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Housing on the Chopping Block

By: 
Ben Terrall
Date Published: 
July 30, 2011

On February 14 communities across the United States joined together in a collective day of action called by the National Alliance of HUD Tenants. From Washington, DC to Florida, from Maine to California, HUD tenants, foreclosure victims, homeless and poor people, and their supporters held press conferences and community forums to demand full funding of vital housing programs -- including poverty, homelessness, and health programs.

The San Francisco Valentine’s Day protest was co-sponsored by the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) and a broad range of Bay Area housing and social justice groups.

Paul Boden, co-founder of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness and now director of WRAP, a coalition of homeless advocacy groups from different cities, spoke at the San Francisco rally against budget priorities that “create jobs for the military, homeland security, and the prison industrial complex” and “cut 600,000 affordable housing units while building 800,000 jail cells.”

Boden said that the Planning for Elders HealthCare Action Team (HAT), which was making a dramatic show of senior power in City Hall just before the rally, shouldn’t be reduced to begging legislators not to cut funding for the elderly. As with the other poorest members of society, Boden argued that elder constituents should be given adequate support no matter the fiscal situation.

James Chionsini, Interim Executive Director of Planning for Elders, helped coordinate the pre-demonstration visit that 75 senior and disabled San Francisco residents paid to City Hall. The activists followed up on a letter asking the representatives to endorse a pledge of support for seniors and the disabled.

The pledge spells out some horrific realities: “There are approximately 160,000 seniors and over 90,000 adults living with disabilities living in our city, and that number is expected to rise dramatically […] over half of our seniors do not have enough income to meet their basic needs as defined by the Elder Economic Index, and 33% of adults with disabilities live below the federal poverty line […] over 20,000 people in San Francisco rely on In-Home Supportive Services and nutrition programs to survive.”

Gentrification

Chionsini lives in the Bayview and attributes his family’s current housing to his wife’s diligence in dealing with city bureaucracy. He said he appreciates the below market rate condo his family secured through the Mayor’s Office on Housing, but, “there needs to be much more of it […] there are more people out of work, and Bayview has one of the highest rates of evictions. It’s mostly families and kids, people who are poor, who are adversely impacted by the economic downturn.”

Chionsini said that the decline of the African-American population is an awful phenomenon that could be addressed through more enlightened city policies. “City Hall needs to prioritize people who grew up in Bayview, needs to put some focus on the neighborhood that doesn’t just involve bringing in wealthy whites. The Bayview is ground zero of redevelopment and gentrification.”

When Chionsini and his cohort emerged from City Hall, they joined around 100 others and marched down Hyde Street to 8th St, then along Mission to the new San Francisco Federal Building. They carried signs with messages including “Save Elder and Disability Services,” “Cut the Crap, Not Housing,” and “If Egypt can do it so can we.”

Activist Keith Kemp spoke at the Federal Building. He described being homeless and subsequently living in a single room occupancy hotel for six years while waiting to secure more stable housing. 

As rain drizzled down, Kemp told the assembled activists that pending cuts would freeze an already untenably long San Francisco Housing Authority waiting list for subsidized housing.

Kemp later told me that he felt extremely fortunate to now be living in assisted housing in San Francisco’s South of Market Street district (SOMA). But he said, “If these cuts are made to HUD, how many years will people have to wait in the cold and rain? People are sleeping outside in doorways in SOMA and Bayview. People are going to die.”

Coordination

In a conversation after the demonstration, Boden told me that advocacy “groups are lobbying on specific pieces of the legislation,” but that there isn’t enough coordination between groups fighting to defend their own turf. 

Arguing that, “homeless issues are actually community issues,” Boden feels that the only way to effectively fight back against the cuts is through a broader social justice movement. He pointed out that without enough pressure from the grassroots, Democrats, shortly after acquiescing on extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest, let Republicans control public debate about cuts to social services.

“There’s nothing left to cut in public housing,” he told me. “We’re talking about the bone marrow.”

“We do subsidize housing,” he added, “but it’s for the upper end of society.” He explained that 75 percent of the $144 billion in mortgage interest deductions benefit homeowners earning more than $100,000 a year.

