Category Archives: San Francisco

Remembering Mayor Ed Lee

Alice B. Toklas Pride Breakfast 28th June 2015. From right Alice B Toklas LGBT Democratic Club Co-Chair Brian Leubitz, Mayor Ed Lee, Alice Co-Chair Zoe Dunning, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. Photo: Gareth Gooch

by Brian Leubitz

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee passed away early this morning. I wanted to process my thoughts before I actually wrote anything about his passing. Of course, my sincere thoughts go out to his wife Anita, his two daughters, and all of his family and friends. It is a sad day for all San Franciscans.

In 2011, I worked for Mayor Edwin Lee’s campaign for Mayor. I’ve heard friends on the campaign talk about the role it had in their political education, but I’ll simply say that it was a campaign in the very real local campaign sense. It was about organizing and getting out the vote.

I can’t say that I have a lot of stories about the Mayor from the campaign, but what I can say is that he was truly a nice man. Not in the way of the politician that is good at glad handling, which he really wasn’t, but in the way of a friendly neighbor or a random guy you sometimes see on the street. He wasn’t a particularly skilled orator or a tactical politician, and you could tell that he would rather be talking to friends than on a stage in front of hundreds. But, he did his duties as Mayor.

Being Mayor of San Francisco right now, and in 2011, is a herculean task. The City faces monumental challenges, particularly around housing and homelessness. Any Mayor could stumble when facing these issues, and maybe this Mayor could have done more, or could have done pursued different policies. But beyond all that, it was clear to see that he deeply cared about the issues. It would be very hard to argue that Mayor Lee didn’t care about San Francisco or San Franciscans, even if you differed on the prescription for what ails the city.

His passing leaves a long legacy of public service, and a tall task for incoming Acting Mayor London Breed to help the City grieve and face its very real challenges.

Progressives Didn’t Cause the San Francisco Housing Crisis

Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you know that San Francisco is facing an affordable housing crisis. This crisis is not new. It’s been around for at least 40 years, and the city has faced a housing shortage for at least 70 years.

The question that many are asking is not only “how do we fix this?” but, in order to jockey for position in how to answer it, they’re also asking “whose fault is this crisis?” Too often, the SF housing crisis is used to attack progressives from the right, in the service of free market solutions – even though, as the historical evidence makes clear, this crisis was not their fault.

Progressives have spent the last two decades fighting to make SF more progressive. Had they been listened to, perhaps SF might still be affordable today.

The most recent iteration of the “who made SF unaffordable?” discussion was kicked off today by the widely respected Gabriel Metcalf of SPUR. Writing at CityLab Metcalf argued that the roots of SF’s housing crisis lay in progressive anti-growth policies:

San Francisco progressives chose to stick with their familiar stance of opposing new development, positioning themselves as defenders of the city’s physical character. Instead of forming a pro-growth coalition with business and labor, most of the San Francisco Left made an enduring alliance with home-owning NIMBYs. It became one of the peculiar features of San Francisco that exclusionary housing politics got labeled “progressive.” (Organized labor remained a major political force throughout this time period, and has allied with both pro-growth and anti-growth forces, depending on the issue.) Over the years, these anti-development sentiments were translated into restrictive zoning, the most cumbersome planning and building approval process in the country, and all kinds of laws and rules that make it uniquely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to add housing in San Francisco.

This is the common argument about SF – it’s expensive because progressives got mad at developers and stopped new growth from happening in order to preserve the city in amber, with no thought given to new residents.

But is that actually what happened?

Let’s take a look back at history. The first thing to keep in mind is that by 1960, San Francisco was mostly built out already. The Sunset should probably not have been packed full with two-story homes. But progressives didn’t make that decision.

The modern era of progressive San Francisco begins in the early 1960s, and one cannot understand the progressive approach to SF housing policy without looking at that era, as I did a decade ago for research on a never-completed PhD dissertation.

Like most US cities, SF had its share of residential segregation. In the City, this meant that African Americans lived in the Fillmore and in the Bayview. The Fillmore’s once-grand Victorians had become slum housing as a result of overcrowding and poverty, results of America’s ongoing racist distribution of wealth and power.

In order to try and add more housing supply to SF, as well as to clear the slums, the San Francisco Housing Authority, under the leadership of Justin Herman, proposed to redevelop most of the Fillmore. They planned to use federal funds to demolish the existing private housing stock and replace it with a mix of publicly owned housing and privately built housing.

No provision was made by the SFHA for the relocation of the tenants during this years-long process. At a time when California voters had just repealed the state’s fair housing law in 1964, this was a direct threat to the ability of people of color to remain in San Francisco.

