From oil company town to progressive beacon - the story of Richmond

How did this California city challenge the reign of fossil-fuel giant Chevron and start a progressive revolution?

Janis Hashe
17 April 2018

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Courtesy of the Richmond Progressive Alliance.

Courtesy of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. “The armpit of the Bay Area.” That’s how the city of Richmond, California was contemptuously described by a neighbouring city’s mayor only a few years ago, a reputation earned by decades of crime, corruption, and the unchallenged reign of fossil-fuel titan Chevron.

While San Francisco, Silicon Valley and most outlying areas grew ever wealthier and more privileged, Richmond, 80 percent nonwhite, and dominated politically and environmentally by the gigantic, 3,000-acre (around 1,200 hectares) Chevron refinery, festered.

It wasn’t always so. During World War II, the sleepy little town with a big port exploded with defense workers recruited to build ships for the war effort. But the thousands of black workers who moved from Southern states, promised good jobs, found racism waiting when they got there. Post-war, Richmond devolved into a city poisoned by its industrial businesses, and where, by 2006, the murder rate was more than seven times the national average, and tenants were being displaced by uncontrolled rent increases.

Rise of the Richmond Progressive Alliance and Allies

The city’s people had had enough. “I moved to Richmond in 2002, and became involved with the Richmond Greens, a small but active group,” says Marilyn Langlois, now chair of the Richmond Planning Commission. “The city was in crisis mode. There was a $34 million budget deficit [around 24 million British pounds].There were ongoing issues with Chevron and its control of city government.”

Langlois and allies founded the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), described by Steve Early in his book Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City as “simultaneously an electoral formation, a membership organisation, a coalition of citizen groups, and a key coordinator of grassroots education and citizen mobilisation.”

 Janis Hashe.

New Richmond senior housing. Credit: Janis Hashe.“We agreed that the basic problem was money in politics,” says Langlois, who remains passionate about this cause. “One of our main principles was that we would only support candidates who did not take corporate donations.” The RPA’s 2003 winning city council candidate was Gayle McLaughlin, who went on to become mayor from 2006 to 2014. Richmond became the largest U.S. city with a Green Party mayor. 

“One of our main principles was that we would only support candidates who did not take corporate donations.”

The dramatic breakthrough came in 2014: Despite Chevron’s $3.1 million (around 2.19 million British pounds) in spending defaming their candidates, the RPA’s community-based message resonated. Four RPA council members were elected that year. In 2016, for the first time, the RPA achieved a five-member council supermajority. The people had spoken.

Addressing displacement and fair housing

The housing crisis was a frontline issue, says Langlois. In 2012, the city had 900 foreclosures. Renters were being squeezed out by skyrocketing rent increases. “We became involved with the Laotian Organizing Project, the Fair Rent and Just Cause Coalition, and began to hold town hall meetings. We passed ordinances stating there needed to be just cause to evict renters, and that a bank could not evict a tenant if the owner was foreclosed on.” 

But “because of pushback from the California Landlord Association, we had to repeal our first attempt at a rent-control ordinance,” she explains. “Then, in 2016, we had solidified support from SEIU [Service Employees International Union] and ACCE [Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment]. We had also secured pro bono legal help. Rent control became a wedge issue in the 2016 elections, and with the new members, we passed a new rent-control ordinance.” Richmond became one of the first cities in California to enact rent control in 30 years.

Commieola Duncan was one of those helped. The grandmother of one lives in the 1,008-unit Bella Vista of Hilltop complex. “My husband and I both have decent jobs. I am an employment counsellor with Alameda County [adjacent to Contra Costa County, where Richmond is located] and my husband works for AT&T,” she says. “But even with two incomes, it was becoming increasingly difficult to afford rent here and pay other bills, too.”

 Janis Hashe.

Crescent Park Housing Development solar panels. Credit: Janis Hashe. Under the new ordinance, landlords can increase rents only by roughly 2 percent a year. It rolled rents back to 2015 levels. However, because of exceptions, it protects only about 40 percent of Richmond renters. Still, says Duncan, it has aided her, “and my co-workers who live in Richmond. We [now pay] about $250 a month less than we would have had to at the rate rents were increasing.”

Langlois knows much work remains. “The City of Richmond is…reaching out to other cities to start grassroots systems of progressive alliances. These alliances can synergise with each other to do things such as repeal Costa-Hawkins [the 1995 California law allowing landlords who rent single-family houses to raise rents without limits, exempting them from rent-control laws that apply to apartments].

”New housing proposals are also scrutinised. “We look at [locations], such as transit-oriented housing,” Langlois says. “If developers do not want to include affordable housing, they must pay in-lieu fees, which lets them know that Richmond welcomes mixed incomes, not just upper incomes.”

