Home Is Where the House Is

By Debra Walker

debraWhen I first visited San Francisco in the late sixties, I instantly knew it would become my home. A couple of decades later, in 1981, I came home to San Francisco to paint, join community here and make my life. This city offered everything a politically active lesbian artist needed. I was fortunate to come here when I did. I, like many artists, worked day jobs and did my art. I could live with roommates and make it work. I have been able to make my life here.

San Francisco has always inspired innovation. SF has been a boom and bust kind of place. There are no tepid passions here. The beginnings of movements, of technology, of beat, of rock…of so many intricate parts of our culture blossomed here. In the 90s it was the Internet. The 2000s was dot com. In 2014, social media and Internet “start ups” permeate everything here. Some of the most accelerated speculation on earth accompanies these booms. Real estate has increased as much as 35% in one year in some parts of town. Displacement, Ellis Act evictions, vilification and blame exist in all directions. Many artists and others who are trying to make a life or are starting over or are just attempting to stay put are struggling, and are often being forced to leave.

With a median home price of over $700,000 in San Francisco, someone earning the median income of $75,000 makes 48 per cent less money than they need to afford a median-priced home. You need to be making 200% of median income to think about buying housing here, and there really is no help available.

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PHOTOS OF ARTWORK COURTESY OF DEBRA WALKER

So how did San Francisco become like this?

Every time someone gets elected in San Francisco, there are a slew of ritualistic events after the election and outside of public scrutiny, aimed at retiring campaign debt. Each and every sitting board of supervisor, the mayor, treasurer, etc. has benefited. And they reciprocate by entitling questionable development projects, by handing out tax breaks for wealthy tech companies and by giving special deals to the donors and their clients. The result is that long-time small businesses, non-profits, artists, residents and families get displaced.

With this dynamic we get watered-down development mitigation (affordability requirements like 12% affordable or, if you add 3% more, you can do an in lieu fee so none of these high rises going up has to include affordable units within the project). We get some really affordable housing, but it is segregated and, effectively, there is no affordable housing built for middle-income individuals and families, meaning those who make over $30,000 and less than $200,000 a year. We also end up with underfunded transit, water, education, etc. Our leadership needs to be able to stand up for the right development, and make successful arguments for smart planning that includes reasoned density increases in all neighbourhoods. That is how we continue to fund infrastructure needs throughout town.

Some Solutions:

1. All city property (including Port SeaWall lots) should be prioritized for housing. All development on city-owned property should be required to include 50% at variable levels of affordability from 30% up to 180% of median income (median 68k single, 98k family of 4).

2. We should fund, through permitting fees, a code enforcement assistance fund to help landlords renting out rent controlled units to maintain their buildings and, in return, landlords would agree not to displace tenants or increase rents beyond what is allowed by the city’s rent control ordinance.

3. A community land trust could buy an existing occupied rental building and not displace existing tenants, but take advantage of density bonuses for affordable housing to add allowable units. Doing so would avoid displacement and secure many units of housing for current and future residents. Such a solution also comes with income potential to offset costs, keeping it affordable.

4. Do not give tax breaks to the wealthiest companies. To solve San Francisco’s housing woes, we need an investment of $100 million every year for ten years. Several years ago, the voters passed a Housing Trust Fund initiative that will eventually generate $20-30 million a year but a) it will take some time to get to that level, and b) the Mayor’s Office of Housing will be using the bulk of this money for the first 4-6 years to rebuild public housing in Bayview Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley and Potrero Hill. It will take leadership, but these tech businesses need to see that an investment from them will help to house their workers and keep a creative workforce here. Tech companies providing some housing would help to ease pressure on existing residents. It’s a win win, and instead of gentrifying our cities, they help their workers and the rest of us as they help themselves. Couple that with our city and state funding and we get closer to the $100 million a year we need. In the subsidy mix, we need to include consideration for folks making up to 180% of median income. That would take a huge amount of pressure off of the cities in the Bay Area.

5. Stop Ellis Act evictions. Support legislation at both the state and local level to limit Ellis Act evictions. Until then, attach fees galore to anyone wanting to invoke the Ellis Act to take units off the market, evict tenants and speculate on property. That kind of speculation is a huge cost to our community and we need to mitigate that affect.

6. Support SB391, State Senator Mark Desaulnier’s bill to create a permanent, dedicated source of state funding for affordable housing by creating a document recording fee of $75 per transaction. This would generate $500 million a year state wide and about $20-30 million for San Francisco.

Debra Walker, San Francisco Woman of the Year in 2010 and California Woman of the Year in 2009, is a well-known artist and a San Francisco Building Inspection commissioner. She is also an adjunct professor at the California Institute for Integral Studies, as well as being a tenant and housing activist. See more of her artwork at debrawalker.com