Public Housing Residents as Activists

More Than Shelter: Activism and Community in San Francisco Public Housing, by Amy L. Howard. University of Minnesota Press, 2014. 320 pp. $33.95 (paper). Purchase here.

In the 1990s, a group I co-founded, the Eviction Defense Network, was asked by public housing residents to organize alongside them during the HOPE VI process, which promised to tear down distressed public housing and replace it with new, modern homes. The residents we worked with, mostly at North Beach Public Housing in San Francisco, put forward rather modest demands. They wanted to return to their homes, find living wage jobs, and be free of harassment from police and security guards. Predictably, the city’s power structure treated them like pariahs. That’s what happens when low-income people start asking questions about $120 million real estate deals.

During this time, there was also a concerted effort in both mainstream media and academia to flatten the lives of public housing residents into a neat bundle of pathology and problems. There wasn’t much room for the stories of the people we met at North Beach: service workers with multiple jobs, World War II veterans, perfectly responsible parents, leaders of 12-step programs, veterans of civil rights activism. There was even less room for discussion of economics, disinvestment, and policy.

Amy L. Howard’s More Than Shelter: Activism and Community in San Francisco Public Housing is a powerful antidote to the one-dimensional portrayal of public housing residents. She takes a long view of the San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA), from its founding in 1938 to current times. The book investigates three important SFHA developments: Valencia Gardens, Ping Yuen, and North Beach Public Housing. (Full disclosure: Howard quotes me in several places via secondary sources.)

I had deja-vu reading about the battle over placing Valencia Gardens in the Mission District. The 1940s battle had all the hallmarks of today’s land-use dust-ups. Business owners and conservative neighborhood groups said public housing would depress property values and harm children, while a broad coalition of groups such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the Negro Civic Council supported it. It took a secret emergency meeting of the Housing Commission to approve the plan.

The book is greatly enriched by Howard’s extensive interviews with residents and activists. She describes public housing residents practicing “affective activism,” or mutual aid—focusing on intentional relationships to strengthen each other in the face of shared challenges. Such activism strengthened as public stigmatization of public housing increased. Valencia Gardens leader Anita Ortiz describes with great pride how residents of the multiracial development could turn to each other in times of distress. A bird’s-eye view of public policy and economics usually misses these stories.

In Howard’s in-depth account of the Ping Yuen development, located in Chinatown, she contrasts the neighborhood support for Ping Yuen with the controversy that surrounded Valencia Gardens. This is the book’s strongest chapter as it effortlessly weaves a discussion of immigrant exclusion, international context, and local activism. The SFHA practices that kept Ping Yuen nearly all Chinese exploded as white and black residents charged discrimination. Here the reader will want more. The fascinating discussion is cut short and barely scratches the surface of the intense issues of community preservation versus racially blind fair housing practices. These debates are of continued importance to today’s affordable housing providers and the communities they operate in.

Howard concludes the book with a set of sound recommendations and observations highlighting the importance of resident voices. She offers a sober assessment of HOPE VI, although the rates of return and retention to the developments are even worse than the numbers she gives, thanks to her reliance on SFHA statistics. (Today, there are only five families at Valencia Gardens who lived there pre-demolition.)

More Than Shelter would have benefitted from a more robust discussion of the politics of privatization that have driven the public housing debate. For this reason, it should ideally be read in tandem with Jason Hackworth’s The Neoliberal City. Yet Howard’s book is a groundbreaking accomplishment and a must-read for anyone contemplating the future of low-income housing in the United States. Howard’s command of history, combined with the insight of residents she interviewed, places it far above most other books on the subject.

JAMES TRACY is the author of Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes From San Francisco’s Housing Wars (AK Press, 2014).


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