In Richmond, Does Eating Healthy Depend On Where You Live?

by Luis Cubas

You know how the saying goes: “You are what you eat.” The problem is, we don’t always have a choice. In many parts of Richmond, organic and fresh foods can be quite hard to come by, yet junk food is abundant – a corner store or a fast food restaurant is never too far away. As a Bay Area news reporter from NBC recently put it, “Don’t get hungry in Richmond…”

Here’s a typical scenario: With little time and money available to get lunch, you rush to the nearest fast food restaurant to grab a hamburger. You decide to get the special deal of the day — a hamburger, fries and a large soda. As you quickly unwrap the delicious burger, the familiar smell fills your nose, urging you to take a bite. You quickly devour the hamburger. You head back to work, grateful for the quick and cheap meal. It’s practically a daily ritual.  Rarely if ever do you consider that the meals — so convenient in some ways – could be causing you harm.

“People don’t understand how junk food affects their bodies and their minds. They don’t care, because they don’t see the connection between their own success and their health,” says Doria Robinson, executive director of Urban Tilth and a third-generation Richmond resident. “We have a serious lack of healthy, affordable food in Richmond. There is only one grocery store and… liquor stores.”

Robinson’s organization, Urban Tilth, utilizes a number of strategies with the end goal of getting healthier food into the kitchens of Richmond and West Contra Costa County residents. “What we do is we grow food, sell it at different schools, give it away, take it to food banks, [and] we start community gardens so that you can just grow your own for free,” says Robinson.

The term “food desert” refers to areas that have poor acess to healthy and fresh food, usually in the form of full service grocery stores. The following map gives us a look at the grocery stores and food sources located throughout Richmond.

Screenshot 2013-11-18 00.29.05As we can see, even though there are a good number of small grocery stores in the area, most of them are concentrated in the heart of the city. A closer examination reveals that many of the city’s neighborhoods, such as North Richmond, stand out due to the fact that there are no grocery stores — or even fast food restaurants — in the area.

“There aren’t as many organic markets in low-income communities,” says Richmond resident, Alma Carrillo. “Organic food is expensive compared to fast food. Also, eating healthy is time consuming. Not many families have the time to prep meals. Families don’t have time to cook, period, because of work. Dollar-menu chicken sandwiches are way more convenient, and cheaper.”

Not surprisingly, in a world where fast food has replaced fresher and more nutritious meals, health conditions like obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes have skyrocketed. As Robinson points out, “If you are surviving from packaged food (or) junk food, your stress levels are gonna be higher. Your response to stress is going to be more inefficient.”

Despite the significant obstacles, Robinson believes Richmond is headed towards a healthier future. “We have a group of people who are really interested (in promoting healthier foods)… We have an existing inventory of liquor stores, or small produce stores, that could be converted… We also have a lot of land that is cheap. So, if you look at all of those assets, you can think about actually getting to what we really need.”

On Dia de los Muertos, Memorializing a Neighborhood

Commentary, Edgardo Cervano-Soto

It was in 1987 when my mom, dad and two older sisters moved out of their apartment unit on South Van Ness and 22nd Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. The rent had become too expensive to afford, despite my dad holding down two full-time jobs as a dishwasher and a busboy, getting only a few hours of sleep a day. While he worked, my mom raised my sisters and cared for other family members’ children. For my parents, it wasn’t exactly the American Dream they had imagined.

And so, they followed the path traveled by many Latino immigrants before them who had settled in the Mission District — long a haven for refugees, exiles and newcomers – by searching for another place to call home. Taking a risk, they signed off on a loan and purchased a home just across the bay in San Pablo, where my youngest sister and I were born and raised. Yet throughout my childhood, the Mission remained a destination for our family. My tias and tios still lived there and we visited them frequently. For me, the Mission felt like home, despite the fact that it had never been mine.

22nd and Mission is where my mom sorted through boxes of plastic gold Holy Crosses and ceramic angels for our First Communion recuerdos. At Ritmo Latino, a neighborhood record store, my sisters introduced me to banda music, during our searches through racks of CD’s. At the corner of 24th and York is my favorite panaderia, La Panaderia Mexicana. To this day I stand motionless before its plexiglass storefront, staring at the conchaselotes, and the Salvadoran quesadillas. Then there is the neighborhood art: the moving La Lechuguera mural (now the La Llorona mural) by Juana Alicia, the amazing Maestrapeace mural on the Women’s Building, and the kinetic colors of Balmy Alley. I made sense of my identity through these images. But they are all fading now.

Those long familiar with the Mission had seen the gentrification coming. Family-owned, legacy businesses like the panaderias were replaced by hip (and expensive) clothing boutiques and upscale sandwich delis. It disturbed me to see the old eclectic Latino cafes morph into cyber-cafes with uncomfortably minimalist furniture and bone white walls. There were Latino shop owners who recognized that their culture was becoming kitsch, and that if they wanted to make it with the new crowd of young white professionals and techies, well, they were better off installing reproduced Frida prints, dressing their shop in papel picado and selling the experience of kitsch Mexican and Latino culture for all its trendy worth.

Today, evictions in the Mission are cutting into the community’s main artery. Rene Yañez and Yolanda Lopez, two of the neighborhood’s Chicano Art pioneers, are being evicted from their home of 35 years as a result of the Ellis Act, a provision in California rental law that allows owners to evict tenants in order to sell a property. The apartment occupied by Yañez and Lopez was under rent control — they were paying $450 a month — which allowed them to continue to afford living in the neighborhood.

