Tucked away in the corner of SF State’s campus, right on Font Boulevard and Tapia Drive sits a contemporary artifact, the exoskeleton of what was once a center of public education, but now the focal point for all of its bureaucratic runoff. The former San Francisco High School of the Arts, partially fenced off, boarded up, and dilapidated, houses the echoes of the brass in jazz band warm-ups, tapping feet to the beat of show tunes in the theater, and the trickle of water washing paint from pallet, all the while, long-gone students chatter and gossip, and some—vivid dyes embedded in the wild mess of browns and blondes hanging from their crowns—sneak off to blend in with college students and suck down cigarettes.
But these are just memories, ghosts that haunt the ignored and often forgotten facility, which has been in limbo since 2002, when the school moved to its new campus in Diamond Heights. Once a pristine, blank canvas, the interior is now covered by all kinds of graffiti, both refined and crude. Scribblings hover over stacks of desks, decade-old Scantrons and other school supplies, tattered and strewn about the floor, surrounded by broken glass and puddles of water.
Five years ago, negotiations between San Francisco Unified School District and SF State took place to transfer ownership of the building. SF State’s price, recommended by a private appraiser, was declined repeatedly, says Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Leroy Morishita. And while no university funds are spent in maintenance of the property, it continues to be monitored by University Police due to its location within the campus.
Regardless of ownership or fair appraisal, it sits there, solitary, a sometimes-home for squatters and a secluded enough spot for graffiti artists to throw up a bomb or a reckless student to explore. Buildings like these were the subjects of an anti-blight ordinance, passed unanimously in August 2009 by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, thoroughly regulating abandoned buildings.
“It could be a school, a center for arts, a center for education,” says Steve Zettler, 27, a former SF State student. At one point an unofficial resident of the abandoned high school during his time at school, he has since lifted himself from homelessness. His time living on the streets afforded him a frequently underrepresented perspective on the allocation of public space. “It could be these things, but it’s none of these things.
Neither party came to an agreement, and the vast majority of the building is unused.”
There is a significant difference in the way various cultures, governments and communities treat and understand housing, and subsequently the way they regard and deal with the people whom are without it. This also changes over time. Currently, in the USA, the use of private and public land is very tightly controlled. Even in the case of one poaching the land to utilize its unused resources, an individual convicted of even a misdemeanor trespassing charge can face up to six months in county jail and a $1,000 fine.
The idea of going to an empty, unused piece of land and squatting on it, or claiming it, used to be something that not only acceptable, but normal in this country. During the Westward Expansion, it was even encouraged by the government.
The Preemption Act of 1841 granted benefits to individuals squatting on government property, giving them substantial benefits in the purchasing of the land they once squatted, as long as it had been at least 14 months since they began their stay.
Furthermore, 10% of the proceeds of such sales went to the state governments recently admitted into the Union. This was utilized by settlers and the government throughout the 1800s as a way to unfold Manifest Destiny towards the Pacific.
“As soon as the country was under complete control and taken away from native populations, that all changed,” says Seth Wachtel, Program Director and Associate Professor of Architecture and Community Planning at the University of San Francisco.
And it did change: Congress repealed the Preemption Act in 1891 once the US had spread from one sea to the other. “Private property and governmental control came in, and people could no longer squat and take property. There’s been a huge change in that area, and the way various communities, municipalities, and individuals now tolerate, or don’t tolerate, people sitting on land.”
Having worked in community planning in India and much of Latin America, Wachtel experienced a multitude of ways to appropriate land. The context of intra-cultural property ideologies throughout time may be fruitful in understanding where we are situated presently, but an inter-cultural examination would offer greater depth.
In Mexico, for instance, the 1917 Constitution, responding to the great inequity of colonialism, included housing and property rights for its people. Resource management was community-based; that is, the occupants of the land are designated tenurial rights and responsibilities in regards to sustaining that land and what it provides to maintain their livelihood.
By the mid-1990s, many indigenous communities, such as the San Juan Nuevo village, decided to re-invest the profits and resources garnered. Profits rose thousands of percent in several years, rocketing San Juan Nuevo’s citizens’ income far beyond the average minimum wage of the region. Since then, NAFTA and similar trade agreements resulted in lowered tariffs and cripplingly low prices on US imports, as well as severe forestation. In effect, structural readjustments removed valuable resources from the community and disabled their ability to compete in a global and local economies. But when the indigenous property model was untarnished, it offered a sustainable, profitable, and equitable alternative to strict land regulation by statutes or private ownership.
