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More Than Shelter

Activism and Community in San Francisco Public Housing

Amy L. Howard

Publication Year: 2014

In the popular imagination, public housing tenants are considered, at best, victims of intractable poverty and, at worst, criminals. More Than Shelter makes clear that such limited perspectives do not capture the rich reality of tenants’ active engagement in shaping public housing into communities. By looking closely at three public housing projects in San Francisco, Amy L. Howard brings to light the dramatic measures tenants have taken to create—and sustain and strengthen—communities that mattered to them.

More Than Shelter opens with the tumultuous institutional history of the San Francisco Housing Authority, from its inception during the New Deal era, through its repeated leadership failures, to its attempts to boost its credibility in the 1990s. Howard then turns to Valencia Gardens in the Mission District; built in 1943, the project became a perpetually contested and embattled space. Within that space, tenants came together in what Howard calls affective activism—activism focused on intentional relationships and community building that served to fortify residents in the face of shared challenges. Such activism also fueled cross-sector coalition building at Ping Yuen in Chinatown, bringing tenants and organizations together to advocate for and improve public housing. The account of their experience breaks new ground in highlighting the diversity of public housing in more ways than one. The experience of North Beach Place in turn raises questions about the politics of development and redevelopment, in this case, Howard examines activism across generations—first by African Americans seeking to desegregate public housing, then by cross-racial and cross-ethnic tenant groups mobilizing to maintain public housing in the shadow of gentrification.

Taken together, the stories Howard tells challenge assumptions about public housing and its tenants—and make way for a broader, more productive and inclusive vision of the public housing program in the United States.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Series: A Quadrant Book

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xx

On a sunny day in May 2009, I sat inside a cozy living room in the Valencia Gardens public housing development in San Francisco’s Mission District and reconnected with a tenant I had first met years earlier. Much had changed in Anita Ortiz’s life and in the built environment of Valencia Gardens since our first meeting: after serving in a prominent leadership role in the tenants’ association for many...

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1. “To Provide Decent, Safe, and Sanitary Housing”: San Francisco’s Housing Authority

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pp. 1-44

Visitors to the 1939–1940 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco could marvel at the breadth of architectural design, the displays highlighting a range of cultures from Japan to Colombia tied to the theme “The Pageant of the Pacific,” and spectacular programming such as Billy Rose’s Aquacade. Celebrating the opening of the newly constructed Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco– Oakland Bridge, ...

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2. The Contested Mission of Valencia Gardens

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pp. 45-96

On May 6, 1940, more than 500 residents and business owners from the Greater Mission District in San Francisco stormed the city’s Board of Supervisors meeting. Exercising their “high privilege of assembly and petition,” and lauded as an exemplar of engaged citizenship by the local press, the business and homeowners protested what they viewed as an assault on their neighborhood: public housing in the Mission.1...

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3. “Peace and Prosperity Dwell among Virtuous Neighbors”: Chinatown’s Public Housing

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pp. 97-146

On October 21, 1951, Henry K. Wong, a Chinese American World War II veteran, his wife Alice, and their two children joined San Francisco mayor Elmer Robinson and his wife for a “house warming tea.” The couples sat together in a new model apartment decorated with modern furniture and Chinese accessories.1 In accordance with Chinese tradition, the Wongs shared watermelon seeds, candied ginger, and coconut strips with the Robinsons, ...

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4. “The Best Project in Town”: North Beach Place

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pp. 147-194

As Chinese Americans celebrated the opening of Ping Yuen in 1952, two hopeful African Americans applied to live in the newly built North Beach Place public housing project in predominantly white North Beach. With over 51,000 African Americans living in San Francisco amid a per sis tent housing shortage and entrenched residential segregation, these applicants, like thousands of others, desired a decent living environment.1...

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Conclusion: Looking Back, Moving Forward

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pp. 195-206

By the time the San Francisco Housing Authority dedicated the new Valencia Gardens in 2006, the public housing program in the United States had shifted dramatically. The federal HOPE VI program ushered in significant changes in public housing, introducing opportunities for private financing and ownership of developments, implementing outsourced management, and eliminating one-for-one...


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pp. 207-210


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pp. 211-296


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pp. 297-308

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9781452941776
E-ISBN-10: 1452941777
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816665822

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: A Quadrant Book