Yañez and Lopez are, as performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena once said, “puro Chicano royalty.” Lopez’s, now in her seventies, is a trailblazing Chicana artist. Through her prints, collages, and drawings Lopez has honored the lives of Latina immigrant women, and denounced U.S colonialism, racism, and xenophobia. Yañez, now 71 and with bone cancer, is a stalwart in the Chicano Art scene. He co-founded the acting troupe Culture Clash, introduced a contemporary aesthetic to Dia de los Muertos artwork in the Bay Area, and has been a mentor to many emerging Latino artists. It seems a cruel irony that the Dia de los Muertos tradition Yañez brought to San Francisco is now a ghost of its former self – an appropriated and commercialized byproduct of the greed that is changing the city. Yañez’ legacy and the traditional intent of Dia de los Muertos – it is not Halloween, but an actual observance of loss — is being erased as large crowds of partygoers costume themselves as calaveras and drink beer.

In the same way the colors of the murals in the Mission District are fading, the culture of a community is at risk. On a recent visit, I picked up a flyer from the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. I winced at their Dia de Los Muertos art exhibition theme: “La Llorona: Weeping the Life and Death of the Mission District.” I winced because the truth hurt: there is loss in the community, and I don’t know to reconcile that fact.

Q&A: Police Chief Magnus on ‘Predictive Policing,’ Wiretapping, Ceasefire

Interview by Edgardo Cervano-Soto

Richmond Pulse: Vehicle thefts and burglaries are down from last year. Why are these types of property crimes decreasing in Richmond?

Chief Magnus: I wish I could tell you that there is an exact cause and effect to it. Unfortunately that’s what makes the job so difficult, because it is so hard to attribute any one cause. But I do think there are a lot of different factors. We have worked hard over the years to engage the community in a partnership with us to report crime, to report suspicious circumstances that could be crimes in progress, things that merit a closer look. We have also worked to support neighborhood watch and neighborhood association groups, to put an even greater focus on crime prevention. We do a lot of engagement around helping people look out for each other, so we spend a lot of time talking with people about the point of getting to know their neighbors, about securing their homes and other property, about how we can basically take better care of each other and work together more effectively to reduce crime, and I think we are seeing some of the dividends from that.

RP: “Predictive policing” is one approach the police department has taken to preventing property crimes. What does that entail, and why do you think it can work in Richmond?

CM:  It’s just one more tool to help us use the resources that we do have more effectively. The whole idea behind predictive policing is that you look at where crime has occurred in the past. The underlying thought with predictive policing is that criminals are creatures of habit, and they tend to go back to the areas where they have a higher level of comfort — a neighborhood, perhaps, where they have already committed a crime, or a neighborhood they might even live in themselves. We try to use the data that we collect from calls of service and from reports that are taken, [which get] processed through an algorithm that was developed… to make predictions, based on time of day and location, for what areas might be vulnerable to certain types of property crime.

Officers on the day shift might have anywhere between 3 and 5 small boxes the size of basically a square block, that they are asked to go into a couple times during their shift, and get out of their cars and walk around; just keep their eyes open for anything unusual, with an understanding of the kind of crimes that have happened in the past in that area. So far we are pleased with how it seems to be working.

RP: What about neighborhoods where crimes are underreported? How can the algorithm predict the probability of crime in an underreported area?

CM: Any time you’re using data you are challenged with the underlying concept of “garbage in, garbage out”: If you don’t have good data in the first place — and in this case, it (the data) would be dependent on people reporting crimes — then it’s going to be hard to get good predictions. Which is one of the reasons why I don’t think predictive policing in a vacuum will be effective; it has to be done in a context where we are working to encourage people to become active in their neighborhoods and to report crimes, and [when we are] working to serve and do more outreach to traditional underserved populations in the community. So there has to be a real effort to ensure people are reporting crimes.

RP: What can you say to address concerns that predictive policing will unfairly profile certain neighborhoods?

CM: If the goal is to predict where crime might occur based on crime that is occurring now or has occurred in the past, I would think most neighborhoods would be very excited and frankly would desire to get that extra police attention. One of the frustrations that folks have in a community like Richmond, where we don’t have a huge amount of police staffing, is how do we use that staffing to have the greatest effect on crime reduction? I can’t have a cop everywhere at [the same] time or just send police out randomly to patrol neighborhoods. If I have limited resources, which I do, I think that the best thing I can do is give them the best available information about where crime is happening and what areas throughout the city need greater attention if we are going to reduce crime.

There has obviously been debate as well as legal cases in New York City about specific police tactics — we are not blindly following what anybody does in the field. We take our own path here in Richmond, based on several core principals, the first and foremost which is doing policing that is constitutional, that is legal, and that demonstrates respect for the community. One of our core principals is relationship building with the community, so the last thing we want to do is policing that is harmful, discriminatory, where people feel we are in their neighborhoods as an occupying force, where we are treating people poorly. Secondly, we want to do policing that is effective, especially having given the fact that we have limited resources. So we try to keep up with what’s going on in the field that works, and that’s part of the reason why we are trying predictive policing.

RP: Twenty-three people were recently arrested after a court approved wiretapping that involved the Ceasefire program.

