Asaf Shalev

Sharing the sun


Dan Rosen, the co-founder of Solar Mosaic, told us there was an ironic note to the devastation that Hurricane Sandy recently brought to New York City. The same power grid that helps create such fierce hurricanes through the burning of fossil fuels was unable to distribute power to thousands of homes, in mostly low-income neighborhoods, for weeks in the wake of storm.

Sandy brought to the forefront a huge energy challenge: how to move over to renewable energy fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change and the killer storms in generates, build more efficient and reliable grids, and ensure that everyone can equitably participate in the new renewable energy economy. Bay Area energy entrepreneurs such as Rosen are working on innovative energy models that address those issues.

So far, the solar debate has mostly been between proponents of personal solar projects such as residential rooftop installations, also known as distributed generation, and those who back industrial-scale projects in far away plains and deserts.

But Rosen and other entrepreneurs are championing a middle route: They propose vastly increasing the prevalence of large solar power arrays and other renewable power plants close to where the energy is consumed, and opening up creative new ways for more people to buy into those projects.

This kind of approach to energy has the potential to democratize power production, avoid costly and environmentally unsound transmissions lines, and prevent utilities from monopolizing renewable energy.



One of the barriers to the proliferation of solar is the relatively high upfront cost of purchasing and installing the panels. But with the rising costs of fossil fuel and the government incentives around renewable energy, investments in solar infrastructure can pay off big.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance crunched the numbers and according to a report that came out in June, large solar projects may soon pay a 5-9 percent return on investment. Big financial institutions and other corporate players have taken note of these figures and potential for profit they represent.

For example, Google has invested almost $1 billion in renewable energy that it plans to sell into the grid, including opening a $75 million fund for residential rooftop solar this past September. The problem is that big lenders are only looking for large-scale solar deals in order to cover their costs.

Enter Rosen and Solar Mosaic, who are coming up with a way to harness the power of crowds to fund the local and decentralized projects that big financial institutions tend to overlook. Solar Mosaic specializes in raising seed capital for solar projects by collecting many small investments into one pool.

That idea won Solar Mosaic a $2 million grant from the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, and attracted $3.5 million in venture capital.

“Our job — not just as Mosaic, but as society — is to make sure that the next energy economy has participation and ownership from millions of people and communities around the world,” Rosen said. “Crowd funding is really the beginning of a broader movement to democratize and distribute capital — enabling people to invest in projects they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to.”

This vision proved itself initially with a successful Kickstarter-like crowd funding platform that facilitated the development of five solar projects with the participation of more than 400 small investors and over $350,000 raised. The money went to fund solar panel installations on the roofs of community organizations in California and Arizona, including People’s Grocery in Oakland.

But there’s a catch. As the law currently stands, Solar Mosaic, or any company engaged in crowd funding, cannot offer any interest on the money invested by small online contributors. Since there is only a limited pool of people who believe in an energy revolution enough to shell out money for free, these examples are not entirely replicable. “We chose to start with those ones because they have very strong constituencies and we were using more a philanthropic model,” Rosen said.

The new model the company is developing is “getting people who are not necessarily just environmentalists invested in the clean energy economy,” Rosen said. “I want people who are like, ‘Oh, cool, I can make [a decent return] if I invest in this,’ and that gets more stakeholders than Sierra Club members. Let’s have millions of stakeholders with skin in the game.”

So how to move forward? The controversial federal Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act passed in April by Congress included a much-trumpeted crowd funding provision. The bill charged the Securities and Exchange Commission with the responsibility of putting meat on the legislation’s skeleton.

The SEC has until the Dec. 31 deadline to come up a set of rules allowing start-ups to gather small investments from ordinary people online while still offering provisions to protect the public from fraud. Many are skeptical that the SEC will complete the rule-writing process by the end of year.

Impatient to wait for the SEC and unsure whether the provisions will be practical for their purposes, Solar Mosaic is following a different path. It is using the funds raised already to pay for a lengthy and expensive filing with the SEC to upgrade its financial status.

Rosen said he couldn’t discuss details, but he said the new status should grant Solar Mosaic some leeway on offering financial returns to a wider variety of investors.



Investment opportunities in local solar projects may be a good way to get people financially involved in clean energy but what about Californians who simply wish to purchase renewable energy for their homes or business?

California leads the country in rooftop solar installation, much to the credit of two programs: rebates that offset the cost of the panels through the California Solar Initiative and a program that allows those who own a rooftop with solar panels to offset their utility bills with credit from the energy they produce. California Public Utilities Commission statistics indicate these programs are largely responsible for some 1,379 megawatts of solar that have been installed in California at 131,874 different sites; about as much energy as one large nuclear reactor.

There has been record growth in adoption of solar by homeowners in the past two years, according to the CPUC, including a 364 percent jump in low income areas in since 2007. Yet that’s a far shot from the goal of 12,000 megawatts of local clean energy by 2020 called for by Gov. Jerry Brown in July.

Californians who do not have savings or a high credit score or who have shaded roofs usually can’t participate in the state’s renewable energy programs. But the most significant obstacle to increased participation is that only homeowners are eligible, while renters must contend with whatever power they can get from their utility. In a city like San Francisco, where almost two-third of residents rents, that is the overwhelming majority of citizens.

One solution that would circumvent the property-owning restrictions is allowing people to subscribe to solar gardens and other renewable energy facilities in their area and receive the same credit on their utility bill for their share of energy delivered to the grid. Decoupling where energy is made from who is able to buy it “allows everyone to participate, it makes it so it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, the only thing that matters that you have a utility bill,” said Tom Price of CleanPath, a solar project investment firm.

California Senate Bill 843, introduced by Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) and coauthored by Price, attempted to create the legal framework for this kind of virtual transaction. Over the summer, it died in the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Commerce as result of late session lobbying by Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. Notably, the state’s other largest utility, San Diego Gas and Electric, supported SB843. Also supporting the bill was a wide and diverse coalition ranging from the US Department of Defense to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Wolk plans to reintroduce SB843 in the next legislative session.

Price and other supporters see the bill’s eventual passage as inevitability: “In an age when so many transaction are virtual [and] we can put so many parts of our lives in the cloud, why can’t we put energy in the cloud and let people virtually subscribe to it? From the grid’s perspective, there is no difference.”



Democratizing the green energy industry is about allowing everyone to participate easily, but it is also about empowering those who are typically left out of the conversation.

Low-income and marginalized communities are often the ones most impacted by the environmental and health effects of burning fossils fuels. As the green energy revolution expands, those same communities will potentially be last in line to benefit from or exert influence over the transformation.

Considering that solar can be small scale and still financially sound in the long term, “there is an opportunity to rebuild the energy infrastructure…from the grassroots,” said Shiva Patel who co-founded Energy Solidarity Cooperative. Patel and his partner Dave Ron want to set up multi-stakeholder cooperatives that promote ownership and decision-making by consumers.

In a low-income neighborhood, residents are most likely tenants with little leverage and no eligibility for California’s renewable energy incentives. The cooperative model suggests residents can pool space, financial resources, and labor to become players in small-scale power production.

Normally, consumers considered downstream along the energy supply chain do not have the financial or political means to make decisions about the energy their communities use. “We are flipping that on its head,” said Ron “We want those people to be upstream. We are taking a very horizontal approach.

The nuts and bolts of the coop’s structure may be new, but the distinction between those who own and control the community power project and those who finance it is important. There are three types of members in the cooperative: consumers, workers, and community investors. The consumers initiate the community power project and then maintain ownership of it. They contribute labor and money toward the project according to their ability. The workers are a group of energy experts organized into a collective that provide support and advice for the project. Decisions about the coop and its projects are left to the consumers and workers. Community investors are drawn to the project by crowd funding, but financial support does not buy them a decision making role. Once the upfront costs of the project are paid back to the community investors, consumers can keep the revenue or use it to foster more community power projects.

One source of inspiration for the duo is Co-op Power based in Boston, which has more than 150 full-time green jobs with living wages, spawning 10 businesses in the decade since its founding.

“We had a large number of people trying to solve the puzzle of how communities could come together and create sustainable energy models,” said President and CEO Lynn Benander. “It’s the brain child of many people.”

Not in our neighborhood


San Francisco faces an enormous shortage of affordable housing for young people at risk of homelessness, but a pair of projects intended to address the issue are under fire from neighborhood activists in supervisorial District 2, home to the city’s wealthiest residents.

The proposed conversion of the defunct Edward II Hotel and the major overhaul at the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center (BTWCSC) could create a combined 74 units of affordable housing for vulnerable youth, complete with services and support systems to help young people coming from foster or homeless families.

“We are building houses for young people who are getting their start in life,” said Julian Davis, president of the board of BTWCSC. “There was a great need for foster youth housing that has been studied ad nauseam … Our center wanted to contribute.”

But both projects have run into strong neighborhood opposition that appears to have turned D2 Sup. Mark Farrell against the projects as proposed, despite initial support for the BTWCSC project by both Farrell and his predecessor, Michela Alioto-Pier. Farrell’s approach has frustrated project opponents and caused the representative of a neighboring district, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, to sponsor the project.

