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How to Read a Housing Crisis: Bay Area Snapshots

A city has a housing crisis when the middle class cannot afford to live there. At least this is the story to be gleaned from Bay Area newspapers.
Aaron Shuman

Issue #47, January 2000

A city has a housing crisis when the middle class cannot afford to live there. At least this is the story to be gleaned from Bay Area newspapers, where the travails incoming students face at Cal-Berkeley, coupled with the inability of Silicon Valley start-ups to recruit, have succeeded where the outmigrations of the working-class have failed: they have made housing a front-page issue. When the sustainability of the Internet economy is threatened, and the children are recognized as "our" own, the major dailies cluck like concerned parents, insisting something be done.

This raises the question of who lives in cities, and who the city is for. A New York Times article devoted to the class of '99 and their difficulties finding housing in New York City ("For Class of 99, a Real-Life Rent," 5/30/99) is gallingly typical. The new graduates profiled are all white; none are from the New York metropolitan area. The wealthy majority are starting investment bankers; the poorer minority are editorial assistants. All can take solace in the fact that "any new college graduate with a job and without a dog who is also relatively presentable as well as realistic about prices can find an apartment." While celebrating the pluck of these City immigrants and the perseverance that lands one the holiest of grails, the good deal, the article laments the plight of those for whom Brooklyn or Queens is neither "convenient" nor cost-effective once you consider "the cost of cabs."

The article notes wonderful new developments to ease the housing search for savvy young adults: brokers who do much of the work for you. For those who cannot afford to give 10-15% of a year's rent to anyone except a landlord, there are pay-for-access Web sites with listings, though "working without [a broker] can be arduous." The best bet is to bring a parent to act as guarantor, along with letters certifying employment and salary, bank statements, credit reports, and cash for the first, last, and security.

Conspicuously absent from this picture are those populations (including college students) forced out by the rise in rents that constitute another's "good deal" -- save one mention of "the longtime Polish residents of Greenpoint," who appear strangely old and unfunky for such a funky Brooklyn neighborhood, and a bit fuddy duddy in not welcoming new renters. Also absent is the notion that some people cannot (or would not benefit if they did) use their parents to secure housing. The city becomes something you must pay to gain access to, and landlords expect your papers at the door.

Closer to home, one housing scandal making the rounds is the number of Berkeley landlords requiring a full year's rent in advance. A recent San Jose Mercury News article ("Squeezed: Red Hot Housing Market Burns College Students," 9/20/99) tells the story of Dominic Ang, a Cal student who after several weeks of shopping for the right "closet-sized" space, went shopping for a low-interest loan to be able to rent it. Ang just happens to volunteer for Kriss Worthington, who just happens to be the leftmost of the Berkeley City Council, who just happened to pressure the landlord successfully to refund Ang's money beyond first and last. However, the landlord notes, there is no law that requires her to do so, and a year in advance requirement is a logical, economically rational development in this rental market. How those without a direct political hook-up deal with this remains unreported.

The affordability of housing has become such a widely recognized problem that it is now possible to compose entire articles on the subject without talking to a single renter or member of a population considered to have the gravest housing problems: the elderly, the disabled, the very poor, and the homeless. The good news is that when certain students and young professionals complain, something gets done. Unfortunately, this is also often the bad news. A longer view, surveying the past thirty years of housing in the Bay Area, yields some telling patterns.

Homelessness: No Answers

In San Francisco, it's time to elect a mayor, which means that locals can enjoy a reprise of the theme which haunted Dianne Feinstein, which haunted Art Agnos, which haunted Frank Jordan, which haunts Willie Brown, which is: the failure of the incumbent mayor to solve the problem of homelessness.

The dance goes something like this. The challenger attacks the mayor's inactivity and proposes a plan: Agnos's Master Plan to keep shelters open year-round and to deliver social services there; Jordan's MATRIX program of poor laws to harass the poor out of town, or at least, into "areas tourists do not visit"; Brown's royalist plan to hold a summit on homelessness, appoint a Czar of Homelessness, and presumably decree, with the certitude of a flat-earther, the non-existence of the problem.

