Over the phone, Candy Smallwood sounds burned out. “This’ll be a great job for someone else – but not for me.”
The attorney at the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco is two weeks away from leaving her post as the outreach coordinator for RAD, the acronym for the federal government’s “Rental Assistance Demonstration” scheme, which may lead all of the country’s public housing to become at least partially privatized.
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RAD could mean fewer bedbugs, more dependable elevators and other fixes to problems that plague the city’s 6,000-plus public housing units. But some tenants and housing rights activists are worried the program is just another step toward dismantling public housing altogether.
Smallwood says it’s been tough getting tenants excited about the possibility of improved living conditions when they’ve “been promised multiple times over the years that their buildings are going to get better . . . With a lot of residents, it’s ‘Well, I’ll believe it when I see it.’ “
Smallwood herself grew up in public housing in town and describes how, in addition to wariness about “improvements,” tenants also have a lot of fear related to displacement. San Francisco’s current housing crisis isn’t helping. Rents continue to rise ever higher – one-bedroom apartments average $3,000-plus per month here – and in January, when the city opened its public housing waitlist to homeless people for the first time in six years, the list ballooned to almost 18,000 in just six days.
“A lot of generations of people have lived in public housing, so people have a lot of family or friends or stories or rumors about the Fillmore [neighborhood] redevelopment and the HOPE VI [federal public housing ‘renewal’] programs,” Smallwood says. “When they hear about this program and that no one’s going to get displaced, they don’t necessarily believe it.”
And for good reason. San Francisco’s historically black Fillmore district was one of the casualties of an early federal redevelopment program, Urban Renewal. In the 1950s, Fillmore was known as the “Harlem of the West,” with a jazz scene that once hosted luminaries like John Coltrane and Billie Holiday.
The Fillmore’s redevelopment was one of the major city initiatives that caused San Francisco’s black population to drop by about 70 percent between 1970 and 2013.
James Tracy is a longtime housing organizer and author of Dispatches Against Displacement, a book that examines the history of gentrification in the Bay Area. Tracy described to Truthout how developers saw the Fillmore as a lucrative “revitalization” project. California’s Community Redevelopment Act of 1945 permitted cities to create redevelopment zones intended to banish urban blight. Real estate interests such as the group today known as SPUR lobbied SF’s government to declare the Fillmore “blighted” using explicitly racist propaganda. (In its 1966 booklet entitled “Prologue for Action,” SPUR urged politicians to move the city’s population “closer to standard white Anglo-Saxon Protestant characteristics . . . Selection of a population’s composition might be undemocratic. Influence on it, however, is legal and desirable for the health of the city.”)
It worked: Starting in the 1960s, City Hall forcibly bought or seized thousands of homes using eminent domain, eventually displacing about 17,000 people. After hearing these stories of black San Franciscans’ homes being demolished en masse, writer James Baldwin famously said in a TV interview that “urban renewal . . . means Negro removal.”
The Fillmore’s redevelopment was one of the major city initiatives that caused San Francisco’s black population to drop by about 70 percent between 1970 and 2013. In 2009, the mayor’s office commissioned a study on black flight, finding that affordable housing was the top reason black people were leaving the city in droves.
HOPE VI was President Clinton’s 1990s HUD project, which released funds to local developers to demolish dilapidated housing projects and build mixed-income units in their place. Theoretically, residents had a “right of return” – a guaranteed ticket into the revamped location once construction was complete.
However, a study by the Urban Institute, a DC-based think tank, found only 19 percent of households studied returned to their HOPE VI-redeveloped homes. Others were able to use Section 8 subsidy vouchers to set up residence elsewhere, but in 2002, a coalition of housing rights groups released a report entitled “False HOPE,” adding “harassment, inadequate relocation services and poor lines of communication, the lack of affordable housing on redevelopment sites, and unreasonably stringent re-admission screening criteria” to the list of reasons for the low rate of return.
Even more troubling, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that just one-sixth of demolished public housing units have actually been rebuilt, with no funds appropriated to build additional public housing for two decades. As the authors of “False HOPE” put it, HOPE VI resulted in “the wholesale destruction of communities” and “the displacement of very large numbers of low-income households of color.”
The Coalition hopes to expand RAD to convert all public housing into public-private partnerships, where they’ll potentially reap billions in government funding to build, manage and renovate housing that was previously government-run.
San Francisco is the largest incubator for RAD, which according to HUD already lays claim to 13,000 units nationwide, with as many as 70,000 more on the way. Seventy-five percent of SF’s public housing units will be converted under the program within the next few years.
“All eyes are on us right now, because we’re the largest portfolio with the most residents,” says Smallwood. In February, SF’s mayor Ed Lee held a celebration in RAD’s honor, jointly announcing the project with President Obama’s housing czar Julián Castro.
Housing as a human right had lost its political mojo.
Janet Golrick is one of Castro’s colleagues, and a senior advisor at the Federal Housing Administration. Golrick calls RAD “our central piece in public housing preservation . . . to ensure that the housing units are preserved and affordable for the long term.” (During her interview with Truthout, she references HUD’s budget constraints five times.) Developers sign initial 15-to-20-year contracts to provide public housing, “which they’ll have to renew,” she says, but only once, leaving the future of lots of low-income housing projects up in the air.
