News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

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East Bay DSA

August 13, 2019

“Not the end of the struggle, but a huge victory”: An interview with Hayward Collective housing justice organizer Alicia Garcia Lawrence

By Casey Busher

The Hayward Collective is a small multi-issue organization of roughly 10 core members that has organized local art events, an abortion storytelling program, and, most recently, a massive victory for tenants in Hayward.

On its website, The Hayward Collective described itself as “hella diverse” a “womxn, people of color, LGBTIQ+-led organization,” aiming “to build a community of accountability, equity, health and social justice through fluid stacktivism, art, advocacy, and self-care.” (“Stacktivism” is an homage to Hayward’s nickname, “haystack.”)

The purpose of the city’s local rent control measure, the Residential Rental Stabilization Ordinance (RRSO), is to allow tenants to arbitrate rent increases and protect against eviction for discriminatory or arbitrary reasons. But when the collective began organizing around housing justice in 2017, they saw that the city’s RRSO was deeply inadequate to protect working people from the Bay Area’s runaway displacement crisis. In 2017, UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project found Hayward was experiencing some of the highest rates of gentrification in the Bay Area.

Hayward’s weak rent control rules seemed like a clear target for organizing. The Hayward Collective’s Alicia Garcia Lawrence wrote on their website:

“The previous ordinance was written with its own obsolescence in mind. It was never created to protect tenants. Decades of rent stabilized units being removed from rent increase threshold provisions left tenants in this community vulnerable to landlords who took advantage of those loopholes to price-gouge and evict renters.”

At the time, the Hayward City Council—with the sole exception of Councilmember Elisa Marquez—was opposed to strengthening the city’s RRSO. After more than a year of canvassing, collaborating with tenants’ rights organizations, showing up at city council meetings, and applying pressure to city officials, and a 2018 city council election victory for the very progressive pro-rent control Aisha Wahab, the collective saw the fruits of their efforts. On June 18, under pressure from a pro-tenant community coalition that included East Bay DSA, the Hayward City Council voted unanimously to pass a new and stronger RRSO, replacing the 1983 ordinance and bringing approximately 9,500 rental units back under regulation.

Hayward is one of 15 California cities with rent control. Though Hayward’s new RRSO is still subject to the California statewide 1995 Costa-Hawkins Act, it’s a major win for a city whose rent-controlled rental units had shrunk from 43% to 7%. Today, tenants in rent stabilized units can legally fight rent increases that exceed 5% per year.

To learn more about the win and what’s next for Hayward, we talked with Alicia Garcia Lawrence, a member of The Hayward Collective who’s been involved with the struggle for housing justice and the rent control win.

How did housing justice become a central issue to The Hayward Collective?

I think we all saw the need in the community and knew we had to focus on housing justice; it had become a really big issue in people’s lives. People were coming to city council meetings commenting on skyrocketing rent, mostly groups of tenants with no formal organization behind them but who would have a spokesperson describe the situation in their building.

In the fall of 2017, we really picked up the work that had been started with advocating for housing justice. There’s so much work to be done around housing justice—not just tenant protection, but issues like land use, development, how the city evolves, and the way things get built. But tenants’ rights were a really urgent issue for us to prioritize.

What should we know about the new Residential Rental Stabilization Ordinance?

When we started focusing on tenant protection, the city council was spending a lot of time on the Affordable Housing Ordinance. We’re not against building affordable housing, but we have to protect people where they are. We had to say, “Look, while you’re focused on building new housing, people are getting kicked out of their homes.”

The RRSO isn’t the end of the struggle, but it is a huge victory: we now have a Just Cause requirement [a policy that limits the reasons a landlord can evict a tenant] for all evictions in Hayward. Hayward has re-regulated thousands of units that were formerly rent-stabilized but had fallen out of regulation. Under the 1983 RRSO, the vacancy de-control provision [a loophole that exempted rental units when landlords made financial investments to repair or renovate when the unit was vacant] had allowed units to get exempted from regulation for landlords’ “investments” in the unit as low as $200. For all intents and purposes, that provision no longer exists. Everything that can be covered under California state law is now covered. [Hayward is still subject to the Costa-Hawkins Act, which prohibits, among other things, rent control on single-family dwellings and newly constructed apartment building.]

How and why did you get involved with The Hayward Collective?

I found my way to The Hayward Collective in the spring of 2017. I had been looking for people to connect with who shared my sensibility of social justice, who I could have shared language with around things like what we mean when we talk about the differences between equity and equality or between diversity and inclusion.