“The project emanated from Michela Alioto-Pier and she supported the original project, which is why I joined her in support and it initially appeared that Sup. Farrell was joining that support,” Mirkarimi told us, noting that he is continuing to champion the project because it borders his district and because “the Booker T center has a long reach and serves clients from throughout city.”

After hearing from constituents concerned about parking, the size of the five-story building that is proposed, and other issues, Farrell dropped his sponsorship of the project and submitted alternative legislation that cut the building to four stories, presenting it to project proponents without their input as a take-it-or-leave-it proposal.

“The thing I find most puzzling about this is the lack of communication with me personally,” BTWCSC Executive Director Pat Scott said of Farrell, noting how helpful Alioto-Pier and Farrell’s staff had been before opponents convinced him to drop his support for the project. “I was a little taken aback, quite frankly. I would just assume that he’d talk to me.

But Farrell said he was simply trying to heed neighborhood concerns and craft a compromise that would get neighbors to drop their lawsuit threats and appeal of the Planning Commission’s 6-1 vote to approve the project. “I can’t control what happened in the past, I’m only here to make sure everyone is happy now,” Farrell told us. “I absolutely support the project, I think the community center is great … We’re arguing over a story.”

Yet Scott noted that project proponents already had compromised on a project that was initially proposed for eight stories, and she said that even at five stories, it isn’t coming anywhere near what the city actually needs. So while Farrell casts it as a fight over one story, Scott said, “10 units is a big thing in a city that has nothing for these kids.”

That need was outlined in a 2007 report by the Mayor’s Transitional Youth Task Force. The group of city officials and nonprofit providers, convened by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, studied issues affecting at-risk youth between the ages 16 and 24 and one of the major needs identified was housing.

A follow-up study found that 4,500 to 6,800 young people are “homeless or marginally housed each year.” The citywide affordable housing stock for this population sat at meager 314 units at the time.

“We are not doing a good enough job as a city and as a state [to help at-risk youth],” Davis said. “Once they leave the foster care system, there is very little support for them.”

The report called for 400 new affordable housing units for this population to be completed or under construction by 2012. Edward II and BTWCSC are located in the Marina and the Western Addition, respectively, in proximity to affluent neighborhoods in a district with a dearth of affordable housing.

“With supportive housing [going] into neighborhoods that never had affordable housing, there is a certain unknown and it makes people uncomfortable,” said Gail Gilman, Executive Director of Community Housing Partnership, which owns and manages the Edward II project.

Patricia Vaughey, a resident of the Marina-Cow Hollow area since 1976, is perhaps the most vocal critic of the project. She has used the neighborhood associations and every other city forum she can find as platforms to lambaste the plans. “It just kills my soul to see this project,” she told us, voicing a variety of concerns about how the project would be managed. “I am so worried about the kids … We are asking for the best program in the country and we are not getting it.”

Yet Gilman said that considerable energy and many resources have been invested in designing Edward II and that she trusts Larkin Street Youth Service, a respected nonprofit agency, to do the programming. “We chose to partner with Larkin Street because they are the experts in this area,” she said.

Vaughey characterized the stretch of Lombard Street between Divisadero and Van Ness streets, where Edward II will be located, as marred by crime and prostitution and unsuitable for this project. “We have a little Tenderloin down here,” she said.

Gilman disputed that characterization and said the building was chosen after an extensive search and that it met the criteria of having the right sized building in a safe neighborhood with good access to public transit and open space.

But many residents have expressed concern over the pending change to zoning for the building. And if the BTWCSC project couldn’t win Farrell’s support, the Edward II project faces an even more uphill battle because Farrell told us, “There’s an even stronger level of neighborhood concern over that project…. It’s going to be a tough hill to climb.”

The contentious issue under review by the Planning Department is an application to expand the density limit from 16 units to 24.

John Miller, president of the Marina Community Association, said that “from a neighborhood dynamic perspective,” a change to density is problematic. He said changing the density for one building is a slippery slope that could hurt the entire neighborhood. “Higher density is inconsistent with the neighborhood. It could work beautifully at lower density.”

Miller said potential renters in the vicinity would be concerned with “loitering that could occur when people are coming and going … With so many people there is no sense of community”

Yet as with BTWCSC, proponents say simply slashing the project to a smaller size would kill it because then it wouldn’t pencil out financially. Making an issue of density is therefore obstruction of the project because compromise cannot be reached on the issue.

Farrell, a venture capitalist, said he ran the numbers on BTWCSC and believes it would still be a viable project at four stories if the Mayor’s Office of Housing is able to offer some unspecified assistance, as he said the officials there have pledged to him they would. “I know we need more affordable housing,” Farrell said, rejecting suggestions that D2 residents tend to oppose all affordable housing projects. “I don’t think that should be a part of this conversation.”

Farrell criticized the outreach done by Edward II proponents, telling us, “I don’t think it was done in a tactful way.” But Miller said a recent meeting with Gilman and others was positive. “It was an effort on their part to respond to the neighborhood concerns as best they can,” Miller said.

“We are confident we can partner with the community in a proactive way to address the concerns that are addressable,” Gilman said. “If we diligently work with the community, we can have positive project.”

Edward II is on track to come before the Planning Commission in mid-July, while the appeal of the BTWCSC project is scheduled to be heard by the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee on June 6 at 1 p.m. Neither Mirkarimi nor Farrell offered predictions, but both said the issue of whether the project should be four or five stories will likely be a key part of the discussion.

“Coming through the process has made me super supportive of all plans for transition age housing. I was already a supporter but this made me a fervent supporter,” Scott said. “The amount of opposition by people who don’t care what happens to our children — it makes you want to fight.”

Power to the powerful


On Thursday, May 26, the California Public Utilities Commission is set to vote on changes to the electricity rates of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers. Currently two proposals are on the table, and consumer advocates characterize the better one as merely the lesser of two evils.

At its last meeting on May 5, the commission approved a requested 8.1 percent increase in the total amount of money PG&E will collect from its customers in 2011. The $454 million revenue increase is supposed to account for costs accrued by the company’s spending on infrastructure.

The big question that remains is how the increased burden will be divided among customers, or more precisely, what class of customers will see a bump in their monthly bill. The price of electricity in California is regulated by a tiered structure, meaning the less you use, the less each kilowatt of power costs you. In this way, higher usage customers pay above-cost prices for power, subsidizing users who conserve and those enrolled in the energy discount program.

Under both proposals, the rates would be moving away from that structure. Their description summarizes the new structure this way: “Lower-usage customers will incur higher rates offset by reductions in higher usage customer rates.” Critics said the proposal hurts conservation and the poor.

“The policies are going to hurt low-income household in a time when low-income households can’t take any more hurting,” said Stephanie Chen, senior legal counsel for the Greenlining Institute.

One of the proposals is especially detrimental to the 20 percent of PG&E customers who use the program known as California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) to afford their bills. If approved by the commission, PG&E would introduce a new fixed monthly fee. CARE customers would have to dish out an extra $2.40 every month and everyone else would pay $3.

The effect can be acute for households on fixed incomes, which is why Matt Freedman, staff attorney from The Utility Reform Network (TURN) said, “Our top issue is killing the customer charge.”

He is confident in his case against the customer charge and says he is supported by California laws that limit how much the rates of low-income consumers can go up. The law is meant to keep prices stable for the poor, which TURN said it will defend.

“We are prepared to sue the commission if they adopt the customer charge,” Freedman said. “We are prepared to fight.”

Although protecting vulnerable consumers is at the top of the agenda of many consumer advocates, there are other reasons to oppose PG&E’s new rate scheme. “If your bill gets lower all of sudden for using the same amount of power, you are not going to conserve,” Chen said, referring to the how high-usage customer may respond to their new bills.

PG&E failed to reply to Guardian phone calls, but public comments by the energy giant elucidate the push for a change to customer rates. The company cited the “historical context” of more than 10 years of frozen rates for low-income customers.

Melissa Kasnitz, a spokesperson for Disability Rights Advocates, said the data from PG&E indicates that many households already on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder are teetering on the brink of disconnection. She called the historical context of frozen rates a “meaningless abstraction” given the hardship those households will face.

Even more alarming is that PG&E sees the proposed change to the rate structure as a “continuing movement toward a cost-based framework for [rates].” California law, however, says that the guiding principle for determining rates should be accessibility and conservation, not simply cost. But that could change under Senate Bill 142, a bill introduced by state Sen. Michael Rubio’s (D-Bakersfield) that would more directly link utility rates to the costs of generating power. 


Igniting a union


The most contentious and pivotal election ever for the union of academic student employees at the University of California concluded May 8 in a landslide victory for reformers who will now have the chance to deliver on their promise of a more militant and democratic union. In many ways, it was a microcosm for the larger struggle over how to respond to proposals for deep cuts and tuition hikes in the public university systems.

Local 2865 of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), represents 12,000 teaching assistants, tutors, readers, and researchers, making it the largest UAW union on the West Coast. Higher education workers make up 40,000 of the 390,000 active UAW members, just over 10 percent.

The caucus of reformers, organized under the banner Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), won all 10 executive board positions and 45 out 80 seats at the Joint Council, taking control from incumbent leaders from United for Economic and Social Justice (USEJ), which has presided over the union for most of its 11-year history.

