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Live/Workfare: A Public Housing Resident Fights for the Right to Start a Home Business

Wednesday, Mar 1 2000
March 1, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO -- Shortly after two in the afternoon, Juanita Moore is facing the hardest task of her day. After a two-hour "exercise period" at nearby Dolores Park, she tries to get her 10 dogs, ranging in size from Chihuahua to Weimeraner, to take a short nap so she can grab some lunch. On this day, it's "Lil Buddy," the Norfolk Terrier, who is giving Moore the runaround. "It's like they know I'm hungry," Moore jokes, as she tries to coax Lil Buddy into his sleeping cubby.

Even though she calls them "her children," the dogs aren't Moore's. They belong to working pet owners in San Francisco's rapidly gentrifying Mission neighborhood, which is also home to the public housing project where Moore has lived for the past 15 years with her "real" children, a boy and girl aged 10 and 12.

For the last year and a half, Moore has been running a successful doggie day care operation that caters to the needs of her upscale neighbors. "I saw money swirling all around me, and I decided to reach out and catch some," declares the 30-year-old African-American, who, like 9,000 other San Franciscans, must transition from welfare to work as a result of federal welfare reform initiatives.

But Moore's charges -- both her children and her dogs -- are in danger of losing the roof over their heads because Moore had the audacity to start a home business in her public housing unit.

At $215 a month, a one-bedroom apartment in the 246-unit public housing development known as Valencia Gardens is priced well below market value. But in a city where the cost of living has skyrocketed in recent years and the average public housing resident earns only $9,413 per year, places like Valencia Gardens are the only viable residential option for people on public assistance.

It was through the Valencia Gardens Tenants Association that Moore was introduced to entrepreneurial workshops for women on welfare. An animal lover, Moore began to solicit dog-walking clients in her up-and-coming neighborhood by posting flyers in local cafés and upscale pet goods stores. But she soon discovered that most of the people who inquired about her services wanted dog day care and not just a walk in the park. It was then that Moore conceived of Pooches n' Cream.

Using a small business loan from a state-funded agency, Moore purchased soundproofing materials and rubber flooring at a hardware store and quickly converted her two-room apartment into a kennel. Charging $50.00 a day, $200 a week, or $400 a month, Moore soon amassed a steady clientele of working professionals desperate for someone to look after their companions during the day.

"The government only gives me a voucher for $250 for housing, and rich people in this neighborhood will pay me twice that just to keep their dog company," Moore laments. "But I'm not complaining; I'm just trying to work it."

After only three months in business Pooches n' Cream adopted a reservations-only policy and boasted a two-week waiting list. With business booming, the single mother moved herself and her two sons, along with Moore's sister and her newborn, into a single-family home in Fruitvale, a suburb of Oakland, Calif.

But Moore's newfound success may leave her worse off than when she was on welfare. On February 22, two inspectors from the San Francisco Housing Authority showed up at Moore's former apartment-turned-home business. The inspectors, who had been tipped off by one of Moore's neighbors, presented her with an order to vacate the premises. According to an SFHA spokesperson, publicly subsidized housing can, under no circumstances, be used for commercial purposes.

Moore disagrees with the SFHA policy that bars residents from working out of their apartments. "If home industry isn't an option for the working poor, how will we ever be able to take care of our families and get ahead?" She now risks losing her business and, if revenues are lost, her Fruitvale home will be in jeopardy as well.

With the help of an attorney who also happens to be a Pooches n' Cream client, Moore is fighting her eviction. She claims that public housing should be eligible for a "live/work" designation, just like the dozens of private developments that are popping up all over the city.

In fact, Moore is determined to help other Valencia Gardens residents use their resources at hand to pull themselves up out of poverty. If the SFHA case is resolved in her favor, Moore plans to partner with a local developer to start a commercial "matchmaking" service that connects companies looking for office space in the Mission with public housing tenants who are fed up with their inhospitable living conditions and are desperate to move their families to the suburbs.

"Either the residents start a business themselves, or rent their space to someone who already has one," reasons Moore. "Not everyone who gets off welfare has to work for the minimum wage; we need to encourage people to use what they have to make a living for themselves."

South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments?

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