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Monday, January 18, 2016

Public Housing Workers Protest in City Hall: We Haven’t Had a Cost of Living Wage Increase in Six Years

Posted By on Mon, Jan 18, 2016 at 1:10 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ADAM BRINKLOW
  • Photo by Adam Brinklow
City Hall was just winding down for the evening last Thursday when dozens of workers from San Francisco’s public housing projects descended on the mayor’s office. They surrounded the door and said they wouldn’t leave until the mayor or his representative accepted their (oversized) petition.

The demonstrators were incensed about their contract negotiations with the San Francisco Housing Authority and wanted the mayor to intervene on their behalf. Or maybe they just wanted to yell at him for a bit —  it was honestly hard to tell. While they waited, they posed for photos outside of the mayor’s office and decorated the nearby busts of previous mayors with pro-labor leaflets.

(One man placed his hat atop the bust of Willie Brown and declared, “At least he would have talked to us.”)

The demonstrators soon found they were out of luck; security told them that since they hadn’t made an appointment, nobody would see them. So Board of Supervisors President London Breed, overhearing the commotion and evidently recognizing an opportunity to swoop a photo op, sent word around that she’d take the petition. She even added her own name to it.

“I’d be happy to intervene” in negotiations, Breed said, reminding the crowd that she (famously) grew up in a San Francisco housing project.

click to enlarge Supervisor London Breed signing the petition - PHOTO BY ADAM BRINKLOW
  • Photo by Adam Brinklow
  • Supervisor London Breed signing the petition

Intervention from city honchos would largely be a theatrical move by the union, since the housing authority gets its funding from the state, and neither the board nor the mayor have much to do with it directly.

Public housing workers complain that they haven’t had a cost of living wage increase in six years, even as the cost of living in San Francisco skyrockets.

“I can‘t keep living here through another pay cut,” said Renita Mason, a property manager. “We’re mostly black and brown people, as you can see. We want to keep our place here.”

“A lot of our employees are former public housing tenants themselves,” added Teresa Lee, also a property manager. “We want to keep them in the city and servicing the tenants. We‘re the frontlines, doing the real work.”

Mason and Lee make about $81,000 and $65,000 a year respectively, sans benefits. Acting Executive Director Barbara Smith is the agency‘s highest paid employee, at about $184,000. Average household income for the city is estimated at $104,000 these days.

Workers are asking for a 3 percent pay increase in the new three-year contract, but complain that management has offered them only a 1 percent bonus for the year.

Union workers in public housing feel particularly besieged because of the ongoing Rental Assistance Demonstration program, which converts city-owned housing into Section 8 leases held by private landlords.

Under RAD, private companies collect the rents and do the day-to-day work of servicing residents, and the Housing Authority (which maintains ownership of the land itself) is then allowed to leverage the properties as collateral for loans. (Bank of America is a lending partner for the program.) 3,600 of the city’s roughly 6,000 public housing units will eventually transition.

The city and state tout RAD as a way to revitalize the projects while relieving the Housing Authority of costs. SEIU complains that the program cuts their workers out of the picture, and alleges that private companies have little interest in running housing for true public benefit.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ADAM BRINKLOW
  • Photo by Adam Brinklow

In a statement to SF Weekly, the Housing Authority would say only that it’s working to “minimize job loss” to union workers through the transition. “The Authority is sympathetic to its employees' request for wage increases,” HA says, but cites “the need to allocate funding to safe, decent, and sustainable housing.”

The union claims that the contract could be settled just on what the Authority spends on outside consultants in a year, a claim HA would not comment on. Breed said it “sounds plausible” to her. Although she’s praised RAD in the past, saying it makes the projects “livable and safe, protecting some of our most vulnerable residents,” she insists she’s sympathetic to the union’s complaints.

“For the first time ever, we’re putting money into these places,” says Breed. “Some of that should go to them.”

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