The Struggle for Public and Affordable Housing in Midtown, San Francisco

By Worker’s Voice

At the end of 2017, after almost 2 years of tireless and militant struggle by the residents of Midtown Park Apartments, San Francisco’s Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH) and Mercy Housing were forced to come together to hear residents’ and community allies’ concerns over demolition plans. During large public meetings held in October and November, tenants and their supporters mobilized to send a strong message that rejected the proposed demolition plan and reaffirmed their commitment to fight instead for equity ownership.
Initially, both MOH and Mercy Housing refused to budge, insisting on moving forward with plans to demolish all buildings and replacing them with high-density, mixed income units with retail on the ground floor. Since that time however, they have been pushed back by the struggle to revise their demolition plans. This revision, while a huge victory, is only a partial success since it still calls for the demolition of at least one of the buildings at Midtown. The demand for equity ownership remains central because it it the only way to safeguard against what has historically happened at Midtown. Namely, broken promises and selling residents out to developers.
On a broader scale, the struggle at Midtown is key to fighting the privatization of public housing in San Francisco and reversing a growing trend of privatizing public housing across the nation: we need real public housing for SF workers.

Midtown Park Apartments: A victory in the face of redevelopment

Midtown Park Apartments is located in San Francisco’s Western Addition-Fillmore neighborhood. In 1948 when the Fillmore was declared a “blighted” neighborhood by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, it was a vibrant district – internationally renowned for its jazz venues and clubs, and home to a wealth of Black-owned homes and businesses. None of this mattered to local politicians though and 10 years after this designation, the City’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA) – headed by Justin Herman – began acquiring properties in the area through eminent domain and bulldozing them. Over the next 20 years, one hundred square blocks were lost – 883 small businesses were closed, 2,500 Victorian homes were demolished, and nearly 30,000 residents were displaced – most of them permanently.
Residents responded to this devastation with sharp resistance, forming the Western Addition Community Organization (WACO) in 1967. With deep roots in the working class communities of color targeted by the racism of redevelopment, WACO waged a determined struggle against Justin Herman and the RDA’s vision of the Fillmore. Herman lamented over what he characterized as a “passing flurry of proletarianism” as WACO mobilized community pressure to prevent displacement and to win some notable legal fights.
In the context of this devastation, and thanks to strong community organizing and persistent pressure, Midtown Park Apartments opened in 1968. One of nearly 30 affordable housing properties built following redevelopment, Midtown was opened with the intention of reducing the impact of redevelopment through offering affordable, relocation housing to those displaced.
Today, Midtown is home to 139 families consisting of long-term Western Addition-Fillmore residents, Asian, Latino, and Eastern European immigrants, seniors, and veterans. Nearly one-quarter of those at Midtown have lived there since it’s opening in 1968. Midtown residents are largely working class, and after surviving the ruins of Justin Herman’s civic redevelopment, they are again forced to fight his legacy of racist, anti-working class policies aimed at removing them from San Francisco.

Reclassification of Midtown: From Ownership to Public Housing

In 2007, the Board of Supervisors adopted resolution 325-07 titled, “The principles that will guide the City and Midtown Park Apartments’ residents in formulating a long-term ownership structure and development plan for Midtown Park Apartments, a 140-unit residential development owned by the City and County of San Francisco.”
Citing the historical promise of ownership, the continued diversity of residents, and the property’s role in keeping working class people housed in San Francisco, the then Board of Supervisors publicly affirmed their commitment to make good on the City’s promise of ensuring homeownership as a way to prevent further displacement. And, although owned by the city of San Francisco, Midtown Park was unique in that it was not classified or operated as public housing and it’s rents were set by existing rent control laws.
In December 2013, just two days before Christmas, Midtown residents were notified that their lease with the City had been terminated. Midtown Park Corporation – the tenant-run board responsible for managing day-to-day operations at Midtown for decades – was stripped of all power. One month following, in January 2014, the City transferred the lease to Mercy Housing – Northern California’s largest, development-oriented, housing nonprofit.
Since that time, Mercy Housing has implemented policies common to public housing properties but unheard of at Midtown including regulations on overnight guests, restrictions on use of common spaces, and, most important to understanding the motivation behind the transfer of the lease, income certification.

