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Living under a tarp next to Facebook HQ: ‘I don’t want people to see me’

The sprawling Silicon Valley campus has cafes, bike repair services, even dry cleaning. But across the road a homeless community epitomizes the wealth gap

In a patch of scrubland across the road from the Facebook headquarters in Silicon Valley, a woman named Celma Aguilar recently walked along some overgrown train tracks. She stopped where a path forked into some vegetation, just a few hundred yardsfrom the tourists taking photos by an enormous image of a Like icon at the campus entrance.

Welcome to the mansion, Aguilar said, gesturing to a rudimentary shelter of tarps hidden in the undergrowth.

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The campsite is one of about 10 that dot the boggy terrain, and are a striking sight alongsidethe brightly painted, low-slung buildings housing the multi-billion-dollar corporation. The contrast epitomizes the Bay Area wealth gap.

Harold Schapelhouman, a fire chief whose department has dealt with conflagrations on the land, said he was struck by the disparities. Their employees are very well taken care of. They have on-site medical facilities, dry cleaning, bicycle repair, they feed them and there are restaurants that are there. Its amazing what Facebook does for its employees. And yet within eyeshot it really isnt that far there are people literally living in the bushes.

Schapelhouman said he was not blaming Facebook, though it is true that the success of technology companies has driven up real estate prices in the area. As a whole, California is one of the lowest-ranking US states for the availability of affordable housing, and has one-fifth of Americas homeless population. Irrespective of the utopianism that imbues Silicon Valley culture, the tech campuses are not immune to these broader social problems.

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An aerial view of the Facebook campus on the edge of the San Francisco Bay. The land that the homeless encampments are on lies across the main road. Photograph: Noah Berger / Reuters/Reuters

Aguilar, 44, said she was aware of the Facebook HQ, though she wasnt quite sure what happened there as it always seemed so quiet. Can I get a job there? So I can get out from here.

The land where the encampments are located belongs largely to the state and private owners, and it takes 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other. Aguilar pointed out a pond, covered with scum, at which she said she sometimes washed. One campsite spills out from a huge clump of marshy greenery. Another is reached via a railway sleeper slung across a strip of water where a number of bike frames are submerged.

Salvadorian by birth, Aguilar said she once worked in nursing homes and at Burger King, and had four children. She said she had been homeless for about three years as a result of a crystal meth addiction, and thought she suffered from mental illness. Can you see how the trees move? she said as she sat on the rusted train tracks. I like to think theyre talking to me.

Friend requests and instant messages presumably zing back and forth on the other side of the street christened Hacker Way, but Aguilar said she had lost her Facebook password. No matter what I do they dont want to give it back to me.

A man named Rafael Barajas Ortiz, living in a lean-to amid mud and trash, said that, like Aguilar, he had no phone. Another resident opened the door of his shelter, which was blocked off by fencing made of woven branches, and said I dont use Facebook, before declining to be interviewed further.

Passing by on his bike, a local named Jesus said he did log on to the site, but he faced a problem familiar to many homeless people: he had nowhere to charge his phone. (He showed the Guardian his profile. The public pictures offered no hint he was on the streets.)

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A homeless encampment near Facebook headquarters. Photograph: Alastair Gee for the Guardian

Although it is not widely known, phone ownership and even social media usage are relatively common among homeless people, even if not those living next to Facebook. One Bay Area survey of around 250 homeless people found that 62% had phones. A study of homeless youth in Los Angeles indicated that more than three-quarters used social media.

Devices and service plans are readily available because the federal government offers subsidized cellular service to low-income Americans. It is known as the Obamaphone program both to its users and its rightwing critics, but in fact it originated as a landline subsidy during the Reagan era. The minimum standards specify 500 minutes per month of talk time or 500 megabytes of 3G data, and consumers can get a combination of them.

They use the phone for exactly the same reasons we use it, said Allan Baez, who launched a program that involved giving hundreds of free, Google-donated phones to homeless people. The cameras are particularly popular. They are individuals, they have kids, they have friends, they have good moments, and you take pictures.

A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on the encampments, though he noted that the companys investments in local affordable housing include an $18.5m commitment announced late last year. Otherwise, the county provides an array of homeless services, and its homeless numbers have dipped a moderate amount, according to a 2015 count.

