The Midtown Park Apartments, a block of unremarkable buildings in the Fillmore District, were built in 1964 atop land cleared during San Francisco's "Urban Renewal" projects. Transformations of Edwardian and Victorian neighborhoods into concrete blocks were hailed by anti-"blight" groups. Critics, like author James Baldwin, had another name for the improvements: "Negro removal."
At Midtown's ribbon-cutting ceremony, then-Mayor Jack Shelley waxed optimistic, calling Midtown a "successful experiment" on the way to "our ultimate goal...a home for all who wish to live in San Francisco."
The 139-unit, three-story project was unique in that it was financed by the city. Once the city's mortgage was paid off, the residents — members of a nonprofit cooperative — would own their places outright. "Own your own," as the original sales brochure hyped.
More than 50 years later, those promises of homeownership are unfulfilled. Midtown's occupants, some of whom have lived here decades, are still renters. And the issue of displacement is still on their minds. The city says Midtown's residents can't handle necessary building repairs and has increased rents. In response, Midtown tenants and their allies have launched "Save Midtown," a campaign to hold the city to its redevelopment-era "own your own" promises.
Their latest move is to revive a tactic rarely considered since 1978, when future Mayor Ed Lee, then a tenants' rights lawyer, helped residents of a Chinatown public housing complex called Ping Yuen organize a rent strike against the city's Housing Authority.
Rent strikes — withholding rent until the landlord meets renters' demands — have historically come at times when wages were stagnant and housing costs on the rise. They're legally sketchy; most leases state that failure to pay rent is grounds for immediate eviction. But in the past, as Lee proved, great inequality has made it politically possible to do the legally impossible.
"We can say Black Lives Matter, but we also have to say that Black Homes Matter," says Midtown resident Jay Majitov, a first-generation Russian émigré who has lived in a shared two-bedroom unit for 12 years. Majitov was attracted to San Francisco because of its diversity, and has bonded with many of his non-white neighbors. "Black lives are not going to matter if we don't have black people living here."
This year, the city began adjusting Midtown's rents to align with other public housing in the city, tying costs to household income rather than the original covenants struck under Mayor Shelley.
While some low-income seniors saw their rents drop, other working households saw increases of up to 300 percent. In August, Majitov and about 25 other families began withholding the increases. They're still determined, although Midtown residents' fight with the city is entering its third year. The rent strike escalates a campaign that has included street protests, Board of Supervisors speak outs, and lawsuits.
On Dec. 14, Majitov and other Save Midtown activists gathered at the Soma headquarters of Mercy Housing California, carrying signs reading "Mercy Leave Midtown."
Mercy Housing, one of the country's largest nonprofit housing developers and property managers, entered the picture around Christmas 2013. In a meeting with Midtown's resident board on Dec. 23 of that year, Olson Lee, the director of Ed Lee's Mayor's Office of Housing (MOH), terminated San Francisco's contract with Midtown's board, which had until then been in charge of the property. MOH then hired Mercy — whose executive director, Doug Shoemaker, preceded Olson Lee as the head of MOH — to administer the property. (In an experimental program, Mercy is also taking control of some of San Francisco's neglected public housing units from the federally-funded Housing Authority.)
City appraisers declared that Midtown was in disrepair. There were boilers to replace and mold to remove. Renovations would cost an estimated $38 million — far more than Midtown's resident-managers could afford.
The city blames Midtown's board for not tackling the repairs. But the city was the mortgage holder and owned the properties. That left upkeep to "amateur volunteers [on the board] and a succession of property management companies," creating a situation guaranteed to "obscure accountability and ensure the complex's long-term needs went unaddressed," as SF Weekly reported last year.
The maintenance issues "would have gotten any private landlord in major trouble," a Department of Building Inspection inspector (who asked not to be named) told SF Weekly. Save Midtown organizers say the city has refused to provide documentation for the $38 million repair estimate.
With the city apparently failing to check up on a property worth tens of millions of dollars and housing hundreds of people, it seems those "own your own" promises were just words on a pamphlet. Nobody wants to assume blame for the complex's neglect, but the maintenance won't pay for itself. The situation is one of the most frustrating housing puzzles in a city famous for real estate shitshows.
The city is now auditing Midtown residents to align their rents with other subsidized housing projects in San Francisco: 30 percent of a person's income is what the government considers "affordable." But any increase is a bitter pill for residents who cling to the dream of owning their own place.
Board of Supervisors President London Breed, who represents the Fillmore, supports Midtown residents. On Dec. 16, Breed aide Vallie Brown told SF Weekly that "no one will be evicted" from Midtown as long as they "follow the rules of affordable housing throughout the city and the country."
That means swallowing a potential rent hike and forfeiting ownership hopes.
"The city feels that if they just said, 'OK, you own it,' A) [Midtown residents] wouldn't be able to afford it, to do all the maintenance and everything; and B) the city is very adamant, especially Supervisor Breed, that she wants to keep [the housing] affordable," Brown explains.
Ownership hopes aside, many residents want to remove Mercy, which has committed a litany of alleged offenses. According to Save Midtown, Mercy's latest affront happened on Dec. 9, when staff cut off an apartment's door lock chain in order to enter unannounced. The elderly female resident "was in the bathroom...When [she] heard voices, [she] ran downstairs to find two men standing in the apartment," Midtown resident Ramona Johnson wrote in an email to Mercy.
Tenants have also complained about newly imposed parking fees and threatening letters regarding rent nonpayment. On Dec. 14, the SF Labor Council passed a resolution validating Midtown residents' complaints, alleging that Mercy is engaged "in a campaign of harassment and intimidation against tenants who are active in the fightback [against rent increases]."
Talking with SF Weekly, Mercy California's Shoemaker called Save Midtown's campaign "a pattern of total misinformation." At the latest protest on Dec. 14, Shoemaker came outside Mercy's offices to pass around a statement that refuted protesters' claims, stating that Mercy's handling of the housing complex is guided by "No Displacement" and "Explore Alternative Ownership Structure."
However, Mercy only has its public image to lose; the city will pay the organization for its services regardless of what happens.
Of complaints about Mercy, Brown says, "None of us like change. But anything that has been brought forward to Supervisor Breed, we've talked to Mercy about it and they've changed a practice."
Midtown tenants wonder whose interests their supervisor has at heart. According to emails Save Midtown obtained under the Sunshine Ordinance, MOH "walked [Breed] through" the approach to handling Midtown's "aggressive" residents, about whom MOH staffer Joan McNamara warned colleagues: "Please watch your back and err on the side of caution."
McNamara told SF Weekly she does "not provide comments."
The residents are appealing a recent decision by the Rent Board that Midtown is not covered under SF's rent control ordinance. Exhausted by the years-long fight against the city, Save Midtown said they'd trade hopes of homeownership for assurance that their monthly housing costs won't increase. Whatever the outcome of the most recent lawsuit — in which 140 Midtown families are suing the city to win permanent rent control — and the rent strike, the controversy at Midtown hints at who exactly the city believes worthy of special allowances.
The Planning Department often grants height-restriction exceptions to developers in exchange for building more "affordable" below-market-rate units than required, where "affordable" might mean $400,000 for a one-bedroom unit. Meanwhile, unless the city backs down on its refusal to transfer ownership to largely low-income Midtown tenants, few of its residents will be able to afford a house in San Francisco this lifetime.
"It is our feeling that we're being systematically pushed out," Majitov says. "We want to play by the rules and we have. But there's no reward for playing by the rules, unfortunately, in this city."