housing

New Community Group Brainstorms Housing Fix

By Janice Bressler

A new community-organizing group in the Richmond District called Richmond Rising has launched a drive to raise awareness of and find concrete solutions to the neighborhood’s diminishing supply of affordable housing. The group kicked off its housing campaign on a recent Thursday evening at the Richmond Republic Draught House, gethering a diverse crowd of neighborhood residents for an event billed as “Affordable Housing 101.”   

RR 4-19 Rich Rising pic 1

Affordable housing advocates Fernando Marti (left to right), Elaine Yee and Joseph Smooke at the first Richmond Rising meeting in March. Photos by Janice Bressler.

Housing advocates and policymakers generally categorize housing as “affordable” if it costs no more than 30 percent of a household’s gross (pre-tax) income.  And everyone assembled at the Richmond Rising event agreed that such housing is becoming more and more scarce, especially for moderate- and low-income people in the western neighborhoods.  

Before the panel of three San Francisco housing experts began its review of studies and statistics, many of those at the meeting shared not just general frustration with the spiraling cost of housing, but fears of being displaced from the neighborhood they call home. 

“Once I’m out, the landlord can jack up the rent,” said a man who wished to go unnamed. He said that, although he currently has a rent-controlled unit, he worries his landlord is trying to push him out by delaying repairs and letting his unit get run down.  

The ongoing loss of rent-controlled units in the Richmond was one of many issues discussed by the panel.  

“This is a renter-heavy district – 65 percent – and it is number two in evictions among the city’s districts,” said Elaine Yee, a real estate specialist with a local economic development agency. Another source of the Richmond District’s housing crunch, said Yee, is that most existing housing are single-family units or small apartment buildings with only two to six units. 

Yee’s focus for the evening, however, was not on gloomy housing statistics, but on an affordable housing success story that took place in the Richmond a few years ago.  It was made possible, She said, by the Small Sites Program, a San Francisco program that supports the purchase and preservation of rent-controlled housing. Yee and her fellow panel members seemed to agree that the Small Sites Program holds great promise for the Richmond. 

The success story that Yee told was about a five-unit building on Fulton Street that had been home for many years to several seniors and families. When the building was put up for sale, the tenants faced almost certain eviction.  Instead, a local non-profit organization, the Community Land Trust, was able to purchase the building with funding help from the Small Sites Program. Now, thanks to that collaboration, those affordable Richmond District units are preserved not just for those specific tenants living there now, but for future tenants.  The rent control created by the program is permanent; the rent protection is attached to the units themselves, not to individual tenants. 

Another panelist, Joseph Smooke, long-time activist for housing in the Richmond and co-founder of People Power Media, insisted that just preserving existing rent-controlled housing is not enough to solve the problem. 

“The Richmond District is not currently producing enough affordable housing to compensate for all the lost rent-controlled housing,” said Smooke. 

Smooke stressed that despite the challenges, he sees hope for improving the housing situation in the Richmond District. 

“Community organizing is a key factor,”  Smooke said.

RR 4-19 RRising crowd pic

A diverse crowd of neighborhood residents kicked off its housing campaign in March at the Richmond Republic Draught House at an event billed as “Affordable Housing 101.”

To illustrate his point, Smooke reviewed in detail the eight-year community organizing effort in 2011 that led to the creation of a Richmond District affordable housing development for people with developmental disabilities – St. Peter’s Place, located on Clement Street in the Outer Richmond. The 19-unit building was funded primarily by the federal government and built on land that was owned by a church that had been damaged in the 1989 earthquake.  But the forces that initiated and mobilized the project were local community groups. 

“People working on housing issues always worry about the NIMBY (not in my back yard) problem. But on this project, we found tremendous support from the community,” Smooke said.

Like fellow panel members Yee and Fernando Marti of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, Smooke identified the Richmond’s lack of space for larger affordable housing projects as another piece of the affordable housing puzzle. 

“One of the best prospects for new affordable housing development in the Richmond is the 30th Avenue site currently occupied by the Richmond Neighborhood Community Center,” Smooke said.  

Some of the advantages of developing that site as affordable housing, according to Smooke, are that “it is big enough to hold a larger multi-family development, it is publicly owned, and because of its age, the City is already constantly putting money into it for repairs.”  

Don Misumi, a Richmond Rising volunteer and one of the event’s organizers, is a resident who was born and raised in the Richmond.  

“We had a great turnout and generated a lot of good energy and ideas,” Misumi said.  “We’re going to build on that and mobilize that energy in future housing events. Stay tuned!”

To find out more about Richmond Rising, contact Don Misumi, don.misumi@gmail.com; or Beatriz Herrera, beatriz@sfrising.org.

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