Housing: Build it, Preserve it, Take it back!

root - Posted on 01 March 2003

The National Day Of Housing is celebrated with a HUD takeover

by Alexandra Cuff/PNN

My feet seemed to trail behind the rest of my body as I walked up the bike lane on Polk Street this past
Wednesday. The November afternoon was overwhelmingly dull and Polk was a series of black and white still
photos. Bright colorless days suggested nostalgia of…something but I wasn’t able to place it. I turned
onto Grove Street and walked up toward the imposing figure of a building where I spotted a couple dozen or
so bobbing signs. I approached the gathering of people, which filled the ramp leading up to the federal
building - which is always more welcoming with a group of protesters outside.

…get up, get down, there’s a housing crisis in this town…get up, get down

Wednesday, November 20th celebrated the North American Day of Housing. People in cities from San Francisco
to D.C. are demanding an end to HUD Secretary Mel Martinez’s obstruction of the National Affordable
Housing Trust Fund. Here in SF, in a courageous act of direct resistance, a sit-in took place outside the
HUD office on the 9th floor of the Federal Building. The six who put themselves on the line so that our
voice could be heard, were arrested for trespassing federal property – they were cited and released within
two hours. They were demanding a teleconference with Mel Martinez who told Congress not to fund housing
because it is a "local problem."

The National Housing Trust Fund proposes to produce, rehabilitate, and preserve 1,500,000 units of housing
by 2010. The Trust Fund would allocate at least 75% of funds to those with incomes under 30% of the area
median. Within that, 30% of total Trust Fund dollars would be used for housing that is affordable to
households that earn less than $10,701 a year - equivalent to a year of full time minimum wage earnings.
The remaining funds would be used for low income households with incomes up to 80% of the area median. All
of these funds are restricted to housing production, preservation, or rehabilitation in low income

The increase of homeless and poor folk including families, youth, seniors and mentally and physically
disabled persons is directly related to the decline of HUD and low income housing in the past 25 years.
Welfare reform, specifically the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act that was passed with TANF in
1998, prohibits immigrants from receiving public housing and reserves 60% of all project-based housing for
households making between 30% and 80% of the median income. Full time workers at minimum wage make between
10% and 13% of the area median income. According to SF DHS and the National Low Income Housing Coalition
in 2000, you would have to earn $28.06 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. With
families timing off of TANF and entering the workforce where wages have been decreasing for the past 30
years, the housing crisis should be seen for what it is – a national emergency. Now imagine these
conditions without the help of General Assistance which has just been slashed to $59 a month with the
passing of the heart-warming Care Not Cash/Proposition N.

While the six brave folk sat up on the 9th floor waiting confrontation from Martinez, a score of us stood
close together outside speaking and singing about our personal experiences and the punitive approach
current policy has toward poverty and homelessness. George Jones talked about the 450 families living in
SROs – single room occupancies. SROs which are sometimes as small at 5x5 feet and are intended for a
single person, are known to house families with up to 7 people. Anita, a seemingly shy recent immigrant
came up and spoke passionately about how fortunate she was to be in an SRO because of all the people she
sees on the street and in the shelters…because she is housed, she can do what she wants in life…go to
college. The Po’ Poets of POOR Magazine rolled up and we heard spoken word resistance from Dharma and

Randal, COH volunteer, who is "formerly homeless – yet technically still homeless" because he’s not yet
stayed 30 days in an SRO, doesn’t consider an SRO to be housing: "I think of housing with a kitchen,
bathroom, a place I can have friends over." (Getting kicked out hotels just before you reach a 30-day stay
is common practice referred to as "musical chairs," which ensures tenants will not be eligible for
protection under the Rental Code.) Randal went on: "I did not go to college to be homeless, poor, to
pretend not to see things I see." James Sherman, of COH, has been homeless for 8 years. He spent, "100
years in the military and 200 years raising kids. Homelessness is not fun." He spoke about the "homeless
anger, police anger, public anger, and political anger" you experience when you are on the street. He
pointed out that folks on SSI, SSD, and seniors have all earned the right to a house. "Not everyone knows
how to get it but everyone deserves it."

Wednesday’s proactive response to our ongoing housing emergency was organized by Right to a Roof, a
housing workgroup of the Coalition on Homelessness, which organizes around federal housing programs,
budget cuts, and their impact on the housing crisis in San Francisco. Their advocacy for the creation and
preservation of affordable housing includes advocacy for cooperative housing in the City’s housing
strategy. They are a founding organization in the SF Land Trust Collaborative which is working to
establish a network of local community land trusts set up in the Haight Ashbury, Bay View/Hunter's Point,
Mission, Excelsior, Tenderloin, and South of Market with the goal of having at least one functioning
community land trust established by the end of the year.

In addition to the strain put on the poor from welfare reform, federal housing budget cuts, and an absence
of living wage jobs, our access to consistent, affordable housing is hindered by contracts that HUD has
entered into with private landlords. In these cases, our tax dollars cover the cost of renovating units
that landlords are committed to rent to Section 8 tenants. The catch is that the contracts expire! After
which the lord of the land (!) will naturally rent out the units at market rate or above market rate
rents. This further lowers the number of low-cost units available to an increasingly low and no income
population. With a functioning community land trust, affordable housing can exist independent of the
for-profit market.
As persons employed at the federal building left work that evening, many averted their eyes to our signs.
"Housing: Build it, Preserve it, Take it back!"

Without recognition of and advocacy for housing as a basic human right, homelessness will continue to
result from local, state, and federal public policy. The housing crisis does not only affect those born
into poverty. I grew up middle class in a predominantly white neighborhood on Long Island. My parents lost
their home in 1998 but they are not homeless today. They had a safety net – a safety net not provided by
government assistance but by a more natural system called community. My mother, father, and 2 younger
brothers moved into the three bedroom house of their best friends. During this time, with support
extending beyond my immediate family, my father was able to seek treatment for alcohol addiction. Living
communally, the addiction could no longer be hidden and my mother was given the emotional support to
continue to work and care for herself and my brothers while living displaced and no doubt feeling ashamed
– society dictates that poverty and homelessness are shameful states.

Most folk, especially those living in cities – where space and resources are extremely limited (except for
a small wealthy percentage) and for immigrants – who do not always have family in town – do not have this
safety net my parents were fortunate to have. We, as a community, are responsible for the role that my
parents’ friends played during our housing crisis. The role does not necessarily have to be taking
houseless families into your home (I can’t see that happening in such an individuated culture) nor should
it necessarily mean voting to pour money into shelters or transitional housing. Housing, not a mat on a
shelter floor, is a basic human right.

We need to ensure that a family’s needs and the consequent natural support of a caring community dictate
the assistance that should be provided by our government. Until policy addresses the need for a radical
new federal affordable housing program for ALL in need, we need to work in our communities to educate,
organize, advocate, and as we say at Poor, "report and support" to ensure habitable housing within healthy
neighborhoods for everyone.

This gathering of resistance was just one of many steps to push for the passing of the National Affordable
Housing Trust Fund Legislation which was defeated by only one vote in November. It’s going to be
reintroduced in January. All conscious folk welcome to the next Right to a Roof planning meeting held on
Wednesday at 5pm at COH. For more information call 415-346-3740 x314.

To learn more about the SF Land Trust Collaborative, go to www.sflandtrust.org.


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