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The sign welcoming visitors to Facebooks campus. The company recently said it would invest $18.5m in local affordable housing. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Standing amid waving grass near a campsite, Gonzalo Apale, in a filthy jacket and work boots, described social media access as almost a marker of his progress in life. Ill try to get a telephone very soon, Ill use Facebook again, he said with optimism.

Still, he tries to avoid walking on the same side of the road as the Facebook campus because I dont want people to see me like this, he said. Because they are clean and everything.

Towards sunset, Aguilar took a path that spiraled up a small hill to a clearing littered with detritus.

Im going to make my house here, she explained, gesturing at a partially unfurled tent. The Facebook campus was visible through the tops of the bushes. Preferably, she said, it would not be.

The trees will grow and no one will see me.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/mar/31/facebook-campus-homeless-tent-city-menlo-park-california


Berkeley’s liberal image in question amid homeless crisis: ‘The soul of our city is at stake’

Recent deaths challenge citys identity as a bastion of humanitarian values and injects urgency into debate on how to address homelessness as rents are soaring

One morning in mid-January, after days of intense rain, Tom White trudged to the back of an empty, muddy lot he owns across from Berkeley high school. He noticed a mound against the fence, next to some old tarps.

At first I thought it was another pile of garbage someone had dumped, White said. Then he looked closer. I realized thats human hair, thats a human shape. I just stood there and noticed there were no signs of life.

Outside in America

A woman, clad in layers of sweaters, was soaked and doubled over in a squat. She held an empty bottle. White called 911 and the body of the woman, later identified as 55-year-old Laura Jadwin, was taken away by the coroner. She was one of at least four homeless people to die in the past few months on the streets of Berkeley, California.

The deaths, in the middle of one of the coldest, wettest winters in years, have challenged Berkeleys idea of itself as a bastion of progressive and humanitarian values. They have also injected fresh urgency into a bitter debate over how to address homelessness when rents are soaring and affordable housing is vanishing.

Literally the soul and the character of our city is at stake, said Jesse Arreguin, Berkeleys recently elected mayor. Homelessness, he said, is a humanitarian crisis and its increasing every week. We have to address this issue more effectively.

For years, Berkeley has been known to locals by one of two nicknames: the Peoples Republic of Berkeley, birthplace of both the free speech movement and the Symbionese Liberation Army; and Berzerkeley, a time capsule of hippies and head shops. A festival named How Berkeley Can You Be?, now defunct, encapsulated the milieu: it brought together naked people, anti-circumcision activists and fire-breathers.

Yet today, Berkeleys values are clashing with unyielding economic realities. In recent years, its downtown has exploded with pricey restaurants and upscale apartment buildings catering to young technologists and researchers. Nearly 900 units are now under construction or approved.

Berkeley median rents have soared more than 40% in the past three years, to $3,483 a month, according to real estate firm Zillow. Meanwhile the homeless population has grown from 680 in 2009 to probably more than 1,000 today, according to the mayor. Strikingly, this is around 1% of the citys population.

There is a direct association between how fast rents are growing and how much homelessness there is in cities, said Svenja Gudell, Zillows chief economist.

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A memorial in Berkeley for 55-year-old Laura Jadwin. Photograph: Rob Waters for the Guardian

White, the man who found Jadwins body, said he has been discouraged by the nimbyish attitude of some of his fellow Berkeleyans.

They say, Why do we have to build more housing in Berkeley? They can go live somewhere else. But I dont think thats going to address the problem of homelessness. We cant build a wall and say, Go live in Nevada. Were going to have to have a community approach.

While nearly everyone in Berkeley agrees that housing costs are out of control, discussions on homelessness are among the most contentious to come before the city council.

In 2012, a measure to bar people from sitting or lying on downtown streets at night was placed on the ballot by political moderates then in control of the council, backed by business groups. The head of Berkeleys downtown association argued, approvingly, that the measure would shoo homeless people away from the citys main commercial districts.

But the so-called sit/lie measure outraged civil libertarians and progressives, who denounced it for scapegoating the vulnerable, criminalizing poverty and being out of step with the citys history. After a rancorous campaign, it lost by a slim margin.

Three years later, following complaints from residents about aggressive behavior and unsanitary conditions, the council passed new measures aimed at homeless residents that opponents quickly dubbed anti-poor laws. They restrict to 2 square feet the amount of sidewalk space that can be taken up by peoples belongings, bar public urination or defecation, and require people who keep their possessions in shopping carts to move them every hour.