Me and my husband moved to Hayward in 2014, right before our son was born, and I had been looking for ways to get more connected and committed to the community. So much of my own parenting is wrapped up in a social justice orientation I wasn’t finding in parenting groups. I felt like I hadn’t found my people yet. I first learned about The Hayward Collective when they were passing out pamphlets at the Farmer’s Market; from there, I went to an open house that they were holding. I wanted to be part of the work they were doing, whatever that would look like.

One of the things that drew me to the Hayward Collective was that a lot of the core members are people who grew up here, who went to Hayward schools, who maybe went away to college but who came back. The group is primarily millennials, many of them living at their parents’ homes because they can’t afford to move out, even with college educations. As someone who is new to Hayward, I really was looking for a group of people with a deep connection to the city and community already. I didn’t want to try and build community with other outsiders.

How and why did The Hayward Collective get started?

The Hayward Collective started after the presidential election in November 2016. The core members wanted to ensure that this specific community was being attentive to vulnerable and marginalized people.

At that time, Hayward was, I think, the third most diverse city in the country and had a really big population of non-English monolingual speakers, whether Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, or Tagalog. Hayward is a working-class city, so many families are just trying to get to the next week. If they have free time, they’ve committed that free time to the schools. There’s not a lot of time to advocate.

When I met The Hayward Collective, they were working on getting Hayward declared a sanctuary city [where municipal resources or personnel cannot be used to administer or enforce U.S. immigration laws]. A few of the members were on the City of Hayward Community Task Force, trying to massage different policies through things like the The Commitment for an Inclusive, Equitable, and Compassionate Community, a reimagining of the Anti-Discrimination Action Plan. 

What comes next for housing justice in Hayward?

We need to move from a reactive rent control program to a proactive one with a rent control board. Ideally, we can move to a place where tenants tell us what to do as opposed to us being the principal organization. It would be amazing to have a tenants’ union in Hayward. Right now we’re focused on putting together a Regional Tenants Assembly where people can ask questions, express their concerns, and bring things up that they might not feel comfortable bringing directly to the city.

How do you partner with other activist organizations and community groups?

We wouldn’t be where we are without the coalition-building we’ve done with other organizations. It’s been really important to plug into what’s happening at the regional level, so we’re better prepared for what might be coming down the pipeline for us.

Most formally we’re partnered with South Hayward Parish and Glad Tidings Church, both deeply rooted in South Hayward. There’s a lot of vulnerability in South Hayward, and it’s important for us to be connected to that part of the city. We were able to host a tenant assembly at Glad Tidings, which was a big deal for us. That church has a really strong reputation in the community. Both organizations supported us in co-organizing a community fair, which really catalyzed our partnership. Planning that event built out the partnership for an exchange of ideas.

Having these partners has helped us do so much more than we could have on our own. We don’t have 501 (c)(3) status, we don’t have funding, we don’t have a physical space besides our own homes; these organizations have filled in the gaps by doing things like providing a place to hold our general meetings and picking up the cost of printing flyers. These partnerships have really helped create stability for the organization and helped build the movement. The more I think about it, the more I realize how extensive our network really is; we tap into people at Urban Habitat for policy advice, and partnering with East Bay DSA on getting more people engaged in the fight for stronger rent control has been fantastic.

How can people support the Hayward Collective?

The collective is moving to host tenant assemblies quarterly, at least for next year, to continue to make sure we’re maintaining accountability with the community. We would love a stronger team of canvassers to go door-to-door regularly and make sure people know that there’s this ordinance and they can go to the city [if they need help]. If they don’t feel comfortable going to the city, they can come to us first and we can be their first point of contact.

I hate telling people to vote, because some people can’t vote, and I respect people’s choice not to vote as well. Being civically engaged could look like anything from supporting a campaign, going to city council meetings, or knocking on doors. We can force the city’s hand to be progressive but we have to be more involved if that’s what we want. If we want better policies, if we see that as valuable, we have to commit our energy to that.

What’s your vision for Hayward?

The core of this work is giving people agency because with agency, people have a greater ability to make their own decisions. They can have long-term plans to be able to visualize their own future. Instead of being a person who things keep happening to, you become a person who chooses what to do.

We would love to see a really strong rent control program, a Hayward tenants’ union, a community land trust, and co-ops where people actually own the decisions.

Some of what we’re fighting for is less tangible, though, and more, again about the agency for people to live their lives in whatever way feels holistic and provides liberation for them, whatever that may look like.