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Co-op fire puts affordable housing at risk for displaced artists and workers


Joseph Becker, left, and Gibbs Chapman and his 14-month old son, Jhun Lee, stand in front of the charred remnants of their former home, an artists’ live-work building on Stevenson Street. Photo by Frank Ladra / Bay News Rising

by Mary Strope          


Tucked away on a mural-covered, hidden alley in the Southern part of the city’s Mission district, former tenants of an artists’ live-work building listened to Tracy Parent explain the co-op model.

Displaced by a January fire, the group contacted Parent when the Stevenson Street building, which is not zoned for housing, went up for sale. It has been occupied by artists for more than 40 years.

“It’s very hard to get the city to wrap its head around new, innovative models,” Parent said as she distributed a new floor plan for the damaged building.

Meeting attendees ask how the living space be laid out. Can tenants have roommates? What about guests and subletters? How will decisions about the property be made?

Some of the answers are still up in the air, Parent explained. Bringing buildings up to code in regulation-heavy San Francisco may affect how living spaces are laid out. And subletters, if allowed, may be subject to the same rules as permanent residents. But ultimately, many decisions relating to running the co-op will fall to its tenants.

As the organizational director of the San Francisco Community Land Trust, Parent connects and coordinates potential co-op tenants. The Trust offers everything from third-party housing inspectors, architects and lawyers, to education and technical assistance necessary for a smooth transition to co-op.

Co-ops vary — some are subject to market-rate rents — but the Trust fosters the development of those that are nonprofit-owned and resident-controlled. In essence, they take land off a highly speculative market to create secure housing for both present and future tenants.

The nonprofit establishes a 99-year lease to insure long-term security. Residents will vote on future rent increases, keeping affordability in mind and using a built-in system to account for inflation. Advocates say it is one of the few ways to empower low- and moderate-income earners in today’s housing market.

Joseph Becker, an architect, designer, consultant, photographer and design/build fabricator, lived at Stevenson for a decade until the displacement. Becker works at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as a curator of architecture and design. After the fire, he contacted the San Francisco Rent Board and the Mayor’s Office of Housing for assistance, and hit a bureaucratic wall.

“It is Kafka-esque confusion,” he said of the government’s process. “I’ve never felt that an agency was going to offer me a solution.”

Once, displaced tenants were pushed to other neighborhoods. Today, they are pushed out of the city, or the Bay Area entirely. And this time, many are members of a dwindling middle class that includes skilled trade workers, medical professionals, teachers and other government employees.

“I’m an arts professional, working for one of the most admired nonprofit institutions in the city,” Becker said. “And yet I cannot afford to live here.”

Longtime housing activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca sympathizes.

“We’re in the midst of one of the biggest housing disasters on this planet,” said Mecca, who is also director of counseling programs at the Housing Rights Commission of San Francisco.

The issue has drawn national attention. Mecca is preparing for an upcoming FOX News interview. He hopes to emphasize the fact that a full quarter of San Franciscans live in poverty, and a median rent of $3,200 and staggering $1 million median home price are major contributing factors.

Politicians are scrambling to adopt new housing measures to counteract the crunch. This June, Mayor Ed Lee announced a ballot initiative called Build Housing Now, a plan to add 30,000 new homes, with half of them permanently set aside as affordable, by 2020.

In many parts of the country, a worker’s yearly salary of $34,000 would be more than enough to cover rent for a modest one-bedroom apartment. In San Francisco, that same worker tops the very low-income-earner category as calculated by the city’s Average Median Income Index.

For those who qualify as very low-income-earners, a maximum monthly rent of $971 would be considered “affordable” for a one-bedroom unit, leaving an astonishing affordability gap of $2,229 for those paying market-rate.

Gibbs Chapman, a recording engineer, filmmaker and writer who moved to Stevenson Street in 1991, doesn’t subscribe to the idea that artists are more deserving of affordable rent than working people.

After surviving the first dot-com boom, he sees the process of eviction and displacement as a continuation of the same mindset that launched the colonization of much of the world by a handful of nations and spurred westward expansion in the U.S.

“I wish I could afford to own a place in the city I choose to live in,” Chapman said. Like many, he dreams not just of an affordable place to live, but a spacious home with room enough to house his work and family.

Despite a booming economy — at least for some — how the city will pay for proposed affordable housing is anyone’s guess. Pro-business sectors promise that everyone will benefit from the influx of tech jobs, but the boom has left a majority of San Franciscans behind.

While Avicolli Mecca supports the new $15 hourly minimum wage proposal, he suggests $30 to $35 an hour is more realistic for a person to live even modestly in the 415 area code (A report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition pegs the range at $30 to $37).

In San Francisco, nonprofits are largely responsible for raising affordable housing funds. A 2014 report by The Mayor’s Office of Housing shows the city will pay for only a third of the nearly 1,800 proposed units, a fraction that includes maintenance, preservation as well as new construction.

Meanwhile, federal funds have all but disappeared, and state funding and assistance have also decreased.

Two years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown dissolved California’s 400 controversial redevelopment agencies, citing the need to protect funds for core public services. Although he cast them as corrupt and wasteful, the agencies nevertheless contributed about $1 billion a year to affordable housing — a fifth of their total funding. Their elimination created a major financing gap.

On the legislative front, a bill proposed by State Sen. Mark Leno to counteract the city’s Ellis Act evictions recently died in the California Senate, prompting many activists to shift their focus to the local level.

“There is definitely not sufficient funding,” said Rick Lewis, executive director of the Bay Area Community Land Trust, which works both with Parent’s organization and with other groups throughout the Bay Area. “Federal funding has virtually gone away.”

At the state level, “it’s possible but pretty difficult,” he said. “We try to patch together private funding, and try to get some small amount of local funds.”

Regulations can enmire both state and city funding. A recent 14-bedroom co-op conversion Lewis worked on was rejected as too large to qualify for the government’s Small Sight Acquisition Fund. The Trust turned to other sources for capital.

The Mayor’s office is looking to the city’s Housing Trust Fund, established in 2012, which would redistribute tax increments meant for housing specifically to affordable housing and infrastructure improvements. Mayor Lee proposed that a third of the fund go towards Housing Authority Projects as part of Build Housing Now, with other sources only vaguely lined out.

Egon Terplan of SPUR, another major housing nonprofit, said the group is largely funded by members. The Regional Prosperity Plan, a federal program under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, finances regional work for many nonprofits, but at $5 million total offered over a 3-year span, it’s doubtful to make a significant impact.

If the government subsidizes affordable housing in San Francisco, it is likely to be on the city level and account for a minority of total supply. Even in these supposed boom times, nonprofits cannot begin to keep up with displacement and evictions, and even the mayor’s Build Housing Now plan comes without a clear source of capital.

Lacking a major federal, city or state plan to assist with the housing crisis, the city of San Francisco will have to compete with real estate developers, speculators and wealthy home buyers who pay in cash – those who are remaking the city and wield the most power.

“My heart lies with changing the way we do things,” Avicolli Mecca said. “I don’t see the market crashing anytime soon.”

For the members of the potential co-op on Stevenson Street, their future lies with the decision of their building’s landlord, who will choose whether to sell to the Trust. Like so many other affordable housing projects in the city, most of the work will be left to nonprofits.


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This entry was posted on August 22, 2014 by .
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