In response, a band of homeless activists known as First They Came for the Homeless set up a protest camp dubbed Liberty City in front of Berkeleys old city hall. It grew to about 50 people before police evicted them after a two-week stay and arrested several campers. The group has since been ejected from several more sites.

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A band of homeless activists known as First They Came for the Homeless set up a protest camp. Photograph: Rob Waters for the Guardian

Mike Zint, a spokesman and organizer, said the encampments provide a way for homeless people to protest being treated as criminals because were poor. They also offer a dignified alternative to crowded shelters, where, Zint said, peoples possessions are stolen, they are exposed to infections, and they sleep poorly before being kicked out at 6 in the morning with all your gear.

Early this year, the group set up a new camp with about 20 tents on a grassy, city-owned parcel. So far it has been tolerated by authorities. The camp is a mix of newcomers such as Ariah Inlerah, 33, a transgender woman who fled anti-gay violence in Bloomington, Indiana, and longtime Berkeley residents such as Brett Schnaper, a 55-year-old former cook who has been homeless since he lost his rent-controlled, $1,100-a-month apartment early last year.

Here, I have a place to keep my gear and some reasonable hope it will still be there when I come back, he said, sitting in a canvas folding chair outside a tent.

To be fair, many Berkeleyans have great empathy for the citys homeless residents. In December, as the weather was worsening, Arreguin and a progressive majority took control of the city council and began pushing for change. The city set up an emergency operations center to coordinate crisis housing and opened a 47-bed winter shelter, for instance.

But a fight is likely looming: any proposal to provide more services is likely to provoke backlash from residents who argue they will draw more homeless people to the city.

Clearly we need fewer services, not more, said someone who wrote on Nextdoor, an online forum where residents post about neighborhood issues, under the name Eric Friedman. We need robust enforcement of our laws and criminal prosecution for violators. No camping. No crapping in public.

The contradictions inherent in liberal Berkeley are exemplified by Patrick Kennedy, a developer of luxury housing whose company donated $10,000 to support the sit/lie measure four years ago. Now he wants to build tiny studio apartments for the homeless modular units the size of shipping containers that can be stacked like Legos and sees no inconsistency in his stance.

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Brett Schnaper, center, and Mike Zint, right, at the First They Came for the Homeless encampment in Berkeley. Photograph: Rob Waters for the Guardian

Its a two-pronged approach, he said. I supported the ordinance because you cant have people camping out on your sidewalks and maintain the businesses and other social activities. But I also support the city actively doing something to address the problem.

However compassionate Berkeley tries to be, some obstacles are insurmountable. Take the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, which is dispatching staff members armed with tablet computers to talk to homeless people and assess their needs.

Since the beginning of last year, the agency has placed 54 homeless people into housing, said Sharon Hawkins Leyden, the groups director of client services. Yet only three have been able to stay in Berkeley, she said. The rest have been offered homes in Oakland, Stockton and even Sacramento, a city almost 80 miles away.

Berkeley rents, Hawkins said, are just too high.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/mar/15/berkeley-california-homeless-identity-crisis


Airbnb faces worldwide opposition. It plans a movement to rise up in its defence

The room-rental website, now worth $30bn, faces a critical year as city authorities clamp down

In the back room of a pub in Kentish Town, a group of middle-class Londoners are perched on velvet-covered stools, eating hummus and talking about property. On the wall, above a pile of empty beer kegs, a slide presentation is in progress. A video of Airbnbs recent advert shows smiling hosts opening their front doors and declaring their support for Sadiq Khans post-Brexit London is open campaign.

The audience of Airbnb hosts are there after receiving individual invitations from the company to a home sharers meet-up a concept largely unfamiliar to the slightly bemused crowd. Jonathan, an enthusiastic Californian Airbnb employee, who was recently seconded to London to set up the clubs, is happy to explain: Homesharing clubs are simply a way of organising this into something that has a unified voice then actually takes actions as a collective, he says, in a less than clear answer.

