exclusionary practice of redlining, we were faced with a predatory approach of discriminatory lending practices that were steered towards Black and Brown communities. Many families came out of the 70s and 80s looking to finally start growing some kind of wealth like the wealth they were seeing around them. Folks were suckered into predatory subprime loans that led to a big wave of foreclosures. These foreclosures caused a massive reduction in the median wealth of Brown families by 66% and Black families by 53% nationally. Y'all may have some fam that moved to the valley around this time, or if they stayed, you noticed a spike in homelessness or seeing many former homeowning family members shamefully forced into renting.

Look at your renting market, Black and Brown families are twice as likely to pay more than they can afford for housing than white families. I see this weekly when navigating with tenants dealing with landlord problems. The kind of harassment and financial barriers they face would make you sick. This again is a meaningful connection, the connection back to housing and the criminal classes created from housing issues, and the government's lack of restructuring. The U.S. saw a wild ballooning of our penal state, which started in the 70s up to the 2008 Recession. Even though "crime" levels were peaking in the early 90s, it continued to grow exponentially long after. Here I want to touch on a possible why? The rise in city-level police spending came in a couple of waves. The switch from exclusion to predatory participation was the first wave in the direction of an economy organized around the residential real estate. The second wave came as cities were weaning off the new deal social welfare initiatives.

There is a relationship between an economy dependent on real estate and policing. This picks up around the late 1990s, and the 2000s. This created a demand for more policing because the police protect investments and property above all else. Even as we were seeing crime reducing, our cities began approaching social problems through punitive criminal justice solutions, I.E. locking us all up instead of funding social welfare initiatives (see Jose Valle's piece on history of policing in S.J.). Studies that track 171 cities' police expenditures between 1992 and 2010 showed that areas with more of an economic dependence on housing price growth and mortgage investments had an equivalent mushrooming growth of police, as well as spots with decreased social service spending.

Y'all with me? Between 1992 and 2005, the median home price doubled, and the amount of outstanding mortgage debt tripled. Wages weren't going up, so all the homeowners began using their houses as income sources. Everyone who owned was balancing their lives on these property investments. Alright, cops are rising, and our debts are rising. Researchers were looking at the numbers and were saying that the correlating narrative of crime rates and residential property values can explain why policing was expanding. In his paper Governing Through Crime, Jonathan Simon nails it when he says, "the more a person's future economic security depends on the value of his or her home, rather than earning capacity, the more we might expect this person to focus on factors like crime that could damage the value of the home." Look at our landlords; they are likely more supportive of police than us, the renter.

Local Government Pulling a Fast One

Let me rein it all in a bit. Regarding our local government's argument against defunding police and diverting funds, let's think about it for a moment, because it is a lazy and dismissive response. We know there is a more extensive system at work here. Housing markets encouraged a power shift into the criminal justice system, using police to protect property as a criminal class of folks was created. The state redirected funding from social issues towards penal and carceral ones. That was all after years of exclusionary politics and housing tactics to dispossess entire populations. With all that said, we know that funding for housing, health, and other public initiatives is divvied up at the state level. We heard Sam Liccardo brush us away with his parental breakdown of "how things really work." We acknowledge state budgeting is something to attack as well, but what Liccardo left out was that in the attempt to fill the gaps left by the state government in our social programs, city government's solution was to appropriate the police into providing our missing social welfare. Look at something like the 'Police Activities League' (PAL). This is the league where I played football and baseball. These fools bought me Shakey's pizza while also arresting parents with "the war on drugs" shit. This kind of social program makes it easy for the communities to be surveilled. It is a living contradiction! This started before Sam Liccardo and his council squad, but this is what we mean when we say they are upholding a system of inequality. Yes, the state divvies up the cash, but our city is an essential part of the process. Policing and social services are delivered on the local level. That means housing, mental health, drug treatment, homelessness services, and community empowerment. Even though the cash flows from the top down to the city, the implementation and disbursement are funneled through the local level. We see how they disburse that and we don't agree.

