Cold San Francisco Nights: Home, Housing and Genrification

By Tommi Avicolli Mecca

These days, Tony Bennett wouldn’t be leaving his heart in San Francisco. He’d be leaving his apartment and friends because he got priced out of the city. Or evicted by some speculator looking to make a mint off his beautiful Victorian flat.

Scott McKenzie would simply be telling folks *not* to come to San Francisco unless you work for the tech industry and can afford more than a flower in your hair.

Times have certainly changed for the city that gave the world the Summer of Love and North Beach beatniks, not to mention wonderfully diverse ethnic neighborhoods and a refuge for LGBT folks escaping the horror that still is the heterosexual nuclear (as in toxic) family in this country. Pure unadulterated greed is destroying the heart and the soul of the rebel city that has always welcomed the underdog.

Rents are now the highest in the country. In the working-class Mission district, home to a large immigrant Latino population and scores of artists and political activists, a lovely two-bedroom condo can be rented for $10,500 a month. In the still gay (but becoming straighter by the day) Castro where I live, there are $8,000 rentals above a brand new Whole Foods, proving once again that in America, healthy food is only for the wealthy. Poorer neighborhoods don’t even have supermarkets, only corner stores that soak them for the basics.

A recent report from the Brookings Institute in Washington shows that the city isn’t just the most expensive place to live, it’s also the municipality with the fastest growing income gap between rich and poor. The Institute’s results are based on income reported in the 2012 Census. The tech boom has climbed a chunk of degrees higher since then, meaning the income disparity is even wider now than two years ago. We’re in serious trouble, Houston.

According to the Institute’s study, households earning 95% of AMI (Area Median Income) bring home about $353,576 which is 16.6 times more than those making 20% of AMI which is around minimum wage or $21,313. We may be living in lean times, but the cats at the top are not feeling any hunger pangs.

Income disparity is not the only thing rising astronomically. So are evictions. Now the highest in at least a decade, they are mainly the work of speculators and investors from far and wide cashing in on a sizzling housing market that shows no signs of cooling down, a housing market fueled by thousands of tech workers to the south of here wanting to call San Francisco home. While politicians scramble to introduce legislation to curb the displacement of longtime residents, larger and larger buildings are being cleared of rent-controlled tenants paying lower rents in favor of those who can fork out the ridiculous amounts being demanded for a roof over their heads.

Already, a large part of the city’s work force, including teachers and fire fighters, have been forced to live outside San Francisco. Public transportation to the East Bay is expensive. Within the city it’s simply a nightmare. Google and other company buses create congestion and delays by using MUNI stops (and pay only $1 a stop for the privilege). Their fines go unpaid because of a nod and a wink from city officials.

Meanwhile, Mayor Ed Lee has proposed 30,000 new units of housing, but only one-third of them will be for those who are low-income. The rest will go to the middle-incomers. With 7,000-8,000 homeless on the streets and low-income housing waiting lists in the tens of thousands, you’d think that those without housing and those on the lists would get first dibs when the apartments are built.

Forget it. Lee’s mantra these days is “housing for the 100%.” Meaning that he’s just as concerned about households making $353,576 as those earning minimum wage.

These days, cardboard boxes and jails are the new housing for the poor in “progressive” San Francisco where anti-panhandling and sit/lie laws easily keep the homeless out of sight and out of mind. I honestly have never seen things so bad.

I was born in 1951 in a poor immigrant Italian neighborhood in South Philly. My grandfather came here, like his paesani from il mezzogiorno (southern Italy), with the idea that the streets were paved with gold. Wrong. They were paved with the blood, sweat and tears of men like him who worked for next to nothing and were told over and over again that they weren’t welcome. The Statue of Liberty had a message for them: huddled masses of dagos and wops, go home.

Working six, sometimes seven days a week, Papa made it into the working class, with a house and a car and a small amount of comfort. But not before we were booted out of our neighborhood and the house where I grew up was torn down and “redeveloped.” There went the neighborhood — to the more upscale folks, the yuppies of that decade.