Voter turnout spiked tenfold over the last triennial election with 3,400 ballots cast this election cycle. Union organizers said the hike reflects intensive campaigning by both sides and a political atmosphere that is threatening both higher education in California and public employees across the country.

“This was the first real contested election our union ever had,” said Mandy Cohen, a comparative literature graduate student at UC Berkeley and the AWDU recording secretary-elect. “There was a huge increase in participation, and it was very contentious. Our leadership never had to fight for their position.”

The intensive campaigning translated into an unusually bitter battle for votes with ensuing accusations of foul play. The allegations include intimidation, personal attacks on the character of candidates, and ballot tampering. But the height of controversy and drama came once all the ballots were cast, when the USEJ-dominated elections committee suspended the vote count midway and AWDU members responded with an office sit-in of the union’s headquarters.

Each side tells a different tale for these 1,500 disputed ballots from UC Berkeley and UCLA, the two largest campuses.

From USEJ’s perspective, the sheer number of challenged ballots and the heated environment in the counting room overwhelmed elections officials, who decided to refer the matter to the Joint Council, the governing body of the local.

“AWDU had 20-plus people in the [vote-counting] room. They were continuing the intimidation and aggression. The elections committee decided that it was too much to handle,” said Daraka Larimore-Hall, outgoing president of the local. He said that USEJ elections committee members have been so harangued since the incident that they are not granting requests for media interviews.

AWDU members, who consider UC Berkeley their stronghold, think the vote-counting freeze was the first step on the road to invalidating ballots from a campus with many AWDU supporters.

“Even though we knew they were really threatened by us, the very idea that we would try to disenfranchise 800 voters from the biggest campus — and that’s how they would try to win the election — was really shocking,” Cohen said.

She defended the AWDU decision to videotape the remaining ballots via webcam and take over union offices in protest. “We weren’t taking a partisan position; we just said we wanted the votes counted. I felt like we were clearly in the right. We just wanted to defend the election — and that position was so strong.”

Counting resumed when both sides finally settled on a third-party mediator, delivering 55 percent of the vote to AWDU.

However, on May 16, USEJ released a statement documenting a slew of alleged misconduct throughout the election and calling for a rerun. “It is critical that our members have confidence that the election process is fair and democratic,” reads the statement. “It seems that several categories of problems, with many more individual examples, occurred that are serious enough to justify setting this election aside.”

Whatever happens, reformers at least will have some opportunity to translate their political platform into action. They say they will focus on two areas: increasing the participation and power of the rank and file, and a more aggressive stance toward the university administration and the budget cuts.

“There is real institutional power in this union that should be better mobilized in those fights [for public education],” said president-elect Cheryl Deutsch. “We are hoping to bring into that debate a more mobilized membership … so that we can be a stronger coalition [with others in California].”

She added that the election was already a huge victory in the long-term plan to increase involvement. A history of member indifference and vacancies in the governing board hopefully will give way to a revival in the higher education labor movement, she said.

But Larimore-Hall expressed strong disagreement with the sentiment that the election was a victory for the labor movement. He said he heard AWDU people tell workers that USEJ represents “centrist sell-outs” and “out of touch union bureaucrats,” tactics he criticized. “Going around and telling people their union leaders are corrupt union bosses … in a culture that is steeped in anti-union rhetoric is an easy thing to sell people on,” he said.

Deutsch said she couldn’t take responsibility for the actions of a few amid hundreds of supporters and activists, but that AWDU as a whole did not engage in personal attacks. She said she is proud that her winning slate came from rank-and-file workers, not from traditional union leadership and staff.

It wasn’t the first time the two factions confronted each other. The origin of the tensions can be traced to the recent wave of budgets cuts at the university, and to the ensuing protests. In the summer of 2009, the UC Board of Regents announced a 33 percent tuition hike; the resulting discontent sparked a student movement with its own fair share of ups and downs. Among the protestors were many graduate students who would go on to become AWDU leaders.

Cohen recalls that in fall 2009, there was a “huge explosion of organizing and activism on our campus trying to organize resistance to the cuts — but not within our union.”

Cohen said that she and other graduate students approached the union to encourage action, but that union bureaucracy stifled their efforts. “It was too top-down and difficult to participate. We realized the local wasn’t structured in a way that could be powerful.”

Larimore-Hall said UAW already was “one of the unions that [the university administration] fears most.” He said that AWDU’s position overlooks the union’s accomplishments on the public education front, citing a petition to Sacramento legislators that USEJ organizers got thousands of members to sign.

Early this spring, the issue of labor properly and sufficiently flexing its muscles came center stage as the UAW and the university negotiated a contract. With no concessions to management and gains such as a 2 percent wage increase and more childcare subsidies, Larimore-Hall said the contract is a resounding success.

But Deutsch says that the contract is a perfect example of her disillusionment with traditional union organizing and the previous leadership. Union members ultimately voted to ratify it despite AWDU criticism that the union didn’t seek enough input from members or push for a better deal. AWDU gained traction and established a significant public presence for the first time with this opposition.

“It’s not that I think it’s the worst contract we could have gotten,” she said, explaining that her problem is with the process, not necessarily with the results. If more members had been consulted and included, she would have been content. She mentioned the dire need for affordable housing at the Irvine campus as an example of member concerns that were not prioritized.

Peter Chester, chief contract negotiator for the university, said that in the “current budgetary circumstances,” UAW did “very well” and expressed concern that the slate, which opposed the contract, did so well among academic workers.

But the victory by reformers probably signals a new militancy in the union, which is expected to resist proposals to privatize campus services and push for a stronger voice in the tough decisions facing the university system. Cohen said that making the case for taxing the rich to pay for public education is the wider goal and the reason she ran for a position at the union.

“It’s eye-opening to be a student and benefit from education here at the UC, but also to identify as a public employee,” she said. “When I got to the UC, I was so proud. And then this struggle came to my doorstep, and I didn’t have a choice in this moment.” 


Ghosts of sit-lie past


Is sit-lie a case of not learning from our mistakes?

An interesting bit of history that for the most part failed to enter the debate over the ordinance is that San Francisco enacted a similar ban on sitting and lying  in public spaces in the late 1960’s (PDF).

Inspired 40 years later by the same neighborhood, the current sit-lie law is a legislative throwback. Back then, Haight Street was a center of controversy as hippies began to arrive in droves – hanging out, singing, dancing and generally occupying the sidewalks. Some business and property owners were apprehensive over the rapid changes to the neighborhood.

The Board of Supervisor enacted the ordinance, which made it a crime to “willfully sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public place,” with a unanimous vote in 1968. Violation carried a fine of up to $500 and a maximum jail sentence of six months.

Then-Mayor Joseph L. Alioto, who signed the ban into law, told the San Francisco Chronicle the ordinance “will not be used to discriminate against any group or person.” His promise echoes the claims of contemporary proponents of sit-lie.

But police used the law to target not only hippies but also gay men in the Castro. The predictable reality of selective enforcement galvanized popular resistance.

Over the next decade, the ACLU sued and managed to overturn parts of the law. “[The original laws] were being used unjustly by the police against people who were considered undesirable,” said Alan Schlosser, legal director of the ACLU, who has been working for the organization since 1976. They were used against Hippies in the Haight, they were used in the Castro and the Tenderloin against the prostitutes.”

Political pressure from a wide coalition, which included Harvey Milk, convinced the board to rescind the ordinance in 1979. In fact, one of Milk’s signature campaign issues was stopping police harassment of gay people.

The current law does avoid some of the pitfalls of the old one. The ban only applies to sitting and lying down; the sixties-era law referred to the obstruction of public space. Police are now required to issue a warning, and the punishment for violation is significantly lower. Neither distinction, however, alters the fundamental problem of sit-lie.

The ordinance criminalizes an extremely common behavior, which is in itself harmless. The most vulnerable members of our society depend on public space and are inevitably the most susceptible to getting in trouble into the crosshairs sit-lie enforcement.

Queer activists are once again leading the effort against unfair and unwise regulation of public space. We reported April 11th that self-proclaimed “angry queers” installed handmade benches on city streets as a form of protest art. Likewise, this upcoming May 22nd, which is Milk’s birthday, Queers for Economic Equality Now (QUEEN) will be coordinating sidewalk events against sit-lie in San Francisco and Berkeley.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca who organizes with QUEEN, said “for me it is so thrilling to see two cities doing something against sit-lie and invoking Harvey’s name.”


Art walk used to protest Chase Bank


This week’s Thursday evening Divisadero Art Walk is going to combine local culture with a clear political message. Local activists have dubbed the night the “No Chase Block Party” to protest a banking giant’s unwelcome entry in their neighborhood. Many in the neighborhood pride themselves on staving off the corporate chains, but now J.P. Morgan Chase is set to open a new branch at the intersection of Divisadero and Oak streets. Previously, the retail location held three locally owned shops including a specialty cheese vendor.

“We are intentionally choosing to have the action as part of the Divisadero Art Walk to both celebrate and participate in the creative community that exists and is blossoming here,” said Ilyse Magy, a local resident helping with the outreach. “The Block Party will be just that, a block party, a chance for neighbors to meet neighbors and have actual conversations about what they want their neighborhood to look like.”

