Monday, June 18, 2012

On the recent housing fights in Verano

     The local branch of our union has been involved in the fight to defend affordable housing for graduate students for the past quarter.  For those who aren't aware of the situation, the cost of housing is far out of the range of our wages as graduate students.  In fact, housing costs are so high that the university not only has to provide subsidized housing for students,  but for faculty, staff, and administrators.  Over the past few years, the university has expanded that housing, but that expanded housing is largely privatized and often costs as much as our entire salary.  Affordable housing is typically considered to be 30%, and only a small percentage of the university's housing fits that category, all of that within Verano Housing.  However, that housing is increasingly disappearing.  The university has been increasing the price of the cheapest housing after minimal upgrades, and its beginning to demolish some of the cheapest housing despite no plans to build alternative housing.  In effect, housing prices are going up.  These decisions have translated into a lot of anger amongst graduate students, who have gotten involved in our fight to end the demolitions and to make our housing  genuinely affordable.

    Most of the work involved in the campaign has been very traditional organizing.  Organizers and rank and file activists have been going door to door in the Verano units, talking to folks in the affected units.  We have been making phone calls, passing out petitions, and holding meetings to discuss the problem.  It's been remarkable to see the transition of our local unit moving from an existence as a rotten borough into a real social force on our campus.  A lot of credit needs to go to our paid organizers, Alfredo Carlos and Tetsuro Namba, but they've hardly been alone in the fight.  We've seen impressive work from the majority of our elected leadership, along with a lot of rank and file folks.  If I were to be honest in representing the folks involved, this posting would look more like a phone book.  The rank and file has been energized through this work, and our meetings have been well attended and energetic. The Verano administration has not responded well to this campaign, harassing organizers, setting up meetings stacked with administrators to intimidate residents, and selectively enforcing regulations for leaving information on people's doors.

     The most recent incident in the administration backlash against this movement came in the form of an attack on families in the area.  Verano housing not only has the cheapest student housing, but it has the vast majority of family housing.  Within that context, the various porches of the ground level housing are frequently littered with the various toys, cooking equipment, and jungle gyms of those families.  The truth is that this level of mild disorder contributes to the quality of living in Verano, and makes the space feel like a place where people live, rather than sterility that defines the majority of the planned community of Irvine.  Up until the present, the administration has let this chaos of life pass, but for reasons only explicable to the current folks running Verano, this has changed.  One family was told by the administration through written communication that they had to move their swing set or the administration would demolish it.  This set up had been in place for at least two years without comment from the housing administration.  We we brought in to support the family by Bron Tamulis, a longtime activist and friend of the family.  With that, we decided to play the role of an ally in this struggle.  Before I move on to the events of the day, I want to emphasize the fact the administration made no effort to have a conversation with the family, to treat them with the respect that they deserve.

    A group of us met at the house of the family in order to support them in a non-confrontational manner.  The family decided to move their playground equipment off the grass onto the cement porch in order to cooperate with the admin.  It's important to note that the common space that they were using was not accessible to residents and was largely unusable, but the family wanted to make a good faith gesture to their landlords.  Unfortunately, this gesture was not reciprocated by the administration.  Instead of appearing to have a direct conversation with the family, they only appeared when we left for the Verano office in order to find out what was going on.  When we reached the office, we were met with a lot of defensiveness on the part of the staff.  They wanted us to move out of the waiting room into the common area in order to take us out of the public eye.  We were not told when the director would come back and when we sent a small delegation to find out more details the administrators threatened to call the police on us, which they later did.  When the director of Verano, Beverly Chaney, did eventually show up, she was immediately hostile, refused to talk while students were taping her remarks, and fled from the room almost immediately.  When we attempted to return to the waiting area to read our statement.  At that point a group of three police officers appeared, and we read the letter to a silent staff, and went outside to have a conversation with the police.

