SF needs healthy housing

Pub date May 16, 2012

My greatest frustration as a tenants’ rights and affordable-housing advocate in San Francisco is that, despite all the good efforts by a lot of good people, we never address the root cause of our housing crisis. We routinely enact laws and ballot initiatives, organize endless demonstrations and elect progressive politicians, but in the final analysis, these efforts are just a Band Aid on a bad system that leaves a lot of people without a roof over their heads.

A few years ago, Brian Basinger of the AIDS Housing Alliance and I pushed “no fast pass to eviction” legislation to stop the eviction of seniors and people with AIDS and other disabilities through the state Ellis Act.

Ellis allows a landlord to override just-cause eviction protections and evict all of the tenants in a building. It’s often used by speculators to flip properties — that is, buy them, evict the tenants, and create a tenancy-in-common (where there’s the same number of owners as there are apartments). The new owners apply for condo conversion so that, instead of sharing a percentage in the building, they actually own their own units.

No Fast Pass says that if someone uses Ellis to evict tenants, then the building can’t convert to condos for ten years. If any of those tenants are seniors or disabled, it can never be converted. The legislation helped. There was a drop in Ellis evictions. Unfortunately, landlords and speculators now employ intimidation, harassment and buy-outs to get rid of tenants, so that they don’t have to Ellis.

It’s time to get beyond Band-Aids. Housing should be a human right, guaranteed for all, as healthcare is in other nations.

When former Supervisor Tom Ammiano realized that 65,000 San Franciscans (15% of the population) were without health coverage, he (not former Mayor Gavin Newsom, who takes credit for it) introduced legislation to create what is now “Healthy San Francisco,” our city’s version of universal healthcare. It’s not perfect, but it tackles the problem the way it should be tackled: by making healthcare a human right and not a luxury.

The same needs to be done for housing.

As long as housing is a commodity, affordable only to those who have the dough, there will always be people left out in the cold — literally. Our city has more than 10,000 homeless people, not to mention scores of others living (through no choice of their own) in deplorable conditions. The city builds more market-rate housing than it needs, while units for those below 50 percent of the city’s median income fall far short of the demand.

A mandate to house everyone in the city has never been tried. I don’t have an exact plan, but a “Housing SF” (like Healthy SF) might be created by pooling together all of our housing resources and aggressively working to pull in more. If the proposed Housing Trust Fund happens, it should be initially used only for those who need it most — the homeless and the poor, remembering that shelters are not housing, even if they’re considered such under Care Not Cash.

Put a moratorium on market-rate housing. Turn all abandoned properties (both city and privately owned) into affordable units. Raise money by letting the big businesses (including the tech companies) cough up some dough. Use land trusts as much as possible to keep the new places affordable into perpetuity.

It’s time to dream big.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca, editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, is a longtime affordable housing advocate.