Magy and others will present an art project in which resident that walk by can brainstorm and write down ideas for the neighborhood. Additionally, information about local credit unions will be available, she said.

As for corporate chains, two other Chase branches lie within a 10-block radius, and a Bank of America is around the corner, indicating there is no shortage of banking options in the area. The location, however, is excellent for displaying an advertising logo considering the immense traffic on that stretch of Divisadero.

The community action is happening in conjunction with formal appeals to the San Francisco Planning Commission. City law requires chain businesses that move into certain neighborhoods to undergo a conditional use permit hearing. But the Planning Department has interpreted the law to exempt banks, thus preventing a hearing that would empower community voices and local concerns.

Free online learning


Some of the nation’s — and the world’s — top universities now make classes available free on the web. You won’t get credit or a degree — but you can, in effect, audit classes on a wide range of subjects.

UC Berkeley has an official YouTube channel. Catch up with students taking classes this semester on astrophysics, computer science, or the “Dynamics of Romantic Core Values in East Asian Premodern Literature.” One of the top rated and most viewed videos is a class on gravity and satellites. One viewer frankly commented, “Thank you for making me less dumb.”

It’s easy enough to hop over to other coast if you are curious about what Ivy League classes look like — and Yale’s online access offers more than just video. You even have the syllabus as well as the actual homework assignments.

Popular among Yale undergraduates is a philosophy class titled “Death.” You can also check out an advanced Literary Theory class with on lecture focusing on Queer Theory and Gender Performativity.

Universities all over the world are plugging in to the open education movement. At the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, the selection is slimmer, but who can pass up the opportunity to take “Object Oriented Programming in C++.” Seriously, though, how about “Creating Interactive Media”?


The online-learning challenge


CAREERS AND ED Mixing, mashing, chatting, tweeting: This is how the University of California envisions the future of learning for what it calls a new breed of students. Also on the syllabus? Podcasting, vodcasting, blogging, and Skype.

Last week, UC was awarded a $750,000 Next Generation Learning Challenges grant, moving it one step closer to a curriculum composed of words that barely existed a decade ago. But some fear — with good reason — that online education will become a low-cost, high-return alternative to traditional instruction. And the students will be the losers.

UC’s Online Instruction Pilot Program grew out of recommendations to explore online learning discussed by the UC Commission on the Future over the past two years. This spring, a subcommittee of faculty and administrators selected 29 courses to be developed over the next two years.

The pilot program is a long-term initiative to evaluate and ultimately increase the role of online education as a regular part of the UC curriculum — a chance to respond, according to the program’s website, to a “transformation” in the way students learn.

The commission promotes online learning as a boon without trade-offs, a way of answering questions of accessibility, efficiency, and, ultimately, costs — and is not shy about outlining the relationship between the three. Chartered to help wiggle UC out of a “vise of rising costs and drastically reduced resources,” the commission is proposing sweeping changes to California’s public university system.



UC envisions a greater number of students served and increased diversity, “from Kentucky to Kuala Lampur,” according to Law School Dean Chris Edley, cochair of the commission’s Education and Curriculum Working Group.

Edley, one of the most enthusiastic proponents of digital learning, initially referred to online education as an 11th UC campus, promising it would offer an equivalent college experience — minus only the “keg party.”

Critics were quick to condemn the plan as overblown excitement. Concerned undergraduates and skeptical faculty raised questions about the quality of online learning. Angry graduate student instructors (understandably) balked at Edley’s grandiose vision of a cybercampus where “squadrons of GSIs” will serve on the “frontline of online contact” with undergraduates.

Political science professor Wendy Brown is one of the leading critics. “Personal engagement with students is crucial,” she told us in a phone interview. “Real teachers don’t just teach subject matter. You have to know students and where their experience and level of engagement is. I don’t want them just to come out with content — I want them to come out as thinkers … have a new way to analyze the world.”

Brown said she believes that acclimating to the intellectual culture of a university — especially important in the first year — can’t be achieved online. Yet first-year courses are exactly where administrators are looking to channel online efforts.

Administrators hope to relieve pressure on overcrowded gateway math and science courses, as well as freshman reading and composition. As many as 40 percent of first-year students test out of their first semester of reading and composition, indicating that the students remaining are those most in need of attention. Even so, a generous smattering of general chemistry, intro calculus, and reading and composition classes like Humanities 1A are among the pilot courses moving forward.

Craig Evans, professor of mathematics and chair of the course committee for calculus, echoes Brown’s concerns. “I don’t think it’s impossible to make this work, but I think it would be very, very difficult,” he said. “Part of what we do as teachers is applied psychology, things like checking in with students and keeping up morale, in addition to teaching classical mathematics. It’s hard to see how to convey that in an online course.”

Robert Anderson, faculty representative to the Board of Regents and professor of economics and mathematics, agreed that there is “something important about being on campus for four years, rubbing shoulders with students and faculty.”

And when short-term goals — taking pressure off overcrowded introductory courses — are met, what comes next?

The academic senate approved the pilot program on the condition that the necessary funding — as much as $7 million — come from outside sources. With the exception of the $750,000 NGLF grant, that money hasn’t materialized. The university has borrowed money from internal sources; half of that will be directed toward infrastructure development, according to Anderson.

With money-saving rhetoric underlining every stage of the program’s development and millions to be invested in online infrastructure, how will UC officials avoid the temptation to simply use online learning as a revenue source — regardless of what academic benefits pilot program researchers find?



The answer is: they won’t.

In a post on the Berkeley Blog last summer, Edley attempted to allay fears that an online program would eliminate campus learning by assuring that future online pupils would be “new, tuition-paying, UC-eligible students we otherwise wouldn’t have the room or resources to serve. And any net revenue would be plowed back into supporting the on-campus program.” In this model, off-campus students would be cash cows milked for the additional revenue they could produce.

Though the committee has delayed visions of an entirely online degree since then, crucial questions regarding a long-term trajectory remain: Would online students pay the same price? Would they be accepted exclusively for online matriculation? Would their degrees be identical?

Nobody knows, but already the pilot program is relying on projected revenue from off-campus students to help recoup some of the borrowed $7 million, according to Anderson.

Keith Williams, Edley’s cochair on the commission’s education and curriculum working group, confirmed that UC is planning to offer newly developed classes on a per-credit basis to students enrolled at UC and others.

According to Williams, these new courses will offer full course credit — and the full price tag. Pricing was made consistent with brick-and-mortar courses, Williams explained, to avoid causing UC students to make a tough decision: either pay full price for an on campus course or save money by taking a less desirable online course.

And yes, conveniently, offering the courses at full price does generate revenue to be reinvested. (Williams balked at the phrase “skimmed off the top.”)

Now that the pilot program is underway, administrators are treading more lightly around its money-making intentions. But for a reminder of the project’s origins, one need only look at the commission’s recommendation to up enrollment quotas for nonresident students — a recommendation slated to be met next year.

The commission’s final report explicitly calculates the amount of money ($12,000) that can be generated for each Californian replaced with a nonresident student, stating “each 1 percent increase in nonresident students would generate almost $1 million” — a dubious maneuver at a time when the university claims it must expand online education to meet the shortages of space for its own residents.

The culture betrayed by this vision of UC education is clear — one in which educational models are constructed according to business practices.

Despite the pilot program’s rhetoric of innovation and breakthrough, it’s not the first to fuse Internet with education. Brown is quick to note that despite her criticism of the pilot program “[she] is not a Luddite.” She described to us how the faculty is increasingly making use of online educational aids.

Many professors choose to broadcast their lectures online, allowing students — and anyone else for that matter — to virtually peek in on a lecture, either live or with a delay of hours or days.

Currently, more than 40 UC Berkeley lecture halls are fitted for video and/or audio recording. Thousands of transmissions, from biology to history, have been uploaded to iTunes and YouTube (see sidebar).

Although webcasts are highly popular with students — and students are undoubtedly the main priority for the program — people are tuning in from all continents, according to Benjamin Hubbard, who runs the webcast program.

For Hubbard, webcasts “[broaden] the window of access to all the scholarly activity on campus. We are fortunate in that we are public university, so first and foremost we have a mission of community service and making this content freely and publicly available matches this mission.”



Recognizing the enormous challenges of decreased accessibility and increasing cost, a growing consortium of educators and researchers are building momentum and developing a vision for a truly public online educational program.

Lisa Petrides, president and founder of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, calls herself a “public education fanatic.” She told us that the instead of using online teaching as a money-maker, schools can adopt a principled, egalitarian approach.

Petrides is a signatory of the Capetown Declaration, a manifesto for the open education movement. The declaration calls for collaboration that cuts across institutional lines; for the use and promotion of free educational resources; and for policy support for open education.

“You start to have this pedagogical collaborative community that can use resources in this way, changing how we teach and how we learn,” she said. To take analogy for computer software, Petrides says her movement is akin to the open source movement.

Now there’s an innovative approach to online education — with its eyes on the future, not its pocket.


Will Muni youth passes be saved?


A popular and successful program that gave free group bus passes to summer programs for kids is up for renewal — but nobody knows if Muni officials will approve it.