More simply, homesharing clubs are advocacy groups made up of Airbnb hosts loose, informal lobbying groups that push the companys agenda to politicians. The clubs are part of a what is fast becoming a concerted fightback by Airbnb, the website founded in 2008 when three college friends rented out air mattresses in their San Francisco flat as a way of making money, to become one of the biggest online travel brands in the world.

But its phenomenal growth is proving to be its greatest liability. Authorities in cities around the world fear the impact it is having on their communities and are now seeking to arrest Airbnbs near unfettered expansion.

The latest in a series of attempts around the world to curb its growth came earlier this month when New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that will fine tenants or landlords who let out unoccupied flatsfor less than 30 days.

Meanwhile, in Dublin, the owners of one flat have recently been prohibited from using it as an Airbnb let without planning permission, raising the prospect of copycat actions elsewhere.

In Berlin, people who let more than half of their flat short-term without obtaining permission from the city council now risk a fine of 100,000. And in London, a 90-day rule was introduced last year under which no property can be rented out on Airbnb, or any similar service, for more than three months a year without planning permission.

So how is Airbnb responding? In New York the company has filed a lawsuit in the US federal court. But at a wider level the company is now supporting efforts to prevent these types of actions from taking place in the first place. And the best way to do this, Airbnb thinks, is to get its millions of hosts to rise up on its behalf.

Last year the company announced plans for 2016 to create homesharing clubs in 100 cities around the world. The aim, it said, was to form a powerful people-to-people based political advocacy bloc.

The bulk of the clubs are in North America, with a couple in Australia, South America and Asia, and an increasing number in Europe. In Britain, however, the number of clubs is negligible, even though there are more than 40,000 listings on Airbnb. The company is concentrating its efforts on building this UK base. Meetings, such as the one at the Abbey Tavern in Kentish Town, have been happening all over London as Airbnb seeks to build a grassroots campaign to fight the threat of greater regulation and more restrictive policies.

The hosts at the Kentish Town meeting are told that, earlier this year in Berlin, Airbnb dropped the ball after the citys ruling on short-term lets the suggestion being that it did not want this to happen again elsewhere. As a result of that ruling, the Berlin Home Sharers Club was created and started lobbying to try to change what it saw to be an unfair policy. In London, the 90-day rule may itself not be onerous compared to other cities, but there are growing calls for further regulations .

Airbnbs Jonathan steers clear of telling the group that they should lobby for change. On the one hand, would Airbnb like to see homesharing groups set up all over Europe? Absolutely, he says. Would it share in their interests? Absolutely. But whether those sharing clubs decide that their only interest is to share electricians and plumbers or to take political action is completely up to them, he says.

The next slide focuses on Barcelona, a city where, in 2014, Airbnb was fined 30,000 for breaching tourism laws. Later, another slide listing write to your MP as a suggested activity is shown. Writing letters to local newspapers and selected officials is obviously something that we would want to see concerned hosts do, but only if it applies to them and if theyre motivated to do so, Jonathan says.

Chris Lehane, Airbnbs head of global policy and communications, said the clubs act as a voice against the powerful.

These folks absolutely should have the capacity to go out there and represent themselves, and weve been clear that we want to provide that support and provide some of the infrastructure, he said. This can be an incredibly effective advocacy tool. I think weve been pretty transparent and open about that.

The networks of host groups, which in effect lobby on behalf of the company, are an illustration of how far Airbnb has grown since its inception in 2007. Back then, founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia could not afford the rent on their San Francisco flat and so put three airbeds on the floor and charged $80 a piece for their first guests.

Even by the rapid standards of growth in the tech industry, the company has expanded very quickly. It is now valued at $30bn, and claims two million property listings in 191 countries. That valuation puts the worth of the Californian firm at more than Hilton Hotels.

Wouter Geerts, an analyst for Euromonitor International, says this rapid growth has led to the corporatisation of Airbnb, with more listings from other hospitality companies and people with multiple properties. That might be hotels or estate agents, serviced apartment providers. They all look at Airbnb and think actually what is stopping us putting these properties on Airbnb as well and making extra money?. And of course there are more and more stories about landlords that push out long-term tenants because they can make more money through Airbnb, he said.

One of the most frequent criticisms of Airbnb has come from the hospitality industry, which has complained of the differences in regulation that hoteliers have to operate under, compared to Airbnb. But the organisation that acts as the voice of this industry in the UK says it is not just about them. Many councils in London have expressed their concerns recently, says Ufi Ibrahim, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association. Much of that is because the sharing economy and in particular we are talking about the unlawful professional landlords, the pseudo-landlords operating illegally has put a huge strain on rental prices.