Baltimore is another RAD testing ground, and, as its Right to Housing Alliance ominously notes:
In 40 years, when the contracts with developers expire, the new owners will be able to convert the buildings to market -ate rents, forcing out low-income renters, essentially ending public housing . . .
Unsurprisingly, the real estate industry is thrilled. They see the dollar signs ahead, and have gone so far as to create a lobbying group called Lift the RAD Cap Coalition to push the privatization movement along. Under the cloak of an “interest in preserving affordable housing,” the Coalition hopes to expand RAD to convert all public housing into public-private partnerships, where they’ll potentially reap billions in government funding to build, manage and renovate housing that was previously government-run.
Political Will Decimated
During the 1930s and ’40s, the federal government put its weight behind the idea of housing as a basic human right. In the midst of the Great Depression, Congress passed the Housing Act of 1937, which created public housing programs focused on providing “decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings for families of lower income.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his 1944 State of the Union address, proposed a “second Bill of Rights,” which included “the right of every family to a decent home.” But budgets to federally funded housing initiatives were cut majorly during the Carter and Reagan administrations and never restored. By 1998, Congress declared in its Quality Housing & Work Responsibility Act that “the Federal Government cannot through its direct action alone provide housing of every American, or even the majority of its citizens.” Housing as a human right had lost its political mojo.
“This whole thing is built on the premise that poor people are very used to getting f***** over, and don’t always exercise their rights.”
Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) is critical of what that group sees as the swift selling off of what should be considered a common good. He blames a shift in societal values toward unfettered capitalism.
“If it’s not making money for someone, it’s not of value, whether it be our public parks, our housing, our health care, education, our military, or our jails . . . And that’s RAD,” he says. “We’re going to save public housing by making sure some Bank of America motherf***** makes money off of it, and then it’s a good housing system?”
As a teen, Boden lived in the self-governed, cooperative community of Christiania in Denmark. There, on the site of a former military base, ex-Copenhageners formed an independent settlement in 1971, during a time of high housing unaffordability in the Danish capitol. Its mission: “to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the well-being of the entire community.”
Boden’s time there grew his interest in alternative housing models not based around property ownership. Boden condemns the federal government’s “$144 billion in tax breaks for homeowners, while affordable housing just gets decimated.” (By and large, people who live in public housing couldn’t afford to purchase a home, but the people who can get rewarded with hefty mortgage tax deductions.)
In addition to changing national policy on that front, some big fixes WRAP wants to see include turning empty units (there are about 15 million of them in the United States, as of the 2010 Census) into affordable housing and ending the criminalization of homeless people, which causes snowballing poverty as people end up behind bars for “quality of life” crimes like loitering. Many can’t afford to pay bail or fines and live their lives in and out of the jail and prison systems.
“This whole thing is built on the premise that poor people are very used to getting f***** over, and don’t always exercise their rights,” Boden says. “I’m a white boy from Long Island; I’ve always fought back, because I’m entitled,” he says, half-jokingly. “Most poor people don’t have that same sense of entitlement. In fact, they’re called ‘uppity’ if they act entitled.”
James Tracy agrees that affordable housing in the United States was many times stronger during the pre-Carter years. Looking to the past, he says, “The US has never done better on affordable housing than when it was doing direct investment from progressive taxation.” One of the most dangerous aspects of RAD, Tracy believes, is the lack of centralized oversight. Some corporations and nonprofits will be committed to housing people; others will put profits first.
SF’s Housing Authority has earned its terrible reputation – in its latest audit in 2013, HUD gave it an ‘F’ grade; months later it was left leaderless when its director resigned in the wake of dozens of formal complaints against him by staff, who cited discrimination and nepotism among their grievances. But letting individual corporations and nonprofits take the helm could have no less disastrous results. Unfortunately, it’s too early to measure the successes and failures of SF’s RAD conversions, says Smallwood.
New Model Homes
Tiny Gray-Garcia, a cofounder of Poor Magazine, grew up between the streets and public housing around the Bay Area. With no formal education, she calls herself a “poverty scholar who graduated from the school of hard knocks.” Gray-Garcia and her mother Dee created the magazine and its website with the intention of “standing in solidarity with people who have had their land rights and access to resources stolen from them.”
Her last experience in public housing was a scary one: She ended up in the hospital due to mold in her badly maintained building.
Today, her family and two others live in a cooperative space called the Homefulness Project across the Bay in East Oakland. Eventually, the land, which was purchased largely through donations (or as she likes to call them, “community reparations”) will house as many as 11 families. Nearby, Indian People Organizing for Change and the San Francisco Community Land Trust are also building housing projects that shun traditional ideas around individual ownership.
On a larger scale, Gray-Garcia wants to see public housing turned over directly to tenants, and is seeking a law firm to take on a case that would account for the many years that people who live in public housing have spent there. “Allow the tenants to take over the buildings and support them in that. Don’t just give them a piece-of-s*** building, but support them in their self-determination.” She’s approached several community-minded lawyers, but says so far, “Nobody’s got the ovaries to take this on.”
In the meantime, she continues her activism against the “poverty industry” – the companies and nonprofits where “people make money off other peoples’ poverty.” A recent action involved storming the office of an infamous eviction lawyer.
She’s seen the effect of past public housing overhauls firsthand and doesn’t trust that putting the running of buildings in nonprofit and/or private hands won’t doom public housing past the point of no return.
“I’m very, very, very afraid,” Gray-Garcia says. “This is the genocide of poor people. It’s terrifying to me.”