Community Mobilization against Eviction in 1970s San Francisco & the contribution of Chester Hartman
By Niccolo Caldararo
As a young student in 1966, I was struck by the efforts of the City of San Francisco to destroy the neighborhoods of African Americans. Most disturbing were the mass evictions that took place in the process of redevelopment. I was living in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco at the time, an area of mixed housing (mostly 2 and 3 storey apartments with some duplexes and single-family homes). The population was also racially and ethnically mixed, with many African Americans, Russian immigrants, and a large number of Irish. The area was experiencing housing pressure due to the efforts of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRDA) to relocate residents from the Western Addition district (see map).
As part of my student work, I conducted a door-to-door survey of the Western Addition A-1 and A-2 sections of the city at the request of Professor Louis Kemnitzer of the Anthropology Department of San Francisco State University. This was mainly the Fillmore District, made up of largely African American and Japanese families and businesses. I often came across buildings in the Fillmore part of the Western Addition where families had been evicted; their furniture and possessions sometimes still inside or stacked on the street. Many of these buildings had become ‘illegal’ squats; some still had electricity and water service.
Redevelopment and Mass Evictions
Once when I was reporting on my findings in Louis Kemnitzer’s office, a place always filled with students chatting and asking questions, I mentioned mass evictions. “What is a “mass eviction?” one student asked. Louis responded that it represented more than one eviction in a block, no matter how many people are involved. The reason for this was that getting accurate numbers of addresses and times was nearly impossible and that many, if not most, of the ‘evictions’ were illegal—or as one Redevelopment official characterized them, ‘informal.’ Often SFRDA crews would show up at people’s addresses when the SFRDA knew they were at work. The crew might nail the doors shut, remove windows or hot water heaters, or remove plumbing and cut off water. “Still an eviction,” was how Louis referred to these actions.
One resident, photographer John Gutmann, came home from work to find his house on fire, and was told that it was a test for the SF Fire Department. Some friends and I arrived as the firefighters finished putting out the flames. Mr. Gutmann was philosophical about the disaster. His photo collection and personal items charred beyond saving, but he had experienced worse as an immigrant from Germany (originally a native of Poland) in 1933.
While what I saw in the Western Addition was new to me, it already had a history. Beginning in 1949, the Redevelopment Agency process was mandated by Congress as a way of producing revitalized urban areas, but more importantly, eliminating what was considered to be blighted (slum) housing areas. The redevelopment process began to pick up steam in the 1960s during the Mayor John Francis Shelly administration and continued with the Mayor Joe Alioto administration, which started in the late 1960s. Many of the national riots across the USA (including San Francisco) in the mid 1960s, which included scenes of African American residents demonstrating against police, were motivated largely by the mass tenant removal process of redevelopment that was occurring across the country (Hartmann, 1974).
The SFRDA had begun its process on the San Francisco waterfront and the South of Market (or SOMA) area . Both were working class areas with mixed warehouses and single room occupancy hotels. During this period, there was a near crusade to rid the City of substandard housing and provide “good” clean and proper dwelling spaces for everyone. The atmosphere that permeated many of the presentations at City Hall and SFRDA meetings was one of paternalism and near missionary fever. In an exchange I had with the SFRDA Director, Arthur Evans, he made derogatory comments about one low-income, racialized neighborhood in the city, casting it as unsanitary, unsafe and crime-ridden and saying that it needed to be levelled to the ground and rebuilt.
Starting in the 1960s and in response to these redevelopment schemes, Chester Hartman began working with the South of Market housing and small owners group, Tenants and Owners in Opposition to Redevelopment (TOOR). Part of his involvement in South of Market included supporting the residents of the International Hotel (known locally as I-Hotel), which was the last single room occupancy (SRO) residential hotel, housing many elderly Filipino and Chinese former sailors and retired workers in what was Manilatown. These residential hotels, either SROs or small apartments, had contained a vibrant community of storefront businesses and community organizations. The elimination of this ethnic community was part of the ‘renewal’ plan of the City, real estate developers and financial investors to expand the downtown business district.
I attended TOOR meetings and listened to Chester define the problem of how the City was focused on destroying the most affordable housing and planning replacement projects that appeared to be affordable. As the City Planning Department published statistics on these demolition projects, it was not difficult to survey what kinds of housing were targeted and the nature of their redevelopment. See for example, the 1975 issue of the Changes in The San Francisco Housing Inventory. I found Chester’s approach to be compelling and effective in communicating the effect of this policy on the City and those it most fell on. While many might use inflammatory rhetoric mixed with appeals to emotion, Chester presented factual contexts supported with parallel cases where similar policy had led not only to a monoculture of business and residents, but had produced homelessness and a loss of business tax. This did not have much impact on the Supervisors of the City nor Mayor Alioto, who desired to create a financial hub in San Francisco, with new buildings and new citizens. However, it did work to inform and mobilize impacted residents.
