Activist Ken Werner Retires, Plans to Leave San Francisco

by Paul Hogarth on September 7, 2011

Today is Ken Werner’s last day as an employee of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, as he retires and plans a move to Oregon later this year. Many of us came to know Ken when he served as President of the Trinity Plaza Tenants Association – during the crucial years when the tenants came together to fight their eviction, waged a ballot measure campaign and ultimately saved their homes. In the affordable housing struggle of the 1990’s and 2000’s, Trinity Plaza was likely the greatest accomplishment that tenants achieved. In more recent years, Ken has worked as a desk clerk at three T.H.C. properties (the All-Star, Seneca and Jefferson Hotels) – where he’s proud to have made a difference in the everyday lives of tenants. He will be missed, but we salute Ken for the accomplishments he’s made here in San Francisco.

Ken Werner came from a working-class family in Port Ewen, New York – a small town in the Hudson River Valley. His father was a machinist, and Ken learned about his first strike as a child – because Dad was a union man. Ken’s first social justice activity was when his high school principal took Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” out of the jukebox. “The school didn’t want us to know anything about the real world,” he recalls.

Those familiar with Ken’s deep voice won’t be surprised to learn he has a background in radio broadcasting. While at Graham Junior College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ken produced and directed the campus radio station. But in April 1968, while on the air he broke an unconfirmed story – Martin Luther King had been assassinated. “I broke that story, and it broke me,” he said. “Because I didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news.”

Ken never went back to radio broadcasting, but stayed in Boston doing various jobs – including selling copies of Life Magazine. In October 1981, he moved to San Francisco – which had long been a dream of his. But having never owned a car in his life, Ken didn’t want to move to the Bay Area until they had a better public transportation system – one that at least rivaled Boston’s. By 1981, he eventually took the plunge.

“San Francisco was a more conservative city back then,” he says, “at least as far as local politicians were concerned.” In that political climate, Ken came to admire Sue Bierman – a stalwart progressive and champion for tenants, who served on the Board of Supervisors in the 1990’s. He was able to campaign with her in 1992, when – in between jobs – he got hired by the Democratic Party to do voter registration drives and signature gathering.

Having never gone to law school, Ken worked for various lawyers in San Francisco in the 1980’s and 1990’s – which he credits as a major educational experience. “I told a lawyer once how much logic there was to these laws,” he says, “and the guy just laughed. But I still believe it, and it’s what gives me faith in the system.”

Ken moved to Trinity Plaza – the 360-unit building at 8th and Market – in 1994. At the time, he didn’t know it was owned by Angelo Sangiacamo – the infamous “godfather of rent control,” whose drastic rent hikes in the 1970’s prompted even Mayor Feinstein to push a rent control ordinance. He lived there peacefully until May 2003, when all the tenants received notices – the building would be demolished, to make way for condos.

“I was in tears,” he says. “It was a cheap place to live, and centrally located.” Ken and his neighbors started to organize, and reach out for some help. A few opportunists came along, offering (for a fee) to help negotiate more generous move-out deals – but Ken just brushed them aside. Then, they enlisted help from the Office of Supervisor Chris Daly.

“And the rest was history,” says Ken. With strong support from tenant and community groups throughout the City, they got the Board of Supervisors to pass an Anti-Demolition Ordinance – to prevent sound, rent-controlled buildings of 20 or more units from being demolished. After Mayor Newsom vetoed the measure, they collected 20,000 signatures to put it on the ballot. When a Republican Judge used a technicality to invalidate the signatures, the tenants vowed to keep fighting – and plans were underway to start collecting signatures again.

In December 2004, Angelo Sangiacamo proposed the unthinkable – Trinity Plaza would still be demolished, but the new complex would have 360 rent-controlled units as part of the deed restrictions. And this would be in addition to the inclusionary, below market-rate units that he would have to build. It was the first time in California history (and perhaps U.S. history) that a developer agreed to voluntarily extend rent control to new construction – notwithstanding state law prohibiting developers from being required ot.

As Randy Shaw wrote at the time, the Trinity Plaza tenants were victorious because “opponents of the planned demolition framed the debate, acted pro-actively to put Sangicacomo on the defensive, and led the prominent landlord to see that it was in his own self-interest to agree to his adversaries agenda.”

In June 2005, the tenants signed off on a deal with Sangiacamo. “One of our primary concerns was to save our homes,” wrote Ken at the time, “but now we were presented with a choice, that of preserving or improving on what we already had. So we decided to entertain Sangiacomo’s offer; after all, we could still achieve a ballot box victory but also pursue another of our primary concerns, that of creating a precedent in the city that would benefit ALL tenants.”

With the Trinity Plaza victory underway, Ken became a familiar by-line in Beyond Chron – as he wrote regular columns on a wide variety of issues. “I’d always wanted to write the Great American Novel,” he said. “And in those years, I had a job that gave me enough time to do some writing – even if it didn’t give me health insurance or paid sick days.”

But in October 2006, Ken had a heart attack. And after spending several days recovering, his boss fired him for having missed too many days. Had this happened a few months later, it would have been illegal. In November, San Francisco voters passed Proposition F – making us the first City in the nation to require employers to offer paid sick leave.

Now unemployed and recovering from his heart attack, Ken went to work on Chris Daly’s re-election – the Supervisor who helped the Trinity Plaza tenants save their homes. “I had a new lease on life,” he said, “so I got involved. I got a whole bunch of Trinity Plaza tenants involved in the campaign. We came, we saw, and we kicked ass. Why? Because we had to.”

With the election over, Ken came to work at Tenderloin Housing Clinic – where he spent five years as a desk clerk at three different SRO’s. As the City’s largest contractor of supportive housing for formerly homeless people, THC desk clerks often have the most challenging and difficult jobs in the organization.

“It’s been an educational experience,” says Ken, “but one thing I know I’m leaving is that I’ve made a difference. It’s a good feeling to know that I make people laugh. Folks may come into the building with a frown, and after they’ve walked by my desk I help put a smile on their face.”

In a few months, Ken will move to Oregon – in a small town called McKenzie Bridge. “An old friend of mine bought a home there,” he said, “and has been pushing me to retire for quite some time.” Ken will be living in an 1,800 square foot house – where he has a bicycle waiting for him. Having never owned a car in his life, he concedes that living in the country will mean that will change.

But Ken says he will stay in San Francisco long enough to vote in the upcoming election, and he had some parting shots for the current Board of Supervisors. “There are some who seem to have forgotten what we did at Trinity Plaza,” he said. “With Parkmerced, they are suffering from short-term memory loss. We have seniors facing eviction – just like at Trinity. Believe me, I will still be active.”

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