Tenant confab packs LGBT center
by David-Elijah Nahmod
A packed house filled a large room at the LGBT Community Center last weekend as housing advocates and others talked about stemming the tide of evictions and developing more affordable housing.
"Imagine 2,000 affordable units," said Tommi Avicolli Mecca with the Housing Rights Committee as he opened the convention. "Today we take our neighborhood back from the developers and predators."
The January 11 Castro Tenants Convention brought out an array of people who offered suggestions on the most effective ways to stop evictions and bring about more affordable housing. With Housing Rights Committee staffer Fred Sherburn-Zimmer serving as moderator, Gus Feldman of District 8 Democrats wrote suggestions down on paper taped to the wall behind the podium.
Issues raised included harassment of tenants by landlords, putting banners in front of buildings where Ellis Act evictions have occurred, and making all residential buildings in the City subject to rent control. Currently only buildings constructed prior to 1979 fall under rent control guidelines. Repealing the Ellis Act was mentioned a number of times. One attendee suggested that property be forfeited from landlords who break the law.
The Ellis Act is a state law passed in 1985 that allows landlords to get out of the rental business by evicting tenants and, usually, selling the units as condos. Housing advocates have pointed out that many LGBT seniors, people with AIDS, and the disabled have lost their homes.
One of the stated goals for the convention was to gather suggestions for a possible ballot measure in November.
"If we are going to put a measure on the ballot in the fall, it should be one that not only changes tenants' lives and stops the displacement, but not get thrown out in court immediately," said Sherburn-Zimmer.
One attendee identified herself as a tech worker and was supportive of the tenants. She suggested placing higher taxes on tech workers so that monies could be used to create more affordable housing.
Tech workers have recently born the brunt of many activists' ire as tech companies have received tax breaks for moving into the Mid-Market area, adding employees who often have the means to move into the high-end complexes that are coming online. Convention organizers, however, noted that workers in many professions might not share the political beliefs of their bosses.
"There are renters from all walks of life who are upset about the evictions and displacement destroying our communities," said Sherburn-Zimmer. "Some are tech workers. There are plenty of bank tellers who are upset about the role of banks in the foreclosure crisis. I have the same question for tech workers as I do for other renters in San Francisco: are they going to sit on the sidelines in this crisis, or are they going to fight back to stop displacement?"
Added Avicolli Mecca, "I don't believe that all techies are the enemy. I'm glad she came to support what we're doing. It shows the broad appeal of what we're doing and saying.
"Anyone with any sense of things knows that the rents are too damn high and that greed is changing the very nature of the city we all love, including our queer community," he added. "How much longer will the Castro be queer with rents so high and speculators-investors pushing out our LGBT seniors and disabled community members?"
After all suggestions were posted on the wall, the moderators asked the audience to vote on which ideas they thought were the most effective ways to combat the evictions.
Forming an eviction defense action committee was the top choice, with 24 votes.
Political theater, in which performance art would be used to draw attention to the crisis, took 23 votes.
Placing banners in front of buildings where Ellis Act evictions have occurred took 15 votes.
Working on Ellis Act changes garnered 10 votes.
Attendees then divided up into groups to brainstorm on how to most effectively make these ideas work.
At the convention, AIDS Housing Alliance/San Francisco director Brian Basinger talked about how the housing crisis affects the lives of people with HIV/AIDS.
"HIVers with stable housing are better able to maintain complex medical regimens that keep them healthy and out of the expensive emergency room," he said. "Multiple studies have shown that people with stable housing are much less likely to engage in behavior that may transmit the virus."
Basinger said that "20.7 percent of people with HIV have been displaced from San Francisco in just five years, fueled by no-fault evictions and the crisis in rental affordability."
Organizers said they were happy with the convention turnout.
"I'm very pleased with the turnout and the energy in the room," said Avicolli Mecca. "People are fed up, that was obvious. They want change and they want it now. I hope the politicians in the room got that message loud and clear."
Political leaders who attended included gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, who sat in the back taking notes. Also on hand was gay District 9 Supervisor David Campos, who represents the Mission, and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu. Campos and Chiu are running against each other for an Assembly seat this fall.
"The Castro Tenants Convention was a useful brainstorming session on how we can reduce displacement and evictions," Wiener said. "I'm glad I was able to attend and listen to the discussion."
On Tuesday, January 14, Wiener introduced legislation at the Board of Supervisors that would incentivize construction of on-site affordable housing as part of market-rate developments.
According to a news release from Wiener's office, the legislation will create a trigger under which for any market-rate development that allocates at least 20 percent of its on-site units as affordable (12 percent is the current legal minimum), none of those affordable units will count against the project's unit density limits. Under current law, all units, whether market-rate or affordable, count against density limits.
"We are in the midst of a severe housing crisis – a crisis that threatens our city's diversity and livability – and we need much more permanently affordable housing," Wiener said in the statement. "On-site affordable housing construction is the fastest way to create more affordable units, and we need to spur this construction."
Wiener's proposed legislation does not change current law regarding minimum affordable housing requirements, but does provide developers with an additional alternative, and incentive, he said. Nothing in the proposal will affect existing height and bulk limits in the planning code. It applies to all zoning categories except those zoned for single-family homes or two-unit buildings.
Next steps regarding tenants include a meeting Saturday, January 25 at 2 p.m. at the LGBT center to plan eviction defense in the Castro. That will be followed by a citywide tenant convention Saturday, February 8 at 350 Rhode Island Street from 1 to 4 p.m.