Increasing levels of hostility to Airbnb have also started to come from the neighbours of those who let their homes through the website. Last month a property court in London ruled that homeowners whose leases say that their homes can be used only as a private residence cannot rent out their properties as short-term lets. The case came after the neighbours of Slovakian interior designer Iveta Nemcova informed the freeholder of the building that she was listing her flat in north London on Airbnb. As a result, Airbnb hosts have been warned that they could be in breach of the terms of their mortgages and building insurance policies.

One homeowner who spoke to the Observer said that the ground-floor flat in her building had been rented out on Airbnb by a tenant without the knowledge of the owner. As a result, the house insurance of the whole building was potentially invalidated.

In London, Westminster City Council is investigating 1,200 properties alleged to be let in excess of the 90-night limit. Enforcement notices have so far only been issued against two. In practical terms it is a real challenge for us to gather evidence to prove that individuals are letting properties for over 90 nights, a council spokesman said.

The scrutiny that Airbnb faces from both users and policymakers around the world comes after the sites runaway growth. John ONeill, director of the Centre for Hospitality Real Estate Strategy at Pennsylvania State University, estimates that the number of hosts has doubled in the last year with revenue up 60%. With that growth has come an ecosystem of support companies, typically property management firms that submit the advert for the property onto the website and then may manage guests arriving and leaving, dropping off and collecting keys, for example.

The exact effects of this growth on the hotel industry are unclear. The British Hospitality Association said it would be unfair to say there had been an impact on the demand for its members services as a result of Airbnb and instead the association focuses its criticism on the effect on housing. Airbnb says that its growth has been a reflection of how people live, and describes the attacks from the hotel industry as disappointing but not surprising, rejecting claims that it has a negative effect on the housing market.

Homesharing puts money into the pockets of regular people and spreads guests and benefits to more communities and businesses, the company said in a statement. Countless cities around the world have introduced clear home-sharing rules, and we will continue to be good partners to policymakers and work together on progressive measures to promote responsible homesharing. The vast majority of hosts follow the rules, it said.

Where the Airbnb debate goes next, after such a period of rapid growth, is unclear. Some hotel companies, instead of continuing to fight Airbnb, have chosen to join it. The larger hotel chains are moving away from trying to combat Airbnb. Initially there were some kneejerk reactions of we have to lobby against this, we dont exactly know whats happening, they are not regulated well. Most of the companies have moved on from that now and they have started to realise certain potentials that it brings, said Geerts. There is this movement of looking at short-term rentals not as a negative, but more as a positive, and seeing the changing demands of consumers.

This was illustrated in April when French hotels group Accor, said to be Europes largest hotelier by room numbers, paid 118m to acquire Onefinestay, which offers short-term lets on expensive homes.

ONeill estimates that there are 70 lobbyists working for Airbnb in the US, trying to get favourable legislation passed to benefit the company. Most hoteliers I speak with have accepted Airbnbs existence and growth. Their concerns have more to do with levelling the playing field between hotels and Airbnb operators, because Airbnb has so many unfair competitive advantages relative to hotels, he said.

Others have said that regulators need to be fair in how they set out the rules that Airbnb and other similar companies must adhere to. Robert Vaughan, an economist with accountancy firm PwC, said there was a huge variation in those affected from someone renting out their sofa, to landlords with multiple properties and there is a difficulty in applying the same rules to all of them.

ONeill says that while Airbnb may continue to grow, it will not have the free rein it had previously. I dont think there will be a free-for-all of unregulated growth as there has been in the past, he said.

Back at the meeting in Kentish Town, the night ends with a positive response to the homesharing clubs idea. We need to write a letter, suggests one host. We should meet every three months, suggests another. As the meeting draws to a close, nearly everyone agrees on the need for a club. Jonathan jumps in again: I do want to stress that there are other sorts of flavours to home-sharing clubs, he says, launching into a description of a collective bedsheet-washing initiative, but few are listening. As the meeting ends, the group are asked to put their hands up if they want a local club. Nearly every hand goes up.

