Back in 2014, MEDA responded to the call by the City of San Francisco to transition ownership and management of public housing, with the aim to have nonprofits engage with residents who had lived for decades socially isolated from the neighborhoods that they called home.
That foray into the affordable-housing realm was the catalyst for MEDA’s Community Real Estate program, with development of 439 apartments for senior and disabled residents in five public housing properties that were formerly owned by the San Francisco Housing Authority. With a backlog of deferred maintenance at public housing sites nationwide, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) knew an innovative approach was needed to remedy the situation. That was the genesis of the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, now in effect throughout the land, including San Francisco.
The RAD program means the reinvestment in dilapidated public housing stock through the leverage of debt and equity — from public and private sources. The City of San Francisco harnessed the power of RAD as part of a comprehensive strategy to reimagine public housing in San Francisco as affordable housing, where families and seniors would have secure, quality affordable housing.
MEDA partnered with BRIDGE Housing to co-develop apartments for senior/disabled residents in the Mission-Castro cluster of public housing. BRIDGE Housing was chosen as an affordable-housing partner in this undertaking because of their over three decades of impact in this realm. With BRIDGE Housing, we committed to engaging the senior/disabled residents with community resources, beyond just rehabilitating their homes after years of deferred maintenance. The five properties now under the management of MEDA are: 462 Duboce (42 units), 25 Sanchez (90 units) and 255 Woodside (109 units), as Phase I; and 1855 15th (91 units) and 3850 18th (107 units), as Phase 2.
Residents’ history of feeling disenfranchised
When MEDA initially spoke to residents about their relocation during their units being rehabbed, the team immediately found an omnipresent disbelief that (a) the unit would be refurbished well and on time; and (b) the resident would be allowed to return to their home.
Turns out there was a deep-rooted mistrust built up over the decades — mistrust coupled with isolation stemming from many factors. A majority senior population, many with health issues. Immigrant, low-income residents (< 30 percent AMI), often scraping by on Social Security and with limited English proficiency. In surveys conducted across all three Phase 1 properties, the majority of residents reported feeling isolated from their neighbors and surrounding resources, the combination of which is especially problematic, as low-income households often rely on either their peers or supportive services to make ends meet.
Despite living at these properties for decades, there existed a pervasive fear around the general lack of housing stability for many San Francisco residents. Everyone has heard of someone having to pack up their bags and leave town because of a no-fault eviction or being priced out of a city with the widest income gap in the nation.
MEDA’s strategy for combatting a history of isolation
MEDA’s Community Real Estate team developed and continually refined a strategy for dealing with resident disenfranchisement. MEDA took the taboo and potentially traumatic issue of relocation and flipped it to actually build the trust of residents.
The first step is scheduling consistent community meetings to keep all residents in the loop about what will be happening to the property’s common areas and their own apartments. In the months before officially acquiring the properties from the San Francisco Housing Authority, MEDA began the relationship with personal interviews of every resident to dissipate any confusion and fear around the pending ownership transfer. Seeing the same faces on-site — such as that of a project manager and relocation coordinator — translates to familiarity and abets the building of trust. There are also one-on-one consultations, on an as-need basis, to allay individual tenant concerns.
Approximately 30 days before relocation, the project manager, relocation coordinator, service coordinators and property manager visit residents of the units set to undergo construction to underline the multiple resources to which they have immediate access during relocation. Through these visits, we realized that immediate neighbors — and entire floors — supported each other throughout the relocation process. We refined the building-wide and personal interactions to our “cohort approach,” so that when a specific phase of rehab will be taking place all residents in that group are convened to discuss their relocation. This creates empathy for the situation, and less feeling alone. There is also a newsletter put out to avail residents of project status.
Additionally, tenants are asked to engage in specific issues that matter to them, such as common areas of the property, as a way to give residents ownership. For example, we had meeting three quarters of the way through the rehabilitation at the Woodside RAD property, as residents chose new furniture for the community room and collaborated on how to optimize that space for activities. A discussion was also held around what plants should be part of the landscaping, including having an edible garden near the barbecue. The residents have also provided input on alternative construction methods, building color and artwork that will adorn common-area walls. With regard to the latter, the idea is to enliven communal spaces with art. Precita Eyes Muralists, with a distinguished history of creating murals in San Francisco, is being brought in to tackle this task. That community-based organization’s staff will engage in a month-long brainstorming and design process to help residents create artwork that is meaningful to them. These pieces will form the basis for large-scale murals and collages at these Phase 1 properties.
To combat longstanding fears of security issues at these properties, management was aware that the best means to allay such concerns was via an open relationship with tenants. Although the majority of residents have a long history of trust issues with ownership and property management, we are working to help them become more amenable to the services we can provide to strengthen their lives. Rather than beginning by inundating the building with activities and workshops, we first need to make residents feel included in the decision-making process so they feel ownership over the space and programming. Through this process, residents began to feel that their input and interests were valued by the ownership team. As we began unfurling services at the sites, residents trusted that we were taking their interests to heart. They were not suspicious of the providers or contractors, ranging from artists to financial-literacy coaches.
The next step is how to leverage the trust built to continue enriching the lives of residents, further expanding access to resources and reducing social isolation. This remains a challenge for many communities aging in place, and even more so for residents of former public housing.
We are currently in the process of transitioning our engagement activities to be resident led, so as to make them more sustainable as the construction process winds down. Monthly newsletters and coffee hours are already being facilitated by residents, as are Tenant Council meetings. We are also working closely with the services providers to create a diverse range of activities — from exercise classes to storytelling groups — that bring residents together and build a sense of community. Additionally, we are utilizing the design of the landscape areas and on-site artwork as opportunities to generate dialogue and foster residents’ expressing themselves, and to better understand one another.
Finally, we are also working to help residents build the skills to thrive independently and be their own advocates. MEDA’s Financial Capability team has led several preliminary meetings with residents, and will soon begin offering curriculum on financial literacy, job development and asset building. Community Planning staff is developing a comprehensive resident-empowerment program. Through this work, residents will come to understand relevant systems and power structures, and learn how to influence them and advocate for the changes they wish to see for their homes.