Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Word of the Month is "Renegotiation"

Open Letter to My Landlord #7

You have the ear of the governor, who constantly refers to you as a "stakeholder," while she never refers to us renters like that.  The only stakes we hold, it seems, are the kind we can hammer into the ground to keep the tent from blowing away.
Dear Randall Group/CTL Management,

(Please forward to corporate, as far up the chain as possible.)

First of all, in this household, we've long ago stopped responding to your bizarre annual surveys where you ask whether your tenants are content, without ever mentioning the elephant in the living room.  You give us options to rate how content we are, all of which are designed to reflect badly on your employees if we aren't happy.  The reason we stopped responding to your survey is because it's meaningless and pointless, but for the record, we think all of your employees are very nice, and you should pay them a living wage, too.

As unlikely as it is that any of the relevant corporate investors or board members of the Randall Group ever see these letters of mine -- this is what your CTL Management, Inc. firewall is there for, to absorb that sort of flak, so you can pretend you're just playing with stocks -- I do try to make them interesting and educational, each monthly update on the rent strike a bit different from the last.  As you know, I also write because it is one of the requirements of some of the relevant evictions moratorium legislation that you be notified each month of whether your tenants' situation has changed since the previous month, with regards to loss of employment due to the pandemic.  It hasn't.

But there's so much more to be said, so much has happened in the past month, as with every month in this very dynamic year.  The word of the month in the New York business press, we are told by Marketplace, the NPR show that I know you and I both listen to every weekday day, is "renegotiation."  They say corporate clients all over the city are renegotiating their rents, and that they have gone down by an average of 30%.  Still completely, criminally outrageously high by any sane standard, still a number representing a constant sucking sound of most of society's hard-earned money flowing upwards towards the pockets of folks like the Randalls and the Kushners every moment of every day -- but less than it was Before Corona.

Let's take a quick look back at certain relevant dates and numbers for the sake of context, before I proceed further.

March, 2007:  I moved to this building you own with my family, on lovely Francis Street, in southeast Portland.  Rent for a two-bedroom was $500 a month -- a standard amount back then across the country, outside of the gentrified zones that I had been forced to leave in prior years, such as New York, Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco.

March, 2019:  after 12 years of continuous tenancy, paying the rent on time every month, raising our children on the same wall-to-wall carpeting that was here prior to our moving in, you raised the rent annually every March, and by March of 2019 the rent was now $1,175 per month -- for a significantly deteriorated version of the same moldy apartment we moved into in 2007.

March, 2020:  weeks into an unprecedented nationwide and largely worldwide pandemic lockdown that completely dominated the news and all of our lives, we received the standard-issue, annual every-March rent increase, as if it had been sent by automatic timer, no human intervention possibly involved.

I'll stop there in my timeline, because after that things get more month-to-month rather than year-to-year.  2020 has been like that, I imagine you'd agree.  (There are at least some things we can probably all agree on.)  But first I need to stew on this point a little more:  you raised the rent during a global pandemic lockdown.  

See, this is when I fully, truly realized what I had already known:  that there is no "you."  You are just a figment of our collective imagination.  You are not human.  You are a faceless corporate entity, backed by corporate investors from around the world -- speaking of which, I'd specifically like to single out the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund putting its oil money into the US real estate market, fuck you very much, your investments are just as destructive to the lives of the American working class as your oil is to the Earth, contrary to your slick social democratic propaganda.  Like your Norwegian oil baron and Russian oligarch and New York billionaire investors, you, Randall Group -- theoretically based here in Portland, Oregon in an ugly glass building on Barbur Boulevard -- have no idea what is going on, "on the ground," so to speak.  Or should we say, "in the theater of conflict," or where your renters live.  You know, that 50% of society that rents, and has to listen to people on TV every day telling us how stupid we are that we haven't taken out a massive loan in order to invest our nonexistent money in the impossibly over-valued real estate market yet to become "home owners."