The Observer reporter who attended the Kentish Town meeting is an Airbnb host

Growing concern around the world

BARCELONA

Authorities in the Catalan capital recently stepped up their campaign against homes illegally rented out to tourists using homesharing websites. Hundreds of listings were ordered to be removed, and Airbnb and another online rental firm, Homeaway, faced fines of 60,000 each.

Homeowners who want to rent out properties to tourists must apply for a licence, and a team of 20 inspectors has been set up to find those who do not adhere to the rules. The citys mayor, Ada Colau, who took office in 2015, stopped the granting of new tourist licences for homes and hotels. She has blamed the rise in Airbnb popularity for growing tensions between residents and rowdy tourists.

The number of people using Airbnb in Barcelona tripled to 900,000 in the three years to 2015.

REYKJAVIK

The 1,600 short-term property lets in Icelands capital have to operate under strict rules introduced in June. The legislation allows residents to let their property for 90 days a year before they must pay business tax. The move comes as Icelands population of 332,000 is set to welcome 1.6 million visitors this year a 29% increase on last year drawn by the glaciers, fjords, lava fields, hot springs, hiking trails and midnight sun.

The move is one of a series aimed at controlling the rapid rise in visitor numbers, including Game of Thrones fans travelling to the filming locations of the television drama. One report estimated there was a 124% increase in Airbnb rentals in one year as residents cashed in on the popularity of the country, with more than 100 flats available on the capitals main street alone.

MOSCOW

Airbnb said last year that the Russian capital was one of its fastest-growing markets, fuelled by high inflation and low incomes. Activity doubled in one year, driven by an increase of single rooms in apartments, which were being listed for short-terms lets in an attempt by many homeowners to make ends meet, given the countrys economic problems.

The growing interest in Moscow on Airbnb brought it into the top 10 most popular cities by bookings on the website at a time when there was no sign of legislative regulation to restrict use of the service. The sharp increase came at the same time as falling wages, which were down 8.8% in the first half of last year. The average price of a private room for a night in the city is 27, and 45 for an entire home, according to the site.

LISBON

The city has bucked the trend of some of its European neighbours, and instead worked to make it easier for short-term rentals to operate. Hosts are required to register their properties as short-term rentals but there is no limit on the number of nights per year that they can operate.

Mayor Fernando Medina has said people should not be scared of the new tourism dynamic and wants the city to be able to take in more tourists, in turn reducing the number of empty buildings in Lisbon. Tourism is seen as an important part of Portugals economic recovery. Airbnb listings in the greater Lisbon area have almost tripled in the past three years.

SAN FRANCISCO

Although the city is home to Airbnbs HQ, it also operates strict rules for hosts, who have to register with authorities. If Airbnb advertises an unregistered property it can be fined $1,000 a day for each listing. One action group has posted wanted flyers. The crime? Airbnbing our community and destroying affordable housing for immigrant, minority, and low-income families. Resident groups have campaigned against Airbnb and there have been reports of tenants being evicted so landlords can list on the site. Last year Airbnb successfully campaigned against Proposition F, or the Airbnb initiative, planned legislation that would have reduced the number of days owners can rent their properties. Airbnbs victory was helped by its grassroots homesharing club, which voted in large numbers against the law.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/29/airbnb-backlash-customers-fight-back-london


After the hajj: Mecca residents grow hostile to changes in the holy city

As millions of hajj pilgrims return home, Meccas two million locals are left struggling with the impacts of their changing city. Much of old Mecca has been razed and rebuilt to make room for growing tourism, forcing out residents

Millions of hajj pilgrims are preparing to head home, after five days performing ancient rites, revering a God omnipresent in the city of Mecca.

They have stoned figurative devils, they have slept in the worlds largest tent city, they have drunk water from the Zamzam well together: a heaving throng of nearly two million people from all over the world.

Circling the Kaaba, the black cubic epicentre of this sanctuary city, pilgrims would have looked up to see one of the minarets of the Grand Mosque, dwarfed by Abraj al-Bait clocktower, a much-maligned luxury hotel and commercial complex and the second-tallest building in the world.

Next year, they will see the Abraj Kudai, the largest hotel on Earth.

Indeed, though rebuilt throughout the centuries, the minarets like much of the city are now relics of a pre-modern Mecca. Cranes and scaffolding now dominate the central skyline, reminders that the city is undergoing a massive state-run expansion to be able to handle ever-increasing numbers of annual pilgrims in the future.