Across San Francisco, redevelopment and housing issues were discussed more frequently in neighborhood meetings in the 1970s. By the mid 1970s, there was a call for a Community Congress of neighborhoods. In Haight-Ashbury, the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council discussed the pressure that relocation efforts and homelessness were creating. One means Chester used to funnel frustration into action was linking the consequences of City policy together and proposing neighborhoods use existing means of political influence while joining together to create wider district unity. This unity could be leveraged to mobilize and pressure the City and engage in direct action.
In attending meetings in the Western Addition and Mission Districts (see map above), it was evident that a neighborhood strategy was forming and that Chester’s clear and concise method of analyzing the problem was proving effective. At a TOOR meeting attended by representatives of other districts, Victor Honig, a brilliant and tireless advocate for justice, produced a document for City neighborhoods to sign and send to Supervisors calling for a reassessment of housing goals and needs. While most attending felt there was little to be gained in doing so, Chester’s perspective was that a comprehensive approach with the widest possible representation was needed. That required patience and a lot of work.
I also saw this approach in his work with the Goodman Group and the Goodman Tenants’ Association. The Goodman Building was a single room occupancy building that was the result of the conversion of three adjacent buildings at the turn of the century. It served as lodging for artists and workers, among them poets and craftspeople. The SFRDA seized it from its owner, Mel Goodman, and scheduled it for demolition. Goodman approached the tenants and asked them to mobilize, leading to the formation of a tenant's union. This began a 10-year struggle with the SFRDA that ended with the building being placed on the National Register of Historic Places and rehabilitated. However, the tenants were ultimately evicted.
Political Action and Empowerment
As previously mentioned, I had came into contact with squatting residents of buildings while door-to-door surveying. These buildings had private owners before the SFRDA seized the property and evicted the occupants (tenants and owners). These occupants did not assume they would be residents for long and were often made up of loose groups moving between districts or to the East Bay or rural communes. They seldom engaged in any legal opposition to the SFRDA.
The ‘legal’ tenants usually fought through the courts or in through federal agencies set up to provide relocation sites and benefits. In the South of Market area, Chester attempted to frustrate SFRDA plans through organizing political actions to influence the Board of Supervisors or Mayor to intervene in redevelopment. The political actions included meetings with the Mayor, supervisors, union leaders and community organizations; making posters and handouts; appearing in TV and radio interviews; and, at the I-Hotel and Goodman buildings, organizing informational picket lines. Despite the lucid and reasonable arguments that were conveyed, these efforts failed to gain substantial changes in the overall policy of the City and the SFRDA, which involved selling seized property to outside developers and investors. However, political action prompted the Agency to accept existing owners and tenants as agents or partners in the local development of their area. In the case of TOOR, these efforts made use of existing mechanisms of redevelopment law to support outcomes that allowed the tenants and owners to stay in the area. Key drivers of this process included Chester’s influence and the ability to leverage community development corporations and other organizations that could supply affordable housing.
Chester’s best efforts involved educating people of their rights. For instance, he informed tenants how the law allowed them to withhold rent either to make repairs or to force the landlords to do so themselves. As a result, rent strikes were implemented at a number of sites, including the I-Hotel and the Goodman buildings. He allied with a number of lawyers from Legal Aid and contributed to setting up San Franciscans for Affordable Housing in order to further empower the community. Chester’s work in advocacy seems to garner greater attention than his ability to educate people of a wide range of backgrounds. While his book, City for Sale, certainly reflects a vast knowledge of housing policy and history, the skill of education was far more important in my opinion. Simply relaying people’s rights in the face of eviction—the tools available to deal with an aggressive or unconstructive landlord—gave gave rise to many successful changes, such as the determination of tenants to stay when faced with no-fault evictions. While Chester provided a map to a wider strategy on maintaining affordable housing and community, the process of empowerment through sharing information was an essential element in providingpeople with the basis for agency. It is also critical for ensuring that the so-called experts ( lawyers and planners) follow, rather than lead, the community. Indeed, this was a challenge that Chester noted in relation to TOOR, where too much power was ceded to lawyers rather than viewing them as ‘supports.’
There were many threads of political activity in San Francisco in the 1970s. This included community development corporations and tenants advocacy organizations, such as the Tenants’ Action Group (TAG), which would send organizers to buildings when they learned of eviction threats. For Chester, the future of affordability was in activism, community building and using these resources as part of a unified strategy. San Francisco today so desperately needs to embrace this vision.
Niccolo Caldararo, PhD, has been teaching at San Francisco State University since 1995 in the Department of Anthropology. Niccolo began studying housing issues in the 1960s as a student in the same academic department, and is author of the recently published An Ethnography of the Goodman Building: The Longest Rent Strike (2022, Palgrave Macmillan).