Saturday, July 14, 2012

A fresh chorus of "YMCA," in a minor key.

Per @FogCityJournal, TNDC will be rehabbing the old YMCA on Golden Gate in San Francisco's lower Tenderloin. Community service spaces, health care services (great) and 174 compact apartments (230 square feet) for tenants defined as "chronically homeless." Also a little retail, which would be good for that part of Golden Gate Avenue. The streetscape around there is pretty heavy on nonprofits, to the point where there aren't many places you can walk into uninvited without taking on a role as either service provider or client. A corner store or cafe would make a nice change.

So it's great to hear that TNDC, a good local housing nonprofit, will be bringing out the best in a grand old building.

I'm just a little bugged by the impression being given that this, of all projects, is a matter of creating housing where there was none before.

There is history here. Oh, is there ever history here.

To begin with, pretty obviously, the YMCA has always been a budget downtown place to stay for singles and couples. This project is, yes, a very good thing, but it's a stabilization of existing housing at lowered rents, not a creation of housing from scratch.

Furthermore, two debts to the neighborhood are involved: replacement of the YMCA building's own units and also an old, notorious debt owed by Hastings College of the Law. 

The TNDC project became possible in the first place because the actual YMCA organization sold the 220 Golden Gate building and moved down the block into "interim" space rented from Hastings. The longer-term plans described in this 2009 press release called for a Hastings-YMCA collaboration on an eventual new building with "fitness facilities" and "community program space." No mention of housing. So this business with 220 Golden Gate is a transfer of a more or less fixed amount of housing space from the YMCA to TNDC. (As noted below, however, TNDC plans to make more units out of the space available, which is all to the good.)

The YMCA's interim space, and also its planned long-term facility, are on Hastings' infamous Westblock, where the college used the pretext of earthquake damage to tear down 85 units of housing in 1989.

Brother Kelly Cullen, the late and locally quasi-sainted founding spirit of TNDC, who is the namesake for this very same project, was part of the campaign to get back the use of the Westblock for the Tenderloin neighborhood as a whole. Here's a Bay Guardian op-ed he wrote telling that story and protesting Hastings' plans to put a parking garage on the Westblock. (It's undated on the Guardian's page, but I think the use in the URL of "36/28" marks it as Volume 36, Issue 28, i.e. spring 2002.)

Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic explained on his BeyondChron site in 2005 that the YMCA "had given the impression to neighborhood and housing activists that these 85 units could be replaced at its 220 Golden Gate building."

As of 2005, Shaw's BeyondChron article said, "Since the YMCA's current building includes 105 tourist hotel units, the conversion of these units to residential would satisfy the longstanding demands of Tenderloin groups that Hastings replace the 85 units it demolished in 1989." So, actually, yes, it looks like that has very nearly worked out, and better than Shaw may have expected as of his apprehensive-sounding article seven years ago. The expected total of 174 units in the TNDC project does come within shouting distance of the total of 190 that would replace both the former YMCA units and the former Westblock units.

As Shaw noted, it's perfectly true that the Golden Gate YMCA had been out of the poverty-housing game for a long time. So it's a separate victory from the Westblock thing that the YMCA's own space will be made affordable again. When I worked as a welfare rights advocate for single adults on General Assistance in the 1990s, I only ever met a very few YMCA guests or tenants, and then only in the earlier '90s. In fact, only one guy comes to mind specifically, and he was a troubled person living beyond his means in a lot of ways at once. I'm pretty sure we didn't see YMCA tenants much because, already 20 years ago, the rents had risen above affordability for people living long-term on a tiny GA budget.

(This is where I disclose a small personal beef: that same welfare rights office, the General Assistance Advocacy Project, was also evicted abruptly from its former space in a Westblock building a couple of years before I started to volunteer there. Earlier student volunteers with the organization had been able to work half a block from their classes, more or less on the Hastings campus. But as of '91, when I started, we all had to walk three blocks, through what was then very rough Tenderloin territory, to the best office the organization had been able to get, which was over the marquee at the Golden Gate Theatre building on the north side of the Sixth and Market corner. Experienced volunteers didn't mind but it made recruitment of newbies really, really difficult. GAAP didn't rent its current office at Golden Gate and Hyde until 1994.)

What if we pull back, though, and take a longer view of the YMCA's history?

The YMCA was a kind of low-income housing for a very long time. Arguably from its construction in 1908, in the building frenzy right after the 1906 earthquake that also created many of our grander residential hotels in the Tenderloin and South of Market.

So it's worth thinking for a minute about a quote in that Fog City Journal article from Angela Alioto. She told writer Luke Thomas: "Only in San Francisco would a landmarked building of this kind of majesty be used to house 174 chronically homeless people." She's not exactly wrong. Although the grand old YMCA has always housed low-income single adults, I suppose it would always have had ways of screening tenants, preferring people viewed as more presentable one way or another.

Now tenants are going to be screened differently, according to this "chronically homeless" definition that singles people out by painful personal history. Hard to know what to think of that.

On one hand the "chronically homeless" label can be a good means of bringing services to hard-hit people, but on the other hand it can be a mechanism for stigmatization, sub-segregation and ascription of pathology.

I'm saying "sub-segregation" for lack of a better term (is there one?) for the way a large stigmatized group always acquires a scapegoat sub-population. It allows the larger group who are victims of a stereotype to ascribe the stereotype to the scapegoat group and say to the majority, "I'm like you -- don't mistake me for those other bad/damaged ones." Within the larger category of homelessness, the label "chronically homeless" serves that purpose.

Before rents began to rise catastrophically in San Francisco, I'm going to guess that, while the YMCA desk clerks may have enforced the prejudices of their day (unfortunately, have to suppose they would have), they wouldn't have required tenants to fill out application forms, get on waiting lists, or prove sad stories about their personal histories.

So, eh, this project is a settling of accounts, near-complete repayment of a storied debt, and in many other ways a happy next chapter in a long story.

But that old disco-liberation song, "Y.M.C.A." -- well, as I've kind of noted here before, it was about going to a place in the big city that would welcome you right away, without questions. We need that too, don't we?

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