May 22, 1978 was Harvey Milk's last birthday. As a not-so-welcome gift, a few weeks earlier Harvey — despite now being a sitting San Francisco Supervisor — had been evicted from his home and business like so many of his constituents. He was hit with a massive rent increase that forced him to move out of both his Castro Camera store and his apartment above it. This was part of a shockwave of greed and speculation, and a real estate market gone wild that swept through The City, with most City Hall politicians doing nothing to deal with it. Sound familiar?
Thanks to an hour-long TV interview with Harvey, made available by the California Audiovisual Preservation Project at www.californialightandsound.org, we can actually watch what Harvey had to say as he moved out of Castro Camera — and marvel at how much applies almost exactly to what San Francisco again faces at the apex of another affordability crisis.
Here's Harvey, in his own words:
On what replacing affordable apartments with luxury condos does to The City:
“As soon as you destroy the middle economic class and drive them out of The City, you're driving out the incentive for education, the incentive to get ahead, and The City becomes awful.”
“High-rise — I'm saying that's the wrong way. Low-rise, places that are pleasant, you can walk, with shops and everything else.”
“Speculation also does one other thing which people don't realize — or not enough people realize — which is that when you pay so much for your rent, or you own a home and your mortgage payments are so high. … It takes out of the economy the extra disposable income which you normally would spend on buying a tie, going out to eat dinner, or a TV set, an iron, an ironing board. You don't spend money on that. And sooner or later, that's going to crunch the economy very badly because too much is going into the basic need of shelter.”
On how the people who live in San Francisco deserve to be treated:
“You don't treat a senior citizen like a can of beer — when you finish with it, you toss it aside. The senior citizen was your parents, or somebody's parents, and they're vital. We cannot just throw them aside.”
“These are human beings; they are not pieces of property. It is not a game of monopoly. These are human beings.”
“There's an old slogan about business that the customer is always right. And in this particular case, the customer is those people walking in the Tenderloin, Hunters Point, Chinatown, Eureka Valley, Clement Street. Those people walking around, those are the customers, and they don't treat them as such. Those are the customers of the City of San Francisco.”
On how real estate lobbyists and speculators should be regarded:
“In San Francisco, the Real Estate Board is very powerful. It's very strong. It's very big. It's very greedy. You can force them to admit that there's some speculation, but for them to deny that it's taking place shows where they are. They don't want to hear. They won't hear, they won't listen and, unfortunately, they are very strong and they contribute to a lot of campaigns and, therefore, logic goes out the window. We're back to pressure politics.”
“I regard them as an occupying army. They're the ones who have destroyed The City with their master plan. They're the ones who have driven people out of The City and now they want to continue that by saying that speculation is healthy and good. It is not healthy; it is not good. Restoration is good. Speculation is offensive.”
The year after Harvey Milk recorded this interview, the Board of Supervisors — without him on it, sadly — finally responded to San Francisco's speculation crisis by passing the rent-control law, helping to stabilize the market and keep thousands of regular people in their homes. If Harvey was giving this interview today, what do you think he'd be calling for? Rolling back rent control and upzoning our last remaining parcels of available land to build more high-rise luxury condo towers or strengthening rent control, halting unjust evictions, protecting neighborhoods, and demanding that available land be used to build 100 percent affordable housing?
More important than any policy, Harvey Milk recognized what truly matters. He called upon us all to step up and see it when he said: “We must mature to realize that the greatest possession we have is not the gold in Fort Knox, but the person who just walked past this store.”
Happy birthday, Harvey.
Jon Golinger is an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach.