Cleaning up poor people

Secretive agenda behind Clean Up The Plaza threatens one of San Francisco's last low-income neighborhoods

Jack Davis, pictured with Gil Chavez (left), wasn’t happy with the Guardian for asking tough questions about Clean Up The Plaza.
Guardian photo by Steven T. Jones

San Francisco has a long history of campaigns to "clean up" its poor neighborhoods, which is often code for displacing low-income residents of color and replacing them with gentrified housing and businesses. It happened in Western Addition and Yerba Buena starting about 50 years ago, and it's happening now in the mid-Market Street corridor and in the heart of the Mission District.

Clean Up The Plaza is the latest group to decry poor people with bad habits congregating in public places, in this case the 16th and Mission BART plaza. Last summer, it launched a campaign with mailers and window placards that echo its lobbying of city officials to get tough on drug dealing, public urination, robberies, and other crimes.

With more homeless and other people showing up on the street in the Mission District these days, partly because of the increased policing along mid-Market since Twitter and other tech firms moved there in recent years, there are legitimate crime and quality-of-life concerns there, as the district's Sup. David Campos acknowledges and has been taking steps to address.

"But there's a difference between focusing on violent crime, as we have on 16th, and criminalizing poor people," Campos told us. "What we haven't done is kick poor people out of the plaza or removed benches or anything like that."



There is more to Clean Up The Plaza than meets the eye, thanks to the secretive involvement of notorious developer-connected political consultant Jack Davis, whose support the Bay Guardian exposed last week. The group's figurehead, political neophyte Gil Chavez, lives in Davis' house in the neighborhood and has told Bay Guardian sources that he and others are being well-paid by Davis.

Asked by the Guardian whether he is being paid by the developers — Maximus Real Estate Partners, which has proposed building a 10-story, 351-unit housing project that would tower over the plaza — Davis told us, "That's between me and the IRS."

Actually, the Ethics Commission confirmed that it is also looking into the group's activities given that it hasn't filed any paperwork in association with political fundraising or its lobbying. Davis denies that the group is in violation of any disclosure laws, and referred questions to high-priced attorney James Perrinello, who hasn't returned our calls.

Local activists have long suspected this is simply a front group financed by developers to lay the political groundwork for approving the controversial project.

"I wasn't surprised. I always knew there was some big money behind this," Laura Guzman, who heads homeless outreach and services for Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, told the Guardian. "This is clearly about displacement. It invoked to me that my guys are in danger."

"The minute I saw those placards and the flyers with the 'clean up' rhetoric, I got nervous because anyone who's lived in this town for any length of time and paid attention knows exactly what those things mean. The clean up rhetoric almost always means, 'let's remove these people,'" said Cleve Jones, a progressive activist who has worked on housing rights issues since the '70s, when he was a legislative aide to the Sup. Harvey Milk. "What people don't understand is how completely this is driven by developers, and when you look at who benefits, it's always the developers...The power of the developers here is enormous and the profits are enormous."

Housing Right Committee Executive Director Sara Shortt calls Clean Up The Plaza "a fake grassroots campaign that is misleading this community."