Latino Residents Battle New Condo Development
By Dyan Ruiz and Joseph Smooke
On a blazing hot Saturday afternoon, several hundred people marched through the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District as part of a growing movement against a developer’s plans for condo buildings at one of the Bay Area’s busiest transit hubs. The proposed development of two 10-story and one five-story buildings is on the plaza at 16th and Mission streets, which has an entrance to a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station. BART is a public transit system of heavy rail and subways that connect San Francisco with cities in the East Bay, such as Oakland, and northern San Mateo County. The protest on October 4, 2014 was organized by Our Mission No Eviction and the Plaza 16 Coalition.
The development is one of the most resisted and most watched in the City. On the one hand, it fulfills the City and County of San Francisco’s plans for transit-oriented development and the Bay Area’s regional agenda for focused growth near transit under state law SB 375. On the other hand, it will escalate displacement and gentrification in the Mission District—a decades-old Latino neighborhood—say residents and activists.
“This is the fight, not just because of that one building, but that building connected to all the other thousands of market rate units that they want to bring down,” said Oscar Grande, a community organizer with People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights (PODER) and a speaker at the protest. “We got politicians that are pushing for transit-oriented development. They’re looking for smart growth. But it’s not smart if it doesn’t include folks like you and I. That’s why we gotta push!”
San Francisco often tops lists of U.S. cities for the most expensive rent, averaging close to $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Rising rents and evictions are pushing out longtime residents. According to a recent analysis by the California Housing Partnership Corporation, median rents in San Francisco County increased by 22 percent between 2000 and 2012, while the median income declined by more than 2 percent, significantly driving up the percentage of income that households must spend on rent—more than 50 percent of income in the case of 59 percent of very low-income households.
“When my parents moved to this country from Nicaragua, this was their home,” said high school counselor Evelyn Ibarra, who participated in the “No Monster in the Mission” protest. “This is where my brother and I were raised. My parents still own a business here on Valencia and 21st and we’re seeing a lot of friends getting evicted… a lot of our families.”
“It’s just really sad to see a lot of people having to be dislocated to the East Bay,” she continued. “I work in Pittsburg and I see a lot kids who have to live all the way out there because they can no longer live here with their families.” Pittsburg, California is about an hour’s drive northeast of San Francisco.
Zoning for Developers or Communities?
The developer, Maximus Real Estate Partners, LLC is proposing buildings that would contain 345 housing units, most of which will be market-rate, with 32,000 square feet of retail space and an underground parking garage. The proposed site at 1979 Mission Street currently has a Walgreens, Burger King, a Chinese restaurant and a bar. The project is under review at the San Francisco Planning Department.
The City’s guiding principles for this project come from the “Eastern Neighborhoods Plan,” which emphasizes transit-oriented housing development and establishes zoning controls for large areas of the city that formerly housed significant numbers of blue collar jobs in manufacturing, distribution and repair. The areas include the Mission District, Eastern South of Market (SOMA), Potrero Hill, and the Central Waterfront. As the neighborhoods began to change with the changing economy, the City initiated a community planning process in 2001 for housing and other development in these areas. In 2009, the “Eastern Neighborhoods Plan” was approved, despite objections by community groups.
The Plaza 16 Coalition traces its origins to the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, formed during the first dotcom boom in the late 1990s. It led the creation of the “People’s Plan” to inform the eastern neighborhoods rezoning, but was largely brushed aside. The “People’s Plan” required all development over 10,000 square feet to be affordable housing to reverse family flight and set the limit on building height to five stories to reduce incentives to build luxury condos. Plaza 16 is demanding that the People’s Plan be used as a framework for all development in the Mission.
The “Green-Washing” of Race and Class Issues
The project at 1979 Mission shows how land use policy favoring transit-oriented development without a strong equity framework or protections against displacement can intensify race and class disparities. A 2010 study by Northeastern University on the impacts of newly transit-rich neighborhoods concludes that “the most predominant pattern is one in which housing becomes more expensive, neighborhood residents become wealthier and vehicle ownership becomes more common.” The study also says: “a new transit station can set in motion a cycle of unintended consequences in which core transit users–such as, renters and low income households–are priced out in favor of higher-income, car-owning residents who are less likely to use public transit for commuting.”
A further review of related literature on the subject, including “Public Transit’s Impact on Housing Costs” published in 2011 by the Center for Housing Policy, confirms the broad consensus in planning studies that “proximity to public transit does lead to higher home values and rents in many cases.” People who can afford higher housing costs are more likely to use their cars, whereas low-income households rely on public transit and will use it often. A 2014 study by the California Housing Partnership shows that “Higher Income households drive more than twice as many miles and own more than twice as many vehicles as Extremely Low-Income households living within 1/4 mile of frequent transit.”
While the development at 1979 Mission would not install a new transit system, it’s easy to see that the effects of building “luxury condos” would be similar to the effects described in the studies. The renters of these market-rate condos would more likely be wealthier than most existing residents in the neighborhood and less inclined to use public transit. A telling sign that the new residents are less inclined to use public transit are the luxury “Google buses” zipping along Mission neighborhood streets in service of tech employees commuting to their Silicon Valley offices.
In fact, the proposed development provides 163 parking spaces, even though the City does not require parking at this site. Basement parking adds significant cost to the development, making the base price for rent even more beyond the reach of local residents. The new parking garage will also bring additional car traffic to the area. While the developers have plans to improve the impacted streets and sidewalks they also intend to apply for a credit with the City to reduce their impact fees in exchange for the road improvements.