In the Bay Area, Black people are almost five times, and indigenous people three times, more likely to be homeless. The population of Black folks in San Jose alone is about 3%, and 19% of homeless people are Black. For years not enough has been done to protect tenants. We, the populations who truly own NOTHING, have been disinvested, disenfranchised, and now are disillusioned with the system. At this moment, many folks, majority Black and Brown, fear eviction, they fear being displaced, they fear homelessness. This is a systemic result rooted in the widening wealth gap caused by residual and continual discrimination regarding work and housing. It is important to note that a few Bay Area homes still have paperwork stating racial groups are forbidden from living there. Even though it is illegal to enforce, the text still exists to taunt.

Now what?

Data shows that between 2010-16, 1.5 million Bay Area residents moved out of the region. That is about 1 in 5 people living in the Bay Area right now. All the San Jose City Council districts have hoods that experience steady displacement. These hoods again are the ones where redlining practices were used. Even with the knowledge of our class situations, we are more likely to be victims of police/state violence and less likely to receive adequate healthcare. We don't need more police; we need housing, community-run initiatives, and proactive solutions that are restorative, not punitive. Council members left our asses out to dry on that defunding police vote. Instead, we got another bureaucratic smokescreen called the "Office of Racial Equity" as if we need an office to tell us about the politics we live. They know racist structures exist because they build and maintain those structures. This kind of program follows the same paths: first you observe, you turn our hoods into data points, and the solution is increased policing. We told them we recognize inequalities in our collective hoods, this didn't come from only marginalized Black and Brown community members, but also from a former C.H.P. officer, a former police auditor, homeowners, business owners, and affluent populations that now see the glaring inequalities that are hard to ignore in light of COVID. COVID took the veil off. Imbalances and housing crises existed already, but the county told us to stay inside for a couple of months, and you saw the house of cards tumble away.

This is a watershed moment. Things can never be the same again, and in the coming years, San Jose will see some significant changes. We got the new BART station planted on top of our Pulga, and we got the upcoming monstrosity of Google's new high-tech village. Like I said, "progress" sounds good in theory, but developments without an anti-displacement model set us up for more unneeded displacement. When we say defund, we don't just mean dismantle; we intend to build something else. And not buildings, but better solutions and responses to social ills. The atmosphere of destroying is motivating, but at most, san josaliens know we also have to build. We want to talk about community-led initiatives. We want to talk about mental health response teams. We want to talk about community land trust cooperatives whose core initiative is fair housing. When we talk justice, we don't want to re-legitimize a system we are fighting. There is no justice in adding fodder to the prison industrial complex. There is no justice in giving more money for police training. Justice would mean little homeys could go to their community centers without fear of gang enhancement charges. Justice means building an infrastructure that keeps folks housed equitably. Justice means we define what justice means, not a patriarchal capitalist system that has never had our hoods health and safety in mind.

DeBug has been working for years to dismantle all parts of the carceral state. In pushing to end money bail, we see that defunding police also means defunding prisons. When we fight against gang enhancements, we look at how police surveil our hoods. When fighting alongside the families who have been victims of police violence, we look at fighting the source, not the symptoms. When we throw down with tenants against landlords, we see how when we are housed, when we are safe, we can focus on our communities' health and well being. This research here is just another way of widening the lens of how these repressive efforts intertwine.

Some information I referenced if you want to look deeper:

  • Urban Displacement Project, https://www.urbandisplacement.org/redlining
  • Modern Segregation in Education http://modernsegregationineducation.web.unc.edu
  • Beck, Brenden, and Adam Goldstein. “Governing Through Police? Housing Market Reliance, Welfare Retrenchment, and Police Budgeting in an Era of Declining Crime.” Social Forces 96.3 2018
  • Beckett, Katherine, and Steve Herbert. 2009. Banished: The New Social Control in Urban America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Alexander, Michelle. 2012. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press.
  •  Simon, Jonathan. 2007. Governing Through Crime. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tags: Defund the Police Housing Policing Redlining Sam Liccardo