Like the bankers enjoying an espresso in the shadow of the towering statue of the iconic social democratic blue collar worker beside the Norwegian parliament, the Randall Group investors who may live in the suburbs of Oslo or in some gated community in Southwest Portland or Beaverton or Moscow or London would seem to be just as blissfully ignorant of reality on the ground among their thousands of Class C apartment complexes, be they in Portland or Kansas City.  While some of the real, human landlords across the country were doing things like canceling rent for a month and lowering the rent for the duration of the pandemic, actively trying to work with their tenants to get through this very difficult time, as they say, "together," from your management company there has been nothing but silence, aside from the occasional helpful tip about applying for government aid that has run out, or about keeping the pipes from freezing in the winter.

This deafening silence, of course, is the direct result of your lack of humanity.  I mean by the fact that you don't really exist.  There is no head on this beast, you're just a corporate creation, designed entirely to suck the money out of society and feed it to the rich.  That's why you doubled our rent -- not because you had to, but because you could.  And it's all you know how to do, because it's the governing formula you gave to CTL Management, a corporate entity that exists only to serve out your instructions -- raise the rent every year as much as you can get away with legally, don't fix anything any more than you need to to abide by the minimal legal codes, don't pay any of your workers any more than you can get away with.  Not only do I know this is how CTL is told to manage your properties, but you actually award the best property managers for doing exactly the sorts of things I'm describing, every year, in downtown Portland, at a gala event which I have unfortunately had the displeasure of witnessing personally.

So, catching us up to the end of November, from late March, when you raised the rent again.  That's when we stopped paying, along with a lot of other folks, for one reason or another.  How many aren't paying because they can't, and how many aren't paying because, like us, they believe in something called society, is unclear.  But with each passing month, your silence becomes more deafening, as with each passing month, your management company leaves us with a new invoice, indicating how many thousands of dollars in back rent we owe, all of which will come due as soon as the applicable local, state or federal eviction moratoriums expire.

The thing is, with each passing month, shit is happening, you know?  I know you this.  Whoever you are -- and I'm envisioning mostly rich white guys in suits, in different locations, but whoever you are, perhaps a slightly more diverse group than that, I don't know -- you read the business press, like I do.  So you know that even those of us who did finally get money for being unemployed -- which in my case took seven months of waiting -- that money runs out on December 26th.  Congress is gridlocked and can't pass any further aid packages, and we are facing what Marketplace referred to a few days ago as a "fiscal cliff."

Here are some statistics just in in the past month, which I have gathered from reliable, mainstream press reports, some of which you can find, if you like, by perusing the Facebook page of Artists for Rent Control, a network you inspired me to start up some years ago:

  • 1 in 15 people in the US currently has an active, contagious, coronavirus infection
  • over a quarter of a million people in the US have now died, overall
  • 1 in every 1,000 Black people in the US has died of the coronavirus
  • in the time before the CDC's eviction moratorium went into effect, hundreds of thousands of evictions took place in states without their own moratoriums, which have now resulted in at least 10,000 more deaths from Covid-19
  • among professional artists like me -- which includes some of your other tenants, and many of your former tenants who you long ago priced out of the city -- 65% are fully unemployed, and 95% have lost income
I could go on with the statistics, but we all know how dismal the situation is for people who are not happily invested in the booming stock market.

What we also know, importantly, is that you really don't give a shit about us.  Now wait, an astute reader might be thinking, how do we know this?  All we get is total silence from the landlord corporation with each passing month.  Ah, but there is something called Multifamily Northwest.  This is your lobbying arm, where you invest a small fraction of your profits from raising our rents every year, to make sure you can keep raising our rents every year.  Multifamily Northwest makes it very clear where you stand -- you are against the eviction moratorium.  You are against the Oregon legislature reconvening in December to extend Oregon's eviction moratorium.  You have the ear of the governor, who constantly refers to you as a "stakeholder," while she never refers to us renters like that.  The only stakes we hold, it seems, are the kind we can hammer into the ground to keep the tent from blowing away.

Not that you're against a bailout of the landlord corporations, or the renters, as long as it means their rent money going straight to you.  But until that bailout can be worked out, you're against any eviction moratoriums -- your dying and disease-afflicted renters with their hungry children be damned.