 

 CM: Our priority with Ceasefire and with any of the other violence reduction activities that we are involved in is to stop the shootings and save lives. We start first of all with an accurate assessment that there is a relatively small group who are involved in a disproportionate number of shootings and really serious violence in the community. A good many of those individuals have relationships, albeit, loose knit at times, with each other. Some people refer to that in a more broad way as gangs, but I think that’s a little bit over-simplistic. In Richmond there are relationships that are very fluid and they change frequently. Our role is to figure out who those people are because by knowing that, that enables us to avoid profiling and enables us to avoid simply going into neighborhoods, for example, where there might be a disproportionate number of young men of color. Our goal is to focus on people that we know, through building intelligence, and through talking with people in the community.

The idea with Ceasefire is you have identified these people so then how do you engage them and say: Look, this has got to stop. We want you to live and you have a future. We don’t want you caught up in this kind of activity that’s either going to cause you to end up in the morgue or jail. So what can we do as a community to give you support, training, resources and other kinds of assistance to make a choice to get out of that particular lifestyle and do something different that will keep you from being involved in further shootings?

So that’s kind of half the Ceasefire equation. The other half is saying to that same group of individuals: OK, we know who you are and we know what you are doing. If you keep doing it and if you keep wreaking havoc on neighborhoods and keep killing each other or innocent people who get caught in the crossfire, if you keep doing things that are incredibly harmful to yourself and the community, there are going to be really serious consequences for that. Obviously, we prefer that you make the choice to get the services, take advantage of the support and move out of that lifestyle, but if you want to do things that are incredibly harmful to neighborhoods and people who live here in the community, then we are going to bring every legal consequence that we possibly can to stop you from doing what you are doing.

 

With the most recent police activity related to the wire, let me be clear, that was not driven by the idea, “here are a bunch of Ceasfire participants. Let’s go out and just start wiretapping their phones and building a criminal case against them.” It was based on very, very solid intelligence that was gathered over time that indicated that these were people who were actively involved in committing really serious crimes directed at each other, and the community was often caught in the crossfire. What we had to do was work with the district attorney’s office so we could get a court order to do those wiretaps.

 RP: What did the wire reveal?

CM: It is pretty chilling stuff. When you are hearing people talking about planning murders, planning to go out and kill people, and then you actually are able to catch them taking affirmative steps to do what they say they would be doing — in other words, you hear people say we are going to kill so and so at such a location — and then you stop a car and there are four people in it headed to that location, all with guns, I mean, that’s pretty scary stuff. This wire actually allowed us, I think, to save a number of lives. We would have significant number of additional homicides in this community if we had not been able to utilize (the wire).

I’m sure these tapes will become part of the evidence that will be heard in court and I think some of the folks that are critical of this sort of approach will find it very eye opening to hear some of the stuff that is being planned and directed among some of these young men. I think we really followed through with what we promised a number of these guys in the ceasefire program we would do. We told them, “We don’t want you to make the wrong choices but if you do, if you are continuing to go out and kill each other and continue to commit crimes that are harmful to others in the community…” We had a two-year-old infant that was shot. We had people, completely innocent, who were shot in this crazy back and forth retaliatory shooting. That is not acceptable. That has to stop and we told people that if you keep doing that, we mean business and there will be consequences. We certainly carried through on what we said we would do.

That said, over time people will see that the services are there and that the community’s desire to be supportive is genuine, and that there are consequences for continuing to be involved in committing shootings. Then the percentage of folks who make a better choice goes up. Ceasefire is a long-term project and it’s hard work — its hard work for the community, it’s hard work for the police, and it’s a delicate partnership because it’s hard for community and police to understand each other. It takes a lot of difficult conversations, a lot of thoughtful planning and analysis. We are doing our best. We are in it for the long haul, but it’s not easy.

Q&A: Mayor McLaughlin Talks Eminent Domain, Ecuador

Interview, RP Editors

RP: What do homeowners facing foreclosure in Richmond need to know right now about the city’s plan to invoke eminent domain?

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin: We call it the Cares Program or the Local Sensible Reduction Program because, first and foremost, we would like to continue to call on the banks to work with us, to cooperate with the City of Richmond to sell us these underwater mortgages, and to do it voluntarily in a cooperative way so that we don’t have to invoke the eminent domain process, although we hold open the option. We fully believe it’s within our legal rights to do so, to help our community.

We continue to have this ongoing housing crisis. Many of our neighborhoods continue to spiral downward. When one home goes into foreclosure, nine other homes are impacted. [Foreclosures] create blight in the neighborhood, and then all the property values of the neighborhood go down. That means less property tax revenue for the City of Richmond. It means more crime because blight attracts crime. And it also means that other homes… are more underwater than ever.

So this is an opportunity for the City to really acquire these loans, hopefully voluntarily, and work with the homeowner to reset it with a new loan, refinance a new loan with a lower principal. This way, families stay intact, neighborhoods stay intact, and people can continue to afford to stay in their home with a lower mortgage payment. They’ll have money in their pockets because of their lowered payments and visit our local businesses and help our local economy. They could improve their homes because they’re not in this desperate situation. So we think it’s a really valuable program.

RP: Once again, Richmond is making national headlines.