Affordability for Existing Residents
While access to transit is important, for many Mission residents and their advocates, the primary concern is affordability. Developments, such as the one proposed at 16th and Mission, should be affordable for people who live and work in the neighborhood, they say.
At the first action against the condo development on February 1, 2014, Guillermina Castellanos, a mother who lives in the Mission, said in an interview (translated from Spanish): “This building they want to build, it won’t be for our families. It will be for another class of families that have money. We don’t have sufficient money to pay for these condominiums.”
Between 1990 and 2011, Latino households in the Mission District decreased by 1,400, while white households increased by 2,900 during the same period, according to a 2014 study by Causa Justa::Just Cause.
When asked about their plans for affordable housing, a lobbyist for Maximus Real Estate Partners, Bert Polacci said in an email: “We are currently planning the inclusionary housing in the project as outlined by law.” The plans for affordable units within the new building will comply with the City’s minimum requirement—a total of 42 affordable units among the 303 market-rate units.
The city currently requires new housing developments to make 12 percent of the units affordable (also known as inclusionary housing). A developer can also opt to pay a fee instead, or build the below market rate units at another site. Community advocates, however, want all the housing units to be affordable.
“The existing residents of this neighborhood… need to be at the table when planning conversations are happening,” said Causa Justa Organizer Maria Zamudio. “They need to decide what kind of housing they want, what they want it to look like, where they want it to go, what kind of affordability levels [they] are going to be at.”
This reflects another tenet of the “People’s Plan,” which would require public input for all new buildings in the Mission District. Since the protest in February 2014, organizers have held community meetings, given public comment at City hearings, and held rallies to ensure public input on the development. On their part, Maximus has had over 100 meetings with community and city-wide organizations, merchants, City agencies, and labor groups since the late summer of 2013, according to the website for 1979 Mission Street.
The Domino Effect on the Neighborhood
Beyond the impacts on housing affordability, there are concerns about the development’s impact on surrounding businesses serving the area and especially, a Spanish immersion public elementary school. A merchant association leader said that in his experience, when a development like this goes up, the surrounding businesses will be priced out.
“What ends up happening is, you get realtors talking with the existing merchants trying to find out when their leases come due, trying to find out who the property owners are,” said Erick Arguello of the Calle 24 Merchant Association. The realtors then offer the property owners, “more money to bring in another business that’s going to be able to cater to this new market,” he added.
As the Mission District has become gentrified, Arguello has seen owners being forced to move out and go out of business because they can’t afford the rent. One of the best examples of rapid gentrification taking over many parts of San Francisco can be found one block away from Mission Street on Valencia Street. Low-key taquerias, discount stores. and Latino-owned mom-and-pop shops have been replaced with high-end restaurants, clothing boutiques, and luxury stores catering to the new demographic of tech-employed hipsters.
A report by the City’s Budget and Legislative Analyst published in October 2014, puts some stark numbers behind what merchants have been experiencing city-wide. In 1992, 518 established San Francisco businesses at least five years old closed or relocated. In 2011, that figure skyrocketed to 3,657—over 600 percent more! The price of commercial property has also gone way up: from $189.50 per square foot in 1999 to $675.10 per square foot in 2013.
Casting a Shadow on a Neighborhood School
The development has also raised the ire of parents at the Spanish-immersion public school located beside the proposed site. At a Board of Education hearing on June 23, 2014, the line of parents from Marshall Elementary and its neighbors waiting to give public comment extended from the podium to the back of the room. That evening, the developers formally presented their plans to the Board of Education members for the first time.
The parents’ major concerns center on dust and noise from construction, and the shadow the condo development will cast on the school yard. During her public comment on the construction plans, Bianca Starr, mother of a recent Marshall graduate and current student, said: “Not to sound dramatic, but it sounds like a war zone.” Both of her sons have asthma and she is concerned about how her younger son’s health will be impacted by the dust and the construction noise.
The developers estimate that the construction would last 21 months, impacting two school years. They have told the community about plans to mitigate the noise, dust, and shadow impacts, including offering to build an elevated playground for the school. According to developer spokesperson Christian Lampley, approval of any construction on school property would have to go through the School District and the State Architect.
In a recent interview, President of the Board of Education Sandra Lee Fewer said: “The School District cannot look at this development in isolation when there is rapid development in this one concentrated area.” She has concerns about how these developments will impact the Board’s ability to serve every school age child who chooses public education. “A generous offer from the developer would be not to build an elevated play yard, but to build a new larger school,” she told the developer at the June hearing.
The Board of Education is looking at the impacts of the development on the entire neighborhood, she said, adding: “It’s not about one school. Large market rate developments, such as this, have an effect on the neighborhood in general—the cost of neighboring rental units, ability to run a family business there. It’s also about being able to have a neighborhood that reflects the character and values of Mission District families that currently live there.”
According to City Planner M. Douglas Vu, the 1979 Mission Street project is currently undergoing its Environmental Review, which includes a transportation study and shadow analysis. Following that, there will be a conditional use hearing with the Planning Department at which there will no doubt be more community resistance and public comment offered to the City and developers.
Dyan Ruiz and Joseph Smooke are cofounders of [people. power. media] peoplepowermedia.net an online platform broadcasting community voices to impact public policy. This article is a co-publishing project of [people.power.media] and Reimagine! RP&E and is also available in video and podcast form.