A Community’s Petition Goes Nowhere; Sleepwalking in the Tenderloin

The IFD Fizzle

Tax increment financing was considered as one of the ways to pay the tab for the central-marketeconomic-strategy-november-2011.  It’s tough trying to sell something with the moniker Infrastructure Finance District, or IFD.  IFDs are a way to capture the increase in local taxes so they can be reinvested in an area over a prescribed period of time.  The strategy was straightforward: We all can see the surge of investment in mid-Market coming and the commensurate surge in taxes collected by the city.  This is a way the city – having successfully attracted tech companies to the area – can reinvest and leverage those extra gains in the local community.  Everybody wins.

As director of the Tenderloin Economic Development Project I lobbied for the passage of an IFD.  I made the rounds to my neighboring community organizations, many of which signed on, and gave a tax-increment 101 presentation to an audience of residents and other stakeholders at the Tenderloin Futures Collaborative, which at the time was facilitated by beloved Tenderloin legend Reverend Glenda Hope.  But the IFD campaign fizzled.  I could not get the support of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC), the Tenderloin’s largest landlord.  IFDs did not provide funding for new construction affordable housing, a deal killer for TNDC.

This struck me as unfortunate for several reasons:

  • The Tenderloin’s housing stock is already affordable and protected, much of it owned and managed by TNDC.
  • TNDC residents would have been beneficiaries of neighborhood improvements.
  • IFD legislation did allow for funds to be used to build replacement housing, which was an opportunity to rebuild derelict SRO hotels like, say, the notorious Warfield Hotel on the corner of Turk & Taylor, or the entire eastside of 100 Taylor Street for that matter (built for the housing needs of the late 19th century), into high-density, high-quality, mixed-income housing two blocks from the Powell Street BART/MUNI station.  The Warfield Hotel’s historic plaque does nothing for poor people or the city’s twenty-first century urgent need for more housing.
  • In 2012 we voted for Proposition C to create a $1.5 billion dollar trust fund for affordable housing, so a much-needed war chest was already moving forward for housing. In comparison, nothing – zero – was available to invest in community facilities: homeless shelters; arts & education centers; recreation centers; parks; a new neighborhood YMCA; an SF community college campus; satellite libraries; streetscape improvements to improve public safety at several notoriously dangerous intersections; all these investments in community could have been paid for and/or catalyzed by an IFD.

It should be noted that California based affordable housing developer Mercy Housing, directed by Doug Shoemaker, said yes.   Also saying yes were:

All Stars Project, San Francisco Bay Area

Alonzo King LINES Ballet


De Marillac Academy

Friends of Central YMCA

Intersection for the Arts

Kunst-Stoff arts & Kunst-stoff dance company

Lorraine Hansberry Theater

Luggage Store Gallery & 509 Cultural Center

North of Market Tenderloin Community Benefit District

Northern California Community Loan Fund

SF Camerawork

Shih Yu-Lang Central YMCA

St. Anthony’s

Tenderloin Boys & Girls Club

Tenderloin Economic Development Project

UC Hastings School of Law

Vietnamese Youth Development Center

Youth Speaks

A pretty impressive line-up – arts, affordable housing, education, public health, business, nonprofit lending, youth development, social services – all represented here.   I received no answer from Community Housing Partnership, though their lead organizer James Tracy tried to help connect us.

I also, unfortunately, couldn’t get a hold of Hospitality House to add them to the list.  Given that mid-Market/Tenderloin is the epicenter of San Francisco’s homeless population it would only be appropriate to dedicate a portion of captured tax funds to invest in whatever facilities could help meet their needs.  I asked Hospitality House for their expert counsel on what kind of facility would make sense. Instead, each year is a repeat of the same dynamic: an extreme shortage of beds translating to an absurdly long waiting list.  And each year our response seems limited to service providers’ annual operating budget add-back requests that keep us as indentured servants and do nothing to change the status quo.

Perhaps at some point this status quo just became our norm and we no longer even see or question it… a kind of collective sleepwalking.  Except, of course, for poor families in the Tenderloin, they definitely still notice it because they have to live with it.   They don’t get evenings and weekends off.  There’s little “active” left in the “activist,” it seems to me.  We are lulled to sleep by bi-weekly paychecks and the droning sound of the BART train at the end of each weekday as we head back to our comfortable homes in neighborhoods where the concentration of poverty in the Tenderloin is far, far away.

Supervisor Kim wouldn’t support an IFD; perhaps she was getting pushback from other sources.  I remember her saying we had to be careful about improving the neighborhood, which pretty much sums up her entire tenure as district supervisor.  I don’t get how building neighborhood arts centers or parklets or a community college campus are a threat against the backdrop of an enormous inventory of protected housing, much of which, by the way, is dangerously substandard and in need of rebuilding.   A perplexing Progressive Paradox – over five years living and working in the Tenderloin and I still don’t see the progress in Progressive.

Lessons Learned

While Mayor Ed Lee initially championed an IFD only to deliver a disappearing act instead, I often think the IFD campaign failure is largely on me.  I made the naïve assumption that delivering a well-crafted letter – co-authored by the Tenderloin Economic Development Project and the Northern California Community Loan Fund – signed by numerous and influential stakeholder organizations would grab the attention of city hall and elicit a response.  It doesn’t work that way; what was needed was an organized political campaign – a machine – that worked the chambers in city hall.  I was a newbie and didn’t know how to work the politics.  One dude getting his neighbor nonprofits – however impressive they may be – to sign a petition doesn’t cut it.

Witness what Arts for A Better Bay Area is doing to build support for Proposition S, a super important moment for restoring arts funding and improving services for homeless families.  That’s how you bring important initiatives from concept to reality.