The battle for San Francisco’s Midtown Park

February 19, 2016

Residents of an apartment complex in San Francisco are fighting back against a drive to evict them, explain Bruno Ruviaro, Julien Ball and David Russitano.

A FIGHT over affordable housing is brewing in San Francisco, where skyrocketing rent and a growing homeless population both underscore the crisis for the city's poor and working-class residents.

At the city-owned Midtown Park apartment complex, 65 families have seen their rent raised significantly. For some, it has been raised 30 percent--for others, it was jacked up more than 300 percent. In response, many residents are engaging in an ongoing rent strike.

The Midtown Park apartment complex used to be run by residents as a cooperative. From 1968 to 2013, Midtown was leased to its tenants by the city of San Francisco. The Midtown tenants' council used to set rents, and its members considered housing a right. After years of neglect by the city, the Mayor's Office of Housing turned the administration over to Catholic nonprofit Mercy Housing in 2013. The city cited tens of millions of dollars in repairs that needed to be made as one of the reasons for the transfer.

Despite its name and its mission statement stating that it serves low-income communities, Mercy Housing has been anything but merciful to the residents of Midtown.

Midtown residents and their supporters gather for a rent control rally
Midtown residents and their supporters gather for a rent control rally (San Francisco Bay View)

Rent hikes are now threatening to drive out many Midtown renters. Since Midtown is not an "affordable housing" development per se, tenants do not qualify for subsidized housing under city standards. With the new management, they also don't qualify for rent control laws in San Francisco.

WHEN MIDTOWN was built in the 1960s, the city promised that residents would own their units once the mortgage had been fully paid off. However, when the property was turned over to Mercy Housing California, it reneged on all of the previous expectations of ownership. Mercy Housing has revealed plans to eventually demolish the Midtown Park apartment buildings.

"For the last two years, Mercy California has ignored tenants' grievances and embarked on a campaign of intimidation and abuse," explained Juanita Clay, a 25-year Midtown resident.

To fight the scandalous rent raises and other abuses, the families have formed the Save Midtown movement to organize their resistance. They describe their own history in the following words:

Midtown is a close-knit working-class community of longtime Black residents as well as immigrants from all over the world, including fixed-income seniors, disabled veterans and children. Some tenants have lived at Midtown for over 40 years.

Not a public housing project, Midtown Apartment Complex is the only city-owned apartment complex in San Francisco--a community earmarked for working-class citizens. What began as predominantly African American, Midtown now is a diverse community of 300 residents that are representative of our vibrant city with Asian, Russian and African immigrants among them. Since its inception in 1968, Midtown residents were promised an eventual co-ownership of the complex as they dutifully paid off mortgage to the city enjoying rent control protection.

As one of the sharpest struggles against gentrification in San Francisco today, a victory by Midtown residents would represent a victory for all working-class San Franciscans fighting against displacement. In December 2015, the San Francisco Labor Council passed a resolution supporting Midtown residents, stating that Mercy Housing is engaged "in a campaign of harassment and intimidation against tenants who are active in the fightback [against rent increases]."

At the time of this writing, more than 1,200 people have signed a petition supporting Midtown residents. The petition's demands include termination of Mercy Housing's contract as property manager and a re-commitment by the Mayor's Office of Housing to the city's prior promises of home ownership.

Midtown residents have organized numerous protests at City Hall and often support and participate in other related struggles in the city, such as the Justice for Mario Woods movement.

THIS ISN'T the first time that many of the Midtown residents have faced eviction. The Midtown complex itself was a concession won at the time of San Francisco's racist "redevelopment" policies of the 1950s and 1960s, which razed the Western Addition--the most vibrant African American neighborhood in San Francisco at the time.

After the Second World War, liberals and business elites alike pushed for so-called urban renewal projects in American cities. Entire neighborhoods were demolished, with older buildings replaced by bigger new buildings.

These highly profitable enterprises for developers were disguised as attempts to lower crime, improve the economy and raise the standard of living in "blighted areas" of cities. For the majority of longtime residents of such areas, however, the promised benefits never materialized, resulting in displacement of thousands of families who could not afford to come back to the "renewed" areas.

