Housing & Community

Vacant Hotel Occupied

by Tom Wetzel

On July 19th members of Direct Action to Stop the Cuts occupied a vacant 41-room hotel in San Francisco’s Mission District. The action was intended to demonstrate the city’s inaction on housing. While thousands of people sleep on the streets or live in very crowded living conditions in small apartments, potential housing units sit vacant.

The protest began with a rally and speak-out at a BART station plaza on Mission Street with a multi-racial group of speakers. As one of the protestors said, “We’re going to vote with crowbars.”

About 60 of us then took over the southbound lanes of Mission Street, marching four blocks to the vacant Sierra Hotel, located above a T-Mobile store at 20th and Mission Streets. The second floor of the building is a former seafarers’ hotel, built in the early 1900s. The building was occupied when we arrived, with “Capitalism Kills” spelled out on a banner hanging from the roof.

By late evening the police had cordoned the building and prevented us from passing food to the occupiers. The police could not move in for an arrest until the owner signed a formal complaint. Five occupiers were finally arrested at 11 AM the next morning, shouting slogans like “House keys, not handcuffs”, during their arrest. They were cited and then released after a couple hours.

Direct Action to Stop the Cuts (DASC) is an anti-authoritarian group of about 15 people who came together last year during the struggle against the slash and burn austerity budget proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom — a neo-liberal Democrat with close ties to the local capitalist elite.

The cuts to social services tended to create a situation where different groups of people who depend on various social programs are pitted against each other, fighting for whatever crumbs they can get. To avoid this, SEIU 1021 — a large public workers union — and a variety of non-profits and the Coalition on Homelessness came together to devise a united fight to restore funding the mayor proposed to cut. The activists who formed DASC wanted to add a dimension of direct militancy to the struggle. DASC includes social service workers, student activists, formerly homeless people, and others.

Christina Manalansan, a student at San Francisco State and a member of DASC, told me that it would be hard for homeless people to do a housing occupation. They seek to avoid the police as they are already subject to daily police harassment. She said it was easier for students and young people to take risks associated with this kind of action.

DASC’s first occupation was in June, on Otis Street. 150 Otis Street is a 9-story Mediterranean style structure built originally in 1914 to provide dormitory-style housing for wayward juveniles. In 2003 the building had been targeted by the Surplus Property Campaign — a grassroots effort to get affordable housing built on vacant city-owned properties. Until recently part of the vacant building had been used as a shelter for homeless people during winter months — but the mayor’s cuts eliminated this shelter. To protest this, DASC occupied part of the city social welfare department which is located next door. Like the Sierra Hotel occupation, the aim here was to highlight the fact that housing is kept vacant while people are sleeping on the streets.

Members of DASC told me they’d been thinking about a vision of affordable housing where the buildings would be controlled by the tenants rather than by bureaucratic non-profits.

Media publicity from the takeover did prompt two nonprofits that provide housing for people with AIDS to contact Direct Action to Stop the Cuts, to discuss the possibility of gaining control over the vacant Sierra Hotel.

As James Tracy, a housing organizer supporting the occupation, told me, “It would be best if we could just take over buildings and not have to rely on appeals to the state and non-profits for affordable housing, but there isn’t yet the mass support to just take and hold the buildings.”

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