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'No Gentrification' rally confronts Tucson city leaders about housing, transit policies

A rally against rising rents in metro Tucson took place at City Hall on Tuesday night, with protesters packing the City Council chambers and using the call to the audience to urge “immediate action” from elected officials to “to alleviate the housing crisis locally.”

The People’s Defense Initiative, a Tucson social justice group, led the event alongside Casa Maria Soup Kitchen, the Party for Socialism and Liberation Tucson and other local organizations.

The coalition is planning to hold another rally to bring their demands to the Pima County Board of Supervisors. The rallies are part of the “No Gentrification” campaign, which aims to pressure elected officials to build more housing and stop plans for a rapid bus line down 6th Avenue.

Organizers are presenting four demands to local elected officials, such as rent control, building 200 housing units in South Tucson and stopping plans for a rapid bus transit system, which the rally organizers said will "price" low-income residents out of their homes in South Tucson and the South Side. 

First-year City Councilman Kevin Dahl has "shown quite a bit of support" for the coalition's demands, said Roxy Valenzuela, an organizer from Casa Maria Soup Kitchen.

The coalition has also heard from East Side Councilman Paul Cunningham and Midtown Councilman Steve Kozachik about setting up meetings next week and talking about their demands, Valenzuela said. The three Council members have shown interest in following through on the coalition's demand to create temporary camps for the homeless, she said.

State Rep. Andrés Cano has also told the coalition "we can use his name with whatever we do," Valenzuela said, which will be helpful pushing for rent control at the state Legislature.

If elected officials fail to show “significant progress” towards the demands by Labor Day, organizers plan to set up a camp outside City Hall until they see results, according to a press release from the PDI.

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“We’re going to be a thorn in their shoe until we get results,” Zaira Livier, the PDI executive director, said, talking about elected county and city officials.

'The message was received'

The Tuesday rally was “a beautiful event,” Livier said. “The event, for me, was a really good reflection of the moment we’re in.” Fellow organizer Valenzuela was "pleasantly suprised by the support we got."

Protesters first gathered in the plaza outside the entrance of the chambers, where they made speeches and played music through loudspeakers. About 50 people showed up for the rally, which started at 5 p.m., just before the City Council regular meeting.

“We're already hurting,” Ryan Kelly, an organizer with the Pima Area Labor Federation, said outside the chambers. “We're already getting kicked out of our homes, the rents already going up. We don't need to incentivize slumlords to raise those prices even more.”

Organizers had hoped they could make enough noise to be heard from inside the chambers, and “disturb (city council) a little bit,” Livier said on Monday, but they were unsuccessful.

Livier felt assured, however, that “even though the noise didn’t get in too much, the message was received,” she said. “City Council was aware of our presence.”

“That was really the point,” Livier said. “To kick off the campaign, and the more disruptive stuff will happen later.”

'We need affordable housing'

Protesters entered the Council chambers once the regular meeting started at 5:30 p.m. and signed up to speak during the call to the audience, a public comment period. Many handful of protesters and attendees of the meeting had to stand in the aisles.

Speakers from the group talked about being “priced out of Tucson” and asked the Council “to fight” the Legislature for rent control and “do what is right for working people.”

Under state law, cities and counties cannot regulate rents.

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“Tucson has become extraordinarily unlivable for the poor and working class,” Diego Martinez-Lugo, the lead organizer for the Tucson Tenants Union, said at the meeting. “There seems to be no end in sight nor relief coming our way.”

“We need affordable housing to make sure people can adequately work and live in this city,” Drew Fellows, an organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation Tucson, said. “We have to make sure that people are housed so they can adequately get their services.”

“I’ve experienced an unprecedented amount of displacement and uprooting,” Christina Jones, a protester from South Tucson, said. “I’m concerned about the outside developers preying on the elderly and our vulnerable citizens.”

The group “was disappointed” that they didn’t get as much time for call to the audience as they had hoped, Livier said. Protesters had to share their time with speakers there for unrelated reasons, but some speakers who weren’t part of the rally also commented on losing their apartments and homelessness.

City Council can vote to extend the call to the audience period and have done it in the past such as during budget approval and when police accountability has been a topic.

Mayor Regina Romero told the rally goers “to look at our (Housing Affordability Strategy for Tucson) plan,” or HAST, a city policy guide meant to create and maintain low-cost housing units. She also noted “the millions of dollars that Mayor and Council have invested in affordable housing.”

“Absolutely, we need to do more,” the mayor said after the call to the audience. “But I would also like to invite you to include the Pima County Board of Supervisors and the State Legislature in this effort. I think we can do much more together.”

