"A powerful antidote to the one-dimensional portrayal of public housing": Shelterforce review of 'More Than Shelter'
In the 1990s, a group I co-founded, the Eviction Defense Network, was asked by public housing residents to organize alongside them during the HOPE VI process. The HOPE VI process promised to tear down distressed public housing and replace it with new modern homes. The residents we worked with, mostly at North Beach Public Housing in San Francisco, put forward rather modest demands. They wanted to return to their homes, find living wage jobs, and be free of harassment from police and security guards. Predictably, the city’s power structure treated them like pariahs. That’s what happens when low-income people start asking questions about $120 million real estate deals.
During this time, there was also a concerted effort in both mainstream media and academia to flatten the lives of public housing residents into a neat bundle of pathology and problems. This narrative plagiarized the Welfare Reform story explaining poverty solely in terms of individual failings. There wasn’t much room for the stories of the people we met at North Beach: service workers with multiple jobs, World War II veterans, perfectly responsible parents, leaders of 12-step programs, veterans of civil rights activism. There was even less room in those dispatches for discussion of economy, disinvestment, and policy.
Amy L. Howard’s More Than Shelter: Activism and Community in San Francisco Public Housing is a powerful antidote to the one-dimensional portrayal of public housing residents and the context of their lives. She takes a long view of the San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA), from its founding in 1938 to current times. The book investigates three important SFHA developments: Valencia Gardens, Ping Yuen, and North Beach Public Housing. (Full disclosure: Howard quotes me in several places in the book through secondary sources.)