African American residents protested vehemently. They formed groups such as the Western Addition Community Organization to fight against what they damned as “Negro removal.” They failed. Ironically, the public housing projects built as a result of the SFHA plan are responsible for keeping any black residents in the Fillmore at all – yet according to the SFHA’s own estimates from the late 1960s, most residents displaced from the Fillmore project areas left SF altogether.

The resistance in the Fillmore inspired similar resistance in the Mission, then populated by a mix of Latino and Irish residents. Unlike the Fillmore, the Mission succeeded in fighting off redevelopment.

In the 1970s, San Francisco leaders began clearing out the affordable single resident occupancy buildings in SoMa to make way for the Yerba Buena Center project. The loss of thousands of SRO units, never replaced, was a major factor that contributed to the city’s sizable homeless population. In 1977 the famous battle over the International Hotel took place, where progressives rallied to defend Filipino renters who were facing displacement so that the landlord could redevelop the site.

These battles convinced progressive San Franciscans that the vulnerable populations of the city faced a very real threat to their homes from redevelopment, whether initiated by the private or public sector. Progressives generally don’t care about a wealthy single family homeowner. But they care very much about people of color and retirees losing their homes.

That is a challenging situation in San Francisco. Because the city is completely built out, any new housing supply comes at the expense of an existing use – often displacing existing residents.

This problem was exacerbated beginning in the mid-1970s by rising housing costs. That increase began before San Francisco’s population began to grow – as Metcalf’s own article explains, SF didn’t start to add population until after 1980. The rising rents were fueled by the national inflation that plagued the country in the 1970s.

SF residents voted to adopt rent control in 1979 in part to respond to this crisis as well as to respond to the passage of Proposition 13 – specifically to stop one landlord in particular, Angelo Sangiacomo, who refused to pass on property tax savings to renters.

Metcalf argues that progressives allied with NIMBYs to make it difficult if not impossible to add new housing supply in SF. But this misses the fundamental purpose and point of progressive housing activism in SF. The goal is to stop displacement – and given SF’s attributes, a free market approach won’t solve that.

Because SF is built out, and because land values began to rise in the mid-1970s, and because of macroeconomic policies that began to push investors to demand bigger profits from the private sector, this all meant that new construction in San Francisco was going to be expensive to build and therefore expensive to rent. The private sector was never all that interested in building housing for the poor or the low-income. And after 1980, the private sector certainly was not interested in building that kind of housing.

So for many progressive San Franciscans, private housing development was seen as a way to get rid of the leftists, the people of color, LGBT residents, and the poor. Stopping the loss of affordable housing became a priority.

However, this did not mean that SF progressives became anti-supply – or that they are responsible for the city’s present crisis.

Since Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated in 1978 by a right-wing former cop, SF has been governed by pro-business moderates. There has been only one exception to this, the four-year term of Art Agnos from 1987 to 1991, and it’s not clear whether he was more of a progressive or more of a NIMBY (in reality he appealed to both, but for different reasons).

Progressives haven’t held the SF mayor’s office in at least 24 years, by even the most charitable reading. Surely pro-business mayors like Frank Jordan, Willie Brown, and Gavin Newsom should be held accountable for the city’s housing crisis.

During the last two decades, SF progressives worked hard to advance their own solutions to the housing crisis. Those solutions always included new supply.

Take a look at Tom Ammiano’s housing policy in his 1999 campaign for mayor:

2) Make the Production and Preservation of Affordable Housing the Top Priority

Increasing housing opportunities that are affordable for San Franciscans of low and moderate incomes is a civic obligation to local residents who make up the foundation of our culture and economy. San Francisco currently has the worst of both worlds: market forces that give no consideration to the broader needs of the community and out-of-date regulation that interferes with development of housing of every type.

As mayor I will:

…Review and Reform Current Planning Guidelines that Stifle Increased Housing.

I will direct the Planning Department to report on Planning Code changes that will increase new housing in ways that are not detrimental to neighborhood character. I will promote a neighborhood-driven planning process to consider increasing density along established transit corridors in the eastern half of the City and implement the State statute that gives a “density bonus” to developments that set aside 25% of units for low income residents….

….Streamline the Permitting Process

The Ammiano administration will coordinate the permit processing and record-keeping of the Department of Building Inspection and the Planning Department, improving the approval and environmental review process for both the neighborhoods and developers, particularly non-profit developers. Neighborhood concerns will be accommodated before individual permit applications through Neighborhood Master Environmental Impact Reports. Public input will still be encouraged at scheduled hearings of relevant commissions.