So, once again, with feeling:  the word of the month is "renegotiation."  We can keep on kicking the can down the road.  Prediction:  because the Oregon legislature is dominated by people much more intelligent than you, despite all of the money you regularly bribe them with (I mean donate to their campaigns) -- people who can read the literal writing on the wall, and know that ending the eviction moratorium would cause untold suffering and death, and have a very destabilizing effect on society overall, because this is the situation, Oregon's eviction moratorium will be extended when the special session meets in December.

But with the Congress in the state it's in in DC, whether there's ever going to be another bailout is very much a matter of question.  We can wait and see -- with us continuing our nonpayment of rent, and continuing to encourage our neighbors to join us in this endeavor, and with you continuing to send anonymous invoices each month indicating our mounting debts -- and see what eventually happens in Congress.  Or you can break your sociopathic silence.  You can communicate with your tenants, and renegotiate the rent.

There are a lot of other things you could do.  But "renegotiate" is the word of the month, Grover.  

By the end of December, there's only one word any of us will be thinking of, unfortunately.  And it's one that you bear such a huge responsibility for, because the main reason all those expendable, I mean essential, workers keep going to work every day at their multiple full-time jobs is because they have to funnel their earnings upwards, to fill your overflowing coffers some more.  In fact, you and the system you support through your lobbying groups -- through your campaign donations, which always go to Republicans, when they have a chance in a given race -- you are responsible in such a significant way for the ongoing stratification of wealth in this country, for the widening divide between rich and poor, between Black, Brown, and white, for the fact that so many parents never see their children.  You did this.  With intention, if by means of lobbying entities and management companies, rather than by getting your own corporate, "invisible hands of the market" dirty.

And that word for next month of which I speak:  take a fucking guess.  Still don't know?  OK, I'll give it to you:


David Rovics and family

P.S.  The dishwasher is still broken.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Pandemic Panhandling Update

An update on the life of one independent artist in the fall of 2020 (in lieu of a crowdfunding campaign)

Three months ago, in August, I wrote a piece called Pandemic Panhandling, wherein I began with a brief recounting of the ways in which the music industry collapsed over the course of my musical career, prior to the pandemic, and then I wrote about some of the ways in which things have gotten exponentially worse for most formerly working musicians since the pandemic, in the US and many other places.

A lot has happened since then for everyone, but specifically in the lives of cultural workers, musicians, most artists generally, and me in particular, that an update on the subject seems to be in order.  One of the things that's happened since my last missive on the subject is the publication of an excellent book called The Death of the Artist, which I have been reading lately with great interest.  (I'll be interviewing the author for my livestream show/podcast on November 25th.)

One of the many striking aspects of William Deresiewicz's book is the way he lays out how in each different art form, whether we're talking about musicians, painters, writers, filmmakers and so many others, along with the rise of the internet there has been an accompanying rise of gigantic corporate efforts to take advantage of the chaos by going in for the kill and reshaping industry after industry in such a way that it is only profitable for a tiny minority, mainly those who run the tech corporations, while most everyone else suffers to one degree or another.  Having been so focused on trying to survive within the ever-changing landscape of the music industry, such as it is, it's been eye-opening to discover that there are so many more evil, predatory corporations out there than I was previously aware of.  Spotify is only one of them.

Another striking piece of knowledge that the book elucidates at every turn is how prominent a role different forms of privilege play in whether someone might manage to survive as a working artist of some kind.  The fact made clear by the 2010 census is that if you are a person in the US making a living as an artist, it is overwhelmingly likely that you are white -- like me, four out of five working artists in the US are white.

The way privilege plays into the making of this statistic can be very insidious.  For example, the old trope of the adult artist living in their parents' basement.  The image is meant to convey a lack of success.  But then, for many working artists, it is the fact that their parents have a basement that they can live in that may be what is making it possible for them to survive as artists, since their rent is probably very low, if they are paying any at all.  And who owns houses?  Who owns houses with extra space in them?  Just the way home ownership is distributed along race and class lines in this country makes it easy, if you think about it, to realize why there is this racial disparity.

In my previous Pandemic Pandhandling piece, while I described some of the extreme difficulties faced by working artists, or formerly working artists, during and prior to the pandemic, I also was inspired to write the piece as a macabre sort of celebration of the fact that just in time for the pandemic to hit, I had finally reached a certain level of success in a years-long effort to use platforms like Patreon to build a base of ongoing, crowdfunded patronage, since this has indeed become the main way for people to still make a living as musicians, in lieu of the income that used to come in from CD sales and gigs.

