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The Battle for Fair Housing in the Bay Area: An Interview With Housing Activist Tony Roshan Samara

A growing movement against evictions has declared housing a civil right.

Colorful homes line a street in San Francisco's imperiled Mission District, which is currently battling the effects of gentrification. (Photo: Thomas Hawk)

Recently, The New York Times carried a piece telling the nation what residents in the Bay Area have known for years, if not decades: Rent increases and evictions are transforming San Francisco into a bedroom community for the well-to-do and wealthy. Make no mistake about it — this displacement has a very clear racial and ethnic component. One of the very last neighborhoods holding the culture, vibrancy and diversity that San Francisco is loved for is slowly being erased.

As The Times story reports:

Luxury condominiums, organic ice cream stores, cafes that serve soy lattes and chocolate shops that offer samples from Ecuador and Madagascar are rapidly replacing 99-cent stores, bodegas and rent-controlled apartments in the Mission District, this city’s working-class Latino neighborhood.

As San Francisco has become the preferred bedroom community for Silicon Valley, the Mission, with its urban edginess, has become the hottest location.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or software engineer to understand that when such things happen, the very essence of the Mission, which makes it so vital and important culturally, will soon be buried, and in its place will be a cookie-cutter version of Palo Alto or Cupertino — cities which are themselves mere shadows of their former selves. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan paid $10 million for a house on the outskirts of the Mission (and not even for their primary residence), but renters are being displaced at all levels. Roberto Hernandez, a community organizer with the group Our Mission No Eviction, spoke disparagingly of a one-bedroom house in his neighborhood that sold for “$2 million in cash to someone who invented some app.”

In his landmark book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond notes, “Eviction reveals people’s vulnerability and desperation, as well as their ingenuity and guts.” It is exactly that combination of emotions and capacities that we are finding here in the Bay Area. Most important is this little known fact: This is not just about renters. More and more people who own homes are finding in this issue values and beliefs about housing that resonate with them. We are beginning to see housing as a civil right and evictions and displacement as the denial of that right.

What is critical to note is that while so much attention is being given to the specific case of San Francisco, the housing problems we see there are visible in surrounding communities, and there are substantial protests rising up there as well. The spread of protests shows a growing political awareness and also reflects the changing social and spatial reality of the Bay Area and metropolitan regions more generally.

Communities are fighting for housing rights on the streets and hopefully at the ballot box in November. Right now, community organizations in five cities are working to place new rent control measures before the voters — to allow a democratic voice to be heard — and a sixth, Oakland, California, is seeking to strengthen its existing measure.

I spoke with Tony Roshan Samara, program director of land use and housing at Urban Habitat, about the current battle to put these measures on the ballot.

David Palumbo-Liu: First of all, who is involved in these efforts, why is this happening right now and what kind of challenges are you facing?

Tony Roshan Samara: Groups like Alameda Renters Coalition and Richmond for Fair Rent. In San Mateo County, Faith in Action is the main community organization moving this, supported by Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto and Urban Habitat, and a number of other organizations. In Burlingame, there is Advocates for Renter Protection, which is a completely volunteer resident-run organization. In Mountain View, there is the Mountain View Tenants. These are all community-driven campaigns calling for rent control and just cause [for eviction].

All the campaigns come out of hard-learned lessons about the limits of working through city councils, which range from hostile to ineffective. You must remember that it takes a lot of labor and resources to do a ballot initiative. It’s not something you can just grab a few friends and you’re like, “Hey, we have a renter’s crisis. Let’s run a campaign.” The decision to do so is not one that residents in these cities took lightly, but they had really no other option.

Explain how the real estate industry has battled against placing these initiatives on the ballot.

For example, when the California Apartment Association put the Richmond ordinance on the ballot last year, it was 100 percent paid for by the real estate industry. According to the Contra Costa Times, they were paying people between $12 and $20 per signature. Unlike the real estate industry, these campaigns can’t just cut checks and pay people to go out and signature-gather six days a week, eight hours a day. For them, it’s all or mostly volunteer. That’s what we’re up against. That’s democracy today.

Despite this huge disparity in financial resources, are you optimistic?

[My] overall take is optimistic because there’s such strong support. Our sense and our experience is that, when people see that there’s a chance to put this on the ballot, they’re eager to sign. A recent poll conducted by Faith in Action Bay Area showed very strong support for these measures among not only renters, which is natural, but also among non-renters.

I think what’s really important are two things that that poll revealed. One was that the support for these policies — this is specifically rent control and just cause — is incredibly high. The results are consistent with similar polls across the region. One very important index we found is that the numbers in support are well beyond the proportion of renters. So, for example, in San Mateo, we have around 48 percent renters, but it polled 72 percent in favor of these measures. This is very important because the line a lot of the local councils and the realtors try to push is that there’s just a small group of renters who are upset – “We know it’s rough for them, but this is not, like, a big issue.” These people claim the housing issue is big, but the rent control issue is small.

This data shows that that’s completely false. People may be homeowners, but their grown kids can’t stay nearby because they can’t afford to rent. And if they can’t afford to rent, they can’t afford to save up to buy. So a big piece of this activism is that work for these policies is really high outside of just renter population. This shows a bigger sign with concern with community stability. The other piece that that shows that the councils are refusing to act in the interest of the overwhelming number of their constituents. In San Mateo, three out of the five council members oppose any rent control and just cause, but 72 percent of the constituents are supportive.

So this goes back to what you mentioned before about the anti-democratic practices the real estate industry is engaging in.

Exactly. These politicians are acting as realtor proxies. This is something that I think doesn’t get enough attention — the role of real estate in local politics in the Bay Area.

What we see here in the Bay Area is national in scope. Just last month, community organizations from all over the country met in Chicago for the Homes for All campaign retreat [Homes for All is a national housing justice campaign led by the Right to the City Alliance.] We heard stories from every corner of the country about how high rents and evictions are tearing up low-income and working-class communities, but also how communities are fighting back. We’re building solidarity across cities, across regions, across the country.

David Palumbo-Liu: The fight for housing rights is, of course, a complex issue, but achieving justice is only made more difficult when one side is literally buying votes. On the other hand, people I have talked to who are out on the streets gathering signatures say that they are encouraged by the fact that non-renters — and a surprising number of political conservatives — are signing on to put these measures on the ballot. They, too, do not want to see their community culture devastated.

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