While this isn’t the libertarian “abolish all zoning” fantasy that some in the tech industry demand today, it’s a far cry from the anti-growth platform that many imagine SF progressives to have held.

It wasn’t just Ammiano. Matt Gonzalez’s 2003 campaign for mayor had similar policies on housing that were pro-supply as well:

A balanced housing policy for San Francisco must include a commitment to increasing the supply of rental housing affordable to San Franciscans of all incomes. Increasing home ownership is a important goal, we will still need more affordable rental housing to meet current and future demand. Rent control is important for stabilizing housing and preventing displacement of existing tenants, but because of vacancy decontrols, assuring affordability requires that rental units are made permanently affordable through other means-inclusionary housing, which are permanently affordable units in market-rate developments, and construction or purchase of affordable rental units by nonprofit housing providers. As mayor, I will increase the supply of permanently affordable housing for San Franciscans of a range of incomes and household sizes.

I don’t know how much clearer it could be. Both Ammiano and Gonzalez, heroes and leaders of the SF left, were pro-supply. Had they been able to govern SF, we might have seen a different outcome. But even their options were limited, and their campaigns came 25 years after the housing affordability crisis first hit SF.

There are other problems with Metcalf’s argument, as Mark Hogan has explained. He shows how even Chris Daly, the arch-progressive of SF politics, helped deliver more housing supply:

Chris Daly (arguably one of the most “Progressive” politicians San Francisco has had in recent years) helped pave the way for the massive number of new units in SOMA by brokering a community impact deal in 2005, and these units are the majority of the housing that has been created in the last 10 years. The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, which upzoned large areas on the east side of the City, was approved by a Progressive-majority Board of Supervisors. It should also be noted that most of the areas that have been upzoned are less wealthy and more dominated by renters than the areas that are primarily single family.

Hogan also challenges another part of Metcalf’s argument:

The line that keeps getting repeated that we should have been building 5,000 units a year is absurd taking into account the realities of development. The math makes sense in the simplest way possible, but we all know that no developer is going to build those units at the bottom of a recession (and the economy is always cyclical), and nobody 25 years ago would have predicted the level of in-migration and income inequality we have right now- even taking the population boom that started in 1980 into account. Far more units than that have been permitted in each boom and in most cases developers have declined to build them (or deferred them until the next cycle). The fact that they haven’t been built has more to do with economics than obstructionism.

Free market acolytes have seized on articles like Metcalf’s to try and discredit progressives and their values, and to advance their pet theory that if we just got rid of limits on height and density, or maybe even got rid of zoning altogether, SF’s housing woes would be solved. Longtime Calitics readers know that I have supported greater urban density and less restrictive housing policies for at least the last seven years. But not even Metcalf thinks that a free market approach will, on its own, solve the problem:

Let me say very clearly here that making it possible to add large amounts of housing supply in San Francisco would never have been enough by itself. A comprehensive agenda for affordability requires additional investments in subsidies for affordable housing. Given the realities of economic inequality, there are large numbers of people who would never be able to afford market rate housing, even in a better-functioning market.

And SPUR, which occupies a place in the SF political landscape that is hard to categorize, has a great set of ideas for how to make SF affordable again. There is much in those proposals for progressives to like.

Yet even SPUR’s proposals share many of the same elements of the plans Ammiano and Gonzalez advanced in their 1999 and 2003 campaigns. There is greater convergence between SPUR and progressives than might be assumed.

Ultimately SF is at the leading edge of a problem that is now facing all US cities. Urban America has become expensive. As we live in an era of increasing inequality, and in a time where macroeconomic policies favor investments that benefit the rich over those that benefit the poor or the middle, no market solution alone can solve the problem.

Government will be needed to help solve the crisis – through rent control, through subsidies, through an expansion of public housing stock, and through facilitation of private sector housing stock too. Progressives have been calling for that for years. They weren’t the ones in charge of SF when the crisis hit and they haven’t had full control over city government in over two decades.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the blame lies not with progressives, but with SF’s pro-business politicians, for whom solving the affordable housing crisis has never been a priority at all.

SF/LA Look towards $15 Minimum Wage

California Cities look to follow Seattle’s lead

by Brian Leubitz

San Francisco voters will have a chance to vote on a $15 minimum wage proposal this November in a gradually increasing wage compromise announced last month:

The mayor, city supervisors and business and labor leaders came together on the compromise – even the Chamber of Commerce was on hand – but service industry representatives warned the plan would be hard on restaurants and other hospitality-related businesses.