Meanwhile, the incumbent defends his or her record (to the extent there is one), and police sweep the media's symbol of homelessness. This was Golden Gate Park and the adjacent Avenues in Feinstein's day, Civic Center and other downtown destinations in Jordan's. The apparent exception to this proves the rule: Agnos's refusal to clear "Camp Agnos," the homeless encampment before City Hall, may not have been a matter of principle so much as a political miscalculation that in accepting a homeless presence downtown, he could clear the west side, where the voters live, and keep their support.

Current Mayor Willie Brown's record on homelessness is laughable. He cancelled his summit on homelessness, with headlines blaring "Brown Admits No Answers." His appointments for Homeless Czar were pilloried by community service organizations, who cited the candidates' complete lack of experience and apparent uninterest in the subject. In SOMA (South-of-Market), the city-designated host of homeless centers where the working-class once lived, homeless shelters are closing as capital floods in to develop the area with gourmet restaurants, live-work lofts, the Giants' new baseball stadium, and electronica bars. (These bars have been subject to increasing police harassment, and may be homeless themselves once the process of "discovering" SOMA is complete.) Not surprisingly, voters believe the problem of homelessness has worsened during Brown's term in office.

Despite the recognition that homelessness is severe and getting worse, there are significant ways in which the homeless themselves have disappeared. Not literally, of course, as the most cursory survey of statistics or the streets would show, but rhetorically. The homeless have been disappeared through explanations that pathologize them: as Reagan's deinstitutionalized mental wards, as addicts whose vice is presumed to predate and have caused their homelessness, or as people whose homelessness is somehow just recompense for the wages of poverty. The homeless have been made to disappear by police actions that dispatch them from the areas other classes inhabit, then break up the communities the homeless form in the less-desirable spaces of the city, as recent spates of articles on the "vehicularly housed" (people who live in cars) and the closure of the Albany landfill reveal ("No Place like Curb," San Francisco Weekly, 12/16/98). Finally, the homeless have been made to disappear by reporting that does not admit them as subjects: in the refusal to address homeless people as individuals, they become an objective condition requiring translation by professionals.

In a recent "meet the voter" article, a man who said he'd vote for Brown explained his choice thusly: the mayor cleaned up around City Hall and took care of the homeless. Yet the homeless have not been taken care of, unless this means "put in their place." They are nearby: the better-kempt, in the new library, where the increased seclusion of study kiosks offers a better opportunity to sleep, albeit with hourly interruptions by a guard on patrol. Those worse for wear, or without a place to store their possessions, stay on the next block at U.N. Plaza, which is a place homeless people stayed five years ago. Camp Agnos has returned two blocks south, yet the dailies do not speak of Camp Brown. Thanks to a redeveloped City Hall plaza, a cordon sanitaire of new construction surrounding, and subway entrances that enable commuters to skirt the poor, the homeless do not exist, and require no answers.

williebrown Soon after I wrote this, Willie Brown proved homeless people were on his mind, if few others, by ordering police to sweep U.N. Plaza and confiscate shopping carts. Outcry by local advocacy groups and homeless people stopped these sweeps, yet recent weeks have seen increased harassment, as well as the first arrests of Food Not Bombs workers and the first impounding of soup since the Jordan era. Such public, hamhanded moves against the homeless, so late in the election, may have been Brown's desperate, failed appeal for the 50%+1 he needed to avoid a run-off. The sad truth, in the history of the deployment of homeless people as get-out-the-vote organizers, is that unlike the candidates and consultants who profit by whipping them, the homeless don't even get paid.

Public Housing: No Room at the Inn

What may yet bring down Willie Brown are the corruption scandals convulsing city government. Two staffers of the San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA), whose recent history is rife with insolvency, federal takeover, bankruptcy-stalled projects, and indictments of leading officials, were recently arrested. They were alleged to have taken bribes to falsify documents for people, claiming they live in developments being rebuilt under HUD's HOPE VI program. HOPE VI status,it appears, is a tradable commodity, because people displaced by this program can receive Section 8 vouchers or units in public housing instead of remaining on the years-long waiting lists for each.

