Tenant Organizing Wins One-for-One Replacement

In 1996, a small group of highly organized residents of North Beach public housing in San Francisco began to raise questions about the fate of their homes, due to be demolished under HUD’s HOPE VI program. [See Shelterforce # 104] Because two other Hope VI Projects in the city had remained vacant mudlots for two years, residents invited the San Francisco-based Eviction Defense Network (EDN), which had led a successful campaign to prevent the evictions of undocumented residents, to help organize others in the development. The residents and EDN began a slow process of door-to-door organizing.

After three years, the organizing paid off with a modest victory: an “Exit Contract” containing legally binding guarantees, most significant among them one-for-one replacement of all demolished low-income units and a limited number of reasons that could disqualify one from re-occupancy. The San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA) executive director presented the signed contract on September 22, 1999, in front of the City Board of Supervisors’ Finance and Labor Committee during a hearing around the Public Housing Tenant Protection Act (PHTPA).

This victory came about it no small part due to the work tenants, EDN, and the Fire By Night Organizing Committee, a small but national community organizing group, put in to educate other tenants about the danger of relocating without firm, legally binding promises. This led over 60 percent of the tenants to sign pledges not to move until the exit contract was delivered with real guarantees. By and large, residents stood firm, refusing relocation at a time when the SFHA needed to begin the process to comply with HUD mandates. Fearing that a protracted battle could cause it to lose $23 million in HOPE VI money, the SFHA finally relented.

The campaign was not a total victory. A group of tenant leaders had designed a feasible plan for tenant cooperative ownership, which the SFHA flatly refused to consider. Tenants had also held a high-profile demonstration at a cable car turn-around in the middle of their development. Despite a healthy resident turn-out, police outnumbered demonstrators two to one.

Racial tensions also flared up as the campaign went on. Nearly identical rumors about tenant leaders “on-the take” initially split Chinese and African-American tenants. EDN convinced the different factions to sit down with each other, with adequate translation, to dispel any misconceptions the rumors may have created. The final exit contract negotiating team had Black, Chinese, and White tenants working well together, thanks in part to the conscious effort to confront rumors and innuendo.

“The Exit Contract is important so the protections remain no matter who is in control of The Housing Authority,” said Bethola Harper, a member of The North Beach Tenant Association.

Long-term benefits for public housing residents may be multiple. The PHTPA will go before a final vote of the SF Board Of Supervisors on Valentine’s Day 2000. More importantly, a new coalition of 20 community groups and residents, Strong Tenants Against Evictions (pronounced STAY), has formed partially with momentum from the Exit Contract/PHTPA campaign.

Hard Lessons

In San Francisco, and many other parts of the country, activists living in public housing work in a state of political isolation. SFHA is the city’s largest landlord, yet city officials routinely ignore tenant opposition and organization. While San Francisco has many housing-oriented groups, none but EDN have made political empowerment of HUD tenants a priority.

The EDN has learned that future organizing efforts must link public housing residents with Section 8 tenants and other low-income San Francisco residents. Since public housing tenants have been absent from the larger tenants movement up until now, Mayor Willie Brown and other city officials were able to proceed with demolition plans using “cleaning up the neighborhood rhetoric.”

It is sad that it takes a collection of community-based organizations to move the media and government to take the voices of low-income people seriously. While strengthening tenant leadership, the slow process of coalition building has diverted groups from focusing on influencing media and government. Nonetheless, we have been able to put the fate of HUD housing back into the radar screen of the larger progressive community, and the impact of doing so can be seen in the press. Local press reports no longer solely praise the city for its work to “revitalize” neighborhoods. Rather, a host of allies are regularly quoted on the larger issues involved in the politics of displacement and privatization.

The HOPE VI program, however progressive its roots, has become part and parcel of the overall push towards privitizing resources once held for the public good. Far from bringing in needed resources, the trend has been to remove tenant protections and clear the way for more developer profit. For example, North Beach’s developer, the John Stewart Company, tried to stipulate that it could convert vacated low-income units to market rate, even though all low-income units would be initially rebuilt.

This is where the partnership of tenants and outside organizers was especially strong. The tenants brought to the table the dedication of people fighting for their future. The EDN brought with it an economic analysis that explained larger global economic trends in real, concrete terms. This helped to keep all eyes on the real targets.

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