Income Certification vs. Rent Control: The Privatization of Public Housing

The city is using tricky tactics to cover up the privatization of public housing, using a 2012 federal housing policy, Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), approved by the Obama administration and continued by Trump. RAD established income certification of public housing tenants as the criteria for distributing federal housing funds to local housing agencies. Income certification, which appears to be nothing more than an innocent bureaucratic step, is used as a way to “regulate” rents but it operates differently than rent control laws. Income certification requires tenants to certify their income annually to their landlord, whereas rent control does not determine which percentage of wages should go to rent, it is just intended to keep the rent at an affordable price. Subsidized rents are set at 30% of the documented income. For all but 33 of the 139 families at Midtown this new regulation meant a sharp increase in rents – in some cases as high as 300%.
In 2012, the RAD program was unveiled by HUD and was marketed as an “innovative” solution to the housing crisis faced by many states. RAD allows for cities to transfer their public housing stock to private operators in order to access private financing to address federal budget shortcomings. To be sure, these shortcomings are very real and drastic. Even without looking at the data, anyone who has lived in public housing can tell you that due to years of neglect by cities their homes are nearly uninhabitable. A study conducted by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found that between 2006 and 2016, HUD’s budget for public housing repairs decreased by 53%. In 2017, the budget for public housing repairs was just $1.9 billion compared to 2000’s budget of $4 billion.

SF Mayor Office and SF Developers Are Benefiting From This Privatization Push

Despite years of Midtown residents’ rents being subject to San Francisco’s rent control laws – and documented proof of the application of this law – Mercy Housing and the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH) have refused to concede the demand that rents be returned to their original rates.
Looking at numbers it’s no surprise why the City has chosen to favor income certification over rent control. The sale of just two buildings at Midtown will bring in $91 million in profit, $60 million of which comes in the form of income tax credits. These income tax credits are part of RAD and HUD will only grant them to cities for certified, public housing units.
While most cities have parceled off their public housing stock in increments, San Francisco went all in – transferring 100% of public housing stock to private operators by 2015. This public-private collaboration was rolled out with certain supposedly “progressive” caveats in San Francisco – namely, that all public stock transferred, be sold to non-profits for managing. So, while the city still owns the land that public housing sits on – including at present the land at Midtown – the lease is held and run by nonprofit developers.

Real Public Housing for Working Class Families – The Socialist Perspective

As socialists, we reject the premise that the only solution to the housing crisis is a partnership between public and private entities. We support instead, a real public housing policy, controlled and operated by the individuals who live and work in this city. You don’t have to look very far for where funding for a social housing program would come from either. In 2014, it’s estimated that the city lost nearly $34 million in tax revenue thanks to the late Ed Lee’s Central Market/Tenderloin Payroll Tax Exclusion – also known as the twitter tax. Rather than force the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, the city has gone out of their way to make life more livable for them at the expense of working class people and their families.
This is not a crisis of funding but rather of priorities. If, for example, the federal government has $700 billion for war, then they surely have more than enough money to not only provide affordable housing for every single person who needs it, but to maintain that housing through regular maintenance and repairs. The allure of the affordable housing solution posed by the City and supported by non-profits is strong given the depth of this crisis. Working class and poor people however, need and deserve a better alternative.
What is needed to challenge and overcome the limitations of the solution imposed by the federal government, and supported by non-profit developers, is a militant, independent fight back. Such a struggle would demand the immediate transfer of ownership to the residents at Midtown, the protection and expansion of rent control laws, an emergency moratorium on evictions and, the expropriation of all empty apartments. This alternative will not come from city hall and is instead possible only through a united front of tenants, housing rights activists, socialists, and labor to defend the right to housing for all working people.

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