GM: Right now we’re in the process of really building a national movement. Just this morning I was in San Francisco at a meeting with two supervisors, because San Francisco is looking at joining us. We want cities to join us in a JPA — a Joint Powers Authority. And there are other cities in California looking at this: Oakland, Vallejo, El Monte. There are other cities across the nation like Newark, New Jersey, Long Island, New York, and Seattle. And Richmond has played a leading role. We got an article in USA Today, we have the Washington Post, New York Times, LA Times, MSNBC, CNBC, and we were on PBS News Hour. A lot of this is thanks to ACCE, the community group that’s really spreading the word on this. So, we’ve [received] a lot of attention and the idea is to build a national movement to put pressure on the banks that got the $1.2 trillion bailout. They (the banks) haven’t provided a solution and the federal government hasn’t provided a solution, so we’re stepping in with a common sense fix that will help everybody. It’ll help the housing market because we’ll be fixing a problem that continues to spiral down and impact the housing situation as a whole.

RP: What kind of timeframe do you see this being played out on?

GM: We didn’t really put forward a timeline as to when to come back to the council but I’m going to guess that within the next couple of months, staff will have moved forward (with the creation of a JPA) and in the meantime I am reaching out to other cities to actually join this JPA. So even as staff is creating the paperwork to make a JPA structure possible, we still have to have cities officially join it. So I would say that in the next couple of months I hope we have at least a couple of partners, we’ll have some updates on the liability issue. We feel we’re moving forward step by step, cautiously but firmly, because we have to.

One of the other points I wanted to mention is that we won a lawsuit recently. Even though the city has done nothing as far as eminent domain at this point, Wells Fargo and Deutche Bank attempted to sue the city [on the grounds that] we were considering it. And the court said (to the banks), you can’t do that. So those banks got negated in their attempts to stop us. At this point though, they’re still trying very hard and we want to be able to move forward and again, we hope that the banks open their eyes and say, hey, this is a good thing and join us in a cooperative way. But we maintain our right to consider eminent domain if necessary.

RP: What do you say to critics who claim the move would hurt the city financially in the long run by dissuading potential investors and damaging credit?

GM: The threats that Wall Street and their lobbyists have made to Richmond to restrict credit are totally illegal. I mean, what they’re talking about is redlining. We went through that years ago, and we fought battles to stop redlining of communities where credit had been restricted. We overcame that, and we can’t go back in history. We won’t. There’s laws on the books, and in fact, there are civil rights firms that have engaged with the City of Richmond in saying that they’d be happy to defend us if any of these practices actually get implemented, because they understand that this is a civil rights issue. In Richmond, 70 percent of our community is people of color. To restrict credit to the City of Richmond — either to people who want to move within the city or to people who want to move into Richmond — brings us right to the civil rights issue of redlining that was fought years ago. So, we’re prepared to do whatever is necessary, but we actually don’t think they will act in that way. We think it’s a lot of bluster and threats to scare people, and that’s what they’ve been doing.

These banks and these lobbyists are trying to scare, and they have managed to scare some on the Richmond council. A couple council members in particular have kind of backed away from this, and there are other people in the community.

But, by far, the larger number of community members are in favor of this. I get so many emails, hard copy letters and phone calls from people in Richmond, and from people all around the country, who think this is really a sound, innovative solution. So I say to the critics who claim that this is going to cause us harm: that would be illegal, it would be immoral, and we would fight that.

Richmond Pulse: Switching gears now, why did you recently visit Ecuador, and what did you see there?

GM: I was invited (by government officials) to go to Ecuador to see the contaminated areas of the amazon rain forest. It was a wonderful trip… so profoundly important and informative. I saw some of the worst (environmental) damage. The Ecuadorian Rain Forest is just a beautiful area and to see [a] pit filled with sludge — this thick, oily sludge — was just really tragic.

I also had a chance to [have] conversations with the indigenous folks that were impacted by this horrible contamination. There are something like 1,000 open pits in the rain forest where there is sludge and contaminated water from Chevron-Texaco’s processing and drilling. I think it was throughout the ’80s and early ’90s that this contamination was just haphazardly thrown into the rain forest, thrown into these pits, without any lining. They also dropped the crude oil. This was a deliberate spilling onto the roads and into the rivers and streams. [The waste] in these pits has seeped down into the water table, into the ground water, and this impacted the lives of the indigenous people who lived [there], who drank the water, washed their clothes, did their dishes, did their cooking, and fished in the rivers and streams. So now they have a huge outbreak of cancer, a huge outbreak of birth defects and miscarriage, and they can no longer live in the areas where they lived.

To see it up close in person and to talk with these folks in their homeland made a big impression on me. I’d engaged with some of these [communities] over the last ten years — they’ve worked with Amazon Watch in the Bay Area — so I knew of the horrors they had suffered and I also knew that they had sued Chevron-Texaco. Texaco did the damage but (then) Chevron and Texaco merged, so Chevron Corporation is responsible for cleaning up the rain forest. I felt a strong commitment to share with them the problems we’re having… you know, we’re suing Chevron as well in the City of Richmond for the damage that they have done to our community by way of the fire of 2012. So the solidarity with the people of Ecuador… it’s the start of an international coming together, holding oil companies accountable for the damage they do to communities everywhere.

We’ve been in touch with the Nigerian community about the damage that Chevron has done to them. We’ll be having an event in mid-October and in fact, some of the indigenous people (from Ecuador) will be coming to Richmond… and although we can’t bring the indigenous folks from Nigeria at this point, we will have some representatives from the Bay Area who work with them. We think it’s a real important step to a hold oil companies and, really, corporations in general, accountable for the damage they do.

RP: What did the people in Ecuador want to learn from you?

