‘The Right to a Roof’
A grassroots housing movement takes shape in California’s North Bay
The message couldn’t have been clearer or more disgustingly in your face.
The new owners of the Healdsburg, Calif., apartment complex were kicking out the low-income families living there. They planned to upscale it and rent it, they said, “to a tenant demographic more appropriate to the refined nature of the Healdsburg community.”
Healdsburg is a one-time farm town which now sits in the middle of “Wine Country” and which local big money is developing as a tourist center and the farthest San Francisco suburb. The favored tenants are Silicon Valley types come north.
To make things worse, the new landlords were evicting their mostly Latino tenants into in a county where rents have increased by 30 percent in just three years and there are essentially no vacancies.
Actually, the owner of the apartments, Peter Supino, wasn’t discriminating against his tenants because they were Latino, but because they were poor. “We had no idea who was in that building,” he told the press.
Supino’s Drake Property Group has been buying, renovating, and re-selling apartments for wealthy investors for a decade. Like many others who are “gentrifying” low-income neighborhoods, he collects money from silent partners, buys complexes cheap, upgrades them for a cash-rich clientele — and sells for a big profit.
In 2012, the company described the dynamics under way in the Bay Area: “Industry data is projecting that vacancies in Silicon Valley will drop below 3 percent this year. . . . Rents are up more than 7 percent from 2011.
“Since San Francisco rents are also rising, we can expect apartment hunters to be pushed to the East Bay, especially in those areas that enjoy good commute access to San Francisco and Silicon Valley.”
Drake has pushed tenants out in Santa Clara in Silicon Valley and in Oakland’s Lake Merritt neighborhood. Now he and other gentrifiers are moving on the North Bay. He says he expects to push up the cash value of his Healdsburg apartments by 50-60 percent.
But folks in Healdsburg and other towns and cities in Sonoma County are up in arms. More than 100 people showed up at a Healdsburg City Council meeting to vent on the housing crisis, Anglos as well as Latinos. “I just received a 50-percent rent increase that may force us out of our house,” Sheila Gallagher told the Council.
The families from the apartment complex had gotten 60-day eviction notices. But Christine Webster, who organized the turnout through Facebook, declared that the city’s big rent increases themselves amounted to evictions.
And the outburst at the Healdsburg Council wasn’t the only one. A few days earlier, 200 people had turned out in Sonoma, at the other end of the county, for a grassroots meeting organized by El Verano Elementary School, a Methodist church group, La Luz community center, and the North Bay Organizing Project.
The hubbub in the school gym was bilingual. Evenly divided, Anglo and Latino, the meeting was fully translated, even the eight small groups that shared experiences and come up with solutions. The school’s Mario Castillo told a reporter of hearing “numerous horror stories from people afraid to speak up about atrocious rental conditions for fear they would be evicted.”
In both Healdsburg and Sonoma, there were calls for immediate local-government action to end the rent hikes and the evictions. And in the much larger city of Santa Rosa, where dozens turned out to air the same complaints, Councilmember Julie Combs proposed an emergency moratorium on rent hikes that came within one vote of passing.
A grassroots housing movement is clearly taking form in Sonoma County. Following a call by the members of the Graton Day Labor Center, it will test its strength in a march in Santa Rosa, July 29, under the North Bay Organizing Project umbrella. Its theme: “The Right to a Roof”