HOPE VI is the largest redevelopment initiative undertaken in the nation's central city cores since the "urban renewal/ Negro removal" of the 60s and 70s. Perhaps because of the taint surrounding the word "renewal" and its attack on working-class communities, HUD and HOPE VI speak of the "revitalization" of its developments. To understand this "revitalization" fully, it is important to trace both its macropolitics (the forces behind the program) and its micropolitics (the way public housing residents experience it).

According to a report from the Center for Community Change, what started as a program to modernize properties for current residents has become "a program of demolishing public housing in order to replace it with housing for higher income groups."

The rhetoric legitimizing this transformation is manifold. One, in a perverse pimping of the language of sustainability, is the need to make public housing "economically self-sufficient." What this means, in an age when the HUD budget is an annual target for cuts, is that housing authorities must prepare for the eventuality that they "will have to rely solely on rental income for their operating revenue" ("Destroying Chestnut Court in Order to Save It," East Bay Express, 9/3/99). Last year's Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act replaced the historic mission of public housing as "housing for all," with a mandate that only 30% of public housing units must be reserved for the very poor, with at least 60% reserved for those who can afford up to 80% of market rents.

What some call gentrification, HUD calls "income mixing" and claims this is to benefit current tenants. "Both federal housing officials and some Bay Area housing managers say something had to be done to break up" what is later described as "incubators of poverty," to "make sure children grow up with working adults as neighbors and role models" ("New Public Housing Policy Could Leave Families Out in Cold: Plan May Eliminate Low-Income Units," San Francisco Chronicle, 9/21/99). Of course, children cannot truly be the concern here, since they do grow up with working neighbors and role models. Many public housing residents work for the housing authority or in lower-wage jobs in the private market; as owner-operators of their own businesses, such as day care centers; on resident councils; or in the after-school programs that depend upon resident volunteers to operate.

What should be the concern is the wages of public housing residents and the factors which conspire to bar many from higher-wage work, which would mean discussing the feminization of poverty, and the tendency to blame women for it. Yet HOPE VI holds that the problem of public housing residents is their poverty, and the "deconcentration" of their communities is the solution. This is a curious revisitation of the rhetoric of turn-of-the-century settlement house reformers such as Jacob Riis or Jane Addams, who used the "blight" of tenement housing to justify its destruction before tenants could be rehoused, and who considered the solution to poverty was to break its "habits" and to "Americanize" the immigrants who presumably bore them.

Bay Area newspapers, and the readers who depend upon them for their experience of the city, do not really see public housing residents. The screen rendering them invisible (besides distance) is crime, which constitutes the bulk of stories about public housing. It is an association Al Gore encouraged, in a June 1996 press release which noted, "The Clinton Administration intends to raze 100,000 public housing units by the end of 2000, redoubling its current efforts to get rid of derelict federal projects. These crime-infested monuments to a failed policy are killing the neighborhoods around them."

This has been followed by increasingly draconian measures which can create the criminality some claim to see. For instance, the Clinton-backed "one-strike" eviction law requires housing authorities to evict residents if anyone in or near their apartment is found in possession of any drug, even if the residents themselves did not know and are not found guilty of any crime. While the law is currently being challenged in federal court, the strike of eviction and association with drugs is sufficient to ruin the chances of any low-income person seeking to re-enter public housing, let alone rent in an inflationary market like the Bay Area. Young organizers mobilizing against California's Juvenile Justice Initiative, which among other things would unseal juvenile court records, make most graffiti a felony, and lengthen sentencing, understand that their place in the city can be written out from under them by changes in the criminal code.