GM: They were very, very interested. I had a day and a half of media interviews, on their TV with the translator, and radio and print interviews. They heard about the 2012 fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, and they wanted to know a couple things: how [the fire] had impacted our community, and what I thought of the contamination of the rain forest. It meant a lot to them that we also were standing up to this big corporation.

Richmond Forges Ahead with First-in-the-Nation Plan to Seize Underwater Mortgages

News Report • Anna Challet

Richmond will move forward with its plans to seize underwater mortgages using eminent domain, raising the stakes in a test case of whether a city can take on Wall Street and rescue troubled homeowners on its own.

“The City of Richmond and our residents have been badly harmed by this housing crisis,” said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, at a city council meeting on September 10. “Many in our community have been targeted for predatory loans, too many have already lost their homes from foreclosures, and all of Richmond has suffered with home values that have plummeted nearly 60 percent, and of course that means a reduction in property tax revenue for the city.”

While the foreclosure crisis is over and the housing market rebounding, the recovery is uneven, with many homeowners still affected. About half of Richmond’s homeowners are under water, according to City Manager Bill Lindsay. Cities like Richmond, with many African American and Latino homeowners, were among those hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis, owing in part to banks having been more likely to target these communities for subprime loans.

“Banks got bailed out – how come not the city of the people who bought the homes? We need to get bailed out too. We’re low-income, moderate-income people working hard,” said Richmond resident Patty Castillo, whose mortgage is currently under water, meaning the balance owed on the home is less than the property’s current market value.

Castillo and her husband bought their Richmond home in 2005 for $420,000 and have seen its value plummet to $125,000. Adding to their troubles, they have an interest-only loan and are worried because their mortgage payments are about to start increasing at the end of the year.

While other local governments have considered the use of eminent domain (whereby a government seizes private property for public use) for the purpose of helping underwater homeowners, and several members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors have expressed support for the plan, Richmond is alone in its decision to move forward. North Las Vegas and San Bernardino decided against the option after facing heavy opposition from financial institutions and realtors.

“We’re really the only city right now that is on board with the program, and that has been difficult,” Lindsay said at the meeting, after advising the council that they had to consider whether the plan could have negative financial consequences for the city, such as loss of access to credit.

Despite facing a lawsuit brought by huge banks like Wells Fargo, as well as warnings from a powerful trade group representing banks and asset management companies, that future Richmond borrowers could find themselves unable to obtain mortgage loans, the City Council finally voted at close to two in the morning to go ahead with its controversial plan for keeping people in their homes.

Earlier this year, Richmond partnered with advisory firm Mortgage Resolution Partners (MRP) and created a principal reduction program known as Richmond CARES (Community Action to Restore Equality and Stability). In July, the city sent letters to over 30 banks and mortgage servicers offering to buy over 600 mortgages that were determined to be at high risk of default.

The city would purchase the mortgages at a discount according to their fair market value as determined by an independent appraiser, and then would restructure the loans with the help of MRP in order to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. In the event that mortgage holders refuse the offers, the city would consider seizing the mortgages through eminent domain.

If it succeeds, it could make history. But, some residents are worried that Richmond’s strategy could do the city financial harm in the long run.

Doria Robinson, a third generation Richmond resident, supports the council’s decision to move forward and explore the use of eminent domain.

“We’ve looked to the federal government for answers, for guidance, for leadership, and they bailed the banks out,” she said. “We’ve looked for banks to offer homeowners the opportunity to reduce their principal or reduce their interest rates or do anything, and they’ve mostly just shuffled people along, giving them paperwork, losing their paperwork.”

But then there are homeowners like Bea Roberson, who worries that the plan will result in lower property values across the city, and that MRP is misleading Richmond and stands to profit from the program at the expense of homeowners.

“Everyone’s talking about greedy Wall Street people – well, what do you think MRP is?” she said.

Megan Roberts, another Richmond homeowner, disagrees. She’s not underwater but supports the principal reduction plan as a way for others to find relief.

“If the banks were offering some decent deals … lowering the principal on these homes, it would be a whole different story. But the fact of the matter is that they haven’t done that,” she said.

The plan has gained the support of an alliance of fair housing and community groups, including Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA) in Oakland and the California Reinvestment Coalition.

At the City Council meeting, HERA Executive Director Maeve Elise Brown slammed the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which has threatened to disinvest in cities that seize properties through eminent domain. FHFA is the regulator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, quasi public-private agencies that guarantee most of the home loans backed by government – which is close to 90 percent of all new mortgages nationwide.

Brown says that the FHFA’s statements are “very disturbing” and amount to “unlawful discrimination under the federal Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.”

Doria Robinson thinks the reaction of the financial sector to Richmond’s plan is to be expected. “For [mortgage holders] to begin bullying Richmond, a small town, and threatening us with all kinds of things that seem to be illegal is not a surprise,” she said.

UPDATE: On September 16, District Judge Charles Breyer granted Richmond’s motion to dismiss Wells Fargo’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have blocked the city from potentially using eminent domain to seize the underwater mortgages. Breyer’s decision is based on the fact that Richmond has not yet taken any action to use eminent domain – his ruling states that Wells Fargo’s claims are “not ripe for adjudication.”

Malcolm Marshall contributed reporting.

Housing Fair Looks to Aid Troubled Homeowners and Hopeful Buyers

News Report • Donny Lumpkins and Peter Schurmann

For years Gregory Greer has gotten up in the early morning hours to make the 15-mile trip from his home in Vallejo to his job as a property manager in nearby Richmond. A renter, Greer and his wife, Wynona, say owning a home in Richmond would be an “answer to our prayers.”

