By Janice Bressler
When Laura Nuno’s apartment in the Inner Richmond went up for sale last spring and her rent control was threatened, she feared having to leave not only her home of 41 years, but the state, just to find affordable housing.
“You read about this happening all the time in our city,” said Nuno, a San Francisco native and retiree, “But when it happens to you, it’s terrifying.”
The building did sell recently, but Nuno and the other tenants in the 14-unit building at 369 Third Ave. are staying put and even cheering the arrival of their new landlord. That’s because the new owner, the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), is a nonprofit that bought the building not as a financial investment, but with the aim of ensuring permanent rent protection for all of the current tenants, as well as future ones.
The linchpin of this happy ending is the city’s Small Sites Program (SSP). Launched in 2014 by the late SF Mayor Ed Lee, the program is aimed at helping low- and middle-income renters avoid displacement and eviction. It does that by providing loans to nonprofits, which allows those organizations to buy small residential buildings (five-25 units) and convert them to permanently affordable housing. The program is run by the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD), which reports, to date, the program has preserved and stabilized housing for more than 500 residents.
At a recent press event to announce this latest SSP success story, SF Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer stood side-by-side on the sidewalk in front of the Third Avenue apartment building and spoke to a crowd of tenants and advocates. Both officials praised the skill and commitment of the MEDA team that worked on the sale. They also stressed the hard work of other groups essential to the outcome; the Housing Rights Committee (HRC), a tenants rights nonprofit with an office in the Richmond; IMPACT, a brokerage firm specializing in SSP sales; and the San Francisco Housing Accelerator Fund, which fronted needed capital for the sale while a city loan was processed.
“As they say, it takes a village to make something like this happen,” Breed said. “I can’t wait to see more acquisitions like this in the Richmond District.
Fewer, who supported the buildings’ tenants from the beginning, called the SSP “critical to preserving our existing affordable housing and protecting our tenants from being displaced when buildings are sold.”
Stressing the importance of further affordable housing work, Fewer noted that the Richmond District “has lost more than 500 units of rent-controlled housing over the last 10 years due to Ellis Act evictions, owner move-in evictions and condo conversions.
“That’s why I authored the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA), which gives nonprofits the first right to purchase apartment buildings like this and preserve them as permanently affordable housing,” she said.
Fewer also reminded everyone at the gathering that MEDA’s purchase of the building marks the third SSP acquisition in the Richmond. The first was a five-unit building on Fulton Street that had been home for many years to several seniors and families. When the building went up for sale, putting the tenants at risk for eviction, the Community Land Trust, another local nonprofit, stepped in and with SSP funding was able to purchase the building. The second Richmond District SSP acquisition was in 2018, when the Chinatown Community Development Center bought two adjoining buildings in the Inner Richmond, preserving 16 units of affordable housing for senior Chinese tenants who had faced displacement.
Nuno and her neighbor Chloe Jackman worked for months to bring her neighbors in the building together and organize their support for the project. Nuno said the help and resources that Fewer and her staff provided were critical to the project’s success.
“Every time Chloe or I had a question, we would email Sandra and we always got an answer right away, from her directly or from her aide, Ian (Fregosi),” she said.
Jackman was five months pregnant and had lived in the building for nine years when it was put on the market. Born and raised in San Francisco, Jackman is also a Richmond District small business owner with an office and photography studio right around the corner from 369 Third Ave. She said she had too much to lose to just sit passively when she realized that she and her husband Mark might be displaced.
“I knew we had to fight,” Jackman said.
Speaking to a cheering crowd at the press event with Fewer and Breed, Jackman held her new son Alonzo on her hip. She repeatedly thanked all the groups and advocates who had worked to secure a stable home in the Richmond District for her, her family and her neighbors in the building. She also urged tenants in the City to reach out for support if they face housing struggles and to remember that “you don’t have to be a victim.”
An important advocate for the Third Avenue tenants at the beginning of their fight was organizer Cynthia Fong at the HRC. Both Nuno and Jackman praised Fong and the other advocates at the Richmond branch of the HRC, whose office is located at the corner of Geary Boulevard and Seventh Avenue.
“I would encourage any renter in the Richmond District who is worried about displacement to start by calling HRC,” Jackman said.
Fong initially helped some of the tenants prepare petitions to protect their rent control status, but then introduced another avenue for preserving their housing – the SSP. About the same time, Jackman noticed mention of the program in an informational mailing. Fong then connected them with MEDA and work began to put together all the pieces of the deal.
For a building to be eligible for an SSP loan, two-thirds of the existing tenants must have incomes at 80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI). The building must also not need major renovation, although light to moderate renovation is allowed. The plan for 369 Third Ave. now includes approximately $700,000 in repairs for seismic retrofitting and other improvements, according to a statement on the project issued by MOHCD.
While MEDA is based in the Mission District, the organization is expanding its work to small site acquisitions in other neighborhoods, including a recent one in the Sunset District. The Third Avenue building is MEDA’s first small site in the Richmond. MEDA Assistant Project Manager Juan Diego Castro, who was a key player in the 369 Third Ave. deal, praised the persistence and hard work of the tenants of the building.
“369 Third Ave. is a microcosm of the San Francisco tenant community,” Diego Castro said. “The property is home to multi-generational, multi-ethnic families who organized to preserve their affordable housing.”
Fewer said she was “grateful and thrilled to have worked with MEDA” and that she is also at work on developing an affordable housing nonprofit like MEDA that is focused specifically on the west side. With assistance from Assemblymember Phil Ting, Fewer recently secured a capacity building grant that she said will promote creation of “a westside-based affordable housing organization.”