In late 2019, I landed a new job in San Francisco. An East Coast native with a sprinkling of Texas living, I finally moved to a state with perfect weather. I was especially excited to enter the (in)famous tech bubble created by Silicon Valley startups. After just a week of intense apartment hunting, I found the perfect rent-controlled studio located in the Tender Nob— the nickname given to the neighborhood that sits between the pristine streets of Nob Hill and the troubling alleyways of the Tenderloin. I remember the day I signed my lease, the building manager, a Michiganer who had made SF his home in the 80s, laid out all the dos and don’ts of living in the building. He took particular care to show me how to unlock the heavy, iron gate that led to the front door and warned me to always double-check that it was locked so the “zombies” didn’t get in. It took me a few seconds to figure out that the “zombies” were those individuals without a home, and who publicly used drugs on the streets of the Tender Nob.
That conversation was the first of many that taught me that the people of San Francisco had reached a certain hard-nosed attitude toward the homeless crisis. Though the Tenderloin sits within walking distance to some of the most expensive high rises and luxury stores in the city, it represents the crux of the housing emergency that began before covid. Walking the fifteen minutes from one of three mosques in San Francisco proper to my apartment, I would see tents and portable kitchen stovetops set in between small groups of men and women passing around needles or blunts. It became absurdly normal to see the occasional body passed out on the sidewalk. Sometimes they would be in a deep sleep, and other times they would be on the verge of overdosing. It was mostly impossible to tell which state they were in — and then the horrible feeling of “should I be calling 911?”
The Homelessness Crisis Worsened
These were my experiences before the pandemic. It seems impossible to imagine that the situation became even worse, but it did. The increase in criminal activity, drug use, and health/sanitary violations rose to such a level that San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin on December 17, 2021. In a press conference in front of city hall, she said, “When we look at the conditions on our streets it is really unfortunate, it is sad, it’s heartbreaking…We have to move quickly. Too many people are dying in this city. Too many people are sprawled out all over our streets. And now we have a plan to address it.”
She proposed a multi-step plan that aimed to target crime and public drug use to improve the neighborhood as a whole. The initiative is similar to the city’s COVID-19 Declaration of Emergency which allowed the city to respond to health and safety concerns on the streets quickly without bureaucratic barriers. The most controversial part of the plan was to increase the police presence in the area. I specifically remember walking past the police station in the middle of the Tenderloin and not being able to comprehend how just a block away needles were being passed around. The increased police presence contravened the city’s fight to decrease police funding after George Floyd’s death.
While the Mayor tries to correct the obvious concerns that have arisen in the Tenderloin, the housing crisis in other parts of the state continues to worsen. In September of 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the issuance of an order to temporarily halt residential evictions to help prevent the further spread of COVID-19. The CDC’s eviction moratorium became a saving grace for so many across the country who were impacted by the pandemic. Many Americans had lost their jobs or worked reduced hours due to caring for sick relatives. Tenants needed time to get their finances in order. The CDC moratorium also spurred individual states to create their own temporary laws to help tenants.
Additional Laws Passed to Protect Tenants
In California, Governor Newsom enacted AB 3088, which did the same thing as the CDC order, protecting tenants from eviction for non-payment of rent if they could attest to being impacted by the pandemic. I am very familiar with that law, because just a few months after its passage, I transitioned from working as an immigration lawyer to a housing lawyer for a nonprofit. I took on the job of managing their outreach efforts and defending tenants at risk for eviction in housing court. No longer was I just a bystander watching the crisis from afar, I was in the trenches trying to teach people how to preserve their housing as the moratorium laws for California were extended again and again.
The California legislature successfully extended AB 3088 twice more, until it finally expired on September 30, 2021. At that point, landlords began to slowly come out of the woodwork and file Unlawful Detainer actions (the legal term for the eviction) in housing court. The only saving grace for financially strapped tenants was to file applications for rental assistance through the state (vis-a-vis the county). If the tenant was brought to court for nonpayment of rent, they could have the case set aside while the rental assistance program was processing the application.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act which was signed into law on March 27, 2020, funded the Emergency Rental Assistance Programs (ERAP) throughout the country to help tenants facing eviction. Though the programs were well-endowed with millions of dollars, poor planning by government bureaucrats led to a very slow distribution of the funds to individuals in need. The application process required communication with the often-frazzled landlords and multiple fraud checks, leading to a serious backlog in applications. Now in 2022, many ERAP programs are still trying to play catch up, and have halted new applications, or they have run out of money. Worst of all, the last bill that extended AB 3088 (AB 832), which paused evictions while rental assistance applications were pending, expires in April. Housing attorneys in California fear that the wave of evictions, imminent during 2020 but halted due to the moratorium, is coming.
At both the federal and state levels, there is no discussion about this impending disaster. Yet, shelter and safety are foundational needs. First, of course, is a roof over one’s head. But human beings should also not be subject to unsafe conditions such as mold, inadequate heat in winter, or rat infestation. Partnership of Strong Communities looks at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and notes that housing security, stability, and safety are foundational to the most basic well-being.
Ubaydullah ibn Mihsan reported, “The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, ‘Whoever among you wakes up physically safe and secure about what he owns, healthy in his body, and he has his food for the day, it is as if he were given the entire world’” (Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2346). To figuratively be “given the entire world” is a lot to be grateful for. So, as believers, it is not enough that we personally have our basic needs met. We must recognize this impending housing crisis and think about creative ways to prevent and resolve it. And we must utilize whatever resources we have — time, energy, money, advocacy — to address the needs of those who are homeless.