The compromise announced at City Hall would increase the city’s current hourly base pay, $10.74, to $12.25 next May 1, then to $13 in July 2016 and $1 each subsequent year until it reaches $15 in 2018. That would bring the annual pay for a full-time minimum-wage worker to $31,000. (SF Chronicle)

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, unions are working to get a requirement of a $15 minimum wage for city contractors:

Currently, Los Angeles has a living wage ordinance that requires that city contractors pay at least $12.28 per hour without health benefits, or slightly less with health benefits, according to its Bureau of Contract Administration website.

The Coalition of LA City Unions, which includes unions representing more than half of city workers, wants to raise that minimum to $15, Chairwoman Cheryl Parisi said Tuesday. It also wants to set the same bar for city employees.(LA Times)

Now, both of these proposals are not nearly as dramatic as some in the social justice movement would like. There is concern on the lower end of the labor market that some employees could be squeezed out. However, the data on these questions is very mixed, and in fact shows no statistical proof that minimum wage. As you can see from the chart to the right, all of the studies basically say that there will be very little economic impact. It may confound many of the free-market people, but data is data.

Seattle is facing its own hurdles in implementing the $15 minimum wage, with recent news that some business interests have filed signatures to put the measure to a referendum.

With SF Ellis Act Bill dead, local housing advocates forced to look elsewhere

Ellis Act reform would have required waiting period before evictions

by Brian Leubitz

Well, after a lot of drama getting out of the Senate, the SF Ellis Act reform legislation died in the Assembly:

The Ellis Act reform bill introduced by Sen. Mark Leno, D-S.F., will not be moving forward this year, according to his office. The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 1439, sought to limit evictions in San Francisco by requiring new property owners to wait five years before invoking the Ellis Act, a state law that allows a landlord to evict their tenants if they intend to leave the rental business. …

“I am profoundly disappointed that the Assembly Housing Committee failed to pass critical legislation that would help mitigate the negative impacts of a recent surge in Ellis Act evictions in San Francisco,” said Leno in a statement following the Assembly Housing Committee vote. (SF Examiner)

The bill took a couple tries to get it through Assembly, and ultimately trying to make law for one county at the state level was just too high of a hurdle to clear. The bill only applied to SF because of the unique housing conditions, something of a perfect storm. Rising housing costs in both the rental and ownership markets, combined with a complicated rent control system leave a lot of loopholes to exploit and a lot of incentive to exploit them for speculators.

But ultimately, this was never any sort of silver bullet. It dealt with a small, but high-profile, loophole. San Francisco needs to look at a kitchen sink approach to try to bring housing costs under something resembling control, or the beautiful City by the Bay will lose the diversity that helped make it great.

San Francisco Ellis Act Reform Moves Forward

On reconsideration, bill moves out of Senate.

by Brian Leubitz

When the bill failed on its first time up, Mark Leno said he would bring his SB1439 back for reconsideration. And this time the Senate Leadership, much to their credit, rallied around the bill and pushed it forward. Senators Darrell Steinberg and Kevin de León really got behind it, and pushed previous ‘No’ votes to yes.

The vote went from 18-19 to 21-14, with Sens. Hill, Hernandez and Hueso switching their votes. However, there were a lot of caveats to get those votes, and they probably wouldn’t have switched their votes had this been the final vote. There were a couple key compromises that have been discussed, but there are a lot of details to be hashed out.

The yet-to-be-written amendments would exempt one or two small properties owned by “mom-and-pop” landlords from new Ellis Act restrictions and may also include a sunset date for the bill. (SF Gate / Melody Gutierrez)

The third amendment adds on to the first, namely restrictions on what a “mom-and-pop” landlord really is. Just because an LLC owns only one building, does not a small landlord make. Whether the amended bill will be worth supporting is still very dependent on how that small landlord exception is defined and how long it will be until the bill sunsets.

Kudos to Sen. Leno and his colleagues for moving the ball forward on a measure that nearly the entire San Francisco elected leadership supports.

Medical Marijuana and SF Ellis Act reform bills hit stumbling blocks

Senator Mark Leno Celebrating Harvey Milk's 79th BirthdayClose votes push reform down the road

by Brian Leubitz

Today is the last day to get bills out of their house of origin, and so we have a bit of controversy as a few bills got the big red X. First up, in an 18-19 vote, the Senate voted down Sen. Mark Leno’s SF-specific Ellis Act reform.