Of course, that four out of five statistic is prior to the pandemic -- years prior.  I can only try to imagine what it must be now.  If you had a day job, you probably lost it, because it was probably in the service sector.  Either way, you lost all your gigs.  If you don't have a trust fund -- a phenomenon representing the livelihoods of no small number of that white majority of working artists -- and your unemployment money either never arrived or ran out, then all you might have left are some combination of credit cards, sponging off of relatives better off than you are, if you have any, and the very popular alternative of crowdfunding your survival, through platforms like Patreon.  And who gets the credit card offers, who has the relatives to sponge off of, and who has the network of fans with disposable income to support you on Patreon?  Not that any of this is an exclusively white thing, but with each new factor, the picture gets more and more pale.

And who are these primarily white artists?  Among the ones surviving on the patronage model, it would appear that the vast majority of the ones who might be making a living are barely making more than a typical full-time employee at an Oregon McDonald's outlet.  This group is estimated to represent no more than 2% of the artists who are on Patreon, the most popular platform for people engaged in this model of survival.

Knowing that due to so many factors, the overwhelming majority of working artists in the US are white, it's a bit surreal to also be referring to this group as struggling and marginalized.  But in many ways, whoever the artists are, they/we overwhelmingly make no more than a typical minimum-wage worker, even if we may like our jobs a lot more.  And we are being priced out of cities like Portland, as a group, at a roughly similar rate as Black people are being gentrified out of this city.  Our widespread presence in this city back in the 1990's may have been one of the main reasons for the city's ongoing gentrification in the first place, but nowadays you'll rarely find a "keep Portland weird" bumper sticker on any car that doesn't belong to a real estate broker.

As one of the few working artists still living in Portland, having hopefully by now established what a rarefied little club I'm in, at the risk of self-indulgence, I feel compelled to use my own situation to update folks on where things are at, both because you may be interested, if you're reading this, and because my situation, as rarefied as it is, is also representative, for at least a few others.

During the first few months of the pandemic, there was a lot more money floating around, and a lot more concern in the media about the welfare of people working in industries that had been totally devastated by social distancing, such as what they call entertainment and service industries, among so many others.  I, along with many other artists I keep track of, gained a lot of supporters on Patreon.  I had gigs lined up in nine countries, and lost a lot of projected income as a result of all the tours being canceled, but during those months when I should have been on tour, some of the gig organizers managed to pay me anyway, and a bunch of folks made one-off donations, several over $1,000.  We were so flush with cash that we paid off half of our credit card debt while continuing to cover rent and food.  We donated money to other people and networks, and made posters, stickers and banners for the struggle around evictions here in Portland.

That was my world in August.  Things have changed since then, and there is every indication that it's not unique for me.  I can confirm what is repeated daily on Marketplace -- the money that was in the economy from the one bailout is gone.  While recurring patrons remain, the flurry of one-off donations is over.  While the patrons alone more or less cover rent and food, they don't go any further than that, so the cost of our son's preschool, which started up again since I last wrote on this subject, is now putting us further in debt with each passing month.

Another way to put it is there are no rules to this game, but to the extent that there are any, I think I'm following them.  That is, first I built up a global fan base by touring and recording and doing all sorts of things that are currently impossible.  Then I set up a multi-faceted system of begging online through various platforms, as we are all told is the new normal, since the demise of the CD, the download, and the paying gig.  Then I started producing more content online that might interest this wonderful group of several hundred people who support me on an ongoing basis.  And the ranks of supporters continues to grow -- just not quite at the pace expenses are growing.

While doing all the livestreaming and online panhandling as per my profession in its current incarnation, like so many other unemployed people during the pandemic, I was trying to collect money from the Employment Department.  I began this process in early April, when the Congress announced that gig workers like me could now qualify.  Since last August, I finally connected with someone from the department on the phone, and got my claim reengaged, since the initial rejection I received in June.  It is now November, and I'm still waiting to receive a cent from the Oregon Employment Department, along with tens of thousands of other unemployed gig workers in this state.

