By The Save Midtown Tenants Committee
Three short weeks ago, a group of tenants at Midtown Park Apartments in San Francisco’s Fillmore District launched the city’s biggest rent strike in nearly 40 years, highlighting the ever-growing tensions over affordable housing in the Western Addition neighborhood.
On Aug. 3, more than 60 households showed up at the office of their property manager, San Francisco-based Mercy Housing, to protest rent increases ranging from 30 percent to 300 percent.
At a press conference led by Midtown’s long-time legal representative, civil rights attorney Joshua Arce, residents and their supporters announced that they would withhold their monthly rent until the city Rent Board, and potentially a court of law, render a final decision on whether the rent increases violate the city’s rent control regulations.
At first glance, there is no question that Midtown should be protected by rent control, which would prohibit rent increases that average 100% for the 65 households participating in the rent strike.
The 139-unit affordable housing community was built in the 1960s, just as Redevelopment Agency bulldozers prepared to rip the Western Addition apart, and residents received rent increases limited to the amount allowed by the 1979 San Francisco Rent Ordinance, until only recently.
There is a twist in the Midtown rent control debate, however: Midtown is owned by the City and County of San Francisco.
City leaders have asserted that Midtown, San Francisco’s only city-owned affordable housing site, is thus exempt from rent control and eviction protections that would otherwise be unquestioned if Midtown’s owner were a private entity.
Midtown’s attorneys at the AIDS Legal Referral Panel and Brightline Defense have filed for a determination of the rent control question at the Rent Board hearing on Sept. 15, and an appeal to the California Superior Court is likely regardless of what the Rent Board decides.
Supporting the Midtown residents are Dr. Espanola Jackson, Aboriginal Blackmen United, Our Mission No Eviction, the Holly Courts Public Housing Resident Council, Laborers Union Local 261, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 648.
A weeklong series of actions followed their Aug. 3 rent strike announcement, including protests at the Mayor’s Office Housing, rallies at the corner of Geary and Divisadero streets, visits to the offices of Mayor Ed Lee and District Supervisor London Breed, and broad media coverage on television and in print.
Midtown residents’ attorney Arce has presented the residents with a blueprint for a rent strike that he had worked on with civil rights legend Ambassador Andrew Young.
“I had the chance to spend an evening with Ambassador Young in which he told me about a successful rent strike that he organized with Dr. King in Chicago in 1966,” recalled Arce. “We tailored a plan that we thought would work at Midtown in 2015.”
The Midtown rent strike, which began on a Monday, ended in victory four days later on Friday, when the City and Mercy agreed to postpone rent increases for all 65 families pending the outcome of the rent control determination process. In the meantime, families have the ability to petition for rent decreases and re-evaluations.
“Each and every family had to stay strong each and every day of the rent strike,” said Midtown Board Vice-President Donald Griggs, a Midtown resident for the past 33 years. “We’re all concerned about our neighbors and together we have the strength to win. Plus we have ourselves one heck of a lawyer in Joshua Arce.”
Griggs recounted “The last time San Francisco saw a rent strike of this size was the 1978 Ping Yuen Public Housing Apartments tenants rent strike.. Based our success in 2015, The Midtown residents are clearly ready to handle any challenge that may come our way when the San Francisco Rent Board renders its decision on September 15”.
The Save Midtown Tenants Committee is a coalition of Midtown residents, their community allies, and labor unions committed to safe and secure housing and empowerment for the 139 households of Midtown Park Apartments.