Boden wrote recently on his Huffington Post blog, “The pivotal decisions by Congress to cut annual appropriations for the Public Housing Capital Fund and to lift one-for-one replacement for any public housing unit lost to demolition or disposition were neither necessary nor inevitable. They were politically, not economically, determined.”

National Alliance of HUD Tenants details the proposed cuts: $1.6 billion cut to public housing below the FY 2010 level; $1.47 billion cut to Section 8 vouchers below the President’s request for FY 2011; $2.9 billion cut—2/3 of the overall program—to Community Development Block Grants, which help cities address affordable housing, job training, domestic violence, and other anti-poverty needs; and $760 million—2/3 cut—to housing for the elderly and disabled.

Veteran San Francisco activist James Tracy, who has worked on housing struggles for years, told me he thinks it’s a problem that on the Left, “we recognize austerity measures in the Philippines, but not here…. I’m a little bit amazed that it hasn’t become more of an issue.” Tracy, who helped organize a February 28 San Francisco demonstration against state budget cuts (under the banner “These Cuts Won’t Heal!”), which drew about 600 people, told me that the assault on social programs was “about destroying gains we’ve made, and devastating the lives of the poorest members of society.”

The left

Tracy said he thought there were two possibilities for why more people on the Left weren’t actively opposing the cuts. One, organizations and people are over-extended and, two, there isn’t enough of an understanding of the real impact these cuts are going to have. Tracy opined that anti-poverty groups are separated from the broader Left, and that in current budget battles, labor unions and liberals frame their position around saving the middle class “in conflict-averse terms.” This leaves out a large group of wage earners, including those “making pennies an hour cleaning public transport buses to get a government assistance check.”

Tracy said that the way the Right has attacked the poorest first, and is now moving on to those with union benefits, reminds him of what James Baldwin said to Angela Davis: “If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”

Herman Bonner lives in Chicago and is the National Alliance of HUD Tenants’ Board President and a disabled Section 8 tenant. He echoes Tracy’s analysis.  At the time of the Valentine’s Day protests, he said, “The Republicans' Tea Party' budget is a Valentine's Day Massacre on America's poor.” Chicago activists had their protest on February 25, when more than 300 HUD tenants, service providers, and supporters marched to protest HUD budget cuts. Protestors constructed a cardboard “Tea Party Housing Development” and blocked traffic near the Chicago Federal Building, where Illinois Senators Durbin and Kirk have offices. Eleven demonstrators were arrested and then released after a few hours.

In a phone interview, Bonner told me, “I’d like people to know this might not be you right now, but you too can be put into this situation. Don’t wait until it happens to you before you join the fight.” Bonner had a good salary working as a railroad foreman but was left disabled by an accident and wound up homeless. After moving back into his family’s apartment in the projects, he caught wind of plans to sell the HUD-managed building and convert the units into condos. He responded by working quickly with several others to organize tenants; they successfully opposed the sale.

In Bonner’s view, “you take care of the least of us, the rest of us live well.” He is especially disgusted at proposed cuts in aid for the elderly, which he sees as a betrayal of people who helped build the infrastructure of the US “Dismantling senior housing doesn’t make sense to me. This is a slap in the face to my parents and grandparents, and to my stepfather, who helped build the Sears Tower.”

Meanwhile, though some lip service has been given in Congress to potential Pentagon cuts, war funding provokes little debate. Democrats have gone along with Republicans in calling America  “broke” and stressing the need to rein in spending. But few from either party have expressed concern about the money being spent on our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention million-dollar cruise missiles in North Africa.

And though Obama struck a populist note in early April by calling on the rich to pay their fair share in taxes, The Nation magazine pointed out that “for every $1 raised by closing tax loopholes for wealthy Americans, Obama proposes $2 in spending cuts. Two-thirds of those cuts would come from education, health and other social programs while one-third would come from the military budget. The president’s vision of ‘shared sacrifice,’ in other words, hits the poor and the middle class hardest.”

Ben Terrall is a writer who lives in San Francisco. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Counterpunch, In These Times, Terrain, and other fine publications.