The pair recently attended a workshop in Richmond offering homeowners and potential first-time homebuyers like the Greers advice on everything from securing loans to home maintenance and managing foreclosures.

“I deal with several buildings here in Richmond … I’m working on a lot of homes so I would like to have my own,” says Greer, noting that a home in Richmond would allow him to spend more time with his family. “A new home would mean stability, happiness and a piece of the American Dream.”

Co-sponsored by the City of Richmond and the NID Housing Counseling Agency, the 2013 Housing Resource Fair was held on June 15 at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium & Convention Center and drew a large crowd of attendees.

“Services are here on site for any distressed homeowner needing assistance with their property,” says Nancy Rivera, senior housing counselor with NID, which works to improve the quality of life for low-income residents in cities across the country. “Attendees can get one-on-one assistance for possible loan modifications … we also have classes for first-time home buyers.”

Vendors, including Home Depot, Chase and Wells Fargo were also on hand to answer questions and provide information.

“Visitors have the opportunity to get down payment assistance, to talk to different servicers for possible loans and to local real estate agents,” explained Rivera.

The city of Richmond is still reeling from the effects of the recent foreclosure crisis. A report released last month by the social justice group Association of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) revealed that 900 Richmond families lost their homes in 2012 and that 4,600 local homeowners were underwater on their mortgages by about $700 million.

The Contra Costa Times recently reported that a coalition of city leaders and housing rights advocates is moving forward with a plan to use eminent domain to help the city’s distressed homeowners. The plan, which would be the first such in the country, calls for the city to purchase distressed mortgages from lenders and refinance them for current owners at lower rates.

And while opponents, including the local Chamber of Commerce and the banking industry, warn the plan would dry up existing credit and could plunge the city further into crisis, supporters say it would help balance the scales in favor of homeowners.

“The people who peddled loans to us no longer cared if the loans succeeded,” Amy Schur told the paper. “They don’t lose when we lose … and often loan servicers actually do better when we fail, when we foreclose.”

Patrick Lynch is the director of Richmond’s office of Community Housing and Development. He says that while his office is working to “stabilize the neighborhood,” lingering high unemployment – currently at 11 percent – and credit card debt impede the ability of many residents to transition from renting to owning.

NID’s Rivera says such issues make it all the more critical that people are equipped with the necessary information.

Mike and Kimberly Hill purchased their Richmond home in 1999 and attended the fair hoping to get information on how to lower the interest rate on their loan.

“We’re trying to find outside resources to work with us,” says Mike Hill, noting that to date Wells Fargo, which holds the loan on their home, has refused to cooperate. Both he and his wife say they were victims of predatory lending. “A lot of people are in this situation and [the banks] are just telling us to wait and maybe we’ll qualify for another program.”

The Hills say they’ve had to navigate a dizzying maze of financial and legal advisors as they seek help holding onto their home. “When you have to get an attorney to help deal with the bank, you have to ask whether the attorney is reputable or if they’re simply after your money.”

The Hills were eventually directed to a refinancing program at the event, though they remain skeptical about the bank’s willingness to lower the rate. “We’re still making the payments … but the rate just keeps rising, and it’s going to keep rising until it reaches that point where it’s no longer affordable.”

Fountain Brings Fresh Water to Thirsty Kids at Elm Playlot

News Report • Edgardo Cervano-Soto

It took five years of community organizing, government meetings, and filling out grant applications, but the Elm Playlot on 7th and Elm Street is on track to become one of the most innovative parks in the City of Richmond.

Pogo Park, a grassroots non-profit in Richmond, has been overseeing the project and working with residents to rebuild this small city park, located in the Iron Triangle neighborhood, that has for so long been beset by violence, poverty and neglect – and even seemingly small improvements can make a big difference.

Earlier this month, residents celebrated the installation of a filtered water fountain at Elm Playlot, an event that brought out local families, community partners and city officials. The groundbreaking ceremony for the new fountain gave community members a glimpse of the progress Pogo Park has made so far, and a better idea of what lies ahead. A large banner featured illustrations of the new park design, including features that were developed by neighborhood residents.

“Our vision at Pogo Park is to create these superlative and phenomenal parks,” said Toody Maher, executive director of Pogo Park. “We want [residents], the moment they walk through the gate, to be entering an oasis of health.”

It is spacious, with five trees providing shade over most of the park grounds. There are sandboxes, a tetherball area and a field for sports. The tetherball pole is actually cemented to a tire, and tree stumps serve as chairs. There are tents that can be easily collapsed, and floor mats. Large, rolling plastic balls are spread out in various places. Given it’s unique features, Maher refers to Elm Playlot as a “pop-up park.”

“It’s a great park for the children that live near by,” says Carmen Avalos, 60, in Spanish. This day, Carmen is watching over her grandson as he runs around the playground. She wears glasses and a flowery patterned top with large pockets on the lower end of her shirt, where she stores a children’s “sippy cup” of water. “A water fountain is great because they say tap water is healthier than bottled water,” says Carmen. “It’s a marvel for the children.” Carmen has lived in Richmond for 15 years and has been actively attending the community meetings at Pogo Park.