Legislative efforts to give San Francisco the ability to curtail the number of Ellis Act evictions in the city failed Wednesday night as the state Senate rejected a bill by Sen. Mark Leno after an 18-19 vote. …

SB1439 would have required a San Francisco landlord to own a building for at least five years before they could evict tenants using the Ellis Act. The 1986 state law allows property owners to evict tenants in order to get out of the rental business, but it has been used by speculators as a way to buy affordable properties, evict tenants and flip the rental for profit. (SF Gate)

This bill has caused a lot of Senators to say a lot of uninformed nothings. I shouldn’t say uninformed, as they are actually quite informed by the California Apartment Association. Exhibit A pointed out by reporter Melody Gutierrez:

“Over and over and time and time again I heard from cities and counties asking to be exempt from having to build affordable housing,” said Sen. Norma Torres, D-Pomona. “San Francisco has not done their fair share and now they are coming to us and saying because we have not provided affordable housing, we want you to pass along the cost to the small landlords.”

Not only is this factually incorrect, and it is, but it continues on from the garbage data to talking points from the CAA. You would think that the Senator would trust the information from her colleague, Senator Mark Leno. But nope, SF has built a lot of affordable housing. It is a simple matter of supply and demand. San Francisco is at “full employment” and is becoming something of a bedroom city with the tech shuttles taking SF residents to Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile from the Dept. of Short Term Thinking, the Assembly rejected Asm. Tom Ammiano’s AB1894 on medical marijuana. The bill would have created a state body to regulate medical marijuana, instead of the baffling patchwork of regulations that are in place now.

No lawmakers rose to explicitly denounce Assembly Bill 1894, by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco. Some with concerns about preserving local control said they had been persuaded that cities and counties could still pass and enforce their own rules around medicinal cannabis.

But a large bloc of lawmakers from both parties withheld votes, ensuring that the measure would go no further. The final vote was 27-30, with 22 not voting.(SacBee CapAlert)

In a perfect world this wouldn’t be necessary either. It would simply be folded into regulatory bodies that already monitor alcohol at the local,state, and federal levels. But, this is not that world, and who knows when the federal government will learn the lesson that they should have learned from the 1920s. (If not, perhaps they should watch Boardwalk Empire for a few hours.) Here in the world we live in, the state needs a more consistent regulatory regime, and Ammiano’s bill would have started that process.

Bills can be reconsidered, and Leno’s Ellis Act bill is scheduled for that process today. Expect to see a slew of stories tomorrow about bills that moved on and those that failed.

Field: Californians Support Further Regulation of Sugar Beverages

Added sugar leads to profound health risks

by Brian Leubitz

Last year, under a flood of beverage industry money, two proposed sugary beverage taxes were easily defeated in Richmond and El Monte. However, Californians are still wary of the health risks that they present. To wit:

California voters endorse a proposal to require beverage companies to post a health-warning label on sodas and sugary drinks to alert consumers that their daily consumption contributes to diabetes, obesity and tooth decay. Statewide 74% of voters back this requirement, of whom 52% do so strongly. Support is bipartisan, with large majorities of Democrats (80%), Republicans (64%) and non-partisans (75%) endorsing the idea.

The poll also finds continuing support among the statewide voting public to tax the sale of sodas and other sugary drinks and use its proceeds for school nutrition and physical activity programs for kids. Two in three voters (67%) favor this proposal. The results are similar to a Field Poll completed in late 2012, which found 68% of voters statewide supporting such a tax. (Field (PDF))

Unfortunately, the beverage industry isn’t keen on leaving anything to chance. And now San Francisco, led by Supervisors Scott Wiener, Eric Mar and Malia Cohen, are looking to put exactly such a measure on the ballot for November. The statewide poll found that within the San Francisco Bay Area, 78% of residents favor a soda tax to fund school nutrition and physical activity programs to reduce diabetes. San Francisco voters support it, but will all that Coke and Pepsi money be enough to confuse the issue.

Look, there are clearly some issues with the regressiveness of the sugar beverage tax. I don’t have the exact figures on this, but one would expect to see that under the proposed measure, low to middle income San Franciscans would pay a far larger share of the tax than for other taxes. However, that is also the case with tobacco taxes, yet we tolerate those. The fact is that while sugary beverages have not yet been proved to be as dangerous as tobacco, they carry very severe health risks. The Boston Public Health Commission has some startling statistics.