The Summer Youth Group Pass allowed thousands of children in 50 different nonprofit summer programs access to free rides for field trips. Last year 850 passes were made available and each covered a groups of roughly 20 students.
But despite political support from educators and youth activity leaders, and a official letter from Sup David Campos and City Attorney Dennis Herrera, San Francisco Municipal Transporttion Agency Executive Director Nathaniel Ford remains mute on whether the program will continue.

Herrera and Campos issued the letter March 31 detailing the importance of the passes and urging action. Herrera said, “I’m hopeful [it will be renewed]. It was a tremendous success last year and I see no reason why it won’t continue this year.”
But SFMTA spokesperson Kristin Holland a decision has yet to be made. She said staff must look at the finances of renewing the program and that she has yet had audience with Ford to ask his response to the letter.

The politicians in support of the passes are taking their cues from educators and youth advocates on the ground. Education advocate Margaret Brodkin, for example, said she believes “we need to make summer a much more enriching time for young people, especially for low income people.”

One person she said is working toward that goal is Jeff Feinman, executive director of Mission Graduates. Feinman explained, group passes “allow kids to see different parts of the San Francisco they wouldn’t have opportunity to see otherwise. It’s a reward for the work they do.”

From an organizational perspective, group passes are important for two major reasons. Feinman said, “logistically, they make coming and going easy.” Instead of requiring a pass for each student, one pass can work for an entire group. He added that “the cost saving is huge for our programs that are cash strapped.”

When it comes to public transit, Campos said it is important to not only alleviate funding woes but to move forward with comprehensive support for low-income Muni riders. “[Group passes] is one piece of a larger puzzle,” he said. “We want to make Muni more accessible affordable to students in the public schools.”

He added, “We have been exploring the possibilities of making Muni free for all youth in San Francisco. That’s a long term plan.”

Preaching Tikkun


Michael Lerner recently endured death threats, attacks on his house, and a cyber attack that shut down the website of his beloved magazine Tikkun. But it’s nothing new for an outspoken outsider whom infamous former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover once dubbed “one of the most dangerous criminals in America.”

The 68-year-old rabbi jokes that his middle name is chutzpah (Yiddish for audacity, good or bad) and says he has been a magnet for controversy his entire life. But that doesn’t make the recent threats from Zionists and other strong advocates for Israel any less scary.

The latest controversy comes on the heels of Tikkun’s silver anniversary celebration, held March 14, when the progressive Jewish publication honored human rights advocate Judge Richard Goldstone, whose report condemning Israeli war crimes in Gaza was strongly criticized by Jewish leaders. The day after the Tikkun event, vandals plastered posters outside Lerner’s Berkeley home depicting him as a Nazi cooperating with an Islamic extremist to destroy Israel. Previously vandals broke into his home, wreaking havoc inside and leaving graffiti to communicate their message.

After all these years, Lerner bears the threats and accusations with eternal optimism and resilience, preaching the still-radical message of “peace, justice, nonviolence, generosity, caring, love, and compassion.” The message has been at center of the Berkeley-based magazine’s mission for 25 years.

Aside from being a vibrant spiritual community based on traditional Jewish and other humanistic values, Tikkun has deeply influenced the discourse in the wider Jewish community. It has challenged the Jewish community’s automatic support for Israel and Zionism and started a spirited debate, triggering an angry backlash in the process.

As its readership has diversified across religions, so has its mission, leading Lerner to found the Network of Spiritual Progressives in 2005. Dismayed by how conservatives use the notion of family values, Lerner has sought to create a progressive framework to address the human need for spiritual meaning.

“Tikkun is the major thing I did with my life,” Lerner tells us.

The recent celebration included an award ceremony for those Lerner’s team deems most “Tikkunish.” The title of the magazine comes from the old Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, a principle of shared responsibility to “heal, repair, and transform the world.” Previous winners include poet Allen Ginsberg and historian Howard Zinn.

Goldstone is known for helping to dismantle apartheid in South Africa and prosecuting war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Most recently, Goldstone headed a U.N.-sponsored investigation into Israel’s attack on Gaza two years ago. The investigation concluded that indiscriminate bombing in densely populated areas by Israeli forces amounts to war crimes.

Israel and many Jewish leaders have harshly criticized Goldstone’s report on the Gaza attack for its purported biases, saying it unjustly jeopardizes Israel’s international standing and reputation. But at Tikkun’s award ceremony, Goldstone reaffirmed the findings of his investigation and said that he was compelled to act because he believes in the “right of civilians to be protected even in war.”

Lerner sees Goldstone’s actions as important and deeply Jewish, calling him “a person who takes seriously a central command of Torah: ‘Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.'” The two men have had a relationship since Lerner reached out to Goldstone a year ago. At the time, Goldstone was facing so much backlash that some members of South Africa’s Jewish community sought to bar him from attending his son’s bar mitzvah. That was when the first attack to Lerner’s home occurred.

Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Mary Kusmiss said the police have “no leads or identified suspects.” She went on to say that the latest incident may be classified as a hate crime.

“When people start coming to attack your house, you don’t feel safe,” Lerner said. “You don’t know what these crazy people will do next.” But he insists he does not want to make a big deal out of the threats, saying extremists have never altered his actions or politics.

Lerner has always tried to challenge the American Jewish establishment, a term for organizations with an array of religious, cultural, and political concerns but a common hawkish stance on Israel and American foreign policy.

“Israel has been turned into God,” he explains. “You can walk into any synagogue in America and you can tell them ‘I don’t believe in God, I don’t like the Torah, and I’m not following the Ten Commandments’ and be welcomed. But if you go into that same synagogue and say, ‘I don’t support Israel,’ you are kicked out. People are worshiping Israel and God has been abandoned.”

But Lerner notes shifting public opinion, especially among younger Jews. Many are experiencing ethical dissonance between the righteous and heroic Israel commonly portrayed in the Jewish community and the increasingly visible reality of Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian lands, human rights abuses, and violations of international law.

While criticism of Israel coming from non-Jews is often dismissed as anti-Semitism, Jews who express dissent often get called “self-hating.” But Lerner said the illogical conclusion that Israel is the same thing as the Jewish people, and that if you criticize Israel you hate yourself has become less effective in silencing dissent. “It simply isn’t true that people are angry at Israel because of some internal psychological deformation,” Lerner said. “[Increasingly] people are saying ‘If being ethical is the same as being a self-hating Jew, then I choose to be ethical.’ “

But Lerner comes under fierce criticism from Jewish hardliners for his views. Attorney Alan Dershowitz, an outspoken supporter of Israel’s government, famously wrote a 2006 commentary in j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California detailing Lerner’s “offense against decency and the Jewish people,” concluding that Lerner is a “rabbi for Hamas.” According to Dershowitz, “Tikkun is quickly becoming the most virulently anti-Israel screed ever published under Jewish auspices.”

But Lerner isn’t really on the radical edge in criticizing Israel. Although Tikkun courted controversy in 1988 by denouncing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, the magazine today doesn’t support the movement that is pushing a policy of boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel initiated by Palestinian activists in 2005 as a nonviolent tactic to pressure Israel to change its policies. But Lerner still seeks to foster debate on the topic, as he did in the July/August 2010 issue, which featured Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace arguing for at least a partial support of the tactic.

Lerner’s ire has always been directed at powerful institutions, from the military to the white Southern power structure. As a college student, Lerner directly engaged in the nonviolent protests of the 1960s. While working toward his first PhD (philosophy) at UC Berkeley, Lerner was president of Students for a Democratic Society. Later, while working on his second PhD (psychology) in Seattle, Lerner was arrested and found guilty of instigating a riot during a protest against the Vietnam War. The conviction was later overturned, but his reputation as a dangerous radical was solidified in the minds of Hoover and other establishment figures.

Lerner never abandoned his belief in the validity and power of protest. “I would like to see young Jews confront the Jewish institutions,” he said. “I want to see sit-ins and demonstrations to challenge those who are willing to give support to the right-wing governments of Israel.”

Yet he has also grown skeptical of many leftist groups. “As spiritual progressives, we are critical of progressives,” Lerner explains. Although he agrees that a major redistribution of political and economic power is necessary, he argues that something is missing on the left, with its focus on secular ideas and neglect of real spiritual needs.

Lerner says the left’s shortcoming has allowed the right to tap into popular discontent and win support by championing church and family.

While working toward his PhD in psychology, Lerner was part of a team that interviewed thousands of working Americans. “What we discovered was there was a spiritual crisis in peoples lives. There was a deep hunger for a framework of meaning and purpose to life that would transcend the individualism, selfishness, and materialism that people are working all day long in the workplaces,” he said. “People don’t like the message of the work world that the bottom line is to maximize money and power, and to do that you must look out for No. 1 and not care about others.”

His response was to found Tikkun, whose message can attract even agnostics. Alana Price does not describe herself as religious, but she has recently been promoted to be the co-managing editor of the magazine. “I knew Tikkun built a bridge between the religious left and the secular left, so I was excited about that,” Price said. “What drew me was the deeply humane quality of Tikkun.”

