It's human to search for meaning in death. And when Ted Gullicksen, a decadeslong activist at the San Francisco Tenants Union died on Oct. 14, it was easy to feel like a part of The City died, too.
Over the decades, Gullicksen personally counseled thousands of renters who faced eviction, saving many of their homes. But hanging on to a home in San Francisco seems more desperate now than ever.
Maybe The City has lost its fight for affordable housing, I thought. Maybe we're done.
As I walked into Mission High School for Gullicksen's memorial on Sunday afternoon, I thought of all my friends priced out of The City of my birth, the ones that Gullicksen couldn't save.
I thought of a childhood spent cheering the Giants with my grandfather in his decades-old Castro apartment. He was evicted under the Ellis Act just before he died in 2007.
It wasn't just the fog giving me chills as I contemplated Gullicksen's last days.
The election this month fed this fear. Supervisor Jane Kim's affordable-housing measure, Proposition K, had all the teeth yanked out of it by Mayor Ed Lee before it made the ballot. Proposition G sank under a $1.4 million tide of Realtor money. If passed, Prop. G would have taxed real estate flipping, which threatens The City's dwindling and limited stock of rent-controlled apartments.
When proponents pushed Prop. G, they played on the letter, urging “Yes on Gullicksen.” It was the last of the many rental-protection laws he championed at the Tenants Union.
Some of those laws Gullicksen wrote himself. To measure his long-reaching impact, one only had to look across the high school auditorium Sunday.
Hundreds filled the building to remember him. Many spoke of him as a gentle person with his friends and colleagues, though he was gruff on the picket line. His constant companion, Falcor the Maltese, was the giveaway: the man had heart.
But he was a fighter, too. Mara Raider of Homes Not Jails remembered Ted saying the group “was the only organization to make laws during the day, and break them at night!”
His weapons of choice were bolt cutters, Super Glue and a bullhorn. With those and a tenacious mind, he helped break into and squat in homes, saving San Franciscans from sleeping in the streets.
As Rev. Norman Fong said on the stage at Mission High, “A lot of us are compassionate, we might write a check.” But putting your body on the line?
“That's what Ted did.”
To stay in San Francisco we all put ourselves on the line. A microcosm of The City's displacement, the Mission has lost 1,400 Latinos and gained 2,900 Caucasians between 1990 and 2011, according to a census analysis by Causa Justa Just Cause.
Those of us who remain spend an increased slice of our incomes on rent, as we hang on by an ever-thinner thread.
At one point in the memorial, Public Defender (and one-time mayoral hopeful) Matt Gonzalez seemed to speak straight to the fear of a changing San Francisco.
“That this is the obituary of the left in San Francisco,” he said, “is premature.”
After the memorial, I tried to see things from that frame of mind.
Prop. G campaign manager Quintin Mecke said the anti-speculation tax would be revived for next year's ballot. And 10 days ago, Mayor Lee returned Supervisor David Campos' eviction buyout regulation without a veto.
Some landlords have been known to pay renters a few thousand dollars to leave their apartments quietly. These buyouts are known to housing activists as “hidden evictions,” because hollow [and illegal] eviction threats often permeate the negotiations.
It's deceptive bargaining that the new regulation may now stamp out.
Housing Rights Committee activist Sara Shortt held Gullicksen's dog, Falcor, for much of the day. She and others said they'd carry Ted's torch.
And just around the corner was Erin McElroy, leaning against a wall as she chatted with her fellow activists. She's probably best known for her leadership in the notorious Google bus protests.
McElroy told me she learned her trade from Gullicksen himself.
And that was Gullicksen's last gift to San Francisco, his “Left University.”
If we're lucky, his students will continue to build onto his legacy. If we're lucky, that part of Gullicksen, at least, will live on.
On Guard covers issues concerning San Francisco's political far left. It prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.