Mecca
Mecca is flooded by pilgrims every year, but it is also a city of two million residents facing increasing structural stresses. Photograph: Ahmed Mater

But as much as these pilgrims as much as any Muslim belong to Mecca for those five days, they are but spiritually home. When it comes to the city they visit out of religious obligation and devotion to God, most are transient figures, who will leave no indelible mark on the city. They leave behind two million locals, who are struggling with the impacts of the changing nature of their city.

In the 1960s, before travel became more affordable, hajj pilgrims numbered roughly 200,000. According to Meccas mayor, today there are two to three million of them, with an additional 12 million performing the lesser pilgrimage of umrah, which can be done at any point throughout the year. Faced with a dip in oil prices, revenue from Meccan tourism is expected to become a greater source of revenue for the Saudi Kingdoms economy. Under its current plans, the city expects to add several million more pilgrims a year by 2020.

Estimates vary, but only a handful of Meccas millennium-old buildings remain. Ottoman fortresses and hills have made room for the royal clocktower. The prophets first wife Khadijahs home is now the site of public lavatories. But very little is said about the thousands of homes and neighbourhoods destroyed to make way for the citys expansion. Thirteen of Meccas 15 old neighbourhoods have been razed and rebuilt to make room for hotels and commercial spaces.

Construction
Construction cranes now dominate Meccas skyline. Photograph: Ahmed Mater

No one knows this better than Sami Angawi.

An architect who now lives in Jeddah, Angawi spent his childhood in his familys ancestral home of Mecca. Like many Meccans, then as now, his father was a local guide to pilgrims there for umrah or hajj. As a boy, Angawi has said he would help his father carry around pilgrims shoes while they prayed.

The Angawis lived in Shab Ali, the neighbourhood said to have been the place of the prophet Muhammads birth. But their home was demolished as part of the first organised expansion of the Grand Mosque in the 1950s. Angawi told Al Jazeera last year that his family was forced to move two more times as the city continued its forced expansion.

The 65-year-old architect is also the founder of the Hajj Research Centre, who has spent the last three decades researching and documenting Mecca and Medinas historic sites. They are turning the holy sanctuary into a machine, a city which has no identity, no heritage, no culture and no natural environment, Angawi told the Guardian in 2012.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/sep/14/mecca-hajj-pilgrims-tourism


The last affordable neighborhoods in Manhattan: ‘The air is fresher up here’

Long an ignored section of New York City by outsiders, the two neighborhoods that make up northern Manhattan are attracting attention not all of it welcome

Johnathan Audubon Perez, winds his way through the streets of upper Manhattan. He crosses fresh fruit vendors and men pushing carts selling fried pork. Street intersections reveal children playing in the water of opened fire hydrants, and older generations gathering around improvised domino tables. Bachata is blasting out of one window high up on one block, and from the portable speakers of a stoop on another.

These are the scenes of summer in Washington Heights. The neighborhood is baking from the heat, but it is alive.

Long a vastly ignored section of the city by outsiders, the Heights and Inwood the two neighborhoods that take up the entire northern section of Manhattan from 155th street to 220th street have suddenly attracted wide excitement and attention. Why? Real estate firms and media outlets have named them the last affordable neighborhoods on the island both for renting and buying. The median rental price in July in Washington Heights was $2,200, well below the $3,508 average for the rest of the island, according to real estate group Citi Habitats. According to real estate broker Cole Thompson, one-bedroom apartments in the area are available for $300,000, considerably less than the median $815,000 price of a one-bedroom across Manhattan as a whole.

For
For many whose families settled in the two neighborhoods decades ago, the added attention to their homes is creating a great sense of insecurity. Photograph: Devon Knight for the Guardian

Christopher Jackson, a Broadway musical actor, moved to Washington Heights last month. I was looking to move uptown because I wanted space and I wanted it cheap, Jackson said. He loves the neighborhood and has already enjoyed the nightlife and restaurants. The air is fresher up here.

For now, very few of his longstanding New York friends live this far north. They sometimes make fun of him for his choice in neighborhood. They say, oh I will come and see you, but I will have to find my passport. But those friends are living in tuna cans, in sardine cans, he says, referring to how much smaller their New York dwellings are.

