As a resident of San Francisco’s latest Community Land Trust property—the Pigeon Palace—I am enjoying the new peace of mind that comes from knowing that I will never be evicted from my home. I’ve been happily surprised to feel a subtle shift in my experience of daily life–I hadn’t realized how much I was preparing to leave until I was certain that I wouldn’t be forced out.
Over the past weeks I’ve enjoyed a number of very San Franciscan moments, from the annual SOMARTS opening party of the Day of the Dead altars, our own sidewalk celebration party, to bumping into a stream of friends while on my daily walks across the City. I’ve realized that we’re still here and we don’t have to leave. I’m here for the long haul, and with it comes both possibilities and responsibilities. I’m readier than ever to dig in and make this place truly ours.
Our building has had cheap rents and it is precisely these cheap rents that gave the tenants the safe and stable foundation that allowed us all to contribute so much to San Francisco’s cultural and political life for the past several decades. A low cost of housing is an essential foundation for a full life.
These days, everyone is bombarded by the hype to “do what you love,” and supposedly if you stick to it, the money will follow. Actually, probably not. Most of us have to get the proverbial “day job,” selling a money-making skill to someone willing to buy it. If we’re lucky we make enough money in few enough hours to leave us time to do what we really care about in our “free” time.
In my early 20s I realized that I wasn’t interested in following the normal paths that this society lays out before one. I wasn’t interested in a “career” and making money held no interest for me. I saw myself as a revolutionary and wanted to participate in creating a new way to live, not just for me as an individual, but a full-blown reorganization of everyday life itself. Even then I knew my revolutionary aspirations would probably not be met, so though I’ve continued to pursue that agenda in my own unique way, I also vowed to make sure that I lived the highest quality life I could manage. The key to that was to hold down my regular costs (transit, housing, food, communications, etc.) so that I would have less pressure to “slave away for the man!” In other words, I was way too busy to have a job! The best way I could carry out my self-directed activities (which have always kept me quite busy) was to bicycle instead of owning a car, to eat local and fresh from farmer’s markets and coop stores instead of eating out, and most crucially, to find and hold on to the lowest cost housing I could manage. Not having to make many thousands of dollars every month to be able to pass a large portion over to a landlord or bank gave me something far better than money; I have time, time that is not for sale. “Free” time is unmeasurable “wealth.” Cooperation, mutual aid, solidarity, and imagination all flourish in the absence of economic coercion. Happily, this dovetailed perfectly with my evolving sense of what a revolution might consist of.
Most people haven’t made the same choices that I have, and for many, it is nearly impossible to do so. My parents weren’t wealthy when I left home at age 17, but by the time I was in my 30s they were fairly affluent, and always ready and willing to back me up if I needed it. (I never really needed that backup, but having it available is clearly a big deal.) My chosen path to avoid economic coercion at all costs has given me a lot of freedom, and led to a lot of creative output over the years. But most people are trapped in poverty, or if they are “middle class” (as most people tend to think of themselves) the ball-and-chain of car ownership, the almost inevitable accumulation of student debt, and during the past twenty years radically rising housing costs, have entrapped most people in one type of debt or another. Burgeoning homelessness puts relentless pressure on those “lucky” enough to have an abode. Pay your rent, pay your mortgage, or else. After steadily rising housing costs in the last quarter of the 20th century, the 21st century saw an unprecedented transformation. Housing costs for renters and buyers alike skyrocketed in major cities across the planet, outracing stagnant incomes and becoming a primary conduit for transferring wealth from the majority of working people into the hands of a tiny financial elite.
Every apartment that is still rent-controlled, where long-term tenants pay less than $1000 per month per person (and sometimes much less!), has become a front line in the current battlefield of class war. Our fight to save our homes in the Pigeon Palace represents a victorious skirmish, and temporary reprieve for us, but so far, it is not going to be a working solution for many people.
At 83 our former landlady, who gave each of us very cheap rents because she didn’t believe in “choking people,” has been warehoused in a nursing home and denied any right of return to her home. A serious hoarder who was starting to lose her short-term memory and her mobility, but remained lucid and fiercely committed to her independence, she was declared incompetent by a judge and then relocated against her will by a court-appointed Conservator.
To save our homes we established a low-income, nonprofit housing co-op called Pigeon Palace, Inc. The San Francisco Community Land Trust (SFCLT), our political and economic partner (and benefactor) purchased the building in early September 2015 with loans from a private bank, the Mayor’s Office of Housing, and private investors including the tenants and our friends. With this purchase, we have taken the building off the market forever. But it came at a steep price that has saddled this effort with nearly $4 million in debt, a reality that casts a pall over our project and makes this a dubious model for widespread adoption or replication.
How did we manage to do this? The Pigeon Palace tenants joined with the San Francisco Community Land Trust (SFCLT) to “save” our building from the speculative real estate vultures that were hungrily circling our century-old 6-unit Victorian on Folsom Street in the heart of the Mission. The SFCLT won a probate auction, outlasting and outbidding one of the worst serial evictors in town. The Pigeon Palace was purchased at the height of the market for an absurdly high price. Our story, while inspiring on the face of it, sadly represents many of the worst contradictions that dominate the politics of housing not just in San Francisco but in every desirable city in the world.