In June, Frisco native Jamilah King penned a widely-shared article in Mother Jones about the messy race politics of the mayoral campaign.
On the alienation of Frisco native London Breed from progressives, King wrote: “In 1996, the New York Times ran an exposé about… Plaza East. ‘The building isn’t livable,’ one resident told the paper. ‘But at least we’ve got a roof over our heads.’ Breed and her family, though, stood to lose even that when, later that year, the city announced plans to demolish and rebuild Plaza East. [Breed] thought she knew where to turn to for help: the San Francisco Tenant’s Union, which had fought displacement since the 1970s. But she was turned away. ‘We don’t work with public housing residents,’ she was told.”
This suggests failure by the Tenants Union, but some of us Frisco natives recall a more complicated story. Who did what about public housing back in the day?
The first obvious question is: Why did The City demolish Plaza East and, if they would rebuild, why could Breed’s family lose their roof?
All project residents caught hell when President Bill Clinton pushed welfare reform simultaneously with his expansion of mass incarceration, as told in the Netflix documentary “13th.” Clinton’s HOPE Act included “one strike you’re out,” in which public housing tenants would be evicted if any occupant participated in a crime, and 3,000 evictions immediately followed passage. HOPE VI also financed rebuilding five San Francisco projects for $118.6 million.
Plaza East, Bernal Dwellings, Hayes Valley, North Beach and Valencia Gardens were dilapidated, crime-ridden and mismanaged. So why wouldn’t Breed have celebrated rebuilding?
As I learned from James Tracy’s book “Dispatches Against Displacement,” HOPE VI had a catch. There would be 40 percent fewer units, and no plan for where tenants would go when their buildings were demolished. Tenants could never afford market rents.
HOPE VI had Nancy Pelosi’s support to restore public housing by shrinking it. It was implemented here by Mayor Willie Brown and Housing Authority Director Ronnie Davis, who HUD suspended in 2001 for criminal indictments in Cleveland. The demolitions were celebrated by the San Francisco Chronicle, but criticized by Art Agnos and the SF Bay Guardian, home of Breed’s favorite “bullshit-ass blogger” Tim Redmond.
Gavin Newsom and Lee’s Housing Authority Director Henry Alvarez left under a cloud of lawsuits and scandals, while Newsom-appointed, Breed-backing commissioners Amos Brown and Ahsha Safai were found by the Budget and Legislative Analyst Office in 2013 to have failed at oversight of the agency.
The Tenants Union didn’t “work with public housing residents” because dealing with private landlords is entirely different from public housing operated by The City under HUD oversight and funding. It’s like resenting your dentist for not being a podiatrist.
Although the SFTU wasn’t aiding public housing tenants, others were.
Public housing tenants found allies from the Eviction Defense Network, a young Van Jones with Fillmore in Struggle Together (FIST), Asian Law Caucus, SFTU-spinoff Homes Not Jails and homegrown tenant councils. There was a rumor that Mayor Brown threatened anyone’s funding that helped public housing tenants. Later the Housing Rights Committee took on public housing so successfully that Alvarez tried to defund them. The tenants demanded 1:1 unit replacement, right to return, and recognition of a formal tenant voice.
The level of organizing at each site influenced what those tenants won.
It is true that progressives also failed to mount effective opposition on behalf of public housing residents. The organizing of public housing was underfunded. Solidarity with public housing tenants was not widespread enough among progressives.
While he hired administrators who were convicted for selling Section 8 vouchers, Mayor Brown sent vans to the projects to bring people to the polls. Although progressives didn’t sustain organizing public housing residents, he did.
On the other hand, every decision to mismanage, neglect and privatize public housing in San Francisco, to hire corrupt managers and to abandon tenants after demolition was made by current allies of Breed. The people with authority who chose repeatedly over the years to screw public housing residents are Breed supporters today.
Nato Green is a San Francisco native, comedian and writer. His new comedy album, “The Whiteness Album,” is out now.
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