San Francisco housing dreams haunted by debt

San Francisco Chronicle wrote an article about the importance of financial capability services and a collective effort to ensure housing for a San Francisco family. For MEDA’s credit building services call 415.282.3334 x115 or email

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By Marisa Lagos
Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Ramirez family dreamed about a home of their own for years as they battled unemployment and homelessness.

They’ve slept in cars and on couches, used park bathrooms to bathe and attempted to move to other cities for work. For the past six months, Yesenia and Christopher Ramirez, their 3-year-old daughter, Emily, and their 18-month-old son, Joshua, have lived in a tiny room at a Tenderloin shelter run by Hamilton Family Center.

In August, they won the lottery. But in San Francisco’s housing market, winning the lottery isn’t always enough – even when homeless families are given the chance at a permanent space, debt and other past economic decisions can come back to haunt them, making it difficult for city officials and nonprofits to help. And in the current rental market, the problem could get worse.

The Ramirezes were one of 38 households randomly chosen to rent a below-market-rate unit at NEMA, a 754-unit luxury condominium development in the burgeoning Mid-Market neighborhood. Just steps from Twitter’s offices, the sleek, two-tower development, marketed as “tech-savvy and design-driven,” is worlds away from the sparse room the family has called home since June.

Credit score low

Soon after, Christopher Ramirez got a job as a dishwasher, and the family thought they’d be able to afford the discounted $1,066 rent and move into NEMA by Christmas. But in October, the Ramirezes were notified that they were 29 points short of the building’s minimum credit score and the unit would go to someone else.

“It was very emotional, very frustrating,” said Yesenia Ramirez. “We thought we were going to have a home. We felt we needed to do more, so we started asking people to advocate for us.”

The family went to Supervisor Jane Kim, whose district includes the Hamilton shelter and the NEMA development. She got involved, as did the mayor’s office.

Through the website HandUp, which facilitates donations for food and services, Bevan Dufty, the mayor’s director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement, helped raise more than $800 to pay off the family’s debt. Kim raised an additional $1,300 at an event.

The Mayor’s Office of Housing persuaded NEMA managers to extend the application deadline. The nonprofit Mission Economic Development Agency worked with the family to help raise its credit score. Hamilton Family Center offered to sign a promissory note to guarantee the first year’s rent.

Still, NEMA’s management said its hands were tied by the credit score requirement. Eventually, Dufty personally cosigned the lease with the Ramirezes.

They will now have a home by Christmas. But hundreds of other homeless families will not.

“It was heroic of Bevan,” Kim said, “but ultimately it’s very sad. … It’s not clear how many families are in the situation and gave up. It’s clear that there’s a gap in the city’s inclusionary housing policy.”

That policy requires developers of large buildings to either pay a fee to the city for the development of affordable housing or build low- and moderate-income units themselves. There are 627 of these units in the city, and an additional 518 are in the pipeline.

230 homeless families

Still, the Ramirezes’ story underscores the city’s challenge in housing its approximately 230 homeless families.

A staggering 41 percent of San Franciscans have subprime credit scores – considered to be anything below 700 – according to a 2010 report by the Treasurer’s Office. And families plagued by homelessness and poverty often have other black marks on their records – evictions, debt, criminal histories – or a lack of cash for a deposit.

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