Community Congress envisions a new city

From El Tecolote:

By Charity Crouse :: EL TECOLOTE – Wednesday August 25, 2010
More than 100 activists gathered Aug. 15-16 to convene a Community Congress exploring ways to bring San Francisco together to address issues of community-based economic development, housing, health and human services and transportation.

What does it take to build a city where everyone can work, live and prosper together?, asked Calvin Welch at the Community Congress held Aug. 15 through Aug. 16 at the University of San Francisco. This question was tackled in 4 breakout sessions contemplating economic development, housing, health and human services and transportation in the city of San Francisco.

Welch and other organizers presented the parallels between the recent economic crisis spurred by budget deficits and the economic trends transpiring in the 1970s that saw a reduction of federal spending following urban renewal. These processes paved the way for increased private sector development and a concurrent displacement of much of San Francisco’s low-income and ethnic communities as the housing demographics of the city changed. The result has been that less than half of jobs in the city are held by residents today, whereas in 1960 nearly 80 percent of jobs were locally held, said Welch of the Council of Community Housing Organizations. The Congress, which followed months of planning by more than 100 community organizations, was inspired by a similar effort that happened in 1975.

“We’re trying to bring disparate issues together into a unified platform by creating long-term institutions that can take it to another level,” said Fernando Marti, community planner and one of the organizers of the event.

Marti led a discussion on Community-based Economic Development that considered among other things the potential of creating a Municipal Bank of San Francisco to be funded by $100 million of city reserves. Along with developing long-term revenue generating vehicles, such as ballot measures like the hotel tax included in this November’s election cycle, the bank would be used to invest in community-based businesses and worker-owned cooperatives, among other projects that would benefit low-income San Franciscans.

“North Dakota has a similar [state] program with its own bank,” said Marti. “Why not create a similar effort in San Francisco that would invest in green technologies?” Creating more local governance and consolidating current departments focused on workforce development would also be promoted.

Developing affordable housing is also a project for the Municipal Bank. Expanding the input of local residents into affordable housing decisions and creating early intervention programs to deal with homelessness was a theme of the report-back on Tenants’ Rights and Affordable Housing session. The session aimed to establish sustainable communities and that were beholden to local residents on new developments or conversions in their neighborhoods. Existing laws pertaining to vacancy control would be modified while those addressing utilities would limit increases.

Part of the vision for a healthy San Francisco spotlighted at the Health and Human Services session involved engaging local residents in the health care continuum as trained first-responders to local health issues and giving individuals and community organizations more power in determining where funding is allocated.

Poonam Whabi discusses worker collectives and cooperatives.

“We need a political entity that vets the conversation [on health and human services] and is accountable,” said Steve Fields of Progress Foundation.

The vetting process includes ensuring that the city balances more cost-effective local, community-based organizations for the provision of physical and mental health-related issues with higher-cost institutionalized care. The session also recommended the establishment of a chartered authority that would bridge the myriad organizations and departments already overseeing the provisions of basic needs and adhere to a 10-year plan. It would include a cross-section of service providers, users and city and department officials. Also emphasized was the importance of making sure that traditionally marginalized communities—such as youth, elders and people with disabilities—are included from the onset in defining the values upon which the authority’s work would be based. A public relations campaign would accompany the effort to highlight connections between the quality of living and public health concerns.

Public transportation was taken on with an emphasis on preserving MUNI’s 70 current routes. Participants voiced their concern with the use of the San Francisco Police Department in enforcing proof of payment for rides, but the convergence stressed the importance of allowing backdoor loading as a means for reducing waiting times for buses.

The conference closed with a document detailing a platform for moving forward that is meant to be a long-term project; the assembly agreed to meet again next year to discuss the impact that the city’s progressive community can have on redefining San Francisco’s future and follow-up on the conference’s results. In the coming weeks the conference will be making the its conclusions publicly accessible through their website

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