  • One, 20-oz bottle of regular soda has about 16 teaspoons of sugar.
  • Teens consume twice as much soda as they do milk.
  • On an average day, 80% of youth consume a sugary drink.
  • A single, 20-ounce bottle of regular soda has about 16 teaspoons of sugar.
  • The average person consumes almost 100 pounds of sugar a year, with the single biggest source being sodas.
  • The American Heart Association recommends that the maximum daily intake of added sugars be no more than 4.5 teaspoons for teens aged 12-19.
  • Did you know, health costs of obesity in the United States are $147 billion annually? That’s like buying everyone in the U.S. an iPad.
  • Economists call such taxes a case of “internalizing externalities.” In other words, the government has been subsidizing these beverages, in the form of health care, for years. It is now time to include those costs in the price of the beverage.

    SRO Tenant La Tonya Jones Builds Community, Fosters Compassion

    This week I walked with long-time San Franciscan La Tonya Jones and her dog, which closely resembles a spritely floor mop, from Taylor and Turk to Mission and 6th St. The seven-minute walk lasted a full half hour. Striding down the street, La Tonya stops to talk to virtually everyone about bad backs, problematic children, or old times. Her eyes sparkle mischievously as jovial insults fly thick and fast and her voice resonates to people 50 feet away, who whip around as we walk by.

    La Tonya relates to people, and draws them in. She values the qualities-warmth, patience, generosity, energy-that make her excellent at her job as an organizer with the Central City SRO Collaborative (CCSROC). She coordinates Sisters Rize!, a group for low-income women living in SRO’s. La Tonya lives in the non-profit run All Star Hotel. When I asked her about her experience coming to and living in an SRO, she describes her view of life here with nuance that is hard to find in any media’s coverage of San Francisco residents.

    ‘God has given you breath in your lungs’

    In February, the SF Board of Supervisors honored La Tonya in a special session dedicated to Black History Month. Standing at the microphone, La Tonya was not afraid to steal the stage; she belted a deep-throated rendition of Amazing Grace. It’s telling that more than fifteen people went up to stand behind her, despite scowls from City Hall security.

    District Six Supervisor Jane Kim, who nominated La Tonya for the Board of Supervisors’ award, told me:

       “La Tonya is a shining example of what a community leader should be. This is a mother of four who simply does not give up, whether it is advocating for more access to healthy foods and meals, promoting empowerment, sisterhood and peer education among the women who reside in the SRO’s in the Tenderloin, or proving with her actions and spirit that no matter the challenges, you can make a positive difference in your community. La Tonya is a beautiful person inside and out. It’s a privilege to call her a friend.”

    Even in the hardest times of her life, La Tonya kept herself going by helping others. When I asked her what she gets from helping others, she said, “A joy…it’s just a joy to be able to help somebody…. God has given you breath in your lungs, so… you give that back.”

    La Tonya came to San Francisco from Oakland in the mid 1990’s because her mother passed away and she badly needed to escape the drugs and shootings she experienced there. “[After] I first came here, I was in shelters for six years and towards the end I got pregnant. I came out of the shelters and got a job in 1998 at Next Door as a cook-it’s a shelter where I had stayed.” That job enabled her to get a place on Treasure Island but after she injured her back at work she could no longer lift more than 50 pounds and lost her job-and couldn’t pay rent. “Me and my son were living on the streets. I gave my son’s father custody of him because I couldn’t work and care for him. I gave up my place on Treasure Island to [him] so my son could live there.”

    Staying in shelters made La Tonya feel controlled, which she abhors. “Being in the shelter was like… jail to me. It was like you were a child.” La Tonya never suffers being pushed around, so this chafed. To cope, she told me, “I always kept myself busy. During the daytime I’d go to the library, go to the movies. … I used to go to One Stop every day to try to find work.” And in a prelude to the work she does today, La Tonya “used to volunteer at SF public schools.” She didn’t stop there. “I’d go cook for some of the seniors in senior apartments… [and] take them for walks.”

    Drugs have not been part of La Tonya’s story for a long time. “I’ve been clean since I came to San Francisco,” she told me. She laughed. “All of us is not dope smokers, or whatever.”

    I didn’t solicit the latter statement, which is telling. La Tonya is acutely aware of the judgment that media too often make about SRO residents. On one hand, La Tonya knows every illicit substance, behavior, and activity that goes on in hotels-and she’s detailed it for me. Still, she told me that viewing these SRO tenants as “failures” of the system misses the point. La Tonya treats individuals, on the streets or in SROs, as humans. Coming from a place of compassion and empathy allows her to continue giving back to other people who are struggling. And this “is a joy”.

