As we reported yesterday , the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing has decided to transform a long-vacant office building at 150 Otis Street into low-income housing. This represents a reversal in the city’s prior plan to sell the site to the highest bidder, and another major victory for Sister Bernie Galvin of Religious Witness With Homeless People. Galvin used her position on the Surplus Property Committee to vigorously fight to transform 150 Otis into affordable housing, and the Mayor’s Office, to its credit, reviewed their analysis and ultimately agreed with Galvin’s stance. Galvin’s campaign will add at least 100 units to the city’s low-cost housing stock, and holds important lessons for all activists fighting to improve San Francisco.

Sister Bernie Galvin has been taking care of her 97-year old mother in rural Oklahoma all week, and does not know that her longstanding campaign to save 150 Otis Street has finally brought victory. But knowing Galvin, her inability to attend the February 20 Surplus Property Committee meeting to learn of her victory firsthand will not reduce her satisfaction at having saved 150 Otis for the poor.

The 150 Otis victory is an object lesson in persistence.

After the Board of Supervisors appointed Galvin to the Surplus Property Committee, she found that the Committee was spending most of its time hearing why sites on their list could not be used to house homeless persons. It seemed that every site on the list was not suitable for housing, while none have been sold with the proceeds going to affordable housing (the first sale of a site for this purpose—the Alemany site---will occur soon)

But the original goal of the Surplus Property Law was to have such housing built on-site whenever feasible.

Sister Galvin saw 150 Otis as feasible, and wanted it used to house the poor. As frustrated as she became with the Committee’s slow progress, she persisted in the hope that at least one building on the list would help solve San Francisco’s homeless problem.

Sister Galvin asked the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and Coalition on Homelessness to join her efforts, and in October 2005 succeeded in winning the support of nearly all of the Committee members to keep 150 Otis for low-cost housing. Tomas Lee, former aide to Supervisor Tom Ammiano, served on the Committee and helped build support for Galvin’s stance. Yet the Mayor’s Office of Housing was just as insistent that the “numbers did not add up” and the building should we sold.

Since Supervisor Chris Daly lives near 150 Otis, he was legally barred in involving himself in the disposition of the property. Sister Galvin thus had to seek the help of other Supervisors, and in the summer of 2006 she turned to Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi.

Mirkarimi took two important actions. He revived the dormant issue by holding a hearing last Fall on 150 Otis that showed the unanimous public support for the site to be low-cost housing. He then met with the Mayor’s Office of Housing to discuss his concerns.

At the meeting, the Mayor’s Office revealed for the first time that it had made a mistake and did not realize that 150 Otis could not be sold. This came as quite a surprise, but opened the door for a positive outcome.

Mirkarimi made his sentiments very clear: he wanted 150 Otis to become low-cost housing, and believed a majority of his colleagues did as well.

But months passed following the Supervisor’s meeting without action. It was not until mid-February, nearly 18 months after Galvin thought the fight over the property was over, that the Mayor’s Office re-inspected the property, got new numbers, and agreed to make 150 Otis a landmark housing opportunity for low-income San Franciscans.

Many activists would have given up on the 150 Otis struggle, particularly after winning a Committee vote that proved entirely illusory. But Sister Bernie Galvin never gives up a fight.

After a lifetime fighting to unionize textile workers in the J.P. Stevens plants in South Carolina, and working with desperately poor African-American sugar cane workers in Lousiana, Galvin would not be intimidated over battling with San Francisco’s Mayor’s Office of Housing over a single site.

And to MOH’s credit, it did not dig in its heels and do the wrong thing just to avoid proving its critics correct. Government is supposed to be responsive to constituents, a principle easy to forget in the Bush era.

Sister Bernie never cares who gets credit, so long as poor people get housed. The 150 Otis victory is yet another example of how activists must not give up their goals at early signs of adversity, as persistence is often the key to success.

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