Housing Rights Committee celebrates 40 years of fighting for renters

Grassroots group 'birthed by rent control' is now a major force in protecting tenant rights.

In 1979, San Francisco had just passed its first rent-control ordinance – and tenant groups were starting to emerge to protect that law. Among them were Legal Assistance to the Elderly and the Housing Rights Committee, and both will celebrate 40 years this fall.

(I’m on the board of LAE; the 40thAnniversary celebration is Oct. 24 at the Elk’s Club, 450 Post, SF. More on that in another story.)

In the 1980s, the Old St. Mary’s Housing Committee was a vice for rent control.

The HRC celebration is Thursday/19, at Gray Area Theater, 2665 Mission, SF. It’s a chance to see one of the city’s most important, historic tenant organizations celebrate a storied history.

“We were birthed out of rent control,” Fred Sherburn-Zimmer, the executive director, told me.

After the city passed its first law protecting tenants from huge rent hikes and no-cause evictions, “the landlords were trying to find new ways to get rid of tenants,” Sherburn-Zimmer told me.

So a group of renters (many of them seniors) began meeting at Old St. Mary’s Church in Chinatown to educate themselves and others about what the law meant and how to enforce it.

That became the Old St. Mary’s Housing Committee, a small organization that was at first funded by the Catholic Church. Over time, the group began counseling and organizing tenants – and was one of the few tenant groups that worked with the residents of public housing.

Among the issues the committee worked on was the right of public housing tenants to remain when their buildings were torn down and rebuilt.

The HRC continues to make tenant protections a key issue.

Along the way, the Old St. Mary’s Housing Committee became the Housing rights Committee, and it grew and expanded its scope until today a staff of 20 does counseling in five languages and organizing in three languages. Another 40 volunteers help make sure renters know their rights.

HRC has also been in the forefront of pushing City Hall to expand rent control and tenant protections as far as possible given some very bad state laws.

And Sherburn-Zimmer says the efforts are working. “We’ve made it much harder to evict rent-controlled tenants,” she told me. “A huge part of what we do is get to tenants and make sure they know what their rights are.”

The event is from 6pm-10pm, and you can get more info and buy tickets here.I’ll see you there.