Tenderloin tenants strategize against housing crisis
by Peter Hernandez
Not far from Twitter's gleaming headquarters, yet surrounded by looming cranes and prevalent squalor, some 150 people met recently to talk about housing and living issues in the Tenderloin and to strategize methods for combating the dynamic housing crisis in San Francisco.
At last month's Tenderloin Tenants Convention, Tenderloin workers and residents described their neighborhood as vibrant, eclectic, central, and service-rich. Organizers say that an increasing cost of living, an exponential increase in Ellis Act evictions, and insubstantial returns to the community from the towering tech industry in the nearby South of Market district jeopardize those qualities.
"They're going to be here for better or for worse. How do we keep them accountable, talk about the wealth that's not being taxed, and get the city to take responsibility for what they created?" asked Hatty Lee, a community organizer at Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation.
Lee and several other nonprofit workers fielded questions at the workshop, asking what people liked and disliked about the neighborhood, then asking for solutions to those issues. People offered solutions like improved mediation between tenants and landlords and low interest loans to renters for buying their own building from their landlord.
Ideas that were discussed at a Castro Tenants Convention, also held last month, were allowing tenants to purchase their building from a speculator to prevent displacement, placing a moratorium on Ellis Act evictions, restricting rent to 30 percent of the neighborhood's median income, and placing a 100 percent tax on excessively high rent.
But these approaches are far from seeing legislative fruition. Supervisors Jane Kim and David Campos were present at the Tenderloin convention to observe the frustrations felt by Tenderloin residents. This week, Campos introduced legislation to help tenants evicted under the Ellis Act, a state law that allows landlords to get out of the rental business. [See related story.]
"Even higher income people are feeling pressure because of this housing crisis because there are so many buildings developed post-1979 in South of Market," Kim said while surveying the crowd. Buildings constructed after 1979 do not qualify for rent control and many are in SOMA and the Tenderloin, which are part of Kim's district.
Tenderloin and SOMA have a unique amalgam of widespread poverty and an influx of new wealth. Kim said that she wants to see 30 percent of all housing in her district become affordable.
Peter Cohen, of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, said that presently there is a need for 61 percent affordable housing in Kim's district, with very low- to moderate-income people making up to 120 percent of the area's median income. That means there is an overwhelming need for affordable housing even for families making up to $120,000 a year, said Kim.
Campos, who represents the Mission district, initiated an analysis of tenant displacement in October and introduced legislation calling for an increase of tenant relocation assistance, which can currently cost up to $5,100 per person today but would increase according to the difference between the pre- and post-eviction housing rates.
Campos's analysis found that 42 percent of tenants displaced in 2012 were disabled, and many who are debilitated by AIDS-related complications who have found refuge in the network of services and housing aid in the Tenderloin are in danger of being displaced by Ellis Act evictions. Citywide, according to an October 2013 memo to Campos from legislative and budget analyst Fred Brousseau, such evictions have increased by 170 percent between 2010 and 2013.
Participants at the convention sought engagement with the tech industry, seeking youth tech training programs and monetary donations for nonprofits that work with the chronically ill and homeless. They also wanted a cleaner and safer Tenderloin – not far from the desires of tech workers like former AngelHack CEO Greg Gopman, who demeaned the homeless on Market Street in a Facebook rant last year.
"How can we get people from what they don't like to what we can do about it?" asked Fernando Marti, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, an organization of 20 nonprofit housing organizations and faith-based groups.
Meanwhile, Bobby Chambers, a 45-year-old entrepreneur who has worked in tech, participated in the convention as a note-taker. He feverishly scrawled laments from Tenderloin tenants on oversized white paper, with a list reading, "Dislikes: Pedestrian safety, diminishing services, feces" and others.
A newcomer to San Francisco via Dublin, Chambers sees himself as a liaison between tenant advocates and tech. Seven months ago he moved into a high-rise apartment at Geary and Jones, where the nearby Geary Courtyard Apartments charge $3,000 for a one-bedroom apartment. He got into a legal feud with his landlord, who wanted him out, and now empathizes with the tenant movement.
Brian Basinger, director of AIDS Housing Alliance/San Francisco, said that Mayor Ed Lee encouraged gentrification in the Tenderloin with the Community Arts Stabilization Trust. Those funds purchased several arts buildings in District 6, encouraging higher rents and luxury housing development. Alongside tax exemptions for large tech companies, Lee's multi-pronged approach to redeveloping the Mid-Market and Tenderloin area has culminated in rising rent for both nonprofit office space and for housing units, he said.
"You don't even need a degree in urban planning to understand what [CAST] is supposed to do. It's radically changing economic diversity," Basinger said.
A citywide tenants convention will be held at the Tenderloin Elementary School at Turk and Van Ness streets on February 8 at 1 p.m.