by Carol Denney
It’s always dangerous to assume too much about the significance of silence, from the U. S. Supreme Court or anybody else. Silence can be ominous, or full of speechless admiration.
But the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to take up a case regarding developers’ objections to mandates for affordable housing is at least a deep breath during a waterfall of cascading stories mischaracterizing housing issues and the people who get caught in the crossfire.
The San Francisco Chronicle has at least temporarily won its media war on poor and homeless people by using its reporters, columnists, and photographers to portray San Francisco city government, and Mayor Ed Lee in particular, as mistreated, misunderstood, underfunded, and helpless.
The mayor and the city are the underdog in most of these stories. People suffering the effects of the housing crisis are portrayed as just stubbornly unwilling to be part of the one percent’s good fortune.
It was barely mentioned in the Chronicle stories that the Pier 80 proposed alternative to the community of tents under Division Street’s overpass didn’t have enough capacity for even that particular tent community, let alone all of San Francisco’s population of people in need.
Despite the Pier 80 tents being miles from town, despite the barbed wire that evokes concentration camp analogies, these numbers matter, especially after watching the city spend nearly five million dollars of public money on nine days of pre-Super Bowl parties in a city that didn’t even host the game.
People living in tents under the Division Street overpass paid for those parties, too, including the police officers who kept protesters away from the festivities. But night after night, television cameras hovered around Division Street poised for fresh versions of the classic shots: interviews with people who “refuse” shelter, complaints from merchants and homeowners about trash, and city workers handing out eviction notices and offers of help interwoven with threats of tickets, warrants, intrusion, jail.
Few are more knowledgeable than people with no housing options what it means when the bright vests of city workers show up nearby. Many people pack and leave at the whisper of any official intervention, if they’re able. The community of cooperation disperses to reinvent itself somewhere beyond the media spotlight.
It works, if you believe the Chronicle’s assessment of its readers’ applause for its own coverage. Tent giveaways and food sharing is described as “misguided,” despite even city officials, such as Kelly Hiramoto of the city’s Homeless Outreach Team, describing her team as “bouncing among the whims of department heads, with strategies and priorities changing week to week.” And predictably, a tech start-up’s app was happily highlighted: a “Queen for a Day” approach to homelessness where people in need are invited to compete with each other to coax sympathy and dollars from an essentially passive public. No pesky public policy here!
Any city can use its camping laws, its public health laws, or no laws at all to disperse a collection of tents. But what most people would acknowledge if pressed is that most neighborhoods would share the same troubles conventional in any tent community within days (if not hours) if the garbage services, water and power services, and sewage services were shut off. Garbage would pile up, attracting vermin. Waste, even in tight containers, would smell. Even the most fastidious among us would start to look rumpled.
Neighbors would quickly form committees of people to ferry waste back and forth to the nearest available facility, as people in tent communities often do. They would pool their camping equipment and arrange shared meals, as people in tent communities often do, and would try their best to work cooperatively.
It is no accident that this exhausting, time-consuming, and heroic work which all tent communities exhibit was not highlighted by the San Francisco Chronicle in favor of typical tropes which scapegoat the poor.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee appears bent on noodling around with the usual “streamlined” services and “new” models while fighting in the back rooms for developers’ interests, while listening uneasily to a growing public outcry against luxury apartments and AirB&B-style conversions. Even the tech workers appreciate that profit, not human needs, is guiding this administration.
The rights of cities to require developers to include affordable housing may or may not be upheld by a future U.S. Supreme Court, given that a crucial fifth vote may conceivably come from a Supreme Court justice nominated and affirmed by a Republican president and a Republican-dominated Congress.
But for the present, the Supreme Court’s silence means that yes, a city can in fact require that developers’ proposals address essential community needs for open space, for historic preservation, for transportation issues — and yes, for appropriate housing to address the housing crisis.