Urban renewal came to San Francisco in 1947, when the San Francisco Planning Commission submitted a proposal for bulldozing and rebuilding a 36-block section of the Western Addition neighborhood. In an article titled "How Urban Renewal Destroyed The Fillmore In Order to Save It", journalist Walter Thompson writes:

Those opposed to redevelopment had little recourse in a pre-Civil Rights era; the neighborhood had scant political clout, and most residents were tenants, not homeowners.

The residents of the heavily African-American neighborhood had also, by no accident, been precluded from getting home loans that would have helped them buy their own homes (Meanwhile, racist homeowner groups in booming nearby suburbs like Palo Alto were also working hard to ensure that "white flight" from the city stayed white.)

Starting in the 1920s and 30s, federal housing agencies distributed color-coded "residential safety maps" so banks could identify the best places to back mortgages. Areas with old buildings or the "threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro or lower grade population" like the Fillmore were outlined in red, a warning against granting loans there.

In describing the fate of what was once known as "the Harlem of the West"--a highly diverse neighborhood and a center of African American culture--Thompson concludes:

The number of African Americans displaced from the Western Addition as a result of urban renewal is unknown, but estimates start at 10,000 people. Less quantifiable is the cultural aftermath; a once-thriving district studded with minority-owned businesses, nightclubs and hotels in the heart of San Francisco now exists mostly in faded photos and oral histories.

That is the historical backdrop for the building of the Midtown Park Apartments in 1964. The 139-unit, three-story project was financed by the city of San Francisco, and residents were promised they would own their apartments once the city's mortgage was paid off. "Own your own," said the original sales brochure.

More than half a century later, those promises of home ownership remain unfulfilled. Midtown families are still renters in 2016 and still fighting against the threat of displacement--or rather, fighting displacement again.

Clay, the longtime Midtown resident, connects the past redevelopment bulldozers that knocked down Black homes with today's struggle:

Our friends and allies invented Black Lives Matter. We say that you can't say that Black Lives Matter without saying that Black Homes Matter. Without a strong community, deeply rooted in its neighborhood, we are bound to be displaced--we are at the whim of the powers that be. We need to preserve, cherish and expand the last 3 percent of the Black population in San Francisco--otherwise, one day we'll be all gone.

THE STRUGGLE to save Midtown Park fits into the larger crisis of housing and inequality in San Francisco.

Rents have been on the rise for years. San Francisco is the most expensive American city for renters: The average monthly rent of a one-bedroom unit is a whopping $3,500, a 250 percent increase since 2010. This is more than the whole starting salary of a unionized San Francisco teacher.

More and more, working-class families simply have no other place to go but to the far-flung reaches of the Bay Area. Additionally, there are now 30,000 homeless people in the city, of which 3,300 are students in the San Francisco Unified School District. Sixty percent of the homeless population had jobs when they lost their housing.

The housing market is literally taking people out their jobs and making them homeless because they can't keep up with renting in this city. Initiatives like the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project have been documenting alarming numbers of evictions, many of them by landlords looking to get rid of longtime tenants in order to benefit from higher new leases.

Structural racism in this supposedly liberal city has made the crisis particularly harsh for people of color. For example, the financial crash of 2008 has played a significant role in the continued erosion of Black families' wealth. Many of them were homeowners and had significant money invested in their homes. They were targeted by Wells Fargo and other banks into refinancing their homes with predatory loans. When the bubble burst, it wiped out most of the wealth owned by Black families.

Black income in San Francisco is absurdly low compared to the rest of the state. In 2014, the median household income for white families in San Francisco was $104,364, whereas for Black families it was $29,503--a gap of nearly $75,000.

Compare that with the average for the state of California as a whole: $73,017 income for white families against $42,509 for Black families. At $30,000, that's still a glaring difference, but it's significantly less than the gap in San Francisco. Overall, Black families do worse in San Francisco than in any other city in California.

Racist police practices have resulted in a jail population that is 50 percent Black, a hugely disproportionate number for a city with a 3 percent Black population. The recent killing of Mario Woods by San Francisco police is the latest case highlighting the ongoing racist assault on Black people.

All of this starkly underlines the need for change in our city and the importance of the fight at Midtown. We desperately need a movement that treats housing as a right. This will mean taking on City Hall, the developers and the racist police. It will take people of all walks of life living and working here coming together.

The Midtown housing fight is not just about housing; it's deeply intertwined with the fight against structural racism and inequality in San Francisco.

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