Cambios en el Barrio: Community Ownership and Cultural Placekeeping in the Face of Displacement

Photo: San Francisco’s Mission District (pre-COVID-19)

Co-authored by:
Director of Community Real Estate Karoleen Feng
Associate Director of Community Real Estate Johnny Oliver

Project Manager Juan Diego Castro
Project Manager Veronica Lira

Richmond. Vallejo. Modesto. These are just three of the places San Francisco Bay Area Latinos started calling home — but not of their own choice. That’s because gentrification in the city’s Mission District led to many Latinos and immigrants being displaced to these far-flung reaches of the Bay Area. The Mission was for six decades a welcoming hub for newcomers from Mexico, Central America and South America, but that all changed with the rise of tech and the popularity of the neighborhood with those six-figure earners. Rents skyrocketed, and in just a decade 8,000 Latinos were displaced — over 25% of the community. 

Other numbers were equally daunting:

  • Every time a rent-controlled unit was lost, the new market-rate rent averaged $3,500 for a one-bedroom unit.
  • From 2014 to 2016, there were 9,826 evictions filed in San Francisco. (Source: Tenants Together)
  • You could not remain in the Mission if you made under $75,000 household income a year; Latino and immigrant families were making around half of that amount.

As MEDA heard clients’ tales of housing insecurity, our nonprofit had to urgently pivot. Long-term asset building would still be the foundation of our work, but what was needed was affordable housing in a neighborhood that had seen none built in that same decade of displacement of Latinos.

So, MEDA formed a Community Real Estate team in the summer of 2014, who rolled up their sleeves and got to work. 

The goal? To not just stem displacement, but to turn the curve by keeping low-income residents in place, plus bring back some who had not left of their own volition. What was needed were robust strategies, many developed via in-depth brainstorming conversations with City officials. The concept of community ownership of spaces was established.

Community ownership
To foster community ownership, MEDA partnered with affordable-housing developers who had showcased a track record of success. MEDA developed and implemented a three-pronged strategy that met with success, including: preservation of 439 units in five public housing properties via HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, which allows nonprofits to manage and refurbish the developments; production of 557 units of new 100% affordable housing, with one property complete, two in lease up and two poised to break ground soon (557 units); and preservation of 271 units in 34 buildings, harnessing the power of the City of San Francisco Small Sites Program, which allows nonprofits to purchase four to 25-unit rent-controlled apartment buildings with residents and commercials tenants vulnerable to eviction by speculators. That’s a total of 1,269 homes preserved or produced in just six years.

Who lives in these spaces? Forty-four percent are families, with 56% seniors/disabled in the RAD properties and Casa Adelante – 1296 Shotwell, the first affordable-housing development completed by MEDA. 

Of the Small Sites Program units, 55% are Latino households, 4% are teachers, 4% are artists and 10% are Mission Promise Neighborhood families. The latter is a community anti-poverty education initiative for which MEDA is the lead agency. Additionally, 20 small businesses and a pair of longtime Mission nonprofits have been rooted in the neighborhood via the Small Sites Program. This is a quick, targeted approach, keeping tenants in their longtime homes, allocating funds for long-overdue rehabilitation to create quality housing and costing about half as much per unit ($300,000-$400,000) compared to constructing a new unit of affordable housing.

It should be noted that a key component of Small Sites Program purchases is tenant advocacy. MEDA needs tenants to unify in their ask of their landlord to sell to our nonprofit rather than a potential speculator looking to flip the units into tenancies-in-common (TICs). While MEDA offers a fair market price, the issue is time to close. With many cash offers in San Francisco, MEDA cannot compete with such closings, which are typically 15-20 days; conversely, our nonprofit needs 90-120 to close the deal. As many longtime landlords may just be looking to cash out after owning a property for decades, 34 deals have been made, with these landlords resting easy by knowing they did not displace their tenants.

Cultural placekeeping
As MEDA’s community ownership strategies began to successfully maintain in place or bring back low-income Latinos and immigrants, a complementary need was realized: It was not enough to keep residents in the neighborhood, as they also needed the culturally relevant small businesses, nonprofits, and arts & cultural organizations to support their families. We call this cultural placekeeping.

The Mission is La Mision because of the arts and culture that glues the neighborhood together as place. This is more than just the omnipresent murals that grace the walls and alleyways of the neighborhood. It is about anchor institutions that have long supported generations through violence in the community, through displacement, and now to success and wealth-building. Convenings and surveys determined that about 30 such anchor institutions were imperiled, fearing they would have to leave the community they serve.

To combat this possibility, MEDA now has 20 organizations preserved in Small Sites Program spaces or ready to move into our new constructions — organizations that will be able to literally meet community members where they are at. Long-term leases have been signed, some up to 55 years with a purchase option.

While issues of gentrification and its subsequent displacement of low-income BIPOC communities can seem daunting to combat, innovative strategies have been developed and are meeting success. If we can turn the curve of displacement in San Francisco’s Mission District, which is the nation’s epicenter of gentrification, then this model of community ownership and cultural placekeeping can be replicated from Boyle Heights in Los Angeles to Roxbury in Boston … and everywhere in between.

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