I left Philly in 1991 and moved to San Francisco’s Castro District. I was there when the dot-com boom hit the city like a tornado, causing rents — and evictions — to skyrocket. I helped organize the Castro Tenants’ Union to stop long-term tenants with AIDS from being evicted in my neighborhood. We worked with the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition and other groups that wanted an end to the speculation and displacement and community control of our neighborhoods.

I also helped set up three shelters for homeless queer youth, a free meals program and a place for homeless persons in the Castro and Mission to shower. These days, queer youth make up 40% of the homeless youth population in the city. According to the city’s homeless count, 29% are LGB and 3% identify as transgender.

Things looked dire back then, but who knew they could get so much worse? Far worse. City-wide economic cleansing. Soon, there will only be extremely wealthy and extremely poor people in the city. Our wonderful diversity will be erased. Already, the African American population has been reduced to 6%. In no time at all, if the current rate of evictions continues, the Mission will be predominantly white, the Castro predominantly straight.

We need to take back our housing and our communities. The only way to do that is to take back the land. No one owns the earth. Capitalist society slices it up like a pie and gives people deeds to each piece. Speculators and investors buy up many pieces of this pie and flip them, especially when the market is hot, emptying them of tenants and walking away with huge profits. It doesn’t matter if the tenant is a 97-year-old woman or a gay senior with AIDS. The ends, making lots of dough, justify the means, tossing out single mothers with children or people living on SSI. Under capitalism, housing is a commodity rather than an essential human need, as are healthcare and food, two other human needs that are reduced to mere commodities.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet to turn all this around, short of ending capitalism and making housing a guaranteed right, something that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. However, there are ways to hopefully provide some relief.

We’ve got to take as much of the land off the market as we can so that it can’t be speculated on and doesn’t contribute to gentrification. Using models like the Community Land Trust (CLT), we can turn apartment buildings into co-ops where the existing tenants pay 30% or less of their income on rent, and no one gets displaced. The CLT maintains the mortgage on the land, the tenants in the building make the rules and manage the property. The CLT helps train people on how to live cooperatively, and how to take control of their own lives.

Whole neighborhoods or sections of a city can become CLTs. Dudley Street Land Trust in Boston is the best example. A poor African American community with empty lots that were being used as dumping grounds by people from throughout the city, transformed itself through a CLT. Funding was brought in from outside to help the community build itself up from within.

The CLT is not a quick fix. The acquisition of land is hindered by the ridiculous cost of real estate in cities such as San Francisco. Relying on generous individuals to donate buildings is like counting on politicians or preachers to be honest. Unless one can guilt-trip tech moguls into raising billions for the SF CLT, this is more of a long-range plan for changing how we do housing in this country.

Meanwhile, people should continue to squat and advocate for empty buildings and abandoned land to be transformed into affordable housing controlled by the residents. Legislative fixes, such as California Senator Mark Leno’s proposal that someone has to own a building for five years before he or she can use the state Ellis Act to evict the tenants are helpful in cutting down on speculation, but expect challenges in the courts and the men and women in the black robes to be on the side of those who profit from housing.

Still, legislators need to be finding creative ways to limit and even eliminate speculation and activists should push them to keep working on stronger and stronger measures to keep speculators out of working-class and poor neighborhoods.

Another fix is to fight for true rent control, which would include vacancy control. California cities, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Berkeley, have rent stabilization, which only controls the rent while the tenant lives in the apartment. Once he or she moves out, the landlord can raise the rent on the vacant unit to market value. Berkeley once had true rent control (which made it affordable to students), but it was reduced to rent stabilization by a 1995 state law called Costa Hawkins. The fight to strengthen San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley’s rent stabilization has to be done on a state level and is going to be difficult, but it’s a worthwhile one.

The fight may seem daunting, but, as the Chinese philosopher Laozi once said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.