An Equity Lens is Imperative to Combat Shortcomings in Housing Policy

Photo: Raul Vasquez, 45-year Mission resident, and now a resident of Casa Adelante – 1296 Shotwell.
Photo by Alejandro Bautista, MEDA

by Director of Community Real Estate Karoleen Feng

For years, the idea and policies around creating fair housing centered on taking race out of the equation. It’s time to bust that myth.

While such an agnostic approach was well intended, decades of continuing disparities in access to stable, quality, affordable housing for communities of color has led to the need to create a new vision for 2020: A vision to intentionally and urgently reintegrate a racial lens to ensure fair housing is in clear view. In high-cost urban areas where neighborhoods have become integrated, gentrification and displacement in the last decade has threatened to re-segregate those same neighborhoods. According to the Census, San Francisco’s Mission District was 50% Latinx by 2000; however, that percentage dropped to 38% by 2013 — a loss of over 8,000 households in a single decade.1 Even more stark was the loss of Latinx families by income level relative to the rise in white, high-income-earning households.

As a polar opposite to race neutrality, the revised equation is as follows:

Race consciousness + cultural validation = equitable housing becoming the law

MEDA’ pivot into affordable housing 
Since 1973, MEDA has been a direct-services provider focused on generational asset building. This model successfully strengthened the Latino and immigrant families of the Mission District, long a welcoming hub for newcomers looking for better opportunities. This model was turned on its head when the neighborhood became popular with another type of newcomer in the form of a six-figure-earning tech worker. A circle of affluence was created, as businesses started catering to these high-earners, with commercial and residential rents skyrocketing.

We started with listening to the housing stories of our families. How they had hopes and dreams and how guilty they felt that they could not provide a better home for their children but were instead forced to constantly move. And how they felt alone in those stories.  

When MEDA became the lead agency of the newly formed Mission Promise Neighborhood (MPN) education Initiative in 2013, tales of housing woes became ubiquitous in our family success coaches’ interactions with parents at their kids’ schools. So a series of housing town halls were held in MPN schools, with palpable fear and collective empathy filling the room as family after family shared their story of housing insecurity. Everyone seemed to know of a family member, friend or neighbor forced out of San Francisco when they lost their rent-controlled apartment. Everyone seemed paralyzed by fear that they would have to uproot their children from the only community they had ever known. The town halls validated community members’ frustrations, and we collectively agreed that we all had to seek solutions to change our future.

So, rather than be paralyzed by the same fear, MEDA was spurred to action.

It was clear that federal, state and even City policies were not keeping race in the equation to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing.2 A community was being decimated, yet there were zero new affordable-housing units produced during that same time.

MEDA’s recommendations and what works

Examining and reframing policies with BIPOC communities at the center. As San Francisco and jurisdictions in California update their Housing Element and their Regional Needs Housing Allocation, they should reframe their policies with Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) at the center. For us, that means organizing and consulting with communities of color in the planning process. What often happens in planning processes is community meetings are held with the intention of asking a broad group of stakeholders about their opinions for the future of their community. Who attends is generally a self-selected group of people from the community who have the resources, time and energy to come to such meetings, with BIPOC voices are talked of or invalidated. Even with language assistance — as the needs and solutions for BIPOC communities require much deeper addressing of the histories and ecosystems that caused the problems — the ensuing plan ends up superficially addressing true challenges. The Mission community has had to self-organize time and time again to either bring people to these meetings or have separate meetings so that we can come with a stronger voice to these conversations. One version of having BIPOC communities at the center is intentionally working with key leaders/anchor groups in the community and funding them to work with the Planning Department and various city agencies (e.g., housing and community development; economic and workforce development; public health) to develop the plan. For instance, for the Mission Action Plan 2020, we sat with the Planning Department to plan and organize the meetings, plus we ensured that the conversations intentionally had overrepresentation of BIPOC stakeholders from as many parts of the community as possible. And to the extent possible, those who attended were compensated in some form, even if just in food, for taking the time to organize and come to the meetings. For many, it was a significant step forward just learning of the implementation of a plan which actually represented a future in which they saw themselves.  Today, five years since Mission Action Plan 2020 was first started as a process, the Mission community is stronger than ever and has developed a strong relationship of accountability with the Planning Department and various agencies within San Francisco City government. 

