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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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News + PoliticsLetter to the Editor: 'Ceci n'est pas une guillotine'

Letter to the Editor: ‘Ceci n’est pas une guillotine’

Is rent extraction really an 'essential service'? And where is the relief for commercial and residential tenants?

I guess I’ll have to sell something in order to pay rent to our corporate landlords this month. I’ve been holding out, trying bide time while my husband applies for small business loans for our café. But we haven’t received a cent yet, even though we applied immediately after the aid was announced. We haven’t even received the measly $1200 checks. Last night my husband had one of his recurring nightmares in which he sees our rent-controlled apartment being emptied out and repainted for new tenants. I was lying awake, staring at the ceiling and worrying, when he started moaning and I had to rescue him from his dream.

You see, we’ve lived in the same one-bedroom apartment in the Inner Sunset District for over twenty years now. Our teenage son may not have his own room, but we love our home and the mere thought of losing it is enough to send the three of us into a state of sheer animal terror. Especially since, as my husband pointed out the other day, “What the hell would we do if we lost our apartment? We’d be thrown in the goddamn street!” Besides each other and our health, all we have in the world is our little rent-controlled apartment and our café. That’s it. No savings. No inheritance. No stocks or bonds. Just a rental apartment and a small business.

I guess we’re part of the ever-growing urban peasant class, that socially complex demographic composed of retail and restaurant workers, artists, writers, students, immigrants, struggling single parents, panhandlers, and the un-housed. Members of our neo-liberal Ayn Randian elite would probably argue that our poor economic condition is the result of all the bad decisions we’ve made in our lives, as if the infinite nature of matters of fate could be reduced to limited moments of detached conscious reflection. But it’s silly to even bring up matters of consciousness, when what we’re dealing with is an incomprehensible level of thoughtlessness and insensitivity among members our political and business leadership.

Besides, it’s not as if people like my husband and I haven’t been working our asses off. It’s just that the recent shutdown restrictions have caused sales in our café to plummet 80%. We have no remaining staff because we can’t afford to pay them, which leaves my husband doing practically everything himself—baking, making drinks, washing dishes, shopping for supplies, placing orders—all the while trying desperately to communicate with his bank in order to access the PPP loans everyone’s been hearing about. Meanwhile, the initial aid money is already gone, devoured by large corporations and the wealthy. I believe less than 5% of it went to genuine small businesses like ours.

Last week I was so angry about our situation, I emailed Mayor Breed, Governor Newsom, and Congresswoman Pelosi to complain about the brazen unfairness of being forced to shut down our business and go into debt with our landlords, while not receiving any sort of compensation. This is especially painful since, even though our café was very busy prior to the shutdown, we were barely making ends meet. It seems the only kinds of businesses able to survive in San Francisco these days are places like Sightglass Café (owned by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey) that are cross-subsidized by high tech capital or other Wall Street investors. Independent entities like us simply can’t make the numbers work, the costs involved are too great.

Before this current crisis, we were implementing every imaginable creative strategy to try and spin things in our favor. We even applied for a costly entertainment permit with the city so we could host live music and community events. In March things were actually beginning to look up. We had bands and other events scheduled well into the year, and the café was bustling every day with groups of people working on their laptops or chatting in small groups. Then this whole Covid thing happened, and overnight we were left with a large empty space, and practically no income at all.

Of course we understand the current restrictions are necessary in order to protect public health. What we don’t understand is why we’ve received no compensation at all for our losses, and yet are simultaneously sadistically being shaken down for our rent money. Is rent extraction really an essential service? Shouldn’t these businesses be shut down and forced to lose money as well?

Meanwhile businesses such as Sightglass Cafe can afford to simply close their doors and ride out the storm, because they have a magical and seemingly endless supply of cash from billionaire Jack Dorsey. Again, I understand the need to protect public health by imposing restrictions. I just don’t get why the resulting economic burden is being shouldered by those least able to bear it. Can’t some of our numerous local billionaires ante up? Can’t the rent extractors be asked to make some sacrifices?

Instead it seems as if this epidemic is providing the tech industry with what they’ve long desired; an opportunity to wipe out any alternative to their alienated culture of screen zombies and delivery slaves. As they say in disaster capitalism, never let a good crisis go to waste. And no doubt the real estate industry (which is intimately related to the tech industry) will come in at the end and clear us all out for non-payment on massive amounts of back rent.

I was so angry, I closed my letter to Breed, Newsom, and Pelosi with a reference to the French Revolution and the guillotine. “Oh my God,” my husband said, when I told him. “You shouldn’t have done that. They might take it as a real threat!”

I suppose he’s right. But perhaps politicians and the billionaires need a little reminder of the danger of failing to represent the Third (and Fourth) Estates. There’s an old saying that says it’s dangerous to wake a sleeping lion. Usually the lion is viewed as symbolizing government, and the message is that one should refrain from provoking it.

However, in supposedly democratic societies like ours the sleeping lion can also be seen as representing the spirit of the people, specifically the ever-increasing numbers of completely unrepresented segments of the population under our two party political system. (Why are there only two parties anyway? Aren’t political bodies composed of at least three social classes?)

Under normal conditions it’s certainly unwise to wake the sleeping governmental lion. But these are not normal conditions, and the highly individualized act of voting is not going to change our dysfunctional political system anytime soon. We may be forced into going into debt to cover rent this month so my husband and I can finally get some sleep, but we’re not doing it again. Asses are not lions, and this is not a pipe.

Mira Martin-Parker earned a BA at The New School for Social Research, and an MA in philosophy and an MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State. Her work has appeared in various publications, including the Istanbul Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, great weather for MEDIA, and Zyzzyva. Her collection of short stories, The Carpet Merchant’s Daughter, won the 2013 Five [Quarterly] e-chapbook competition.

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