The governor here in Oregon announced that the food assistance program would be expanded during the pandemic, so that people who wouldn't normally qualify would now qualify for some assistance.  For three consecutive months, we benefitted greatly from having an extra $500 a month to spend on groceries for our family of five.  But my efforts to receive ongoing food assistance aside from the special pandemic offerings were rebuffed.  It turns out that even without any gigs, I still make too much money from Patreon to qualify for food assistance -- even though it's not enough money to cover the combined costs of food, rent and preschool.  I am lately often reminded of British punk rocker TV Smith's wonderful song, it's "Expensive Being Poor."

For me, as with so many others, the entire financial equation would be radically transformed if not for the monthly need to set aside around half of my earnings for the landlord corporation.  If we were living in my mother's basement, we would be fine.  My mother, however, is also a musician, and she already lives in the basement.  She's doing fine there, too, and she owns that basement, and I'm not trying to elicit any sympathy for her.  It's just that there is no basement for us to live in, for all practical purposes.  My father, also a musician, moved out of the suburban home he was living in when he retired, out of financial necessity, and moved into a much smaller place -- no basement there either.  Again, not trying to elicit sympathy for him, and he's doing fine, too.  The fact that I was raised by musicians gave me so many advantages in the pursuit of my own musical career, I wouldn't even know where to start listing them.  So much privilege.  But still no free basement.

So I, and so many other privileged working musicians, to say nothing of everybody else, sink slowly deeper into debt and wait to see what happens.  We keep close track of all the same things.  Will that windfall from the Employment Department ever arrive?  For how much longer can we keep deferring this car loan?  Will the moratorium on evictions be extended in January?  Will Congress ever pass a second bailout, perhaps one that includes rent relief?  So much unknown, and so many more things to think about, lying awake in bed at 4 am.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Taking Stock

The view of one amateur pundit from a very. very deep hole

I am not a pundit, or at least not a legitimized one.  I have never been a guest on any major TV network, as a pundit or as anything else.  I have never taken a poll or been paid to make any predictions.  But for two presidential elections in a row, the punditry was generally way off on their predictions, and I was pretty close to the mark.  And yes, I also made my predictions in a public form -- Twitter -- prior to the elections, so there would be a record of them.

I am not trying to gloat here, but it seems worth setting the stage a little, before I share a little perspective.  In 2016, as the polls and many other people were predicting that Trump would lose badly to anyone the Democrats put forward, because so many people would want to repudiate his blatant racism, xenophobia and obviously corrupt nature, I made the call that he'd win.  Not exactly an accurate call, since he did lose the popular vote by 3 million, but he did win the electoral college, and thus, the office.  In 2020 my prediction was that he'd again lose the popular vote, by a bigger margin than in 2016, but not by a landslide, and that he'd ultimately win the electoral college again.  My prediction of the margin of Trump's loss of the popular vote was accurate, but we don't know yet about the outcome of the election.  I also predicted in 2020 that Sanders-backed candidates would do well.  This prediction was also born out, and, as I expected, there was no "blue wave" of Democratic Party victories, aside from the explicitly socialist-leaning candidates.

There are reasons why I was mostly right in my predictions, both times, and the pollsters were mostly wrong, both times.  It is not random, and I am not lucky.  I have a superior analysis to the pollsters, evidently.  I made my judgment calls based on a combination of factors -- massive consumption of a wide variety of news sources from throughout the US and the world, across the political spectrum is one of my sources.  Other sources include closely following the political trajectories of people who comment on my YouTube videos, and actively walking the streets in every neighborhood in the city of Portland, Oregon and the surrounding suburbs, postering.  In 2016, I traveled extensively throughout the US as a touring performer, another important way to take the pulse of a country.  In 2020, as a pandemic-inspired broadcaster, I've conducted over a hundred interviews, mostly with people in different parts of the US, about what's going on here.  And altogether, these sources proved to be more accurate than those that most of the pundits have relied on, in both 2016 and 2020.

