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More Than Shelter

Activism and Community in San Francisco Public Housing

2014
Author:

Amy L. Howard

More Than Shelter

Public housing projects in San Francisco reveal the power of community action

By looking closely at three public housing projects in San Francisco, Amy L. Howard brings to light the dramatic measures tenants have taken to create communities that mattered to them. These stories challenge assumptions about public housing and its tenants—and make way for a broader, more productive and inclusive vision of the public housing program in the United States.

With an eye toward the West, and San Francisco in particular, this book enriches our knowledge of public housing, particularly policy debates and—laudably—working-class people’s lived experiences and interactions with the State.

Rhonda Y. Williams, author of The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women's Struggles against Urban Inequality

In the popular imagination, public housing tenants are considered, at best, victims of intractable poverty and, at worst, criminals. More Than Shelter makes clear that such limited perspectives do not capture the rich reality of tenants’ active engagement in shaping public housing into communities. By looking closely at three public housing projects in San Francisco, Amy L. Howard brings to light the dramatic measures tenants have taken to create—and sustain and strengthen—communities that mattered to them.

More Than Shelter opens with the tumultuous institutional history of the San Francisco Housing Authority, from its inception during the New Deal era, through its repeated leadership failures, to its attempts to boost its credibility in the 1990s. Howard then turns to Valencia Gardens in the Mission District; built in 1943, the project became a perpetually contested and embattled space. Within that space, tenants came together in what Howard calls affective activism—activism focused on intentional relationships and community building that served to fortify residents in the face of shared challenges. Such activism also fueled cross-sector coalition building at Ping Yuen in Chinatown, bringing tenants and organizations together to advocate for and improve public housing. The account of their experience breaks new ground in highlighting the diversity of public housing in more ways than one. The experience of North Beach Place in turn raises questions about the politics of development and redevelopment. In this case, Howard examines activism across generations—first by African Americans seeking to desegregate public housing, then by cross-racial and cross-ethnic tenant groups mobilizing to maintain public housing in the shadow of gentrification.

Taken together, the stories Howard tells challenge assumptions about public housing and its tenants—and make way for a broader, more productive and inclusive vision of the public housing program in the United States.

More Than Shelter

Amy L. Howard is executive director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and associated faculty in American studies at the University of Richmond.

More Than Shelter

With an eye toward the West, and San Francisco in particular, this book enriches our knowledge of public housing, particularly policy debates and—laudably—working-class people’s lived experiences and interactions with the State.

Rhonda Y. Williams, author of The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women's Struggles against Urban Inequality

More Than Shelter adds San Francisco to the short list of American cities that have had their public housing story told well from multiple perspectives. The book is engagingly written and offers new contexts and stories of distinctive community sagas that challenge conventional assumptions about the downward trajectory of American public housing. As such, it is another significant contribution to revisionist thinking about public housing, an urgent message at a time when government efforts to provide deep housing subsidies to low-income families continue to be under attack.

Lawrence Vale, MIT

This book not only combats the moralistic stereotyping of public housing residents, but its uniquely West Coast perspective adds to the national narrative.

Planning Magazine

Howard brings to light the dramatic measure tenants have taken to create communities that mattered to them.

Shelterforce

A powerful antidote to the one-dimensional portrayal of public housing residents and the context of their lives. A groundbreaking accomplishment and a must-read for anyone contemplating the future of low-income housing in the United States.

Shelterforce

Well-written and detailed.

Journal of American History

More Than Shelter offers an important bottom-up history of tenant struggles in public housing in San Francisco and its pages hold stories and lessons well worth exploring.

Working USA: The Journal of Labor & Society

Amy Howard paints a compelling portrait of public-housing residents as politically active citizens whose pride and sense of ownership lead to community activism and change.

Contemporary Sociology

More Than Shelter

Contents

Abbreviations
Introduction

1. “To Provide Decent, Safe, and Sanitary Housing”: San Francisco’s Housing Authority
2. The Contested Mission of Valencia Gardens
3. “Peace and Prosperity Dwell among Virtuous Neighbors”: Chinatown’s Public Housing
4. “The Best Project in Town”: North Beach Place

Conclusion: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Acknowledgments
Notes
Index