THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Searching for Stability

Redefining home in San Francisco

by Evie Hidysmith

Illustration by XingXing Shou

published October 9, 2020


When I think of home, I do not picture the house I grew up in. Instead, I’m eating dried apricots with my best friend Madeleine, chatting about books in her kitchen in the early morning. Our lives have been intertwined for over a decade. When the pandemic hit, she was the home I craved, so I spent the first six months of quarantine in San Francisco with Madeleine and her brother, Tobias, watching our city change. 

In her May 2019 article, “How San Francisco Broke America’s Heart,” Karen Heller wrote, “For decades, this coruscating city of hills, bordered by water on three sides, was a beloved haven for reinvention, a refuge for immigrants, bohemians, artists and outcasts… In a time of scarce consensus, everyone agrees that something has rotted in San Francisco… You no longer leave your heart in San Francisco. The city breaks it.” When I first read these words last spring, they encompassed everything I felt about home. It was a place I cherished, and one that was disappearing. In March, the city was unrecognizable from how I left it last summer, and an eerie, unusual emptiness hung in the street. Over the months, as unhoused folks were forced out of closing shelters, tents filled the sidewalks. Now, the city continues to face a public health emergency alongside an unprecedented housing crisis, leaving its growing unhoused population without refuge from the state fires’ lethal smoke. Though I have a deep, almost irrational love for San Francisco, its transforming landscape makes me question who is still able to call the city home.

My parents were evicted before I was born and moved to the house I grew up in, where our landlord’s mother lived next door, watching us. I was afraid she would catch us doing something wrong and get angry or kick us out. In second grade, I stayed up late writing letters to our landlord, begging for a dog or to paint my room pink. I knew that the walls of my home weren’t mine, and that there were limits to how I could change the space to reflect who I was. Now, our house stands lonely and so expensive that my bedroom is rented out to another college student so we can afford it. To escape the chaos of my home, I moved in with my boyfriend during my senior year of high school. His mother’s warmth overwhelmed their small two-bedroom apartment, which always smelled of incense and basil. There was coffee waiting when I woke up and apple tea on the nightstand before bed. I felt cared for in a way I didn’t know was possible. They were evicted at the end of our senior year, and we packed up the warmth of the apartment where they’d raised two children and moved across the park the weekend before our graduation. His mom tells me she still gets chills when she hears the word ‘eviction.’

 

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    This spring, the city was crumbling while I sat with endless free time, so I emailed the Housing Rights Committee and asked if they needed help. Suddenly, Tobias and I both had internships with HRC and were working with the Westside Tenants Association, a tenant-led organization funded through HRC. 

    The last weeks of spring passed in a blur and left me feeling nauseous. I spent hours on a color-coded spreadsheet tracking every eviction in San Francisco. On the phone with a representative from the SF Rent Board, she apologized for the delay in sending the records I’d requested, explaining, “When COVID hit, we were still stuck in 1999.” With all evictions filed on paper and no one allowed in the office, they were six weeks behind on inputting their data into the system. Strangely, the Rent Board insisted on uploading files to a thumb drive and mailing them to my house, rather than sending them electronically. I was frustrated. The Rent Board’s dated system allowed evictions to be filed without delay but drastically hindered our ability to organize against them because we didn’t have the information we needed: when evictions were happening and to whom. 

To take a break from our work, Maddie and I took our puppy, Sutro (named after the 1973 landmark Sutro Tower), on a walk around the neighborhood and fantasized—as we often do—about the home we someday hope to own. We call it our upstairs-downstairs. The top floor will be mine because I’m not as clunky when I walk. By then, Sutro will be old and slow, making her way up and down the stairs between our flats and playing with our kids and kittens. There will be rounded bay windows where we sit and read books. We pointed to different houses as we walked, imagining our future selves walking through each one.

