On May 11th, homeless people and their allies won a significant victory: the Board of Supervisors passed, on a 9 to 1 vote, the Surplus Properties legislation, which sets aside 15 city owned surplus properties to be developed into housing for homeless and very low-income people. This legislation requires that this housing remain permanently affordable to very low-income people. Furthermore, it requires that the city create a new list of surplus properties suitable for this purpose every year.
As is always the case when we win something, this victory did not fall from above. It came out of two years of organizing, organizing that began with two occupations by Homes Not Jails (a direct action group that has done takeovers and squats of vacant property for the past ten years), together with the Coalition, of vacant school district property. These actions drew attention to the scandalous contradiction of city property sitting vacant and idle while some 14,000 human beings are without homes. They also inspired Supervisor Chris Daly to introduce the original Surplus Property Ordinance, which would have required the city to make its surplus property available.
Unfortunately, the original ordinance didn’t have any teeth in it. The city’s implementation of the law was limited to generating a list and placing it on its website without giving the matter any further publicity–while continuing to sell the marketable sites at market rate.
In response to this, the Coalition on Homelessness sent out the call in November of 2003 for a community investigation process to document the existence and suitability of these properties for the construction of housing. Some 45 people from the Coalition on Homelessness, the San Francisco Organizing Project, Homes Not Jails, and the San Francisco Tenants Union, the San Francisco Land Trust, the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center and Habitat For Humanity, and from the community at large, answered the call and visited the sites directly.
Joyce Calagos of the San Francisco Organizing Project put it like this: “I’m active because I dream of a day when no one dies on the streets of San Francisco because of the lack of a home.”
The process of visiting and evaluating the sites, camera and clipboard in hand, was very exciting for the participants, and it served as a spur to the imagination. There was much discussion about how many units, what type of housing (family, SRO, etc.), how to get the neighborhood on board, etc.
There were also specific proposals for some of the sites. For example, there is a proposal to develop on site currently used by the Arts Commission into a mixed used building combining supportive housing and a community arts center. Bruce Allison of the COH came up with an idea for multi-generarational housing (with senior housing and family housing on different floors), with a ground-floor supermarket and other appropriate services. The purpose of this would be to offer an opportunity for interaction between the generations, thereby providing company for the seniors who want it, and supervision for the children.
These ideas, and the others, are just starting points: the Campaign is committed to holding a community design process for each site.
This kind of discussion and community-based planning is far more significant than it may seem. As Lisa Cooper of COH’s Civil Rights Project said,”We’re not just asking for housing, we’re looking for ways to control our destiny. We could… make housing and jobs.”
Also key to the campaign’s success was a citywide outreach effort that prioritized neighborhoods not normally seen as “progressive.” The lesson for today is that in neighborhoods such as Noe Valley, the Richmond, and the Sunset there are enormous numbers of people who support affordable housing and living wage jobs. The only problem is that these folks don’t yet have an organized political voice! But judging from the strong support of many individuals from these districts, there is a lot of potential for solidarity building there too.
As an enjoyable side-effect of the victory, major news media focused on the campaign and featured the message of housing and jobs as the solutions to homelessness. For an entire week, Care Not Cash was displaced as the defining debate.
Once again, we won! This is only one step towards ending homelessness in San Francisco–and by itself won’t do very much to change this society into one where we will no longer experience horrors such as homelessness.
Nonetheless, as Vicky Leidner of the SFCLT observed, “These are very good properties and will be able to house a good number of people.”