    ‘He wasn’t doing nothing’

    La Tonya got a room at the All Star Hotel, where she still lives, in 2006, In the Tenderloin Housing Clinic’s 16 SRO hotels, men outnumber women almost four to one. La Tonya had to address this hurdle as well. When she moved in, she told me, “I was the only female there.” She went on, men would “approach you [and even] walk into the shower when you were all wet.” She shrugged. “It was home.” La Tonya takes ownership of wherever she calls home. “I started cooking meals with the case managers [for the residents] and… eventually [male tenants] respected me-they knew where I stood. And they still respect me.”

    After a year and a half at the All Star, she said, she realized that the CCSROC tenant organizer in her building “wasn’t doing nothing.” Tenant organizers often voice the needs of tenants to management and agitate to improve conditions at the hotels, but she shivered a little when she recalled, “We needed pest control. [The tenant organizer] told me if he wasn’t doing a good job, I should take his job. So I did.”

    La Tonya was a dedicated tenant organizer for her building but the CCSROC quickly recruited her to run the CCSROC’s women’s group, Sisters Rize!. “[My friend] invited me to the women’s group and I said ‘Naw, I don’t want to be around a lot of women-we always be bickering!'” But one Wednesday she went. “I’ve been coming ever since.” Pratibha Tekkey, Organizing Coordinator at the CCSROC told me that when they needed a new leader for the group, “She was a shoe-in.”

    Last March, over 75 women gathered at a church in South of Market for the Sisters Rize! annual Women’s Convention. Laughter dominated the room. Throughout the day’s presentations and workshops, they had a space to pore through their biggest challenges, inspirations, and successes. La Tonya calls this event her most rewarding experience as an organizer.

    This Convention drew women primarily from SRO hotels. She said, “I’ve never done nothing like that, never put any activity together. It was big! … It was inspirational to me that I could plan something and get a room full of women together without bickering, without stepping on each other’s toes.”

    For La Tonya, the Convention celebrated this diverse group of women-many of whom faced severe medical, financial, substance abuse, and mental health challenges- for who they were. The convention cultivated a sense of empowerment, opening the possibility for them to believe they could change their own lives.

    “It was a women’s day,” she said. “It was just great to see an auditorium full of women doing self-defense classes, learning about healthy food, learning about leadership. I wanted to treat them like somebody special, a mother, a sister.”

    We have a little heart in there

    Non-profit and some private SRO hotels often create communities. For better or for worse, people must live in close proximity. Some come to rely on the company of other tenants and sense of belonging as much as to the support services.

    “When it comes down to it, we have a nice community…. Some people don’t have families, so we are one. There’s a senior in our hotel who has no one. His daughter came by one time in four years. I go to the pantry and pick up food for him, or go to the store for him.” She paused, looking thoughtful. “We have a little heart in there.” Even if residents have a (rare) opportunity to move to a more independent living situation, they can’t take this community with them.

    La Tonya says that the All Star is home. Simultaneously, “It’s not home”. She dedicates herself to SRO residents but wishes for a place of her own. “It won’t be home until I can go to my door and won’t see someone sitting at a desk asking if you have visitors. The SRO is just a step.” To where?

    In other words, La Tonya lives in the thick of the challenge that the San Francisco Chronicle series on SROs emphasized: how can SRO residents take a next step? La Tonya astutely points out, “At first Section Eight…was a way out of being homeless. They capped that step and now…people are still staying there,” so no one can get into Section Eight. Section Eight waiting lists are prohibitively long.

    “We are all the small people, the middle people. There’s nowhere to go…. Where are the jobs at? There’s just a handful.” Case management can’t fix that, she says. She referred back to the Chronicle story, which emphasized the downside of THC SRO hotels’ 95% annual retention rate. “You’re talking about 5% who moves on? That’s the reason why-there’s a cap on everything.” Lack of step-up housing and job opportunity can devastate the SRO hotels residents who have the skills and motivation to seek employment. Still, the complicated truth is that fixing that problem wouldn’t do the trick.

    For some, it’s a cycle

    You got some people who want to do something with their lives and you got some people who don’t,” La Tonya said flatly. “[Ever] since I’ve been in San Francisco living in SRO hotels, they know who’s not going to make it. I know so many people who come into the hotel and they get so many write ups and they’re out. But they’re alcoholics and they’re hoarders. So if you’re alcoholic-you’re drunk and hollering in the hallway-and then you’re back out on the streets. And then you go back to General Assistance and it’s a cycle.” Those people, she tells me, “are the people you’re going to write about.”

