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Interview with Midtown Rent Strikers

03.12.16 - In 1964, out of the ashes of 'Urban Renewal,' which sought to push out poor, working-class, and people of color in one of the early waves of gentrification in San Francisco, a group of apartments were built in the Fillmore District, named Mid-Town, which had a total of 139 units and three stories. Unlike other buildings, the units were marketed as homes that those living in would eventually own after the city paid off the building. But more than 50 years after they were built, those located inside the units are still paying rent and are now threatened with eviction, with the city claiming that Mid-Town residents can't pay for repairs needed on the facility. As the struggle began against Mercy Housing California, a company with offices in the SOMA District, residents began a rent strike: a collective refusal to pay rent. As of this date, the rent strike in the longest running in San Francisco and one of the longest in the country. Wanting to know more, we sat down with some Midtown residents to hear about their unfolding battle.

FW: Can you tell us a little bit about the background of the Midtown rent strike? Who is involved and how did it start?

We started the rent strike on August 1st, 2015. It is currently the longest rent strike in San Francisco history that we know of. A rent strike of this proportion took place in 1978 by residents of the Ping Yuen apartments in Chinatown and lasted for two months, then again the next year for another two months.

The idea for the rent strike was actually suggested to us by Ambassador Andrew Young, a Civil Rights leader and first Black mayor of Atlanta because this strategy worked out for him and Dr. Martin Luther King in 1960s Chicago. This is the only way that they were able to get any attention from the city officials.

Midtown tenants are refusing to pay rent increases and sign a restrictive new lease passed on us by Mercy California and MOHCD (Mayor’s Office of Housing Community Development). We are protesting the City’s failure to deliver on a decades-long promise of ownership for tenants. Midtown was built as own-your-own housing for victims of Civic Redevelopment (who lost their homes and apartments to imminent domain), but after the tenants paid off the property mortgage, the City terminated its master lease with a resident-run tenants’ association in 2013 and awarded it to Mercy Housing, the largest private affordable housing property manager in the nation.

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FW: What ways have the residents on strike organized themselves? How did they get linked up with people from outside of their living area?

Most Midtown tenants have lived here for decades, creating a multi-generational family and community structure with strong neighborhood ties. It was natural for us to organize to prevent the largest displacement of Western Addition resident since the Redevelopment. We do one direct action per month, create community unity events, display rent strike banners/fliers from our balconies and windows, and participate in weekly tenant meetings where the day-to-day planning work takes place.

Midtown residents are very active members of our community, not only in the Fillmore/Western Addition but also in the Mission, Bayview, and Hunter’s Point. We have strong ties with other community groups that aren’t funded by the Mayor’s Office of Housing: ACCE, Plaza 16, Jobs for Justice, Eviction Free San Francisco, Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, as well as anti-police brutality organizers like the Last 3 Percent, Black Lives Matter. Save Midtown tenants are original members of Justice 4 Mario Woods coalition, and have been on the front lines to ensure social justice for our community.

We stand with our Brown and Black brothers and sisters who also experience the squeeze out of the city that we built. Our working class communities are undergoing wholesale displacement. The Black population in San Francisco right now is just under 6% and is predicted to be less that 3% in 2020- that’s how fast Black people are being displaced from San Francisco. We can’t say that “Black Lives Matter” without saying that “Black Homes Matter” – because our lives don’t matter if we don’t have a home to live in. More than 35% of homeless people in San Francisco are Black.

FW: What actions have the strikers taken while engaged in the strike?

Midtown tenants and our allies try to do at least one direct action per month, on average. We have picketed offices of Mercy California numerous times, we organized neighbors in picketing outside of Midtown blocking Geary and Divisadero streets, we have picketed MOHCD offices outside with comrades creating commotion inside MOHCD office.

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FW: How has the strike reached out to other people also fighting gentrification, evictions, and displacement? 

