“Nothing Is Better Than Hurting Us”
An open letter to Boulder City Council, and concerned neighbors:
I want to be the n-hundreth person to inform you of the importance of autonomous, accessible, low-cost community housing as you consider the passage of this cooperative ordinance. But also, as we all must consider living with the growing outrage of hateful citizens who will continue to try to make marginalized people illegal and undo progress – and in fact, we will continue to live despite the growing outrage of some citizens who hate us just as vehemently as Trump hates “foreigners.” If there’s anything to take away from the passed few months of politics and tragedy, is that the worst people always benefit from hard times, and that victims are always blamed as perpetrators.
I was born in New York City. I spent most of my life there, living with my mostly poor, working-class family. But when I realized I was queer and on a transgender spectrum, things changed for me at home, a home that was loving but ultimately unable to understand me. My very existence, my being was up for challenge and the acceptance of who I am was either an everyday debate or a soul crushing game of hiding myself and my truth to keep from getting yelled at, questioned or causing turbulence in my home. I became an activist around this time and left home to be with people that would accept me. I spent time houseless and on the streets, sleeping on couches, or traveling to conferences, protests, trainings and holidays with loved ones. I left and came back home as much as my spirit could take of either, but also to do the work in society, and in my family, that would help to make people like me have a voice and a place in this world. It was work that, as one might expect, did not actually pay wages. But for me, doing what is right, and what was actually spiritually important, was always a priority over making money. Money has always been more of an irrelevant obstacle in my life, one that kept people from doing the valuable things that they needed to do.
Me and my two brothers grew up together. My mom was a single mother. When my father left, I was one years old, and my mother had to start working the graveyard shift at the post office for the extra $200 per paycheck it offered. She was depressed and destroyed by the divorce, and my father’s betrayal. But still she had to work, long 8 hour nights, plus overtime, if she was lucky. For 26 years she has been working the graveyard shift in order to make enough to survive in the wildly expensive NYC housing and food market, and take care of her family. She has never cared about anything more than she cares about her family. And still she worked those long, lonely nights, relentlessly, to care for us, but practically never having any time and energy to be with us outside, to go out to shows or for days at the park. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have grown up able to be close with her in those ways. My memories with her are mostly eating meals and watching tv, and being cuddled to sleep by her. Beautiful memories. But I wonder what she would have wanted to do if she wasn’t always recovering from working so hard, sleeping through the days, and not able to spend much time at all with friends and family. These are the questions that I don’t want my loved ones asking of me when I am older. I don’t want to work my life away just to be able to survive. In the words of Edgar Winters, “Why am I dying to live if I’m just living to die?” My happiness and loved ones take priority in my life, and I have dreams of a better world where we can all fit happily.
I can tell you that I’m not fighting for a place in this world just to survive in it – I want to thrive, surrounded by love and support; and I want that for my loved ones as well. It is no secret that not spending money is one of the best ways to have money. Cooperative housing has allowed me to afford work that is meaningful to me, to have free time, and to save enough money so that I could for the first time in my life see $1000 dollars in my bank account. If I had to pay $1000/month on rent my entire savings would be wiped out in a single month. Do you understand what I’m saying? There are 14 people living in our home currently. Our rent is $3400 for 2100 sq ft. Because we are able to live together and share this cost among us in shared rooms, the rent for each of us, including all
utilities, food, savings, and community projects, like building a community library, is about $380. We are even able to offer 2 extra housemates low-cost sleeping spaces in closets for $150 each. These spaces may not be legally habitable places to sleep, but if you have ever had to sleep through cold winter nights outside, carrying your home on your back and hiding from people so that cops won’t get called on you, you would know, without a single doubt in your minds, that these spaces are not uninhabitable.
I live in one of these spaces. They are warm sanctuaries offered out of love by the community, complete with food, showers, and access to friendship and purpose. The people who live here cannot afford higher rent rates. Our house is unique in this regard, even among the other co-ops, in that we are structurally capable of housing people who are otherwise ineligible to access housing. If these affordable options were taken away from these people they will likely need to quit school, find work in other cities or states, say goodbye to their loved ones, or be houseless and out on the streets, filling shelters, camping in the mountains, along the creek paths, or living nomadically. Taking away people’s housing is unacceptable because the consequences are so dire, and I want to be clear, you will be taking away these housing options every time you lower the occupancy caps, raise square footage per persons requirements and limit the properties that are available to be co-ops. You will be behaving immorally.
I remember the words of Lisa Morzel at one of the hearings we’ve had recently on this subject of cooperative housing. She said that she wants us to know that cooperative housing is a privilege offered to us by the city, and that we do not deserve to be grandfathered in because we are breaking the law and that would be a form of rewarding us for not following the rules. This is a remarkable statement because it indicates that she doesn’t understand what privilege really means. Privilege is many things, but it is not that. Privilege is the ability to make whole people illegal, privilege is the ability to turn a set of people’s survival into criminal activity and then choose to punish them for it. It’s a privilege to be a white City Councilperson in Colorado while there are native indigenous people flying signs on the streets of Boulder for spare change. It’s a privilege to legally be able to call someone else’s home your own just because your ancestors slaughtered their ancestors. Genocide is the crime of all crimes, and I want to hear you neighbors and Council members say that you’re not being rewarded with safety and wealth by that crime having happened. Do you really want to talk about privilege? I wonder.