Current Democrat Mayor Tom Butt’s February 2018 “State of the City” reinforced some good news: Average rents were down 11 percent from September 2016, the first five-member Rent Control Board was operating, and funds for affordable housing were being applied to public housing.

Energy: a “just transition” with “no more silos”

In a community that’s a poster child for environmental injustice, talking “energy” means two things: Dealing with Chevron, the century-old fossil-fuel giant and its allied industries, and making the transition to renewable energy. On both fronts, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), which focuses on communities of colour, has been a leader.

“We use a triad model of community organisers, researchers/scientists, and lawyers, and our policies are determined by our member leaders,” says staff researcher José López during an interview at CBE’s Richmond office. One of CBE’s main goals is working to “hold the refineries accountable,” López notes. “The overall goal is working to build a ‘just transition’ from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but one that is sustainable. In this work, we partner with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) and [community agriculture project] Urban Tilth.”

The overall goal is working to build a ‘just transition’ from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but one that is sustainable.

Richmond, he says, was one of the first cities in California to adopt the Energy Climate Change Element, which proposes policies and actions related to renewable energy, and, in 2016, adopted the Climate Action Plan. “We are working on better processes to engage the whole community, including establishing an Energy Commission so residents can be at the table in developing an ‘energy democracy,’” López explains.

López says an unexpected ally has developed in public utility Marin Clean Energy (MCE). MCE, which has now enrolled 80 percent of Richmond households, “sometimes stands up with us on a state level,” he reports. Networks and alliances are CBE’s strongest political strategy. Last year, López says, it formed a coalition with bike-transit non-profit Rich City Rides, ACCE, former prisoner support organisation Safe Return Project and others to help create a “Richmond People’s Assembly” in May 2018. “We are looking at how to do more intersecting,” he says. “We are not working in silos anymore.”

CBE’s most transformative work is creating the just transition framework, López says. “We have reached the time to be not just reactive, but proactive. We are connecting to cities across the U.S. through the Climate Justice Alliance, targeting frontline communities that have been left out. We are identifying the vision, calling out the future solutions.”

Mayor Butt’s speech pointed out that 10 years of partnership with GRID Alternatives continues to allow free solar installation for income-qualifying households, and that Solar One, the MCE solar farm, is now operational, providing 10.5 MW of energy for 3,400 households.

In yet another energy advance, Richmond was awarded a $170,000 (120,000 British pounds) Transformative Climate Communities Planning Grant in February 2017, designated to create a “climate change roadmap” that would then allow the city to apply for a much larger implementation grant. Jim Becker, president and CEO of the Richmond Community Foundation (RCF), which will help create the roadmap, says RCF will help collect community input about proposed projects. One definite inclusion, he says, is RCF’s ongoing purchasing of abandoned homes, rehabbing them to “net-zero” energy standards, and then selling them to graduates of its First-Time Homebuyers Programme.

Community controls the future

City councilmember/vice mayor Melvin Willis is not yet 30 and, by his own admission, not a typical politician. Currently a candidate for mayor, he is part of the RPA’s “second wave. “I was only 12 when the RPA was founded,” he laughs. His first “political” action was knocking on people’s doors for $12 an hour (around 8.50 British pounds) to tell them about meetings.

As our city starts to change, we need to make sure people who have been here for generations can stay a part of it.

“Then, in 2012, when ACCE allied with the RPA and elected three council members, I became involved with the Stop Foreclosures and Save Our Homes fights,” he says.He agrees the spark behind the city’s transformation has been the huge shift in who’s running it. Five RPA members on a seven-member city council, none of whom take corporate donations, has been vital, he says, in passing rent control, increasing the minimum wage, and fighting the power of the national government to take private property for public use. 

“Many more community members are now involved in projects for city improvements, and many organisations have formed coalitions with each other,” including, he says, “SEIU, Tenants Together, the California Nurses Association, the Safe Return Project, APEN, Urban Tilth, CBE, the RYSE Youth Centre, the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, and public defenders, to name a few.”
The driving force in transformative thinking on housing will be “development without displacement,” he says. “The economics of ‘development’ as we now discuss it does not often work to the advantage of low-income people, which results in the gentrification happening throughout the Bay Area [and elsewhere]. As our city starts to change, we need to make sure people who have been here for generations can stay a part of it.”

Langlois sums up what needs to happen to embed Richmond’s transformative change: “Having strong coalitions is key. Diversifying the membership of the RPA and getting younger people involved. Continuing to hold corporations’ feet to the fire. Chevron has been much more responsive to the community [since their failure in 2014 to buy the elections]. They aren’t leaving, but we want them to be better corporate citizens. Richmond residents deserve to live happy, dignified lives.”

As Steve Early puts it Refinery Town, “going local may be the most effective response to economic challenges and environmental threats that are dauntingly national and global in scope.”Richmond’s people stood up together, challenged the status quo—and show no signs of stopping. Apparently, you just can’t keep a good armpit down.

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