There is a rich history of alternative approaches to private and community property, some that, if were accepted here and now, would subvert the ever-popular notion of restricting access to empty space. Even so, many of these, like in the case of the Westward Expansion and Mexican tenurial rights, proved beneficial for economic development.
“Now it’s all done with real-estate transactions,” explains Wachtel. “So you buy a piece of property that you see a way to improve. You build on it or fix something that’s in disrepair, and then the value increases and you sell it, or increase your capacity to borrow and do more of it. It’s more on a speculative footing now than it was before, because all property now is owned and controlled.
“Now it’s increasing value within this ownership system that we have. That of course, locks out people that don’t have. If you’re not able to join this system then you’re shut out of it. And that’s the dilemma that we have today.”
San Francisco’s anti-blight law requires that property owners, whose buildings are abandoned, pay a registration fee of $765 annually to the city. Failure of the owner to register these properties would result in unpaid fees increasing nine fold, to $6,885.
Currently, there are over 400 registered with the Department of Building Inspections.
“We have had, in recent years, particularly during the recession, a growing number of hundreds of abandoned and vacant buildings around the city,” says Supervisor David Chiu, who spearheaded the ordinance. “That has led to neighborhood blight, help to depress surrounding property values, and been the location for criminal activity, like squatters and drug users, vandalism, et cetera. This legislation was to address that situation, and in particular to require property owners to pay attention to the fact that they own these buildings that create neighborhood blight.”
Abandoned buildings, as defined by the legislation, are those that are unoccupied or unsecured and have been—for over 30 days—unoccupied and secured by boarding or other similar means, or are unoccupied and having dangerous conditions. Laws against trespassing, vandalism and property destruction exist, but this law in particular holds property owners responsible.
“My legislation requires the owners of these vacant and abandoned buildings to secure their properties, ensure that these are not properties that anyone can just walk into, and make sure that the property is properly insulated against the elements, because some buildings were literally open to the elements and deteriorating,” Supervisor Chiu continues. “There was a real city cost to vacant and abandoned buildings.When you have neglect, when you have the Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Police Department called to situations, they cost the city. Those are costs of monitoring a situation of abandonment that we are trying to recoup through the fees that are charged.”
The Department of Building Inspections posts two notices of violation to the property owners in question before they are called in for a meeting with the department, and potentially fined thousands of dollars extra. While these notices have been posted to the correct address, right on the door of the former School of the Arts, the owner is listed as a party that never managed to acquire and utilize the property in the first place: the California State University system.
Previously unbeknownst to the parties involved, the property was filed under the wrong ownership, and repeated attempts were made to collect fees from the CSU. The SF USD was unaware, according to their Real Estate Department, and also claims that the building is not abandoned, but being used for storage.
“We haven’t had this kind of situation before, with the wrong owner receiving notices,” says William Strawn, spokesman for the Department of Building Inspection. “But if the school district is using the building, they don’t have much of an argument saying they don’t know anything about the situation if the building is still in use.”
While the circumstances will need to be called into question and inspected by the department and the school district, the city’s public education system may still be liable to pay the fees and penalties, storage or not.
“All they’re storing in there is broken glass and old school materials, that have since been destroyed by vandals,” says Steve Zettler.
It is not being used for any purpose, according to Zettler, other than by those who might be there illegally. And when he was impoverished and struggling with drug addiction, the school, while a hazardous space, allowed him a temporary peace, serving what he calls “the need that we have as human beings for shelter.”
Finding ways to get people that do not have financial resources into housing, says Wachtel, is a crucial issue to tackle, and San Francisco’s anti-blight law is quite telling of the pervasive inequity that perpetuates such an issue.
“It’s fear of what cannot be controlled,” he says. “The whole blight ordinance is partly to keep what the community deems as ‘bad elements’ out. It’s also so that the property owners will improve their property, making it an asset to the community rather than an empty shell.”
Blight itself can be inactivity in a space, but also the perception of attracting degradation to a neighborhood. There are definite positives and negatives to this ordinance; such a law is definitely harmful to individuals seeking shelter, but it could also inspire investment in that space to better the neighborhood as a whole. And if individuals live on a property and establish their presence, according to Wachtel, then rights could accrue to those squatters. That poses an expensive problem for the property owner, as well as the city.
“Generally, the idea of closing off property and not allowing anybody to habitate or loiter, it’s really about real estate value in this society,” Wachtel says. “Property owners and cities want to show a face that has value, and by ‘value’ I mean monetary value. But there’s also the aesthetic value that is tied to monetary value. It’s not helpful to people who don’t have, and financially helpful to people who do have, so there’s inequity built into the system.”
