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The Complex: The City Falls Into a Housing Paradox 

Wednesday, May 28 2014

Marchell Johnson smiles at the memory. But it's not a pleasant smile. And it's not a pleasant memory. "To be honest with you," she says, "I just about thought my brain was going to explode."

Two days before Christmas, most people are doing two-days-before-Christmas things — and that was certainly the case for most members of the resident board of Midtown Park Apartments. The squat, six-structure campus has that half-dormitory, half-penitentiary appearance typical of so many concrete, mid-1960s residential developments. But the 139-unit complex's location is beyond ideal: At Geary and Divisadero, residents can hop onto major transit lines or amble to supermarkets, schools, ballfields, a library, a pool — all that one of San Francisco's choicest retail and residential corridors has to offer. Tech shuttles now glide by at regular intervals. But the residents here pay rents from an era when punch cards were the epitome of tech, when many of them settled here and never left.

In a unique arrangement, Midtown Park is the only city-owned apartment complex in San Francisco. Unlike a public housing project administered by the San Francisco Housing Authority and receiving federal funds to shelter the city's neediest residents, Midtown is, merely, a set of city-owned buildings, earmarked for low- to moderate-income earners, and not operated on the feds' dime. Opinions are mixed as to how this has worked out over the past four decades. Some people say it's been a bad way to run things.

Others say it's the worst way.

And so, on Dec. 23, Johnson, the president of Midtown's elected board, strolled into a meeting with the city officials who own the land and buildings where she and several hundred other tenants reside. Roughly 20 minutes into the proceedings, she recalls, Olson Lee, the director of the Mayor's Office of Housing, let it drop that he was unilaterally terminating the 45-year-old lease with Johnson's board — the entity that collected rent and, ostensibly, ran the place since 1968. Tenants will henceforth be subjected to income verification and made to pay rent at the level the city deems they should be paying. Those refusing to participate in the process will be stuck with "market rate": $3,000 a month for a two-bedroom flat.

And that pretty much broke up the meeting. "When you're done, you're done," says Johnson with a sigh.

But the Midtown saga is far from done. The residents, naturally, lawyered up. And, last month, attorneys representing 78 of them posited an intriguing argument before an administrative law judge: The city's gambit to "significantly raise rents" for tenants capable of paying them actually froze rents in place. Severing that lease, the attorneys claim, triggered rent control protection.

It's a Catch-22, a paradox of the sort associated with smoldering villages destroyed in order to be saved. Steps to augment rent may lead to decreased rent.

The city's move to save its development plan for Midtown may, in the end, destroy it.

Midtown Park is a quiet place. On any given day, residents escort their tiny dogs through its verdant, manicured atrium. A security guard with a soul patch and a smile seems to be around every corner. This isn't a dodgy, menacing housing project shunted to the city's mental and physical periphery but a centrally located low- to moderate-income community within an increasingly opulent San Francisco enclave.

This spot has been the source of simmering resentments for years. That has now escalated into an open conflagration.

Midtown's residents are largely minorities, many of whom are black. A number of them have lived here since the 1960s and '70s; these people endured the "urban renewal" that transformed the Fillmore from a thriving black community into an ersatz museum celebrating the culture of the people jettisoned from the neighborhood. For them, the city's steadfast assurances that no Midtown residents will be displaced and no one's rents will skyrocket inspire an ominous sense of déjà vu.

Much is at stake for the city, too. If Midtown's residents prevail in their rent-control petition, carefully laid plans to demolish portions of the archaic housing complex and create an ethereal new affordable housing development could be compromised. Rather than take advantage of millions of dollars in state low-income tax credit funding to develop the site, the city could instead be forced to funnel millions of dollars of its own into the deteriorating edifice, on the heels of the $4 million it claims to have already poured into "emergency repairs" in the last five years.

Two-and-a-half years ago, the city's nonprofit builders and activists championed Proposition C, a successful ballot measure pledging to set aside $1.5 billion over two decades and pitched to voters as a means to build affordable housing for the vast, neglected majority of middle-income San Franciscans: the people neither hopping Google's buses nor fare-hopping Muni's.

But that hasn't happened.

Instead, that money is now earmarked for resurrecting derelict San Francisco Housing Authority projects occupied by some of the city's poorest residents (these projects will, in the not-too-distant future, be divvied among private nonprofit developers to rebuild and manage). Mayor Ed Lee claims that a glut of new, affordable housing for the city's desperate middle class is on the horizon — but his tally is padded with thousands of units of this extant public housing, which is already occupied by low-income San Franciscans.

The costly rehabilitation of low-income residents' homes will come, in part, via the Prop. C dollars approved by voters to build new housing for the middle class — and pushed by the nonprofit builders and activists who were also assured that was the deal.

Midtown, again, is not a public housing project. But the city-owned property, too, may end up an unanticipated vacuum for funds intended to build new, middle-class housing. A measure sold to voters with the tagline "San Francisco Needs Homes!" stands to benefit San Franciscans who already have homes.

This was the political landscape Midtown's residents broached when they filed the city's largest-ever rent-control petition in February. And on this battlefield, allies would be hard to come by. City-funded nonprofits react with pitchfork-wielding zeal to the alleged misdeeds of private landlords.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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