Save Midtown tenants worked with ACCE to try to stop eviction of Pastor Yul Dorn. We participated in numerous direct actions at Mayor’s house, call-ins to speculator and the bank, picketed Chase Bank office, engaged with Board of Supervisors members, and risked arrest by the Sheriff’s office preventing the actual eviction.

Pastor Dorn is a victim of predatory lending, and was actually evicted in January by the Sheriff’s office. Ironically, Pastor Dorn is a chaplain of the Sheriff’s office.

Save Midtown tenants regularly take part in direct actions to stop gentrification. We are involved in the fight to stop the development of more luxury condos in the Mission: (The “Monster in the Mission” and the “Beast on Bryant”) as well as trying to prevent the evictions of tenants at 1964 Larkin and the eviction of SF artist David Brenkus. Midtown tenants are part of the Affordable Divis. coalition.

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FW: In what ways have people outside of the strike offered help?

The Midtown cause has reverberated across the City. Obviously there is a massive displacement crisis in San Francisco, but not many people are in a position to effectively fight their displacement. Its very hard to fight eviction as you are losing your home. Rent strikes like the one that is happening at Midtown could definitely be happening throughout the City. You could argue that a generalized, City-wide rent strike would be one of the best ways to stop evictions and loss of rent-controlled units.

Because we are taking action ourselves as tenants, we have received a lot of support. We were approached people who wanted to form a Support Committee for us. This is a group of non-tenants who build community support, plan events and help us with research.

United Educators of San Francisco, a 10,000-strong labor union, took a stand on the Midtown issue by passing a resolution that called for Mercy to leave Midtown and for the City to deliver ownership. SF Labor Council passed two resolutions in support of Midtown. Alternative SF Mayoral candidates Francisco Herrera and Stuart Schuffman came to our rallies and have helped with outreach. Numerous organizations like Anti-Eviction Mapping created video interviews and oral histories with tenants, and recorded direct actions.

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FW: In the coming months, what do you think will happen with the people living in Midtown? How can people support their struggle?

Based on some documents we just got access to, the City and Mercy seem like they could start on their plan to start tearing down buildings at Midtown as early as within 60 days. Their plan is to knock down at least two buildings on Geary Street and build up two towers. The replacement building contains tiny units a fraction of the size of our current units, ground-floor retail, and the addition of some market-rate units. They have the budget, authorization from Planning Department, and the environmental impact report done already.

We encourage people to sign and share our petition here.

Follow us on twitter @savemidtown and “like” our FB page: facebook.com/savemidtown

We encourage people to come out to our next direct action planned for April 14th– you can follow our social media for more details as the date approaches. Also, just talk to people about what’s going on at Midtown. Talk to your friends and neighbors, ask them: Do you know there’s a rent strike happening in San Francisco right now? Did you know that the City is trying to displace a community of immigrants and Black tenants, many of them elders with a historic claim to their homes? Did you know that tenants are organizing against it?

FW: For people reading this in a similar situation, what advice would you give them in order to defend themselves and their homes against eviction?

You have to stay organized. There’s power in numbers. Create weekly meetings. Identify groups that can assist you with advice. Reach out to local community organizations. Organize direct action to achieve your goal. Stay relevant, constantly on the offensive. Identify policy makers that can help you in your fight. Help others.

news7-2midtown3-cb1245bdb6253c69FW: What do you think the impact of an action is on the surrounding community and SF in general? Do you think actions like this give people hope and make them feel empowered?

I think that if we did not organize and participate in direct actions, we would have been out on the street long time ago. It is the last resort of the disenfranchised, the working class, those who have been wronged by the system. It’s unfortunate that in 2016 San Francisco we still have to fight racist policies and use the same methods that the Civil Rights movement used in 1960s – picketing, call-ins, sit-ins, boycotts and rent strikes.

But action brings community together and give folks hope, it unite folks.

FW: Anything you’d like to add? Thanks for speaking with us!

Black, Brown and working class communities must stay united in the face of speculators, developers disguising themselves as affordable housing non-profits, and city officials who are doing nothing to prevent displacement.