I can tell you that you’ll not be able to stop people from finding ways to survive. You will not be able to get away with telling people to feel shame for not wanting to die in destitution. If you subject poor and working-class people to this housing market without the ability to collectivize their resources then you will be creating criminals out of innocent people. And to me, that’s a horrendous act, forcing people out of their homes is vile callousness, an abuse of power over others that I’m sure you’ve never experienced done over yourself. And that is what privilege is, it’s the ability to do something truly awful and inhumane, and call it legal, while making beautiful acts of trust and sacrifice condemnable offenses under the law. Poverty is the true enemy here, not the poor. And the attitudes of the rich are the enemy of the poor and working class, because they will never understand what it’s like to not have options, and to be forced to abandon their dreams, and sell their lives in order to survive. Every egregious boss the rich may have ever had to endure was in the pursuit of becoming more wealthy or fulfilling their dreams. Whereas we regularly have to deal with awful, abusive bosses, doing unimportant soul-draining work in order to be able to eat and be warm in a small over-priced box that is not worth the time it wastes in order to afford.
Here’s some perspective. If I could even find a job, working $10/hr means I would need to work 120 hours a month in order to afford to live in my home if only 3 people lived here, and that is not even including the taxes that would be taken out of my check. That is three full 40 hour weeks just to be able to sleep here at night and get ready for work the next day. That leaves $400 a month to eat, commute, see doctors, clothe myself, deal with unforeseen expenses, and try to be a part and take care of my community. But with this kind of life I’d have no ability to think about taking care of anyone else but myself. No savings. No community. No time. And no purpose. That is just not worth the sacrifice. It’s also exactly what I see as wrong about our society. There is no time and there are no resources for the vast majority of people to engage with the pressing issues we face as a species. Intellectuals and policy-makers scratch their heads as to why the population isn’t doing anything about climate change with respect to its magnitude, but to me it’s quite simple to understand. For the poor and working-classes, it’s about dealing with the mortal danger next month before dealing with the mortal danger in 50 years. And for the rich, it is about remaining rich and comfortable in a world that they’re already firmly at the top of.
Evicting people and leaving them with only harsh and unsafe options is a crime against humanity, it is also a political act, and one that is not done in the bubble of this city’s politics. We are just one city participating in a global war against poor people to make rich people more comfortable. As policy-makers, I’m sure you’ve heard about the Oakland warehouse fire. And as policy-makers, I’m sure that you didn’t actually have friends there, or know anyone who did. In the immediate aftermath to the tragedy, fire departments across the US began the process of evicting other collective spaces. Each of these spaces is connected by strings of people and memories and a collective understanding that we are doing what is necessary to make our lives possible, and to shine bright and thrive as we do. We don’t choose to live in unsafe places to break the rules, we need to live in unsafe places to survive, because our options are oftentimes not better, or are even more unsafe. To a person like me, it was no surprise that the evictions across the US immediately followed the fire. It’s because being poor, queer and trans, and a smart, politically active person of color for people of color, it’s no surprise to me that there are people who want the worst for me, who want to evict me and keep people like me from coming together in ways that would be empowering, –that want me dead just for who I am. The fire in Oakland is just an excuse to do to us what people have been trying to do to us forever, officials and neighborhood housing associations alike. The people who are calling for the eviction of collective spaces like ours don’t actually care about our well-being or our safety. Condemning someone to houselessness is the opposite of caring for their safety and well-being. If they cared they would help pitch in to install new sprinkler systems, they would fight for lower rent rates and rent caps, they’d fight for a higher minimum wage, or offer people sleeping bags or housing instead of calling the cops for sleeping in the safest places available – either outside or huddled together in shared houses.
It is not care that underlines these neighbor concerns, it is hate of our existence. To these people we are a blatant sore that reminds them of the failures of the U.S. economic system, but also the dereliction of a supposedly once white and great American Nation filled with straight single families and help of all colors. No, it’s not care in their intentions. What the evictions communicate to me is that these people don’t care about me as a human, and that they don’t want to care. They don’t like low-cost community housing subsidized by the government, and they don’t like when we do it ourselves. And it’s because they just don’t like us and what our lives mean for the National politic. So as you sit contemplating how to make our lives more palatable by illegalizing them, you are participating in a political project far outside the scope of how you are viewing this conflict between neighbors. It’s not about the amount of cars on the street, or how many people are using the same toilet in our home that drives them to organize, put ads out in the paper, and pressure local officials to try to end us – it’s to wipe this city clean of the impurity of the free poor, who are organized or supported, and who have the ability to reach themselves out of generational poverty if given any time and space at all to build themselves up. But, it is also about their precious property values, and how they imagine that other rich white people won’t want to live next to us. And although I know you are making this your prerogative, it shouldn’t be in your mission statement to hurt poor people more for being hated by bigoted people. It is that simple. It’s your choice, neighbors & government officials alike, protect us and our needs outlined in this legislation, or you can work to make us into criminals for being less financially fortunate, and for wanting more out of life than the unending grind of indentured servitude with no hope for a powerful future. No, instead, just do nothing. Nothing is better than hurting us and pretending to help.
To City Council and concerned neighbors, you also need to know: it’s not a privilege to live legally in an affordable box with our friends. For you, it’s something you have the privilege and power to effect, but for us it’s often the only option that can offer us life, abundant in safety, both because of and for the sharing of our lives with each other in meaningful and mutually beneficial ways. But, to live this way illegally, that is a sacrifice, one we make in order to have a chance at being whole humans, to experience a complete life outside of the need to work for money, and to free up time and energy to participate in this world in the ways that it demands of all of us, to be moral, compassionate as well as actively courageous agents and subjects in this world, instead of just objects of it. You cannot ask us to give that up, and make our lives unaffordable, with the self-righteousness that you are presuming. If this is what you’re asking, then you are in the wrong. This life is a sacrifice, but it’s our sacrifice to make, it’s my sacrifice, and it’s a worthy sacrifice for me and for many of those who undertake it.
Help us, or, at least, stop making our lives worse.
In all honesty,