On a bench next to the small central field sits Doris Mason, 65, watching a pair of young people play hit and catch with a softball. Ms. Mason, or Mother Mason, as she is known in the neighborhood, is a community outreach liaison for Pogo Park. She has lived in Richmond for 25 years, and believes the water fountain can have a profound impact on the health of the community’s youth. “This water fountain will encourage the children to drink more water. They need their bodies to be hydrated. This water fountain, this park, is significant for them.”

Arriving park goers stop by to say hello to Mother Mason. Clearly, she is a fixture in the Iron Triangle. Her relationship to the community and her role as a surrogate grandmother to many people in the neighborhood, she said, is her strength. “Our young people don’t have grandparents, so as a seasoned resident, me and others, we serve as surrogates. We make sure everything is safe out here as they play, and not only play, but we interact with them,” she added.

Children gather around the tetherball area to watch a match between two players. It is apparent from the adults I speak to and the murals in the park, that the wellbeing of the neighborhood’s children is the focus of the park redesign. I try interviewing some of the children, but they are shy. One youth, Jeremiah Daly, 11, requests to be interviewed. I ask him about the water fountain. “I drink water like maybe five times a day,” and so do his friends, he confirmed.

A Pogo Park staff member began to call everyone over for the water fountain installation ceremony. Maher introduced representatives from the Native American Health Center, who performed a ritual. After the blessing, the children were invited to drink water from the fountain. As a line formed beside a colorful mural depicting the origin of Richmond’s tap water in the Sierra Mountains, water canteens were passed out to the children, who filled them up with the filtered water. “Everyone is trying to figure out how to make kids drink water and not sugar beverages. We decided to make drinking water like theater,” explained Maher.

With steps leading to the tap one side, and no steps on the other side, Maher said the fountain was designed and built by Pogo Park with both adults and children in mind. As if part of the mural itself, the blue colors of a river decorate the fountain.

Groundbreaking on the rest of the park redesign will begin later this year.

“Our only agenda for Pogo Park is that children must play to be healthy,” said Maher.

Community Mobilizes to Honor Shooting Victim Lincoln Plair

Karina Guadalupe • additional interviews by Paul Billingsley

The news of 20-year-old Lincoln Plair’s death was a shock to all of us who knew him. By now, I’m sure everyone else has heard about what happened. On Monday, March 4, Lincoln was shot and killed in the Iron Triangle neighborhood while he was washing cars, leaving behind his 79-year-old father who he was taking care of. I heard that Lincoln, right before he was shot, was able to push two little girls into a house to make sure they weren’t hurt. As of now, nobody has been arrested for the senseless killing.

I first met Lincoln when he started to volunteer for Pogo Park – a non-profit organization that built a community park in the middle of the Iron Triangle — over a year ago. He used to come to the park everyday and help us with the kids — he had a childlike personality and got along with all of them. Later, when he began working the morning clean-up shift, I didn’t see him as often, but we always said hello when we saw each other.

“This was a radiant man, this was a special man,” says his supervisor at Pogo Park, Toody Maher. “Everyday at 8am he would show up at our little park in Richmond and just clean the park and clean the sandbox. Folks that knew him knew that he was always on his bike. He would ride around and he knew all the neighbors. So many single mothers who were raising kids— he would stop by their house and he would wash their cars, he would play with their kids. And he did this at all these points of the neighborhood and everybody knew this wonderful and radiant spirit.”

That last morning I saw him, I would have never guessed that it would be the last time any of us would be around him. I regret not being able to tell him how much I appreciated all of his help when he was alive. It’s crazy how things just hit you when someone is gone. Our team took a huge hit with his loss.

Lincoln was a good person; all he wanted to do was help. He wanted to be a part of something positive. These days you don’t meet too many people who put the needs of others before their own, but Lincoln was one of them.

“We had a huge tragedy this week with Lincoln being killed,” says Captain Mark Gagan of the Richmond Police Department. “He was shot in broad daylight while washing a car. In his case there was no evidence that he was involved with any at-risk behavior or [had] a problem with anybody. He really is the epitome of an absolute victim. I see the grief that his killing has caused.”

“What happened to Lincoln is a complete devastation to my life, to Pogo Park [and] to this community, to the children that were involved with him, that were part of his life,” says Pogo Park artist Richard Muro, a co-worker and friend to Lincoln who saw him everyday. “I got to know him a lot through working here. He was an amazing person, very unique, truly unique, very warm-hearted [and] willing to help. He was one of us and I could tell that he wanted to create change.”

“He just got paid and got promoted that same day,” adds Muro. “We know how hard he had worked to get there.”

The day after Lincoln was killed, Pogo Park staff met with representatives from Bay Area Peace Keepers (BAP), the Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) and Captain Gagan, to talk about how to “shine a light” on who Lincoln was. We put up an altar for him at the park and organized a candlelight vigil and night walk on Friday March 8. A short video of Lincoln was shown, we served Mexican hot chocolate and participants walked to where the shooting had happened, where a reverend from CeaseFire said a prayer. The next day we held a car wash to raise money for the Lincoln Plair Memorial Foundation. All the money raised by the effort will go to Lincoln’s family.

On Thursday March 14 we also hosted a Native American talking circle at Pogo Park that gave folks a chance to talk through their pain and grief and begin to heal.

A lot of people have been killed here in Richmond throughout the years and I just can’t help but wonder, what problem could be so serious to only be solved by taking someone else’s life? I always come up with the same answer… nothing.

I just hope Lincoln knows that we are all making an effort to honor his life. Lincoln, we all love and miss you!