Hilton breaks ranks and reaches a deal with its workers


After an 18-month contract impasse, hotel workers in San Francisco landed a breakthrough deal when Hilton decided to settle with its union’s negotiating team, which was announced by both parties in a press conference today.

The tentative contract, which is to last until August of 2013 if ratified by a final union vote, secures healthcare and pension benefits as well a pay increase for more than 800 workers at Hilton San Francisco Union Square, the city’s largest hotel. The deal doesn’t cover other Hilton hotels in the city, whose management Hilton contracts out to other companies.

“With this agreement, workers and the company alike can look forward with confidence as the hospitality sector continues to emerge from the recent recession,” said UNITE HERE Local 2 President Mike Casey.

Hilton General Manager Michael Dunn said, “We are glad to have a contract that is fair to the hotel and the union.”

The settlement includes provisions for continued, fully-paid health benefits, pension improvements, a $2 per hour wage increase and workload reductions. Union leaders would be able to take up to four days off a year specifically for leadership trainings as well

As for why they reached a settlement at this moment, both sides pointed to the recent increase in occupancy rates and the length of the stalemate.

But Casey also stressed the importance of the unified struggle by workers. “By and large it is the workers’ determination to go one day longer than the bosses. [Management] settles when the cost of the fight exceeds the cost of settlement. It is a business decision for them.”

About 8,000 hotel workers in San Francisco still await a resolution to their negotiations and the Hilton contract is largely seen as the blueprint for all pending deals. Hilton broke rank with the other big hotels in the city in a move that many said is characteristic of its “leadership.” Dunne said, “the decision is strictly for Hilton” and was not made in coordination with other hotels.

The Hotel Council of San Francisco has yet to respond to requests for comment. The union officially called an end to the boycott against Hilton and will now focus on winning contracts in the remaining campaigns. “While this is a watershed event in this campaign, the fight is by no means over,” Casey said. “There are still 50 plus hotels that need to come to their senses and settle with us.”

The rank and file of the union echoed the same sentiments. Weary after a prolonged struggle they are nevertheless determined to extend support to other workers. Jacov Awoke, a Hilton doorman for 20 years said, “Our struggle continues with other corporations. Our sisters and brothers need the same contract.”

Connie Hibbard who has been a server for almost 30 years at the Westin St Francis Hotel, said she was “hopeful. I have the confidence they understand and respect their employees.”

It is unclear at this point whether the Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, owner of the Westin St Francis, plans to follow suit, however, since they canceled scheduled labor negotiations at the last minute, after hearing about the Hilton deal. Casey said they “continue to be extremely hostile to interests of workers.” But that the “boycott that is going to escalate,” using resources freed up by the Hilton deal. He also said that the campaign to pressure Hyatt would also be important in the coming weeks.

Neither hotel chain had yet responded to requests for comment. Casey recognized the importance of this win for labor in the midst of a massive struggle for unionized public employees all over the county. He said, “We are one movement. What happens in one industry affects other industries.”

The American dream, for sale


For Mao Huajun and Wen Lin, a trip to San Francisco is a chance to stock up on American retail. With at least five bags in each arm, the couple from China is all smiles. Through an interpreter, they point to the tags on their new clothes and cologne and explain: "Made in China."

Consumer products devised here and made there are too expensive or not available for Chinese shoppers, so Mao and Wen, who come from Wenzhou, where Mao made a fortune in wood products and real estate, are taking full advantage of their trip.

But don’t confuse them with typical tourists. The two are on a boutique pre-immigration tour of the Bay Area, tailored for rich people who want to move to this country — without the typical problem of getting documents.

An anti-immigration wave is sweeping across the country. The Obama administration has overseen the deportation of a record 390,000 people in the past year. College kids who came here as young children are finding they can’t stay and work. The much-anticipated DREAM Act, which would allow college graduates a chance at citizenship, is in a Republican-induced limbo. Poor and working-class immigrants are getting kicked out of the country every day.

But private companies are going overseas and recruiting investors with the promise of a little-known federal program: For half a million bucks, you can get yourself a green card.

If you’ve got the cash, the promoters say it’s easy. Invest that sum with a broker who’s doing some sort of development in a low-income area and you’re guaranteed the right to move to the United States, immediately, with your entire family. You can live anywhere you want (not just in the area where you invested). And you’re on track to become a U.S. citizen.

But the program, known by its federal moniker of EB-5, is riddled with loopholes and lack of oversight. It has a history of creating few or no jobs, and the projects it funds can harm low-income communities. The immigrant investors aren’t safe, either. They put their fate in the hands of brokers and immigration officials, and if everything doesn’t go according to plan (and sometimes they have no control over that plan), they lose their money and face deportation — sometimes years after settling into their new lives.

In truth, the real winners in this program are the private brokers who profit by connecting immigrant investors with projects that desperately need funding.

San Francisco has been late to enter the EB-5 game — but now long-time political figures, including former Redevelopment Commissioner Benny Yee, are getting in on the action. Oakland has several EB-5 centers looking for money.


The federal government has long offered employment-based visas that allow people with exceptional skills or who are otherwise valuable to the American economy to immigrate to the U.S. But EB-5, created in 1990, is different: it places value on immigrants based on their wallets, not on their brains.

When Congress debated the creation of EB-5, politicians and members of the public saw it as a bona fide way to create citizenship opportunities. The rationale: people who create jobs with their money deserve to live here.

Federal officials and EB-5 experts told us how it works, at least in theory. To gain initial residence visas for themselves and their families, would-be immigrants have to invest $1 million in a new business or an existing and struggling one. If the business is in a Targeted Employment Area — defined by law as "a rural area or an area that has experienced high unemployment of at least 150 percent of the national average" — the investment requirement drops to $500,000.

The EB-5 applicants can invest on their own or they through a broker, known as a regional center. Regional centers make the process easier for investors; they also pool investment to generate the capital necessary for big projects.

Each investor must create or preserve at least 10 full-time sustainable jobs within two years to stay in the country permanently.

Exact numbers aren’t available, but government data shows that the vast majority of investors opt for the $500,000 plan — and few invest on their own. Luz Irazabal, spokesperson for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency overseeing EB-5, estimates that 80 percent to 90 percent of visas are granted through the regional centers.

So in practice, the program allows private, unregulated brokers to take the money of wealthy people and invest it in projects that are supposed to create jobs in low-income areas. It’s not necessarily a bad idea, and there’s nothing wrong with opening the most possible paths to legal residency.

But it doesn’t always work out — for the immigrants or the community.


The EB-5 program is booming. Only 11 regional centers existed in 2007. Today 133 businesses are designated as regional centers allowed to offer EB-5 visas to foreigners in exchange for their cash and 180 applications for the status are pending.

And while EB-5 started out slowly (only a few hundred green cards were issued in the first few years) and still isn’t a huge factor in immigration (1,886 permits were issued last year), most observers agree it’s on the rise.

"As domestic money has gotten tighter, project developers have discovered the EB-5 program as a possible way to obtain foreign capital," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor at Cornell University Law School, veteran immigration lawyer, and self-described "guru" of EB-5."

Some are dubious. Henry Liebman, the Seattle-based CEO of one of the oldest and most successful regional centers, told us that "most of these [new] regional centers aren’t going to raise a nickel." He added that EB-5 is "not going to be the panacea that’s going to lift us out of the great depression."

And it’s something of a Wild West. The federal agency that runs the program doesn’t regulate the regional centers once they’re approved for business. And even though the centers make loans and invest money, the Securities and Exchange Commission doesn’t monitor them. Indeed, there’s no real regulation at all.

Yale-Loehr says the program helps everyone. "Project developers can win because they can get access to capital for their projects. U.S. workers win because the EB-5 money will create jobs. U.S. taxpayers win because EB-5 money stimulates the economy and creates jobs at no expense to taxpayers. And foreign investors win because they get a green card through their investments."

Not exactly. A Dec. 22, 2010 Reuters news service report notes that "thousands of immigrants have been burned by misrepresentations that EB-5 promoters make about the program, inside and outside the United States. Many have lost not only their money, but their chance at winning U.S. citizenship."

In fact, the news service found that in 2009 "four Koreans who invested in a South Dakota dairy farm through EB-5 lost their entire investment when the price of milk collapsed and the operators of the farm stopped paying the mortgage. When the four, who had invested a total of $2 million in the dairy, tried to step in and save the venture, they discovered their partner had left their names off the title. When they tried to sue in state court, the case went nowhere."

If a project falls apart and no jobs are created, the immigrants face deportation.

And there’s little guarantee that the projects these investors fund actually create any jobs for the communities where they’re located.

Regional centers have plenty of ways to win. According to center executives, they typically charge the investors a fee for facilitating the program they charge their clients. In some cases, the immigrant investors become part owners of a business enterprise; the investors and the regional center gets paid when the business turns a profit. But it’s far more common for the regional center to lend the money for projects and collect the interest. Usually immigrant investors get paid only around 1 percent in interest and the regional center picks up the rest.

It’s certainly worked for Liebman. He owns and runs 10 regional centers with offices throughout the United States and one in Tokyo. All his investments have gone into commercial real estate. "You don’t get to be Bill Gates through EB-5, but it certainly raises your game," he said.