    It's important to note that our group remained calm throughout this process.  We consisted of graduate students and a number of children, requesting answers from the staff.  Some folks brought cameras precisely because of the nonsense that started the situation itself, the refusal to directly engage with the family, and to indirectly send orders that contradicted the informal practices of the space.  Rather than dealing with this situation, Chaney brought in three men with guns to act as a barricade between herself and the residents she ostensibly works for.  I want to linger on the point for a while, because it represents the dominant response of the administration.  Whenever students or workers petition their grievances with the university, we are met with a phalanx of men with guns, irrespective of actual behavior.  We are always  a potential threat, and are undeserving of the respect that comes from any sort of actual engagement, because that phalanx was inevitably brought in to allow the administrators to escape out the back door.  When on the few occasions that we do see these individuals for limited amounts of time, they lie, prevaricate, and dissemble.  In my eight years of being on camps, I've come to the point when I hear from a representative of the university that their inevitably punitive decision has a long precedent, I know that the decision is probably without precedent.  We need to see this combination of deception, force, and lack of engagement precisely as a de facto system of collective and disempowerment, and an effect of the privatization of the university.

    I want to make a point before I continue on.  We as graduate students are far from the most poorly treated group on campus.  After all, we haven't had to face the sorts of threats posed to the groundskeepers and janitors as they went through their years long campaigns to become insourced university workers, but despite that relative privilege, we are treated like shit by this university.  As a final point, there was a curious interaction between us and the police officers at the end of our event.  One of the administrators came out to imply that we were intimidating them by attempting to enter their offices.  Our criminal behavior evidently consisted of attempting to use the same hallway to get to the waiting area that the staff had initially sent us through.  Upon hearing this, the officer told us that we should respect the privacy of the admin, and asked us if we would like it if they (the admin, I presume) came into our kitchen.  It's difficult to see how a workplace for a public university is the equivalent to the space of a private house, but perhaps more significantly, these folks send people into our kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms all the time.  Our houses are constantly under inspection, often without meaningful warning, and early in the morning.  The same individuals who feel free to enter into every aspect of our lives to the point of threatening to demolish children's play things, react with indignation when their public workplace is treated in that manner.  If there is an argument for the category of privilege, it might be found in this hypocritical contradiction.

     Our fight for a public education is tied into the fee hikes of privatization, but we need to recognize that those fights are the same fights as the fights for our ability to have a say in our living and working conditions.  Economic fights are immediately fights over the structures of social relations, and the structures of domination implicit within capitalist structures of exploitation.  To put this a little less abstractly, our fight for a public education is not only a fight for access to free education for all, but for the ability for us to have a voice in the direction of that university, and the freedom to express ourselves without threat of discipline or violence.  We also expect to be treated with a respect that the administration of UCI shows no inclination to show us.


  1. Undergrads need affordable housing too. The "transition" of Campus Village housing to graduate housing may be beneficial to graduates, but it forces undergrads into the privatized, unaffordable apartment complexes of VDC, Norte, Camino, and PDS. Instead of allowing administration to use this tactic to divide grads and undergrads, both should unite to demand more. affordable housing for all, not at the expense of either group

  2. It's worth noting that this isn't really a posting giving an overview of the housing situation in Irvine. It's laying out the ways that the university attempts to thwart forms of informal and formal collective action through obfuscation, deception, and implicit sets of threats of physical force. It also links that to the implicit sets of disciplinary authority in play in the university system. That being said, I certainly agree that undergrad housing is an issue. My understanding is that there was undergrad representation at the meeting that made these decisions. When the then AGS president noted that this would negatively impact the undergrads, the rep said that they only cared about parking. I suspect that this is going to change with the new slate of candidates, but that was what I heard happened in that process. The extent that grad student housing has become an issue is related to the amount of self-organization amongst grad students, primarily at the AGS level, but also with the union and informal efforts. If undergraduates want to see their housing situation change, they need to put some effort into it. I can assure you, if that does, you'll see the union and a lot of graduate students supporting it. You shouldn't have to pay those privatized rates. But it's got to be your struggle. We can only be support.