MEDA's Four-Pronged Approach to Cultural Placekeeping in a Low-Income Community of Color

Co-authored by:
Director of Community Real Estate Karoleen Feng
Senior Project Manager Feliciano Vera

Many cities across the nation struggle with gentrification and its subsequent displacement of low-income communities of color, but nowhere is this more evident than in San Francisco’s Mission District. This vibrant neighborhood — long a welcoming hub for immigrants from Mexico, Central America and South America — is at the epicenter of income inequality, whereby households with skyrocketing incomes around $130,000 a year pushing out longtime households annually earning an average of $52,000 (Source: Social Explorer – ACS 2017 – Five-Year Estimates).

As MEDA pivoted to combat displacement in the last five years, our organization recognized that to maintain the Latino presence in the Mission we needed to focus not just on stemming the displacement of residents, but also securing and expanding small businesses, nonprofits and arts & cultural institutions.  

It’s taking our work from generating family wealth to fostering community ownership.

For MEDA, community ownership is expressed as: owning real estate that is permanently dedicated for the community (community real estate); providing capital that does not displace (non-displacement capital); and wrapping the neighborhood’s resources around our schools (community schools).

MEDA now showcases comprehensive — not piecemeal — community-development strategies that are reversing this trend of overall displacement. Our social and cultural fabric is the foundation for community development. Our cultural placekeeping approach as integral to the housing, health and economic needs of a neighborhood. This successful, scalable model can be replicated in other urban centers.

Culture and art isn’t created in a vacuum. The Mission’s history of engagement — intergenerational, intercultural and exploratory — actively contributes to the dynamism of its art and artists. Creative and cultural placekeeping is about embedding arts & cultural infrastructure in an already creative community to keep the place (in this case, San Francisco’s Mission District) from disappearing culturally. Placekeepers such as MEDA serve as a community bridge-builder between the various historic communities from throughout Latin America that have defined the cultural identity of this neighborhood and yet find themselves forced to live and work in isolation.

The dire situation of the displacement of the city’s arts community was documented in summer 2015 when the San Francisco Arts Commission conducted a survey of over 600 artists, finding that over 70 percent of respondents had been, or were being, displaced from their workplace or home (some from both). As for the 30 percent who were not being displaced, most expressed fear that could happen in the future.

To showcase the trend of displacement of small businesses, nonprofits and arts & cultural institutions, take the case of the main commercial corridor of the Mission: 30 percent of commercial spaces along Mission Street turned over from 2007 to 2018, as evidenced by MEDA’s corridor surveys to track the deleterious effects of gentrification. In a single decade, the rapid erasure of Latino cultural life along Mission Street was well on its way to completion.

Understanding the urgent need for cultural placekeeping through community ownership, we solidified a four-pronged cultural placekeeping strategy in early 2017. Since implementing these strategies, we have already seen conversation shift around cultural placekeeping, including funding and securing space to keep our arts and small-businesses in place. We are continuing to refine these strategies as we learn from our experience and from our community partners and small businesses.

1. Embedding arts and cultural spaces in affordable housing (new and old)  
In January 2016, MEDA saved the longtime home of Precita Eyes Muralists, responsible for many of the ubiquitous, beloved murals adorning Mission buildings and alleyways. For decades these murals have uniquely identified the Mission as a place and, even today, visually establishes the presence of longtime Latino residents and businesses in the neighborhood. This placekeeping of an arts community was made possible by MEDA harnessing the power of the City’s Small Sites Program, which provides secure and creative financing for nonprofits to buy properties with residential tenants vulnerable to eviction. In the case of Precita Eyes Muralists, their first-floor commercial space was preserved, along with the home of the tenants of the three units above. Residents included a musician, a therapist and educators.

By infill building on formerly underutilized lots, MEDA is also helping nine Mission-based organizations secure and expand into permanent spaces in the community. One such group is Galería de la Raza, with a 45-year legacy in founding the Chicano arts movement, which in 2015 was faced with imminent eviction as the longtime owners of their building decided to significantly increase the commercial lease to take advantage of the economic boom. With MEDA, Galería de la Raza is in the midst of securing a long-term lease for an approximately 7,000-square-foot ground-floor space at 1990 Folsom St., a building MEDA is developing with Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation for 143 affordable rental apartments.

MEDA is also creating multi-tenant centers anchored by locally serving nonprofits. This started a decade ago when MEDA averted its own prospective eviction and bought an old, three-story furniture store and brought it back to life as a vibrant neighborhood center, Plaza Adelante. This building was recently reimagined, now showcasing spaces for: MEDA’s staff of 75, including the Mission Promise Neighborhood team; seven microbusiness incubator spaces, including a trio of 100-square-foot food stalls to be fronted by a neighborhood meeting hall; and six nonprofit spaces.  

Recently, MEDA made bids on two buildings that are largely occupied by nonprofits. If we can successfully acquire these properties, we would fortify them as Mission-based multi-tenant nonprofit centers, as a means for cultural placekeeping. One is the Redstone Building, home to 20 longtime nonprofits and artists who would be displaced not from just the Mission, but from San Francisco, if a speculator flips the building into tech offices. The second is Mission Language & Vocational School, where we would help regain community ownership after a prolonged legal battle to dissect the building space. With both of these properties, MEDA could secure underutilized space to retain vital Mission-based community organizations and make them permanently invulnerable to displacement.