Yale-Leohr did say the program must be "done correctly" and that it’s no piece of cake. "It is hard to set up a project that meets all immigration and securities-related requirements."


Everyone agrees that the program exists primary because it’s supposed to create jobs. "There is a lot of scrutiny of job creation because that is the foundation of the program," Irazabal said.

But that scrutiny is actually limited.

It shouldn’t be hard to determine if an investment is creating jobs in the community; either there are people working in a local business or not. But EB-5 experts told us that most of the EB-5 investment doesn’t create direct jobs. Sharon Rummery, also a spokesperson for the Citizenship and Immigration Service, said she suspects most of the jobs are indirect. But after checking with agency staff, she told us there’s no data.

The difference is critical. Say, for example, some investors build an electric car factory in a neighborhood with high unemployment. They hire 10 people to build cars, and create 10 direct jobs.

But when the workers go out to lunch and the deli counter down the street hires more help, that’s indirect job-creation — and how one specific investment creates other jobs is essentially guesswork.

Of course, the electric car factory has to buy materials and parts — say, computer chips — that might be made halfway across the country (and possibly in an area that doesn’t have high unemployment). Those jobs count, too. According Irazabal, USCIS has "no requirement for the [indirect] jobs to be in the geographic area" that is struggling economically.

The geographic flexibility USCIS allows is interesting considering that, according USCIS rules, regional centers must have "plans to focus on a geographical region within the United States and must explain how the regional center will achieve economic growth within this regional area."

The most interesting question is whether any of the indirect jobs are ever really created. And the bottom line is, USCIS never checks.

Here’s the process, according to USCIS officials. Regional centers create business plans. Then they hire consulting firms to evaluate how many indirect jobs will be created if the business plan all goes as projected. USCIS signs off on the report and the E-5 visas are approved.

The government never does its own studies or reports, never tracks actual indirect job creation, and rarely questions what the private consultants say.

Economist Peter Donahue, who runs PBI Associates in San Francisco, told us the job creation promises under EB-5 amount to a "parable." Models used to track indirect jobs "give the appearance of the science but its probably someone’s best guess," he said. "I’m not persuaded this stuff adds up."

Assumptions inherent in the models are not commonly verified, he added, and often fail to calculate the net effect of an investment, like when a new firm crowds out existing firms.

Tom Henderson, who’s setting up an EB-5 center in Oakland, told us the indirect jobs model "is all smoke and mirrors — it’s bullshit" (see sidebar).

Still, Irazabal says, "numbers don’t lie." USCIS checks that business plan and the job creation strategy is "viable, can be reproduced, and is practical. We have people whose area of specialty is looking at this."

To make things more complicated, most EB-5 money isn’t going into creating goods or services. It’s going into real estate development. And unlike a factory, a new building by itself creates barely any direct jobs.

It may have the opposite effect. High-end office development often displaces existing businesses, particularly industrial ones. And those lost jobs aren’t taken into account.


Mao said his No. 1 reason for seeking residency in the United States is the prospect of better education for his two sons, 5 and 17.

It’s ironic. Mao’s American Dream for his children is no different from the dreams of immigrants like Shing Ma "Steve" Li, a 20-year-old nursing student in San Francisco.

Li has lived in San Francisco since he was 12. speaks Cantonese, English, French and Spanish. He was arrested Sept. 15, 2010 by ICE agents, held in a detention center for two months, and threatened with deportation because his parents lacked the proper documentation.

Li, like tens of thousands of others, has talent and education and a lot to offer the United States. But he doesn’t have $500,000.

Immigration activists like Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, aren’t against EB-5 just because its immigrants are privileged. "We don’t believe there are good immigrants or bad immigrants when it comes to folks who contribute to this nation," he said.

But, he added, "We are looking for equity in our immigration system."

Immigrant-rights activists properly support almost any program that helps open the doors, particularly at a time when the right-wing is exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment. But it seems unfair that one class of immigrants, the ones with large sums of extra money to invest, are getting recruited to come to the U.S. while a much larger group — including people who have lived here for years, worked hard, built businesses and contributed to the nation — is being shown the exit door.

Francisco Ugarte, an attorney with the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network, made the point: "We disagree with legal standards that make it easier for rich people to immigrate than poor people.

"Our legal system is designed to protect the rich and powerful," he added. "People who are coming out of necessity have a much harder time immigrating than wealthy people looking to move."

"It is," he added, indicative of a broken immigration system." *


Tom Henderson’s clients call San Francisco jiou jin shan, meaning "old gold mountain" in Mandarin and referring to the Gold Rush era impression that San Francisco must be awash in opportunity.

His soon-to-be-unveiled San Francisco Regional center is still waiting on final government approval, but Henderson has already been lining up investors to participate in the program.

He spends a third of his year in China and has done business there for decades. Armed with an international network of business relationships and a quirky charisma, Henderson has won over people like Mao Huajun, low profile but extremely wealthy potential investors with sights on America.

Although more than 20 regional centers are certified to do work in Southern California, only a handful are operating in the Bay Area — although applications for more regional centers are in the pipeline.

Featured prominently on the website of the Synergy Regional Center are two prominent local figures: former Mayor Willie Brown and former Redevelopment Commission member Benny Yee.

The website has pictures of the Synergy management "meeting former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, to discuss about how EB-5 investment can stimulate the local economy."

Yee is listed as one of six principals at the firm. He didn’t return our phone calls seeking comment. Neither did Brown (who, to be fair, may have simply been part of a photo op since it appears the picture was taken at a fund-raising event for his institute).

According to Synergy CEO Simon Jung, Yee joined after initially "giving [Jung] advice on how to do business. He can help us bring deals in San Francisco we don’t have access to otherwise."

James Falaschi heads the Bay Area Regional Center in Oakland. His website that features three potential projects — all real estate developments in downtown and east Oakland.

Sunfield Development is the company building at the Fox Uptown and at Seminary and Ninth streets, two of the projects the Bay Area Regional center is working on. Sunfield CEO Sid Afshar said EB-5 is "a very good idea because it is a win-win for everyone."

The new player on the scene is Henderson, and he is unveiling an EB-5 vision with a lot of promise.

Mao was bombarded with options when he first heard of EB-5. As a savvy businessman, he was wary of jumping into something sketchy. Through an interpreter, he told us he went with Henderson because he "can see the way Tom is doing this business is transparent, so [he] know[s] the step by step."

Henderson has yet to reveal what his projects will be, but he says they are all businesses, not real estate projects. He said all the companies he is setting up will inhabit industries the city has identified as central to Oakland’s economic growth.
"I was born in Oakland. I work in Oakland. I live in Oakland," he said. "I won’t do projects that don’t create direct jobs."

San Franciscans show solidarity with Egyptians


“Yesterday we were all Tunisian. Today we are all Egyptian. Tomorrow we will all be Free,” read one sign on at last weekend’s protest in solidarity with the wave of uprisings across the Arab world, an event drew thousands of people into the streets of San Francisco.

The crowd was diverse, from a variety of cultures and age groups. Sabreen Abdelnahmen is an 11-year-old Egyptian American who said she is “very proud there are people of many cultures and many religions fighting for the same thing.”

The events in the Middle East reverberate in San Francisco as well as many major cities, with everyone watching Egypt teeter toward democracy. To understand more about the events in Egypt, we spoke with local activist Yasmeen Daifallah, who helped organize the solidarity events and has connections in Egypt, where she attended Cairo University for six years. She is an activist, a political science doctoral student at UC Berkeley, and a singer in the Arabic music ensemble, ASWAT.

SFBG: Why protest in San Francisco?

YD: Two things were important to us. The first was to express solidarity… when [images of protests here] are transmitted to Tahrir Square [the central square where thousands of Egyptians have been remaining against government orders for two weeks]… it is definitely very uplifting. The second is to spread awareness in San Francisco…and in the U.S, to express a message to the American public and the American government. There should be respect for the people’s rights of self-determination and a cutting back on a strict consideration of self or national interest.

SFBG: Tell us about Tahrir Square, which has been at the heart of the protests, and who is leading the protests.

YD: I am amazed at the intensity of the steadfastness because many protestors are struggling to make a living. They all strike you as struggling to make a living and would not do anything to jeopardize making a living and these same people come out and say ‘we are staying here, we don’t care about bread, we care about dignity, we are not moving from here until [President Mubarak’s] regime falls.’

One of the most interesting things about this protest—there is no particular organization or person or even a group of organizations leading. Actually, the organizations are trying to piggy bag on the people and the momentum that is created by the public. For the leaderless nature that is has, it is remarkably organized.

SFBG: Why did the people rise up? Tell me a little about Egypt under Mubarak.

YD: The economic condition was abysmal and this is because when Mubarak came to power, the country started structural adjustment policies, which gave way to mass privatization. These have particularly intensified in the past 5-10 years. What this has translated into is massive unemployment and having to do several jobs in order to survive. On the day-to-day basis life under Mubarak is a life of economic hardship and social immobility.