 

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In early June, Tobias and I biked through Golden Gate Park for our first tenant organizing meeting. They were instantly welcoming. Aileen, a bubbly and brilliant school teacher, spoke with overwhelming kindness. Cynthia, a heavily tattooed, recent Brown grad and HRC employee, led with a grace I someday hope to learn. They talked about gardening and showed photos of their tiny new chickens. Don, whose backyard we occupied and whose windows were papered with faded political posters, sat quietly. We spent two hours in the shade eating sticky, warm pork buns from Clement Street, sharing stories, and preparing for the eviction moratorium to end.

As the meeting came to a close, Cynthia asked, “How do you think what we’ve done today contributes to the wider housing rights movement?” Don responded first, in his stern voice, “This is the movement. You know, I’ve lived in this house, in this city, my whole life. Sitting here with all of you, my tenant neighbors, sharing our stories—it’s invaluable. Making our voices heard is the heart of this movement.” 

Don and I talked throughout the summer. He is a second-generation San Franciscan, born to Japanese parents in 1965, and one of the most committed activists I’ve ever met. He often exits our weekly meetings with phrases, “I’ve actually gotta run, I’m meeting a bunch of old communists.”

Don became an activist as a teenager in the ‘70s when hundreds of elderly Filipino residents at the International Hotel, a low-income single-residence-occupancy building, were facing eviction. Community members organized a phone tree to defend the I-Hotel. “You're just sitting at home and you get this phone call… and you go out… and there’s so many people there that you can link arms with each other and encircle the entire block… And that was the tactic: we’re going to link arms so the police can’t break through. And we'll have multiple layers. So if they break through one group of people, then we’ll try and close ranks. You’re linking arms with the people beside you, and grabbing the person’s waist in front of you so it’s like a human wall.” Tragically, a link in the phone tree gave out one day, and Don never got called. He “woke up the next morning and heard that the eviction had happened and [he] was really upset. But they had put on a good fight.”

I was unsurprised when Don told me he quit grad school in 1980 to join the League of Revolutionary Struggle—an undercover communist organization. “You work with a small group of people because… meeting with too many people will attract attention. We all had pseudonyms too.” I asked if he would tell me his and he responded, “No! I can’t tell you that! It’s like your internet password.”

 

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Don, Cynthia, and I text each other updates as we try to make sense of constantly changing housing legislation. In March, people unable to pay rent due to financial hardship caused by the pandemic could temporarily defer payment without facing eviction. Local legislation was passed in July turning this unpaid rent into consumer debt, which must be settled in small claims court. These protections were repeatedly extended––without notice––just days before they expired, forcing tenants to live in a constant state of anxiety.

On August 3, Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 3088 into law. Publicized as a protection of tenants’ rights, it only created confusion. No one—not even elected officials—could explain how state and county legislation would interact. Even as we struggled to uncover the nuances, Don, Cynthia, and I agreed that these legislative rulings were half-hearted attempts to protect tenants. Instead of using change necessitated by the pandemic as an opportunity to examine and redesign our housing system, legislators have left hundreds of tenants to grapple with harassment and the possibility of losing their homes. San Francisco’s tenants demanded from the beginning that no one be evicted during the pandemic. Our local and state governments did not listen. Don and I brainstormed how to protect each others’ homes, even if our elected officials refused to. 

We settled on a car caravan and rally, set for the first day that evictions were publicly scheduled to be heard in court: September 21. Tenants would block traffic, listen to speakers, and chant at the courthouse doors. We planned, slowly, with many conflicting opinions. Building a community where tenants’ voices are heard and valued is critical because there is so much shame ingrained in this experience. I hear it in tenants' voices who don't know if they can pay rent. I see it in my mother’s continued refusal to attend our meetings.When tenants facing eviction ask if they can listen in anonymously. Our government tells us that if we cannot pay for a home, we do not deserve to have one. We are constantly trying to unlearn this. 

