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Powdered milk and moving vans: The fight for affordable housing

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A young London Breed stands in front of her home at Plaza East in the Western Addition. (Courtesy London Breed)
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The tin can with “Pork” stamped on it, the box of powdered milk. They were our staples, grape juice a rare treat.

I grew up in Plaza East public housing in the Western Addition, five of us living on $900 per month. “Recycling” meant drinking out of old mayonnaise jars. Violence was never far away. And once a week, we took Grandma’s pushcart to the community room to collect government-issued groceries.

“The Community Room.” It’s ironic, thinking back now. Poverty took so much from us, but never our sense of community, never our homes. No, that pain came later.

In my sophomore year of high school, I watched my friend Loretta leave in a Uhaul headed for Oakland. She and her mom had been tenants in a nearby apartment, forced out by rent they couldn’t afford anymore. Loretta followed so many of my friends and family who left San Francisco with only their belongings and a so-called “Certificate of Preference,” as the Hope VI program promised to remake The City’s public housing.

When I was in college, the bell tolled for us. Just as my grandmother, the woman who had cared for me all my life, started needing me to care for her, we were told our home was being torn down and we would need to find another place to live. Scared and overwhelmed, I turned to the Tenants Union, hoping for an advocate, or at least advice. They told me plainly: “We don’t work with public housing residents.”  

Now, some years later, I’m privileged to serve my district as supervisor. As I run for re-election, the Tenants Union is out knocking on doors at public housing, looking to drum up support for my opponent. But where were they when we needed them?

I’ve lived in poverty. I’ve seen my friends, my community forced from the city I call home.

I am life-long renter, living in a rent-controlled apartment with a roommate. Our landlady recently passed away, and our building just sold. To this day — as president of the Board of Supervisors — my housing future is uncertain.

Fighting for tenants’ rights has never been about political posturing for me.

It’s very personal. It’s why I fight for everyone who’s struggling to stay in San Francisco.

Because whether it’s tenants facing rising rents, or public housing residents displaced by government policy, we are all in the fight for an affordable city together. We must be creative, and we must be persistent.

In my time as supervisor, I’ve passed zoning legislation to create more affordable homes on Divisadero and Fillmore without increasing building height; I’ve introduced the highest affordable housing requirements on developers in San Francisco history; I’ve helped increase affordable housing requirements citywide; I’ve passed neighborhood preference legislation so when those affordable units are built, people from our community will finally be able to live in them; and under my watch, District 5 has the best affordable housing production rate of any district in The City by far.

I secured $2 million to restore unused public housing units for 179 homeless families who now have a safe, permanent place to call home. I saved 104 affordable units at Frederick Douglas Haynes Gardens. I fought for Ellis Act reform and supported legislation to stop “gotcha” evictions and stronger regulations of Airbnb. I am working to rebuild thousands of public housing units, while writing a housing blueprint for District 5. And three weeks ago, I took a redeye flight to Washington to let them know we are not backing down on my neighborhood preference legislation to give our residents priority for affordable homes.

Despite my work, I know some in politics will never support me. I see them distort my record. I hear them say: “You don’t belong in this supervisor seat.”

You don’t belong. It’s a rejection people like me, who come from where I come from, have heard over and over and over again from those who claim to know what’s best for us but will never let us achieve it ourselves.

Well, we do belong. We all belong. This is our city, and it’s our future. We are fighting for an affordable, diverse community where all of us can thrive. And we’re in this together.

London Breed is the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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