Cut To The Chase

December 6, 2002

December 20, 2002

February 14, 2003

A Christmas story

Her letter was headlined "A Prayer for Success."

It read, "Christmas is not such a happy time when your rent is scheduled to increase at the beginning of January 1 -- and your income has not increased proportionately."

This is a story as old as the story of human habitation -- a story as old as any city. In the face of the latest media fearfest over war and terror, a senior citizen with the daily mundane problem of being poor and being faced with eviction exercised her rights as a citizen and told of her plight in public testimony before the Planning Commission.

This neatly dressed, softspoken woman held sway for many minutes as she described that she "lived in a world very different than the one you live in." She reported on a world where it was difficult to cope, yet she had carved out a sense of home. The pending loss of that home was what had brought her before us that day.

I have heard emotional testimony before, but this was powerful. She pushed out her pain and most of us felt it. She spoke of God and a life broken by the challenges of mental illness and homelessness. She spoke of the difficulties of coping. The lights on the panels that indicated her allotted time was up came and went -- and were ignored.

She spoke of "God's world," of "connections between us" and where there are "different priorities." She said she was there doing God's work.

What were we doing there?

"This is not your regular basic speech," she began.

It was not. It was a fascinating combination of emotion, spirit, and facts. She was one broken human spirit calling us to moral account.

While this human spirit held sway for some minutes, the legal and technical matter before the commission waited. It was an appeal of a permit to put in a bar/lounge/restaurant on the ground floor of The Maryland Hotel in the downtown block between 6th and 7th avenues and F and G streets, just east of the official Gaslamp District.

"The Maryland" is an old hotel dating from 1915, and his is the first step in converting it to a "boutique" hotel. The developers, also owners of The Bitter End, expect to invest $20-30 million dollars in this redevelopment. It is also expected to produce more than 200 evictions of its current, poor, residents.

Thirty days from living on the streets is how I would describe their lifestyle.

But the power of this woman's testimony was that of a single human being with the dignity to express herself in the face of her fate.

"I am a very little fish in a very big pond, a pond whose direction has already likely been determined and an unpleasant destiny has me on the end of a hook. I live in a different world than the rest of you.

"I do not enjoy interfering into other peoples' lives and dreams. I could well do without it. I'm seriously concerned about my future, my own and the future of the residents of the hotel ... I will continue to express my concern and to do what I can do to assure a better outcome. Tenacity is one of my strengths. I do not have a life like anyone else. ... I've struggled with mental illness and homelessness ... Finally I'm finding peace. I now have a home again instead of a hotel room. And I now stand to lose it. It is nice to be greeted as if you belong. I live on a disability pension. I do not want to start over -- with everything in me. I do not want to start over. I love this building. It has the dignity of the past. It has seen a lot and it endures. Things change, but there is an essence that continues

"In God's law, the new hotel owners undertook a moral responsibility for the tenants. The Maryland is not a small hotel. A whole city block with 271 residential units, of which one out of five floors is daily occupancy. Down the street, the same owners have a dress code: no sneakers, hiking boots, t-shirts, or jeans in their other establishment. Is this what they have in mind? If so, the residents are not, excuse my pun, in the same ballpark

"There is another element at work in the city of San Diego: the City of Villages. It is such a nice name! It speaks of smaller units, of families and things that are being lost. There's no question downtown is far improved. But it is home to many, many people who cannot afford to live in such an environment. These people are being neglected in one way or another.

"The hotel is planned to be a tourist hotel in the near or foreseeable future. It would seem to me that the question of the relocation of the occupants has to be addressed ... I may very well be headed toward the bottom of a very deep abyss. I have been there. I do not wish to return."

And in the abstract, no one wishes to return her to this. Yet this is what cities do. We permit progress at the expense of whatever is being replaced by something considered more valuable.

Is it legal? Yes.

The Planning Commission voted 4-2 to approve the permit. The process that will result in restoring this building to a market-rate hotel will continue. The owners would like all the tenants out by the end of February.

Is it moral? No. But the capitalism of progress puts a price on this transaction for the overall good of society.

What happens to the individuals confronted with unwanted change is where society must moderate our baser economic needs. To put someone out with no place to live is not responsible. But with no room at the inn -- or really, no resourcefulness to pay for it -- people end up living in cars and worse.

These folks could do much worse. The owners are offering two months rent in cash, 60-days notice and relocation assistance. I urged the tenants who came to the hearing to take advantage of the offer and to do the hard work to find another place to live. I'm told there is both high turnover in existing low-rent downtown hotels as well as new low-rent projects being built. This woman had been offered another room in another location downtown.

But nothing can ever substitute for the loss of a home. This is especially challenging to many poor, elderly or disabled. We should never shun or discard those who have been unable to achieve the "American Dream" as defined by the marketplace of homeownership. Every human being deserves a safe place. Our society has a duty to include housing for all walks of life.

I can think of no better time of year to be reminded of this.

Chase is editor of San Diego Earth Times and chair of the mayor's Environmental Advisory Board. E-mail her at

December 6, 2002

December 20, 2002

February 14, 2003