Tenants, advocates bemoan SF housing crisis
by David-Elijah Nahmod
A lesbian couple facing eviction underscored the difficult challenges facing many LGBT-identified people who wish to stay in San Francisco amid skyrocketing rents and an escalating eviction crisis.
Oona Hanawalt, 33, and Alison Panko, 39, whose ongoing battles with their landlord were reported in the Bay Area Reporter this summer, spoke during a panel discussion that was part of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center's Economic Justice Week.
The couple, who said they've been together eight years, were on a panel entitled "The State of Affordable Housing at the LGBT Center" that was sponsored by the center and the San Francisco Human Rights Commission's LGBT Advisory Committee. The women are fighting their landlord, Irma Encinas, over her claims that they had illegal subtenants.
People in the audience of about 100 gasped as Hanawalt and Panko spoke of the security cameras their landlord keeps pointed at their front door and windows, and of incidents in which they said the landlord would sit in a parked car across the street from their Potrero area residence "watching" them.
"A judge ordered us to remove our rainbow flag because it was blocking the camera," Hanawalt said at the October 20 discussion. Both women talked about the emotional and financial devastation of the landlord's attempts to evict them from the home they love so that the rent can be doubled or tripled.
The women said that they were making plans to leave not only the apartment, but the Bay Area.
"We fought this battle because we saw so many people pushed out of their housing," Panko said. "Many were undocumented or people of color. The city needs to work on more legislation to protect us. There are no consequences for what landlords do."
Hanawalt urged people to read the fine print before signing any lease. Signing something you don't understand, she warned, could lead to a swift eviction.
Neither Encinas nor her attorney, Brenda Cruz Keith, returned messages seeking comment.
Panelist Clair Farley, associate director of economic development at the LGBT Center, addressed the issues that many transgender people face.
"Through our economic program we engage with people," Farley, a transwoman, said. "We need to address how we can connect people to jobs that help them stay in the City. We need to hold the tech companies accountable in hiring."
Tommi Avicolli Mecca, of LGBTQ Economic Justice and a longtime queer housing activist, expressed anger that enough wasn't being done.
"We are a community in crisis," he said, raising his voice. "Two Williams Institute studies show that poverty in our community is as great as, sometimes greater than, other communities."
Avicolli Mecca was referring to the Williams Institute think tank at UCLA School of Law, which in a July 2012 report, "Serving Our Youth," found that LGBT youth represent approximately 40 percent of the clientele served by drop-in centers, street outreach programs, and housing programs. The figure was based on 381 respondents who completed an online survey, representing 354 agencies throughout the country that took part in the LGBT Homeless Youth Provider Survey.
Avicolli Mecca also said that there have been 2,000 evictions in the Castro since 1997, and that this number doesn't include buyouts or threats of violence.
"What does it matter if we have a rainbow walk or nice pretty plaques in the newly widened sidewalks if long term queer tenants are being displaced from their homes and young queer folks fleeing here for refuge can't afford to live here," Avicolli Mecca said, referring to the $6 million Castro sidewalk widening project.
He mentioned a two-bedroom apartment in the Castro that was listed for $4,200 a month. He also called upon LGBT organizations and more individuals to get involved in the fight against evictions as the audience applauded.
Bill Hirsh, executive director of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel, said that his office was assisting people facing eviction in seven counties around the Bay Area. ALRP's 700 volunteer attorneys were taking cases, Hirsh stated, pointing out that without legal assistance, tenants would likely lose.
Bevan Dufty, a gay man who's director of the city's Housing, Opportunity, Partnerships, and Engagement program, said that people need to be educated on homelessness.
"We are not wealthy," he said. "Many are struggling."
Kate Hartley, deputy director of the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development, said that landlords' refusal in accepting Section 8 tenants, and a low cap on what the federal Housing and Urban Development Department was willing to pay for Section 8 housing, was adding to the problem of keeping people in their homes.
"We'd like to get HUD to raise the payment standards," she said, noting that HUD's current standards only covered half of what the average rents in the city now are.
The panel served as part education and brainstorming session and part rallying the troops.
"My hope is that the forum inspired people to get involved in housing issues," Avicolli Mecca said after the meeting. "Our community is being hit hard by the evictions and the speculations. We have always been a fighting people. Time to put more resources into the fight to keep us all here in the city we love."
Farley said it's important that the LGBTQ community engage in social and economic justice issues.
"That is why we are convening this important week and a community town hall," she said, "so all the voices in the community are heard and that no one gets left behind in the changing San Francisco landscape."