Funding regulations. Similarly, courageous conversations must be had at the local and state level about nuanced policies for supporting BIPOC communities. For instance, right now we are revising our TCAC and CDLAC regulations for allocating low-income housing tax credits and state-bond allocations. Given how tight our economic outlook looks for the next few years post COVID-19, and what funding looked like during and after the Great Recession, now more than ever is the time to carefully look at the social impacts of where funding would be allocated. That entails those who build the housing being incentivized to look like those or have the lived experiences of those for whom we are building the housing. This means everyone from developers to architects to contractors. 

Neighborhood Preferences. New affordable housing takes five to seven years to build from site control to when residents move in. In the last decade, we have experienced the even-more-rapid erosion of many communities of color, as their residents were pushed out from their neighborhoods: This has occurred from West Oakland to South L.A., from the Mission District to Boyle Heights. For people of color who want to stay in their communities and were part of building, the affordable housing in that community is much needed as a choice when it is finally completed; however, with the race-neutral fair housing lottery system that is in place for almost all new affordable housing, residents compete to stay in their own community. In San Francisco, we began validating the impact of the lottery on demographics in our buildings, leading in 2016 to the passage of a preference for neighborhood residents. With this preference3, 40% of the new apartments are prioritized for residents who live within the supervisorial district or a half mile of the property being built. San Francisco has also added a Displaced Tenant Housing Preference: With this preference, for our first affordable housing that had been built in the Mission in over a decade, 25% of the building was leased up to Latinx seniors from what started as 15% of the pool (photo above of one resident). The success rate of the neighborhood preference begins to address the high level of displacement that has led to the re-segregation of the Mission District. 

Building the capacity of BIPOC-led and centered organizations. For housing policy to truly be race conscious and validate culture, BIPOC-led and centered organizations must be supported and lifted up. Equitable housing starts from developers who have race equity at their core. When we look around at the numbers of affordable-housing developers who have Black leaders or staff, we know they are in the minority. Why, after decades of affordable housing, do we not in California have a generation of strong Black and Brown talent to lead our organizations? The answer is that our race-neutral housing policies support organizations with resources and experiences which fail to focus on people of color or the local community. Housing policies prioritize experience without sustained investment in the resources to establish the experience and keep those organizations running sustainably. When I first started at MEDA, I was struck by the challenge of not just creating an affordable-housing development team from scratch, but also establishing a diverse team filled with a majority of Latinx talent to work in the Mission District. There were very few senior talent from which to draw — talent who held these values and had the technical expertise that it takes to tackle the challenges of affordable housing. Today, we have a team of 17, with 95% people of color, over two-thirds Latinx and over 50% women. This should be what our housing policies are striving to support — developers from community who have the technical expertise to develop affordable housing and sustainable organizational resources to grow. 

Undoing years of race-neutral policies, and the impact of those policies on our communities and families, cannot happen overnight. What MEDA learned was rather than be paralyzed by the fear or worry of the impact, we had to dig deeper and reach out to our allies to challenge policies. We know from the solidarity ignited this summer, and the fresh results of the Breonna Taylor grand jury hearing, that we are all pivoting and changing. We also understand the challenges of having courageous conversations that are open and honest. We must be willing to make change. Let’s do this together, for the sake of our families and our communities. 

1An Assessment of Housing and Housing Affordability in the Mission Promise Neighborhood, Prepared by: National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB) in association with Marquez Community Strategy, 2013.

2.Civil rights law & the displacement crisis in San Francisco’s Mission District, Rene, San & Colfax PLLC and Public Advocates, 2016.


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