Dispatches Against Displacement by James Tracy

James Tracy
Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes from San Francisco’s Housing Wars
September 2014
Oakland, CA
AK Press
150 pages
$15.95
ISBN-13: 9781849352055
Buy here

Dispatches Against Displacement contextualizes San Francisco’s most recent housing crisis within a semi-personal history of local housing activism. With a large grain of salt, I’d recommend it to all of my fellow San Francisco Bay Area residents for at least a skim. This book is not perfect, comprehensive, or unbiased—but luckily, it usually does not pretend to be. It does, however, give voice to a side of Bay Area housing history that badly needs to be discussed from as many angles as possible.

Tracy’s book is especially worthwhile in that many of the protests and organizations he describes might otherwise be lost in the broader strokes of local history.

Tracy’s book is a partial account of major upheavals in San Francisco’s housing history since roughly 1960, as well as an account of the inner workings (and failings) of several housing activist movements and nonprofits. Tracy is himself an activist, and writes, on page one, that he was “either directly in the fray or close by” as the events he describes unfolded. “This should be read as an organizer’s notebook,” he writes, “rather than a comprehensive history of the housing fights in San Francisco.” When Tracy sticks to his “organizer’s notebook” format, his prose recounts these fights with clarity and balance.

Tracy’s book is especially worthwhile in that many of the protests and organizations he describes might otherwise be lost in the broader strokes of local history. For example, Tracy’s play-by-play of the fires that destroyed several SROs (single room occupancy hotels) in the 1990s includes accounts of protests small enough to be forgotten by all but those present. His descriptions of fatal ideological splits in various activist movements are judicious and, somehow, interesting. More importantly, Tracy’s accounts show that neither our current housing crisis nor our varied local responses to it are new. We’ve been here before. For anyone in search of a personal or policy response to the crisis of housing in San Francisco, Tracy is delivering crucial information about what’s already been tried.

Dispatches Against Displacement is less strong where it lapses into theory and historical arguments about larger-scale events. Toward the middle of the book, Tracy’s balanced prose muddies. A spot fact check reveals several confused explanations and more than a few instances of facts given without what I felt was adequate citation or context. Tracy’s explanation of the 1996 Costa-Hawkins Act, for example, confusingly construes the Act as specifically relevant to San Francisco without stating how. Tracy writes that Costa-Hawkins “got rid of vacancy control,” though San Francisco already lacked it. Costa-Hawkins was in fact a state law that removed vacancy control in those California cities that still did have it, such as Berkeley. It also, importantly, made it legally challenging for any California city, including San Francisco, to adopt a vacancy control policy in the future. This distinction, if it had been accurately described, would have actually bolstered Tracy’s other arguments, so one is left to wonder why he didn’t correct it.

Similarly, the latter half of the book sometimes invokes economic arguments it does not fully explain, perhaps expecting its readership to arrive already in agreement with these references. Tracy presents inspiringly viable ideas for creating more sustainable communities, but half-explained references to older theories weaken his otherwise grounded arguments.

These issues are bound to frustrate readers who come to Tracy’s book hoping to agree with him. They, like me, may worry that factual fuzziness will discount the validity of the central stories of Dispatches: the stories of individual San Franciscans, evicted San Franciscans, the San Franciscans Tracy is trying to champion.

K. Rose DeSteno
Nomadic Press
DeSteno is a songwriter, performer, writer, and editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area.