(Created page with "'''<font face = Papyrus> <font color = maroon> <font size = 4>Historical Essay</font></font> </font>''' ''by Chris Carlsson, 2019; originally published on [https://notesfromb...")
by Chris Carlsson, 2019; originally published on Notes From Below
At the anti-eviction protest, May 31, 2019, on Howard Street in San Francisco.
Photo: Chris Carlsson
I arrived early with my 2-year-old granddaughter to a park in central San Francisco. A half hour later others began to arrive and at the appointed time, a group of about 20 dedicated housing activists walked two blocks to a nondescript tech office. One person, pretending to have a package delivery, rang the bell and got the door open. We all quickly filed in to the unsuspecting workplace and fanned out distributing leaflets denouncing a woman (who was thought to work there) for her planned “owner move-in” eviction of the co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations (CCHO, pronounced Choo-choo) and his wife and son from their Noe Valley apartment of many years. The office workers there told us that she was hadn’t worked there for over a month, and our direct action effort concluded almost as soon as it had begun. We left fliers behind and asked them to let her know we stopped by. My granddaughter sat on my shoulders gamely clutching one of the handouts, not yet knowing she had just attended her first anti-eviction direct action protest.
Members of our entourage included long-time activists from the Housing Rights Committee, the San Francisco Tenants Union, the Eviction Defense Collaborative, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, and the aforementioned CCHO. I was just a body there, but I also sit on the board of the San Francisco Community Land Trust (SFCLT), and am blessed with a low-rent, eviction-proof apartment in the Pigeon Palace, a SFCLT property we got through what we like to joke was one of San Francisco’s biggest recent land heists (by community members rather than profiteers). (After a long, complicated political organizing effort over several years, our building was purchased in a 2015 probate auction by SFCLT with a huge $2.6 million “soft second” loan from Mayor Ed Lee’s Office of Housing and Community Development—something that never would have happened without the surrounding political mobilization in the Mission during the 2013-2015 period in which the purchase took place.)
Looking at housing from an “autonomist” perspective raises the immediate question of the state. Typically, autonomist analyses focus on the direct action of workers in workplaces, or when applied to housing, the focus falls on the direct efforts of tenants and communities to control homes, apartments, buildings, blocks, neighborhoods, and communities. Tenant unions, rent strikes, and eviction defense squads can also highlight a direct action-focused housing politics. Squatting may be the quintessential example of autonomist housing politics, but squatting has never been able to gain anything but very short-term occupations in San Francisco since the 1970s (at least those that have announced themselves—it is thought that there are some ongoing successful squats that have stayed far below the radar). Unlike European cities which have some legal space for seizing abandoned or derelict properties by squatters, the sanctity of private property dominates San Francisco and U.S. politics.
Focusing on everyday people and not on politicians and businessmen makes sense of course. But in the course of decades of bitter conflict over access to shelter, or better, the right to good quality housing, the battle always involves public policy as much as direct action. The basic legal structures and public policies surrounding property and wealth distribution inevitably affect the shape, duration, and results of housing struggles.
Success is not defined very often in autonomist politics. The maximalist goal of total revolution, a mythical end point in which all commodification of humans and the products of our shared labor is abolished, where we collectively and democratically decide about every aspect of our lives, is an enticing chimera that haunts the stunted realities of limited reforms. A utopian future in which every person is entitled to and has a well-made, comfortable, well-maintained home of adequate space in self-organized communities, is far from our current reality.
In the reforms we DO enact, usually via political pressure on elected government, or slightly more directly in ballot propositions (swamped by the distorted claims bankrolled by the other side’s overwhelming financial advantage in campaign spending), gains are consolidated, breathing space is opened, and we can actually feel secure and comfortable in our own homes, whether rented or “owned.” San Francisco has also pioneered a hybrid form of nonprofit housing development corporations that have worked alongside tenant organizing since the 1970s to expand the availability of “affordable housing.”
Both of the stories told here led to ongoing efforts that changed federal and local laws and built real buildings full of permanently low-cost homes, mostly for seniors. Taking a longer view, these struggles also gave rise to two of San Francisco’s most successful nonprofit housing development corporations (Tenants and Owners Development Corporation—TODCO, and Chinatown Community Development Corporation—CCDC) which have gone on to build and rehabilitate thousands of low-cost housing units that to this day allow tens of thousands of San Franciscans who don’t make a lot of money to live here in relative grace.
Social mobilizations at the dawn of San Francisco’s Housing Wars pushed the limits of what was possible at the time. Two memorable fights, each lasting a decade, each dependent on concurrent political movements that cross-pollinated with them and fed mutual inspiration and staying power, show both the power and limitations of housing politics. While gains were made, and worst-case scenarios were held at bay, the seeds of today’s unsustainable housing crisis (as well as some of the best responses to it) are clearly visible in the twists and turns that shaped the fight over Yerba Buena Gardens and the Redevelopment Agency’s agenda for South of Market, as well as the epic battle over the International Hotel (I-Hotel) on Kearny Street. The I-Hotel and Yerba Buena fights both began in the 1960s and culminated in the late 1970s, pushing out the original inhabitants and organizers. However,over the ensuing decades they produced permanent low-cost housing for the kinds of people who had originally put up the fight (albeit not the specific people who actually fought).