Housing Rights Committee celebrates 40th anniversary

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On Guard column header Joe

You could say the Housing Rights Committee was born from tenants’ prayers.

Forty years ago, a group of parishioners at old St. Mary’s Cathedral felt a stirring in their souls to spread the good word of tenants’ rights.

San Francisco’s landmark rent control ordinance had just passed, but these parishioners, mostly seniors, realized they “needed” to tell other seniors not only about the new law but about all the ways landlords concoct to evict people, said Sarah “Fred” Sherburn-Zimmer, Housing Rights Committee’s current executive director.

“It was birthed out of the Catholic church,” Zimmer said.

So these parishioners formed a “committee” of the parish called the Old St. Mary’s Housing Committee, which quickly outgrew its heavenly trappings and transformed into its own organization.

For forty years, the committee’ members have advocated for tenant protections on City Hall’s steps, and helped write laws guaranteeing just that. For forty years they’ve clutched bullhorns shouting the misdeeds of unscrupulous landlords, often to their faces. For forty years tenants have walked through the committee’s doors seeking help.

And for forty years the committee’s staff and volunteers have rapped on tenants’ doors singing the good housing gospel.

Lenea Maibaum knows that well. Born and raised in San Francisco, her Nob Hill home of 24 years was bought by San Francisco’s biggest landlord, Veritas Investments, a few years ago. When the conditions of the building deteriorated, according to a lengthy report by 48 Hills, tenants suspected it was purposeful — a way to push them out.

That’s when the Housing Rights Committee came knocking on Maibaum’s door.

Well, actually, her neighbor’s door.

Her fellow tenants banded together, organized, and continue to fight.

That was two years ago. Now Maibaum has been galvanized to volunteer with the Housing Rights Committee and their “knock squad” to help other tenants — including in other Veritas buildings — seek justice.

“A lot of tenants get scared. I was. I thought I could put my head down, pay my rent, and just be a very good tenant. That was not the case,” Maibum said.

Organizing can be “rough,” she said. “I have to have a thick skin. Some of the stories I’ve seen, the buildings I’ve seen, it’s mind-blowing,” she said. She described hazards in apartment staircases, hallways replete with asbestos, flying paint chips and other health hazards so onerous that tenants line their doors with plastic to protect themselves.

This is the kind of on-the-ground work that Housing Rights Committee does so well, said Tom Ammiano, the former San Francisco rabble-rouser, supervisor and assemblymember.

“They’re everything that authentic grassroots should be. I’m amazed by the consistency over the years with lots of challenges,” Ammiano told me. He said of Tommi Avicolli Mecca, the committee’s director of counseling, “He’s my pisan,” referencing their shared Italian roots.

Ammiano credited Mecca and the Housing Rights Committee for their work writing tenant protection laws. “I know for sure that Tommi’s work on ballot measures has resulted in them passing,” Ammiano said.

Mecca led tenant protection efforts in the Castro during the AIDS crisis, Sherburn Zimmer said, and “knows all the laws inside and out and has trained a whole generation of counselors and activists.”

Of course, Housing Rights Committee exists in a web of inter-connected housing advocacy groups, all who offer their own specialty, Sherburn Zimmer acknowledged.

But Housing Rights Committee’s members are proud of their work to help pass Proposition H in 1992 to reduce allowable rent increases under rent control, 1994’s Proposition I to bring 2-4 unit buildings under rent control, additional owner-move-in restrictions in the year 2000, and a 2009 policy for public housing tenants to be given the “right to remain” in rehabilitated buildings.

In 2015, the committee expanded its offices into the Inner Richmond neighborhood, acknowledging a growth in evictions on the West Side, and a need to better serve clients across The City, offering support in Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin and Russian.

The committee now sees roughly 5,000 people for tenants counseling annually.

But because Ellis Act evictions have cooled, signaling a change in landlords’ tactics to oust tenants. Often they misrepresent the law to scare off tenants, Sherburn Zimmer said, something easily combatted with knowledge.

“Now they just put on a big monster mask and say ‘boo!’ Tenants who stay and fight, stay,” he said.

That’s also true for Sherburn Zimmer’s own family. Her father lived in a rent-controlled apartment on Polk Street since the 1990s. He died this year, and when Sherburn Zimmer was sorting through her father’s belongings, found old notes sharing anti-eviction advice from his own Housing Rights Committee tenants counselor.

The committee helped him keep his home, too.

“He was there until the end,” Sherburn Zimmer said.

Another tenant helped among thousands, and thousands more to come.

Housing Rights Committee will celebrate its 40th anniversary at Gray Area Theater at 6 p.m., Thursday, September 19. Tuesday Veritas tenants will rally with the Housing Rights Committee.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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