But bargains for outsiders aside, for many whose families settled in the two neighborhoods decades ago, the added attention to their homes is creating a great sense of insecurity.

With their blocks upon blocks of hundred-year-old sturdy, brick apartment buildings, decorated with zigzagging metal fire escapes, the two upper Manhattan neighborhoods have long been the home to working class and immigrant communities who have enjoyed affordable, quality lives for a century.

Bill
Bill De Blasios housing plan would allow for the construction of more market rate developments in Inwood. Photograph: Devon Knight for the Guardian

Today, a majority of the neighborhoods residents identify as Latino or Hispanic, mostly of Dominican origin. For decades, Spanish-speaking residents have lived alongside a smaller orthodox Jewish community, and a slightly more middle-class white liberal community.

Whereas many New York City neighborhoods have seen new buildings rise in recent years, much of upper Manhattan maintains its original architecture. Through the 1970s and 1980s, when Washington Heights in particular became known as a murder and cocaine capital, and the crack epidemic led to the destruction of many lower-income neighborhoods across New York City, residents here made sure buildings were kept intact.

Led Black, a 41-year-old telecom analyst and founder of online news and culture hub the Uptown Collective, grew up in the same Washington Heights apartment he lives in today with his wife and daughters, where he pays a city-controlled rent of below $1,000 a month.

My mother was always about community, my house was always the house that people came to to have a meal, Black says.

Johnathan
Johnathan Audubon Perez. Photograph: Devon Knight for the Guardian

Like Blacks apartment, three-quarters of Inwood and Washington Heights where nine out of 10 units are rentals are rent stabilized or rent controlled. Only 7% are market rate, according to city data.

New tenants are a blessing for landlords who can legally hike up rents far more than if residents stay put from 20% if nothing is done to the unit to 250% and up if work is done.

As a result, the Rev Antonio Almonte the pastor at Inwoods Church of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs says tenant harassment is rife.

Its often indirect harassment. Landlords refusing to turn on heat in the winter for years. Not replacing old pipes. Doing awkward repairs. If a toilet is broken, taking a week to fix it. When tenants complain, they are offered a few thousand dollars to move out. Almonte says these stories are very common and he hears them constantly.

But with renewed attention, landlords are not the only threat to the affordable, high-quality of life of these two neighborhoods.

In Inwood, neighborhood activists have had their hands full battling Mayor Bill de Blasios housing plans for the city that have zoomed in on this neighborhood.

The housing plan would allow for the construction of more market-rate developments, providing a proportion of them were categorized as affordable. Residents are not prepared to compromise, however, and see the acceptance of such a plan in a neighborhood void of any luxury development as a route of no return. Activists won a victory last week, when plans for a first construction were blocked by a city council responding to local pressure.

Mark Willis, a senior policy fellow at New York Universitys Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, says blocking developments would only make the problem of affordability worse.

Whereas
Whereas many New York City neighborhoods have seen new buildings rise in recent years, much of upper Manhattan maintains its original architecture. Photograph: Ambient Images Inc/Alamy

The best way to address this problem is to increase supply, and one key way to do that is to allow for increased density.

Stephanie Baez, a vice-president of public affairs at the New York City Economic Development Corporation says that rezoning plans in Inwood are part of a broader housing plan under Mayor De Blasio that are precisely concerned with the community, and are under peoples terms.

Gentrification and development are the status quo, she points out, and without city intervention under the form of De Blasios Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan, development will prevail, but at full market rate, only without the permanent affordable stipulations.

Baez stresses the rezoning plan is not yet finished, and there is ample time for community members to continue participating in its design. For now, residents have until September 2017 to express concerns.

Though he grew up in northern Manhattan, Perezs career means he no longer spends all his time in New York. But he always comes back to the same apartment his grandmother moved to in the late 1950s, and where his mother was born in the early 1960s.

Hes noticed some changes brought on by the new residents. They call 311 on us for everything fire hydrants, music in the street, he says.

While Inwood and Washington Heights are respectively the third and fourth safest neighborhoods in Manhattan, behind only the Upper West and Upper East sides, when it comes to noise complaints, they are top.

Today, the apartment is still filled with family members, but of his generation. The landlord has tried everything, including offering money, to get them out. But they wont go.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/aug/29/new-york-city-affordable-inwood-washington-heights-housing


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