A successful rally, a good strategy

The rally “exceeded my expectations,” Livier said, but she considered the mayor’s response “on brand.” Valenzuela said the mayor's comment was "somewhat appropiate."

“She mentioned taking our concerns to others, which we already had planned. It’s a lot of deflection,” Livier said. “It wasn’t the worst response, but it also wasn’t the best response.”

"It was refreshing to hear her say that she knows it's not enough and they need to do more," Valenzuela said. "We're just there to remind and put pressure on them to do more."

The coalition recognizes "the work that they've done with their so called housing plan," Valenzuela said, "but as she said, it's not enough."

Asked whether the coalition will have to set up camp outside City Hall to have their demands met, Livier said “I don’t want to say yes, but I would like to be an optimist and think perhaps not.”

“As an organizer, I’m always ready to be disappointed by elected officials,” she said. “I’m going to guess that will be the case, but I would love to be proven wrong.”

The coalition hopes to bring elected officials from the city and county together to “collaborate and get things done for the community,” Livier said.

The strategy of packing the city and county chambers has worked in the past, Livier said, mentioning protests before the COVID pandemic in response to a police statement against feeding homeless people in parks.

Packing a virtual county board meeting during the pandemic also helped the PDI push for the creation of the Emergency Eviction Legal Services program, which now helps Pima County renters avoid eviction, Livier said.

“It’s a really good strategy. It really galvanizes the community,” she said. “And it forces elected officials to listen.”

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Details on the rally in front of the supervisors are still being worked out, Livier said, but it’s “likely” that it’ll be at their next meeting on August 2. Organizers are waiting to see what the Council will do but don’t expect them to meet all their demands, Livier said.

“It’s all kind of up in the air, depending on what response we see from City Council,” she said on Monday. “We understand that City Council can’t deliver all of these demands all at once, especially not anything like rent control.”

"We're just starting with the city because they were part of the gentrification and the urban renewal of the 60s," Valenzuela said, referring to Downtown development that displaced Tucson families. "We see those patterns coming down and closer and closer to South Tucson."

Here come the gentry

Livier defined gentrification as “the process of displacing families from their neighborhood,” usually by “pricing them out.”

“We’re having wealthier people moving in, developers buying houses, out-of-town investors buying homes, fixing them up or putting them up, renting units,” she said. “It’s a long and intricate process of pricing people out of the neighborhoods they’ve been in their whole lives.”

Tucson is seeing it in the Downtown area, she said. She used to live in the area, but said that “urban renewal” efforts and Rio Nuevo, a development district, have made it costly to live there.

“Everyone I knew lived Downtown,” she said. “At this point, all the businesses where we used to work closed down or were priced out. Now you’ve got some new businesses, new hotels, condos.”

Gentrification is also happening in South Tucson, West Side neighborhoods such as Menlo Park, and the neighborhoods near the Sun Link streetcar, Livier said.

Homebuyers are also having trouble, she said. “No one can buy a damn house because they’re being priced out by investors and out-of-town wealthy people who are paying overpriced and sweeping up those houses.”

'No Gentrification'

The "No Gentrification" has four specific demands that they want local elected officials to work towards. The goal of the campaign is to stop rising rent prices by pressuring for changes in housing and transportation policy at the local and state level.

“This campaign is geared towards alleviating and eventually halting the gentrification of South Tucson and the surrounding neighborhoods,” according to a PDI press release. “For years the housing crisis in Tucson and the City of South Tucson has gone unchecked with families and community members being displaced at a devastating rate.”

The demands of the campaign, according to a press release, are:

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  • Ending plans for Bus Rapid Transit that runs down 6th Street through South Tucson and the South Side unless affordable housing is built at the bus stops.
  • Building 200 housing units in South Tucson that current residents can afford by 2025 and bringing affordable housing units up to code. Plus, low or no-interest loans for low-income residents to renovate or repair their homes and "no luxury, market rate, or so-called workforce housing."
  • Bringing South Tucson, Tucson, Pima County, the Tucson Association of Realtors and others together to pressure the State Legislature to allow local jurisdictions to implement rent control.
  • Creating one or more temporary camps and stopping all camp sweep.

The “No Gentrification” coalition also started an online petition to get serious attention for their demands from elected officials at the city of Tucson and South Tucson as well as Pima County. They’re asking for 500 signatures and had 262 as of Wednesday evening. The coalition is getting a lot of support from the online community, Valenzuela said.

They also know that "City Council only has so many tools they can use,"  Livier said, but they do want elected officials “to start making way or start making calls as soon as they can,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the route of the proposed rapid bus line.


Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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A protester at the 'No Gentrification' rally holds up a 'stop evictions' sign in front of Tucson City Hall.

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