Racism and classism diminished SF’s public housing. The SF Community Housing Act is a November 2020 ballot measure to re-fund public housing and expand it equitably to everyone.
by Laksh Bhasin
You can’t understand the Bay Area housing crisis without knowing its history. And one of the most under-reported parts of this history is the War on Public Housing.
Not enough people talk about it. Hardly anyone in the media mentions it. Yet America’s racism and classism helped defund, privatize and dismantle public housing – leaving us in the grasps of a profit-driven private real-estate market.
How did this happen, and what can we do to fix it?
A (brief) history of the War on Public Housing
From the beginning, New Deal public housing was segregated to placate white households. For a period of time, there was a substantial white and middle-income population in public housing.
But as “white flight” to the suburbs unfolded thanks to redlining, and white tenants became homeowners, the remaining public housing tenants – many of them Black, low-income and without basic rights – were powerless compared to landowners and real-estate interests.
This set the stage for politicians to defund, demolish and privatize federal public housing – while still getting reelected. Nixon froze funds for public housing and celebrated the demolition of the predominantly Black Pruitt-Igoe project. Reagan slashed tens of billions of dollars in funding for new public housing development under the guise of “balancing the budget.”
Clinton halted the construction of new public housing in the ‘90s. Obama passed the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program in 2012 to privatize public housing, instead of funding over $25 billion in backlogged repairs. And Trump is working to gut HUD completely.
There are now only 1,000 units of federal public housing in San Francisco, and the SF Housing Authority has been defunded to the point of collapse. Against this backdrop, 70 percent of SF renters making less than $75,000 are rent-burdened, and you may be out of affordable options yourself.
It’s time to reverse this trend
That’s why we’re working to pass the SF Community Housing Act (SFCHA) and fund Public Housing for All: self-sustainable City housing affordable to anyone who lives, works or studies in San Francisco.
We must stop depending on the profit-driven real-estate market and instead invest in a long-term, dependable City housing infrastructure to guarantee affordable housing for all.
Our grassroots ballot initiative will raise hundreds of millions of dollars each year by taxing multimillion-dollar corporations.
This will help us acquire or construct several hundred public housing units every year up to a total of 30,000 units. Compare that to the 645 affordable units constructed in 2018. It’ll also help us fund more childcare centers near housing, better Muni frequency and community meeting spaces.
The SFCHA balances both financial self-sustainability and economic justice with a City-wide income distribution focused on the working class. Rents are generally capped at 25 percent of household income, and a bare minimum rent is set to be affordable to part-time minimum-wage workers.
We also believe in empowering tenants. Community Councils of tenants, elected by tenants, are given the power to organize like a union does at work. These tenant associations can call for a rent strike to hold the City accountable and can compel meetings with their district’s Supervisor over any grievances.
Unionized City workers with the Mayor’s Office of Housing maintain the housing on a day-to-day basis, and public input is incorporated throughout the measure.
All of this is achievable in San Francisco if we continually tax the enormous wealth in our city – and specifically focus on the greed of the tech industry that has lobbied for the Twitter tax break, a reduced tax on stock compensation, and the switch from payroll tax to gross receipts tax.
Large-scale public housing is not a radical idea
In Vienna, one of the most affordable cities in the world, three in five residents live in social housing of some form, and 25 percent of the housing stock is fully publicly-owned and publicly-managed. Taxes fund the continued acquisition and construction of social housing, and tenants with higher incomes subsidize operating costs for tenants with lower incomes – just as the healthy subsidize the sick in their universal healthcare system.
A broad-based political constituency – like what we have with Social Security and what we can have with Medicare for All – keeps the overwhelmingly popular program going.
We can give everyone a strong safety net, reduce life expectancy discrepancies by race and spur entrepreneurship for social good instead of private profit.
Anyone who lives or works in San Francisco can qualify, which would start to reverse some of the worst economic and racial impacts of gentrification and displacement.
We can give the public sector leverage over the private real-estate industry – which currently controls housing decisions and is a massive lobbyist – while creating good-paying union jobs.
We can deliver economic justice for all workers and offset income disparities by taxing corporate wealth.
All of this can be accomplished if we put the SF Community Housing Act on the November 2020 ballot and pass similar social housing systems nationwide, such as the Social Housing Act in Maryland.
We’ve developed this initiative over two years with housing activists, policy experts and community groups. But we need your thoughts and feedback too, because these homes are for you. We will only win this fight if we can put up a thoughtful, forceful and united front against the wealthy interests who control our tax system and real-estate landscape.
Laksh Bhasin is a coauthor of the SF Community Housing Act and coordinator for the SF Berniecrats Housing Committee. Like our page at www.facebook.com/sfcommunityhousingact/ or join our mailing list at www.sfcommunity.us and get involved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.