Urban Tilth’s MLK Day of Service Showcases Richmond’s Green Thumb

News Feature, Edgardo Cervano-Soto

Teams of volunteers in white MLK t-shirts pushed wheelbarrows of compost and struck the ground with shovels for Urban Tilth’s 6th Annual MLK Day of National Service at the Richmond Greenway. Stretching from 6th Avenue to Harbour Way, the Richmond Greenway was host to multiple green projects and activities. By 9am, work was already underway on the many plant beds, and by the afternoon families and children strolled the greenway to the performing stages.

Along the trail, bilingual posters featuring quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. speeches were posted for the people to read. In addition to the projects, which included planting trees, mural painting and building sitting areas, numerous city organizations were on hand in their booths.

Alvino Rodriguez, 60, a grandfather, walked the Greenway with his family. He’s on a visit from Mexico, and said he was surprised by the activity on the Greenway. “It’s great to walk around, and see the progress of the city,” said Rodriguez. “The city is getting better, little by little.”

Near Harbour Way, Carmen Lee, 40, welcomed visitors to the Pogo Park booth and shared information on the non-profit organization that is leading the reimagining and building of parks in Richmond’s most underserved neighborhoods. Dr. Amahra Hicks presented a model of “Unity Park,” a community collaborative project to create a new park, and effort led by Pogo Park.

According to Dr. Hicks, “Unity Park” will feature amenities and play structures designed entirely by the community, an effort that has lasted three years. Today, Dr. Hicks was collecting signatures for future participation. “We want the community to be involved in this process. This is a very underserved community and Unity Park will put (in place) a lot of programs for the community to benefit,” he said.

Residents from Richmond were not the only ones volunteering. The event drew people from the nearby cities of Albany, Berkeley, Oakland and even Antioch. Marisol, 15, a student from Albany, found herself planting a tree on the Greenway for RichmondTrees, a grassroots organization promoting the growth of Richmond’s “urban forest.” The task of planting a tree was a new one for Marisol, but she was glad to participate and honor MLK through service. “It feels good to do something to honor Dr. King. There is not a whole lot of celebration where we live,” said Marisol, “and this brings everyone together.”

Prostitution, a Growing Threat to the Richmond Community

By Asani Shakur

EDITOR’S NOTE:.  A 25-year-old who grew up on the streets of Richmond decided to write this piece because of what he sees happening in his community every day. 

Barbaric. Evil. Modern-day slavery. Those are some of the words that President Barack Obama used to describe sex trafficking during a speech he delivered earlier this year at the Clinton Global Initiative summit. Obama also acknowledged that sex trafficking isn’t just an international problem –  it’s a major problem right here in America.

In the Bay Area, pimping, once a hustle reserved for a small group of individuals, has gown into an epidemic in our communities. Glamorized in pop culture and especially in rap music, more and more people involved in the Bay Area street life are getting into pimping as a way to make money.

Nowadays, your average dope dealer or gangster is often also pimping. I’ve even seen junior high and high school students pimping the girls in their classroom. There are many innocent victims involved in this. Preying on abused girls who may lack self- respect or a sense of identity, or who come from dysfunctional households, is not fly. Also, the notion that only “bad” girls are out there on the streets is a myth.

Despite the amount of prostitution and trafficking that goes on in the City of Richmond, you would never know there’s a crisis by looking at the arrest data.

Chad Mahalich, Deputy District Attorney of Contra Costa County, deals with human trafficking cases. He says that since 2010, only 8 cases of pimping have been filed with the county. Of those 8, just 2 have been convicted via jury trial, 2 have pled guilty, and 4 are still in the system awaiting trial.

“It’s a low number to what is actually going on, but we have picked up the pace a lot. We have a zero tolerance policy,” insists Mahalich.

While Oakland and Sacramento have garnered much of the attention as popular hot spots for pimping and prostitution, it’s just as much of a problem in Richmond.

“It’s happening everywhere; the pimps will take girls everywhere,” explains Mahalich. “While the money is a driving force, there is also a psychological aspect to it. They [the pimps] are pretty sadistic. Sometimes they have been abused or have (their own) sexual issues. Often they are as close to a sociopath as anything I’ve seen.”

A pimp — on the streets it is a word often understood as an acronym for “Put It in My Pocket” — is an agent for prostitutes who collects part (in some cases all) of their earnings. The pimp may receive money in return for advertising services, physical protection, or for providing and monopolizing a location where the prostitute may engage clients.

There are different methods of pimping. Newer or less respected pimps are often called “popcorn pimps.” Those who use psychological manipulation or deception are the “finesse pimps,” and the one who use violence are known as “gorilla pimps.”

Sgt. Holly Joshi is with the Human Trafficking Unit of the Oakland Police Department.  She says the department “takes human trafficking very seriously.” Doing undercover work, posing as a prostitute on the “track” — for up to 10 hours at a time – and having pimps and “johns” approach her while seeing how the girls are victimized, says Joshi, has been heart wrenching and a real eye-opener.

“Most of the girls are brainwashed into thinking that the pimps are their boyfriend who love and care about them,” explains Joshi.  “Or, they have tricked the girls into thinking [they are] just as guilty of committing a crime as [the pimp is], because he may have her hold his gun or his drugs.”

I wanted to write about this because I don’t want to see more people in my community go to prison and ruin their future. It’s not worth it.  The City of Richmond and the people who live here can have a better future than the one we’re creating. Women are the staples of our community, and we must not contribute to breaking that bond, but rather help build a stronger one.