 

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In late August, Madeleine, Tobias and I left San Francisco in a musty gray Prius, lovingly dubbed “The Murph,” to drive back to school. A few days later, California began to burn. Curled in a mosquito-filled tent outside of Rochester, Indiana, the fact loomed over me that in eight months, I will likely graduate into the worst job market in decades. I think, often, of following Cynthia’s path: working long, underpaid hours at a San Francisco non-profit like Housing Rights. They look tired, overworked, but happy. They live near McLaren park in a funky house with dark wooden walls and chickens. A life like theirs feels possible, hopeful. 

Don’s voice in my mind makes me question this version of my future. He says that after the Reagan/Thatcher era, “Foundations began to fund organizations that had political aims and social justice goals, and schools began to teach cultural studies and social movement theory. The gradual result of this was to harness the radical ideas of the past and ‘mainstream’ them by legitimizing their expression in non-profit jobs… A new generation would be radicalized in the sedated environment of the college classroom and steered into professions in poorly funded organizations… Capitalism was essentially teaching them how to 'organize' in a way that was never going to be a real threat to its existence.” He sees non-profits as a tool the system has created to “harness all of this unrest in a way that is totally ineffective.”

I didn’t know if I agree, but I return to this argument often. I cling to a job like Cynthia’s in imagining my future because it seems stable, and the parallels between our lives make it feel attainable. Don remains a mystery to me. He goes to work at a job he doesn’t talk about in a fancy office with bad internet. I don’t know if he’s ever been married or how old his kids are or what his favorite color is (though I’d make a wild guess that it's red). I know who he is by how he sees the world—through empathy and action—but I don’t know what a future like his would entail.

 

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From Providence, I continued to meticulously track evictions as Cynthia talked to tenants and their lawyers. On September 14, a week before our action at the courthouse, Cynthia texted Don and me, “I have bad news... eviction cases have been sealed to the public, so what we see on the court docket doesn’t actually reflect all the eviction cases being heard. There are 19 being heard today…” Though legislative changes to housing policy had been loudly discussed, no one knew that the expected wave of evictions was no longer imminent—it was already here. 

On September 21, I watched the protest livestream, anxiously pacing around my kitchen in Providence, as fifty tenants gathered on the corner of McAllister and Polk to block the doors of the San Francisco courthouse. Their colorful banners declared, “Stop Evictions, Save Lives.” The camera spun to show stopped traffic, and I heard blaring horns and the sound of the Brass Liberation Orchestra accompanying chants. Tenants facing eviction and unable to pay rent spoke proudly—there was a sense of conviction, love, and pride. 

 

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Don told me once, in the middle of the summer, “The challenges we face right now are much different than the challenges we faced back in those days. At that time, people thought that the revolution was going to happen. We just had to work at it but it’s going to get here.”

I wonder if this is still true. The longer protests continue with fervor, and the closer we get to the election, the more this moment feels revolutionary. I think of a younger Don—grasping arms with strangers at the I-Hotel—and wonder how far we will go in sacrificing our bodies, our safety, in defense of our homes. 

 

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 I sit in my peaceful front yard in Providence as California burns and evictions proceed in San Francisco court. The quiet of this city feels incompatible with the myriad of ways peoples’ homes are being taken from them on the opposite coast. This dissonance makes the already apocalyptic nature of this moment feel all the more unreal. 

There is stillness in the upstairs-downstairs. It hovers in my mind, quiet. Home has always been seeped in instability, but there were years in which this dream—of a home that wasn’t—felt attainable. Though I crave it more than ever, it has begun to fade; the aspiration of owning a home in San Francisco is built on wealth that displaces people. I still hope to grow old in my city. To sit with Madeleine in our kitchen in the early morning and take Sutro for runs on Ocean Beach. But this dream only exists in a version of San Francisco in which everyone has a home—one that may take a revolution to create. 

 

 

EVIE HIDYSMITH B’21 hates when people say San Fran, Frisco, Cisco, etc.