2. Strengthening the Mission, corridor by corridor  
With our allies, MEDA is also connecting the Mission, focusing our efforts on key corridors that are the arterials of public life: Mission Street; 16th Street; and 24th Street.

Looking forward, via the Mission Artivism initiative with Galería de la Raza, we will solidify one mile of 16th Street (between Mission and Bryant streets), anchored by affordable-housing developments at 1990 Folsom St. and 681 Florida St. During the next two years, until these currently empty sites are rebuilt, artists and arts groups will activate these spaces and integrate the voices of Latino community to imagine a new future for both these sites and the corridor.

MEDA, as part of 16-organization-strong United to Save the Mission (USM), is currently working with the City to create a cultural district along the Mission Street commercial corridor, with boundaries still being determined. This would be an expansion of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District along the neighboring 24th Street commercial corridor, thereby extending similar protections to culturally relevant legacy businesses.

MEDA, with USM, also seeks community benefits from new businesses via a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) process, which help ensure new businesses continue to cater to the existing working class Latino residents of the neighborhood and not just to newer affluent residents. While each MOU looks different based on the specific business, community benefits often include local-hire commitments, affordable price points, Spanish menus and bilingual staff, and even agreements to commission murals by neighborhood artists. There have been numerous successes to date, as showcased in this SF Weekly article.

In December 2018, MEDA and community allies successfully got a proposal passed for a geography-specific Special-Use District (SUD), limiting alcohol-based enterprises in certain areas of the Mission; these ventures had the effect of both creating a destination neighborhood and driving up real estate values while replacing family-serving businesses. There is currently work to limit the number of cannabis dispensaries in the Mission, which also have the unfortunate potential to drive up real estate values and displace current commercial tenants, as there has been an increase in requested permits since California voters legalized recreational marijuana use in November 2016.

3. Policy and advocacy  
Before MEDA and the Mission community reignited anti-displacement advocacy in the early 2010s, affordable housing had not been built for over a decade. At the time, City Hall’s prevailing attitude toward the Mission was “neighborhoods change, and this is just another round of change for the neighborhood.” Planners and policymakers took gentrification and displacement for granted because the Mission had already been impacted by the dot-com boom in the 1990s. Without changes to current policies and neighborhood infrastructure, the economic boom would continue to overwhelm families, businesses, artists and organizations fighting to stay in the Mission.

MEDA jump-started the collaborative planning for Mission Action Plan 2020, an intentional, rapid response — yet comprehensive — plan between community advocates, longtime neighborhood activists and City staff to identify potential solutions for the residents, arts organizations, nonprofits and family-serving businesses being displaced in the Mission. We recognized in 2015 that small concessions and incremental policy changes were not going to be sufficient for the level of unprecedented displacement the Mission was experiencing.

One initiative that came out of the Mission Action Plan 2020 was Proposition X, a ballot measure spearheaded by MEDA and passed by San Francisco voters in November 2016. Prop X called for limiting the conversion of Production, Distribution and Repair (PDR) spaces, which run the gamut from auto-repair shops and light manufacturing to warehouse spaces for artists, so that buildings that were used for these spaces could not be completely converted into market-rate developments.

Through coalitions, MEDA supports community benefits advocacy against large, market-rate developments converting PDR spaces to luxury developments. Through these efforts, we are ensuring the resulting developments maintain significant PDR space and mitigate for the erosion of jobs and artist space that are vital to the cultural life of the Mission.

4. Access to non-displacement capital
Many of our local Latino small-business owners cannot obtain financing from traditional lenders, creating significant obstacles to both the creation of an asset and, down the road, generational wealth and power-building for Latinos. In the immediate term, this prevents small businesses from making the investments needed to adapt to changes in the neighborhood and broader economic forces. That is why in fall 2015 MEDA launched Fondo Adelante, which since its inception has disbursed nearly $2.5 million via 85 loans. This community loan fund complements the small-business technical assistance MEDA has provided since our founding in 1973.

In early 2017, Fondo Adelante became a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), and has since begun an ambitious capitalization campaign to scale its small-business lending and to forge into real estate lending. This expansion will enable MEDA to protect more Mission buildings that are home to nonprofits and arts & cultural centers.

By aggregating capital through our CDFI, MEDA is enabling capital deployment decisions to be made closer to the ground, at the neighborhood level, instead of by banks and non-local CDFIs. This means that small-business owners have access to flexible, low-cost financing and tailored business support. It ensures that our undocumented immigrant entrepreneurs in the Mission are not discriminated against in lending decisions. Finally, Fondo Adelante is able to develop real estate loan products that respond to the need for rapid-acquisition financing, which allows organizations such as MEDA to be competitive in purchasing the land and buildings that house our neighborhood’s artists and local-serving nonprofits.

MEDA vows to continue to be at the vanguard of creative strategies for the creative community, as we strengthen community social and cultural fabric. It is all about the building of cultural ownership — through capital, political decision-making and literal ownership of real estate — and it is a replicable model for other low-income communities of color facing displacement and erasure.

This four-pronged strategy has stabilized the Mission, enabling us to be the first urban neighborhood in the country to begin to reverse the trends of gentrification.


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