    She does not, however, accept the premise of the statement made in the Chronicle that SRO residents still “act as if they are homeless.” When I asked her about that statement, she said, “What do you mean by that? After they get their GA, they pay for food, hygiene” and by that point, they have next to no money. She herself goes out and busks. (I have run into La Tonya outside BART, where she was belting out blues songs to the delight of passersby.) She said, “Aggressive panhandlers, that’s one thing. But people who are just out to make a little extra money, what’s wrong with that? And if they want to come to my house, my house is clean. We aren’t all dirty.”

    “Dirty” or not, I’ve never seen La Tonya treat other people on the street or in hotels with anything but a no-nonsense, loving attitude.

    Like La Tonya, many residents help their building and themselves to the best of their abilities. And, folks like La Tonya work to get one another motivated and empowered to know their rights, and, hopefully, what they are capable of accomplishing. This is true of the women in Sister Rize!. La Tonya recently facilitated a documentary film-making class with the women through Intersection for the Arts, a community and arts development organization in South of Market. “…Making a film about my life…was healing, scary, and satisfying,” said one participant. (Contact Central City SRO Collaborative to learn about the documentary screening on August 28.)

    Why do it?

    Finally, I asked La Tonya how she keeps herself going.

    “Where do I get my motivation?” She asked, with an isn’t-it-obvious look. “Because I don’t want to be a statistic. A lot of my friends who were on the streets with me, in shelters with me? I don’t see them no more. They’re dead. I’d say like every three months, somebody dies in the SRO.

    My motivation: wake up in the morning and do something with my life. I get my motivation from the Collaborative, because I’m doing something with myself. It motivates me to go to other hotels and tell them my story. I’ve been there, I’ve done that. And I thank God.”  

    Our Community Diversity Close Up

     photo Screen20Shot202013-08-1420at2010555120AM____zps287b15d2.pngColor coded maps show our diversity, how we cluster by race

    by Brian Leubitz

    Stephen Colbert talks about how he no longer sees race, but a new set of maps indicate that perhaps he isn’t in the majority.  That being said, new racial dot maps from Virginia’s Cooper Center show our communities diversity and our continued racial segregation. The full map detail website is apparently getting slammed right now, but I’ve grabbed a few of the images.

    Below are the maps for the Bay Area and the LA Area. You won’t be surprised to see that both communities are a vibrant mix of colors, but we still clearly cluster together on race. If you are able to get through to the full map detail website, you can zoom in such that every dot represents a single person. It really is a beautiful expression of our diversity. H/t to the Atlantic.

    You can click on these maps for a bigger view.

     photo BayArea_zps1e24cc90.jpg  LA Dot Map photo LA_dot_map_zpsb80ae563.jpg

    The Continuing Saga of SF City College

    by Brian Leubitz

    San Francisco’s City College is massive. Despite SF’s population being just over 800,000, there were over 56,000 students enrolled in the system in the spring semester, with over 37,000 as undergraduates. But, despite that success in providing services to the community, times aren’t always easy for the district. They’ve been in an accreditation fight for the last few years, with the hammer coming down in early July:

    Beset by mismanagement and unable to convince overseers that it had repaired extensive problems, City College of San Francisco will lose its accreditation a year from now and its elected Board of Trustees will be stripped of decision-making powers, the college learned Wednesday.

    The decision by an accrediting commission allows the college of 85,000 students – among the largest in the country – to stay open until July 31, 2014, unless an appeal is successful or if the college can make enough progress to win an extension. (SF Chronicle)

    The Board of Trustees has already been stripped of their powers and replaced by Special Trustee Bob Agrella. (You can read an interesting Q&A with him at EdSource… Where it all goes is still up in the air, with appeals still pending to the accreditation board, the ACCJC.

    But now that very accreditation committee is under fire, and under a federal “Show Cause” order for violations of regulations and procedures.

    In a delicious turnabout, the federal Department of Education has threatened to yank the accreditation of the ACCJC, the agency that is trying to shut down City College.

    The move came in response to complaints by the California Federation of Teachers that the ACCJC is out of control and has failed to follow federal guidelines for site visits, conflicts of interests and other areas.(Tim’s SF)

    You can read the full letter here… but it’s pretty technical. In the end, it doesn’t say that the committee is really “out of control” as Tim Redmond calls it above, but it does cast some of the same worrying tones that the ACCJC’s reports about City College used.

    Look, City College clearly has some rather big issues. The finances are still in question, and one or more of the facilities may be closed by Agrella and his team as they work with interim Chancellor Dr. Thelma Scott-Skillman. But the system provides a quality education for thousands of San Franciscans every year, and the accreditation committee got this one wrong.

    The DoE’s ruling on the ACCJC does not directly impact City College’s fight to keep their accreditation, but as Tim points out, it just may change a few minds there.