The questions we are left with are: Who will live in the apartments and town homes HOPE VI will build? Who will restore life to cities presumed dead? Since HOPE VI has torn down far more developments than it has rebuilt, these questions must be answered imperfectly, by consulting the revitalization plans Bay Area housing authorities have in place. In order to return to a "revitalized" HOPEVI development such as Oakland's Chestnut Court, former residents must reapply for housing, of which there will be less than half the units originally available to their income bracket. They must apply not to the familiar bureaucracy of the housing authority but to a private management company, which will conduct "a comprehensive background investigation, including a credit check." The Oakland Housing Authority says it will screen out prospective tenants with such ill-defined qualities as "poor housekeeping habits," "negative rental history," or "other indicators of suspect behavior," and brags that it has already rejected almost 300 applicants in the past year (Revitalization Plan for Chestnut Court, 6/23/99).

Assuming that the poorest of the working class pass an evaluation of their credit history, rental history, and court records, they must then sign a lease agreement, which includes pledges to avoid "criminal association," "to not walk on the grass," and to submit to "regular home visits for the purpose of evaluating housekeeping habits, social behavior, family practices, parenting and organizational skills" (Express, 9/3/99). Failure to abide any of the lease agreement's twenty-two points can result in relocation to another development, or removal from the authority's conventional (project-based) housing program altogether.

This would land the resident in Section 8, which is the program housing authorities expect many displaced tenants to enter, while they wait out "revitalization." Section 8 is a federal subsidy to landlords in the form of a voucher that makes up the difference between what the renter can pay and the rent the market will bear. In deflationary markets, Section 8 is an assurance to landlords that their property will be rented and a guaranteed check from the federal government every month. In markets like the Bay Area's, where housing is limited and demand is overwhelming, Section 8 is a hindrance to landlords, who can realize much greater sums on the private market. And indeed, many landlords either pull their properties out of Section 8 or evict their Section 8 tenants in order to increase rents.

What has gone little discussed is that the government itself may opt out of Section 8. The battles over this year's federal budget prompted the nation's leading affordable housing advocates, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, to email its members in a frantic campaign to save the program. While Section 8 remains, the lengths of its contracts have been shortened, as has the federal commitment to public housing more generally. "Only 50,000 new Section 8 vouchers have been funded nationwide. Congress has so far refused to approve the extra 200,000 vouchers called for in the income-mixing plan"(Chronicle, 9/21/99). While noting that "in theory, the plan could work in rust belt cities with lower rents" if fully funded, the article concludes, "in the Bay Area's overheated housing market, rent subsidies don't work."

To sum up, housing officials are in the business of clearing neighborhoods, destroying housing, and pushing the displaced into a private market where most will not be able to rent, subsidized by a program whose funding is suspect. The problem with applying the logic of privatization to public housing is that we know there are some who the private market excludes. Yet this has been forgotten or obscured by rhetoric that pathologizes poverty, and would have us believe that the few who navigate the system successfully are the good poor, the many who don't are criminals.

The dystopic future is not far off, nor hard to see. The real estate pages already feature critics celebrating the New Urbanism, suburban migrants rediscovering the virtues of the city they left behind, and mayors proclaiming the "urban renaissance" of "elegant density," an elegance defined more by the classes that can afford market-rate housing than by any feature or quirk in the design. As wondrous buildings go up, the new paupers -- the students, young professionals, and artists recognized as "our" own -- will find "affordable" housing is that which the old paupers had to leave. As property values boom, newspapers will laud the miracles that "our" new cities have become, consider poverty solved because less can be seen, and blame the old paupers for the rest, while the boosters, brokers, bribetakers, and bagmen magically disappear. If politicians see no answers to the problem of homelessness, no solution to the crisis in public housing, no place where working-class communities reside, then perhaps some of us must teach them how to read.

Aaron Shuman would be less grumpy if he weren't receiving calls from two friends per week who face eviction. He is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team and an organizer with Oakland's Tenant Defense Network. TDN may be reached at 510.594.4000 ext. 983.

Copyright © 2000 by Aaron Shuman. All rights reserved.