Among those endangered, destitute individuals are several twentysomethings congregated around a carved-up, lopsided dinner table in a dark, abandoned building in San Francisco. The day is long gone and hours of spanging and scavenging have since passed. Ron toys with the makeshift candle he threw together from a sock, slabs of wax and an empty can of chili. His brow furrowed and bottom lip held between his teeth, he pokes his knife around the melted wax, drawing cloth up and into the flame, which, like the contents of their bottle of Southern Comfort, is ever waning.
Jake sits across the table. Where the candle fails, light emitted from his shoddy HP laptop fills the void. Eyes locked-in on the screen, the way unique to the generation that grew up on Nintendo, Jake excitedly riffs on the merits of steampunk aesthetics in the game that currently occupies his time: Final Fantasy VI.
The emulator he downloaded on his computer grants him access to a plethora of classic videogames, including every Final Fantasy before the seventh installation in the series, where the 32-bit pixilation would probably fry his overworked hard drive.
Nobuo Uematsu’s iconic MIDI score jingles and whines, floating around the dome of blue and orange light, enveloping the table in that large, otherwise empty room.
Both Ron and Jake have been on the road for several years, in California by way of Mississippi and Missouri, respectively. They have occupied this squat for a little less than a month, and hope to stay there for as long as possible, for fear of being back on the street.
“There is a lot we would like to do here, if we stay long enough,” Jake says, his dark beard reflects the flashes of light from shimmering swords and spells. “We could take all this broken glass and get it out of here, and I’d really like to get a garden going out in the back if we can do it proper.”
The pair and their squat-mates have already made considerable effort to renovate this deteriorating space. Chunks of drywall and glass swept into corners, mattresses dragged in from outside and clothes piled neatly by travel bags, this place already exudes a modest hominess. And while Jake remains hopeful for their future there, part of Ron still cannot seem to shake the trauma of street life, the life from which these rundown walls offer solace, however fleeting it may be.
“We’re so goddamn lucky to have this place,” laments Ron. “I have friends out there sleeping in the rain tonight and I can’t help but feel like shit for it. We came across this place, and we’ll stay here until we can’t anymore. I hope we can stay a long time. Sleeping with a roof over your head, it’s a privilege.”
Not all urban homeless are as fortunate as Ron or Jake in their shelter seeking. According to the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, there are 1,080 beds for single adults in San Francisco per night, but there is an average of 6,514 homeless to occupy those beds. This is an undercount, considering that families and youth are underrepresented in this statistic.
The homeless population saw an exponential boom between 1981 and 1987, when the Reagan administration cut federal low-cost housing expenditures by $25 billion, along with massive cuts to social services—including public health and drug rehabilitation centers—turning thousands of mentally ill people out onto the street. With the inadequate amount space made available, the shelter problem is complicated when coupled with moves made by the local, state, or federal governments to restrict their access to spaces, public or private, currently unused or ignored.
“It’s unconscionable that 6,000 people are needing beds and only 1,000 are available,” Wachtel says. “If there’s a desire to maintain restrictions on squatter’s rights and not be as progressive minded as some European countries, then societies like ours would need to step up and provide opportunities with beds in a public way. It’s inexcusable to restrict it on both sides at the same time. Now this enters a public debate about economics versus morality. Right now, the trend is towards what I would consider an ethically bankrupt approach to people who are in difficult times.”
The former School of the Arts is not just a dirty, dangerous home to squatters and the contents of paint cans, but a nexus point for understanding complex social relationships, along with the way that our culture understands the coexistence of property and disparity. Once a space for the artistically inclined youth of the city to thrive in perhaps the only institutionalized place they could, the School of the Arts has since hosted the likes of the desperate and broken. By the nature of marginalization, those, like the homeless or graffiti artists, are unable to fully participate in the normative practices in which most productive members of society can, and so they gravitate towards places like these.
Homeless in a society of homes, people like Zettler, Ron and Jake have to live and act within the realm of the majority, like on the campus of a major university, while simultaneously creating space for themselves. The processes of redevelopment and real-estate bargaining have left the old school building hanging in limbo, and the debate over what “ownership” and “abandoned” really mean stall any change that might take hold of this place.
The blighted building law draws a little more attention to the long forgotten school than it is used to. Its goal is to rectify the money lost in regulating abandoned and dilapidated property in San Francisco by fining their owners. But at this point, in potentially fining the school district, the city is looking at fining itself. And in entertaining our obsession with cutting the economic costs of our way of living and using resources, we ignore the human cost altogether.