Now that I've hopefully established my credentials as a (non)pundit, despite my chronic lack of exposure on network TV, I'm going to intentionally skip over any further explanation of methodology.  That is just to say, my predictions do take into account the fact that Republican skullduggery has ensured that millions of US citizens have been deprived of their voting rights in the past ten years or so.  They do take into account, as well, that Bloomberg's billions didn't seem to help the DNC candidates much at all in buying their way back into the Congress.  But these are only two of innumerable factors that went into the results of this election, or these many elections, since we're talking about lots of local electoral struggles that played into the whole picture as well.

Lots of other pundits are currently berating themselves once again and very publicly agonizing over where they went wrong, and what is really going on with the voters, what they want, where each party is heading politically, demographically, etc.  Most of these pundits will come to the wrong conclusions and go on to make all the wrong predictions again.  There's a whole lot that I and others are saying, and can say, about why the following conclusion is an accurate one, and how I reached it -- how so many of us reached it, long, long ago:

If you really look at the results of these elections with a clear eye, and you understand how I make my political predictions, and why they are more or less accurate, you will conclude that what the people want is socialism.  If they can't get something that feels like real socialism, they'll settle for fake socialism, also known as National Socialism, also known as fascism.  What they hate the most is the capitalist elite.  So many people are so desperate and feel so legitimately so abandoned by the Democratic Party and any connection it used to have to the working class, that they would rather vote for anyone who appears to be critical of the establishment, regardless of how vile that person may be in every other possible way.

There is no question in my mind that all else being equal, if the DNC had not sabotaged his campaigns, Bernie Sanders would have won in 2016 and in 2020 by a landslide.  Of course, all else is not equal, and if it weren't the DNC sabotaging him, it would have been the media, or any number of other elements of the established elites.

So what we end up with, if we are lucky here, is literally that which brought us Donald Trump.  What we end up with is the man who ran on the achievements of the presidency for which he served as Vice President, during which time the stock market boomed, and my rent doubled, as did the cost of living for a hundred million other Americans.  That's the time period he keeps bragging about.  That's what he's promising.  If we don't get Trump again, that's what we get -- the neoliberal, empire-loving, $700-billion-a-year-isn't-a-big-enough-military-budget, God Bless Our Troops, "my family is slightly less nepotistic than his" Joe Biden.

What can only follow is catastrophe.  Nothing good can come out of this, at least not without a popular movement coming out of the grassroots of this society that makes the past few months of rebellion in the streets look like a house concert.  But if you have any expectations of the so-called political leadership from either party doing anything useful without such pressure, you have your head in the sand.

For those of you here in Portland or elsewhere in Oregon, I'll just state my agreement with what so many local radicals I follow on Twitter have been saying for the past few days:

Most of the good initiatives that were on the ballot won.  This is because people had a chance to read the description of what they were about, which made sense to them, so they voted for them.  Thus, we have now more or less decriminalized hard drugs, set into motion free public daycare for all, as well as the framework for a police oversight body with the power to fire cops.  Unfortunately, while voters can read about the initiatives and vote according to their consciences after doing so, it's much harder for the average voter to differentiate between two candidates who are both Democrats and both posture as really cool progressives on every possible issue.  It takes a lot of research work to find out who these people are, if you're not already a local news junky, or even if you are.  The mayor, Ted Wheeler, got a lot of national media attention.  In the liberal press he was generally praised as a fellow liberal who was standing up to the feds, and also who banned tear gas.  The truth, that he was and is a wealthy friend of the landlord lobby and a supporter of the city's massive police budget, was never mentioned in the national press.  If people read the Portland Mercury or other local publications, they might have known better, but Wheeler squeaked in with a victory over his far more progressive main challenger, and the same kind of thing happened in the City Council race for Chloe Eudaly's seat, now lost to a candidate preferred by the police union and the landlord lobby.  A little knowledge can be a terrible thing, and here we are.

What comes next in this complex social and political and economic saga in this country we call the United States?  I don't have a clue.  I only made my election predictions the day before the elections.  What's going to happen next week or next month would seem like a real fool's errand to try to predict.  All I know, based on my analysis of the history of this country, is that any positive change that might come will come out of movements that take to the streets and shut down business as usual, until broad demands for transformative changes are clearly and transparently and completely met.

What I can say beyond any shadow of any doubt, what I know to my bones, what every analysis of history and society that I can make tells me, is that now is not a time for moderation.  Now is a time for demanding the impossible, and then some.

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