Gentrifying the Legacy of Bill Sorro

PNNscholar1 - Posted on 22 July 2013

(Editor's note: Bill Sorro is an elder ancestor of POOR Magazine whose life and work encompasses and informs the indigenous and community values that make up POOR Magazine.  His life was filled with compassion and fire and the fight for housing justice and  justice for workers--a fire that didn't diminish with his passing in 2007.  His legacy is being lived through both the Bill Sorro Housing Program in the South of Market area in San Francisco and through the Manilatown Heritage Foundation.  Bill was instrumental in the rebuilding of the I-Hotel after the eviction of its elderly tenants in 1977.  The site of the I-Hotel remained a hole in the ground and in the hearts of the community until it was rebuilt 30 years later.  The anniversary of the eviction of elders from the I-Hotel is on August 4th.  The new I-Hotel, with 104 units of affordable senior housing stands proudly on Kearny Street at the site of the original I-Hotel.  The I-Hotel and the Bill Sorro Housing Program in the south of market area are testaments to the love and commitment of Bill Sorro to the community.  As a member of the Board of Directors of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation ( and co-editor of POOR Magazine, I urge--and urge others--to convey to the SOMA Stabilization fund advisory committee to continue funding the Bill Sorro Housing Program for the services it provides to a community whose needs are not going to disappear--Tony Robles, co-editor, POOR Magazine)


We have all felt the punch from corporate America, that is, if you happen to fall within the bracket of the 47% and even the 99%. If you are not a part of the 1%, you are not in a safe place in America—especially San Francisco. This is true of the Filipino community—a community of families, elders and immigrants—struggling to stay in a traditionally working class neighborhood that is under encroachment by real estate speculators and landlords intent on evicting long term tenants in order to maximize rents.  The Filipino community is also in the throes of a "2nd dot-com boom", whose tech-washed multitudes threaten the diversity of the South of Market community. 

To a tech worker from out of town--part of the influx of what is being called, "Bedroom communities", the south of Market area is hip, cool and trendy, with nightlife and lots of things to do.  What is often overlooked are the people of the neighborhood--Filipino immigrants and longtime families who have work and struggle to remain in SOMA.  This area is their home.  And the elders and youth of the community have a rich history in SOMA--their equity is shown through their love for their elders, youth and in their struggle to keep their community together.  

The Veterans Equity Center (VEC) has served the Filipino-American community for more than 13 years, helping Filipino World War II veterans, families, seniors and youth living in the South of Market Area (SOMA). VEC serves the Filipino and wider community of SOMA with assistance in locating housing, obtaining welfare or general assistance, and assisting job seekers in finding employment. They help with resume writing, linking the community to job opportunities, tenant’s rights counseling and other resources, because, at the end of the day, it is about survival in a city that is determined to make sure you don’t survive while, at the same time, claiming it is looking out for your best interests.

The city skyline is seeing housing developments crop up but much of that housing is unaffordable. The city has tried to appear cognizant of this situation by offering BMR (Below market rate) housing. To apply for below market rate housing, you must complete a 10 page application that requires you to show proof that you live or work in San Francisco. Your name then goes into a lottery system. This is no guarantee that you will get a place to live. The application process—with its array of murky paperwork and oftentimes ambiguous instructions can be both daunting and discouraging for people whose lives are a struggle—a struggle maintain shelter and to care for their elders and families. There are no organizations that are trained to assist families and those in need of BMR housing with applications.

The Bill Sorro Housing Program (BiSHoP) of the Veterans Equity Center (VEC) is one of the many programs in the city of San Francisco that are on the chopping block to save money. BiSHoP is located at 1010 Mission at 6th street. BiSHoP is named in honor of community housing advocate Bill Sorro, whose tireless work was focused on improving housing and working conditions for people whose needs were being overlooked--the working class, working poor, immigrants and families.

Bill was instrumental in standing up to the real estate developers and landlords.  He firmly believed that “Housing is a human right” and “No human being is illegal”. He was a dedicated activist who never compromised his principals when it came the concept that housing was a right. It was through his work as an organizer that the International Hotel, in San Francisco’s former Manilatown neighborhood, was rebuilt after its demolition and subsequent eviction of elderly tenants in 1977. Sorro’s work, along with that of community organizers Al Robles and Emil DeGuzman, resulted in the “I-Hotel” being rebuilt after 30 years—providing 104 units of affordable senior housing. This August 4th is the commemoration of the historic night of the I-Hotel eviction. The heart, spirit and dedication of BiSHoP’s work comes from the spirit and life’s work of Bill Sorro.

Over 700 households utilize BiSHoP’s services: application assistance, housing case management, bilingual support services, housing education, and legal information and referrals. They are facing closure because they don’t have enough money to keep it running, though there is potential to receive half of its operating grant in order for it to run—which is impossible to do. It is another sad situation.

You might ask, what about everybody else who needs help but aren’t Filipino? BiSHoP has helped people of all backgrounds and ethnicities, who are of low income and in need of services. But if BiSHoP doesn’t have enough money to continue running, what does that mean for the elderly and others who depend on their services? It means they break the law because there is nowhere else for them to go but the streets. It is a shame that you go to war, put your life in a difficult position, fighting for a so-called freedom that ain’t so free.

Currently BiSHoP is open but for how long, we don’t know. They want the city to know and lend a hand to keep this resource alive for the good of the community.   The BiSHoP program has stayed true to the values of Bill Sorro--working to ensure that the Filipino community in SOMA has a voice in housing and an opportunity to partake in the services that are available to the community.  Just as important, the staff at BiSHop practices true care giving and case management in which the community is not a spreadsheet filled with numbers and statistics, but made up of people who are rich with history and stories and contributions.  The BiSHop program respects the neighborhood and its people, and this is something that is hard to come by within the non-profit industrial complex. 

In order to qualify for a market rate apartment in the South of Market area, a person working a minimum wage job would have to work 7.1 jobs to be able to afford the rent. This is impossible. What’s worse is that if you cannot afford an apartment, you are forced to live in an SRO (Single room occupancy) hotel room with shared toilets and showers, and also bed bugs, roaches and mice. These rooms are too expense to be living in with such conditions. These places have been rigged to look the part but if you pull furniture out, you’ll see what they were trying to hide. It’s about the “dead presidents” on the greenback we need in order to do what needs to be done. 


Keep the Bill Sorro Housing Program open!  Long live Bill Sorro and long live the spirit of the I-Hotel!


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