When we start talking about the middle class, about politics and the political concerns probably [what is important] are fraudulent elections, rigging elections after people have actually voted but also preventing people from opposition movements from entering the ballot box to begin with. So this a very flagrant political repression. It takes place across the board. The second thing is the repression of the right to freedom of expression, whether in writing and the detention of journalists or in demonstrating. There is a law preventing the right to assemble. Then there is the bureaucracy and inefficiency, which all citizens suffer from on a daily basis. Their energies are exhausted in… getting their daily life going whether on the economic level, the bureaucratic level, or just the transportation level.

SFBG: You were just in Egypt and left 10 days before protests erupted. Do you wish you were there still? How does you feel as an Egyptian at this moment?

YD: Yes, very much so. I wish I were there—we all have a sense that there is something historic happening. We never had this number of people protesting against the regime and putting out demands that are this vocal and this radical. I wish I was more a part of this moment, I am just part of this moment from afar. I feel proud to be an Egyptian, which is a feeling you don’t get often, unfortunately.

On the one hand it feels bad because I wanted to be there to actually be a part of it. On the other hand, I have been convincing myself that there is a role that maybe I was destined to play being out here instead of out there.

SFBG: What do you think about the fears and concerns that democratic elections will lead to the rise of an Islamic government in Egypt?

YD: The question itself is unacceptable in the sense that fear and Islamic government put together should not be an issue. The issue is that people should have the right to determine who they want to govern them and whoever comes out of this is a legitimate leader.

The second thing is, you can easily see…this uprising is not an Islamic uprising—there is no foundation for this concern. The Islamic opposition, which has been among the most powerful if not the most powerful opposition movement will play a role and has to play, rightly, because they have been [part of the opposition]. There is no reason for concern, whether we look at it from the perspective that this is not an Islamic uprising or from the perspective that the nature of the Islamic opposition in Egypt is moderate in the sense that it is not militant and not violent and buys into a lot of democratic rhetoric and human rights rhetoric that is around.

SFBG: The other concerns have been around the lack of stability.

YD: This is not such a bad thing. The state of affairs in this point in time in the region is stability with no justice which in turn is bound to create instability and we have seen the instability of the intifada, we have the instabilities with the war on Gaza. Whatever we think of as stability in the Middle East is a fake and frail notion of stability. One would hope that if a new regime comes in Egypt that is more democratic that it would try to address some of the injustices that have been taking place so far regarding the Middle East peace process, but even this is not a guarantee.

At this point what one should focus on is who are the people at Tahrir, what are they demanding, and how can the international community help them get what they demand because this is not a violent uprising. This is not even an organized uprising. This is not a single actor uprising. It’s a crosscutting uprising and it is legitimate, which calls for respect and support and solidarity and anything less than that is betrayal.

SFBG: Where can people get the best information on what is happening in Egypt?

YD: Al Jazeera-English has been doing a good job at covering the events. It has definitely been the prime source of information to the extent that there is a huge campaign now demanding that Al Jazeera be available through satellite and cable providers in the United States. [For now,] you go online and click on live broadcast.

SFBG: Daifallah incorporates music into her politics through the Arabic musical ensemble ASWAT. Here’s a clip of their performance on Saturday:



Activists and former prisoner call for Obama to close Guantánamo


The second anniversary of President Obama’s promise to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center was recognized this week at an event about torture and human rights abuse that continue to take place there.

“There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight…as far as we can tell the [Obama] administration has no intention to close it at this point.,” Rini Chakraborty, Western Regional Director of Amnesty International USA, said at a panel discussion about Guantánamo Bay human rights abuses Wednesday at UC Berkeley.

That conclusion contradicts the assertion by White House spokesperson Adam Abrams that closing Guantánamo is still a “national security imperative.” While the White House says President Obama remains unwavering in his commitment to eventually close the center, more than a hundred detainees remain locked up for years without so much as charges brought against them, according to Chakraborty.

Among those featured at the Amnesty International event was former detainee Omar Deghayes who spoke via video conference from the United Kingdom, where he is a citizen. He spent six years at Guantánamo and was released in what even United States officials eventually considered a case of mistaken identity. He was living in Pakistan in 2002 when one night he was abducted from his home by Pakistani security personnel and later taken into American custody.

“They didn’t know anything about us, ” he said, recalling his first interrogations by Americans at the U.S detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan. “They never accused us of anything…then every year they alleged something and then realized it is completely false…then the next year they would make something up that was more believable.”

What led to Deghayes’ release was a deal with the United Kingdom, where his family conducted a wide campaign to pressure British politicians into action. President Obama has made two recent statements about Guantánamo, stressing the importance of and difficulties inherent in closing Guantánamo Bay, but neither statement gave any indication of when the closure would happen.

“[We need to close it] to make sure that we’re also living up to our values and our ideals and our principles. And that’s what closing Guantánamo is about — not because I think that the people who are running Guantánamo are doing a bad job, but rather because it’s become a symbol,” Obama said in a Dec. 22 news conference.

He failed to specify what Guantánamo might symbolize. It is fair to assume President Obama was referring to widespread allegations of torture and human rights abuse that take place in Guantánamo and U.S. facilities all over the world.

Deghayes shared horrid details of his treatment at the hand of U.S. prison guards. He lost vision in one eye in a beating and had his nose, finger and ribs broken in other instances of abuse. “There were physical beatings, interrogations, chains…we were not allowed to speak to anyone for days and months,” he said.

He also said other cases were worse than his. “Some died under torture, some were sexually abused, they were raped.”

Chakraborty said that Guantánamo’s closing would not spell an end to torture and abuses because there is an unknown number of overseas and secret U.S. interrogation and detention facilities. But she called closing Guantánamo “one very important first step,” adding that it would “show we have the kind good political will to ensure justice for detainees.”

Currently, Deghayes works with lawyers and activists to fight for accountability. “We want help from lawyers in the United States to bring cases [to trial] and help accountability…not just damages to rebuild shattered lives of [former prisoners],” he said.

Next month, the Berkeley City Council will vote on a resolution to welcome Guantánamo detainees who have been released and cleared as not posing a threat. Many such detainees have no country to be released to because of political circumstances. So far, the United States has refused to let these former detainees live in the United States and so a vote in favor of the resolution would have only symbolic value.

BART removes anti-Palestinian ad


Offensive advertisements promoting a right-wing Zionist viewpoint of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were removed from all BART stations this week. “They could be commonly interpreted as disparaging or demeaning to Palestinians as a whole,” according to BART spokesperson Jim Allison told us, saying the violated the district’s advertising standards.

The ad featured the words “Stop Palestinian Terrorism” above a picture of a face covered with a traditional Arab scarf, known as a keffiyeh, and the words “Teach Peace” above the picture of children playing soccer. The keffiyeh has evolved into a symbol of Palestinian resistance to occupation after former PLO leader Yasser Arafat began regularly wearing one. StandWithUs, a self-purported pro-Israel advocacy organization, produced and paid for the ad.

Per BART policy, StandWithUs was informed about the decision to remove the ads and asked to provide substitutes, which it did. The organization’s CEO, Roz Rothstein, told us she felt BART’s evaluation of the ad was “unfair…It would only be disparaging if you don’t look at it properly… the Palestinians deserve a future too, that was the message of the ad. Just as it is not disparaging for an Iranian to point a finger at a [Iranian President Mamhoud] Ahmadinejad, it is not disparaging to point a finger at Hamas.”

However, three individual who did find the ad offensive enough that they complained to BART, initiating the reevaluation of the ad’s content, according to Allison. One Palestinian American who thought they were offensive was Miriam Zouzounias who is the membership coordinator for San Francisco’s Arab Resource and Organizing Center.

She said the ad made her feel “sick to her stomach.” The keffiyeh is a common cultural and political item of clothing, she said, and she happened to be wearing one on her backpack when she noticed the ad. “I hate that [the keffiyeh] is being targeted, portrayed as what terrorists wear.” According to Zouzounias’s interpretation, the ad’s message was that Palestinians do not but should start to invest in productive and peaceful activities for their children, a message that was markedly untrue to her. “Kids playing sports…and doing art are the kind of outlets…Palestinian civil society works really hard for,” she said.

In responding to claims the ad might be offensive, San Francisco’s StandWithUs lay leader Mike Harris told us, “I don’t think that claiming [the keffiyeh] is cultural in that instance is really justified…You don’t see many people in their routine, everyday lives, even if they are Arab American, wearing scarves covering their faces.” He agreed the keffiyeh could be considered a cultural symbol if was adorned on someone’s head rather than covering a face because that it is how the scarf is normally worn.

The StandWithUs ad was response to a previous ad by a group with an opposing view of the conflict. That ad by Friends of Sabeel-North America, a organization that supports the Palestinian Christian liberation theology movement, advocated that “peace and justice” requires an “end to U.S. military aid to Israel,” referring to decades-long aid which has transferred more than $100 billion from the United States treasury to the state of Israel.

Harris said, however, that the ad was “very misleading. The website connected to it promoted BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel) and [mentioned] groups that cannot be considered as promoting peace and justice.” Harris said true peace is “peace between Israelis and Palestinians” and not “peace without Israel.”

FOSNA administrative officer Sister Elaine Kelley said the problem with the StandWithUs ad is that it “turns the focus away from the topic of the occupation and toward the unfortunate violence of some Palestinians.”