Generating New Dollars

City tosses beleaguered nonprofits $4.5 million. That was the headline on the front page of June’s edition of Central City Extra, our community newspaper. In response to this temporary-fix measure, Brien Cheu, director of community development at the Mayor’s Office of Community and Housing Development, was quoted as saying:

Is it possible, if we came up with some creative financing, to create a substantial, multitenant space, along commercial corridors where transportation is easy, especially by low-income individuals? Rather than focus on rent subsidies we want to create as many structural fixes as we can, so we’re not back here in another five years.

Well, Mr. Cheu, many of us in the Tenderloin and arts community have been wondering the same for years now. In fact, if we approached you with an opportunity to build exactly such a multitenant space for several cherished arts and education groups along a very prominent commercial corridor with very easy public transit access, what kinds of creative financing might you have in mind?

In the article Supervisor London Breed noted that the ADA-compliance work needed at the African American Cultural Center on Fulton could alone absorb nearly the entire $2 million of the allocation earmarked for the arts. The same could be said for work needed to get CounterPulse up and running at 80 Turk, or the Luggage Store Gallery on Market. I know LINES Ballet was absolutely thrilled just to get hot water heaters installed; my goodness maybe we can do better by one of the world’s most renowned dance companies in our own hometown. There are many examples.

Still, the appropriation is a start. Two years ago, over twenty community-based arts, education, service organizations (and one affordable housing developer!) signed a letter requesting that the city capitalize on the boom in property taxes and create a fund to reinvest in the neighborhood for long-term structural stabilization solutions. We got a “no,” with the rationale being improving the neighborhood would gentrify it.   Ironically, our failure to be creative, as Mr. Cheu is now calling for, left us in a weakened position to respond to the displacement of nonprofits resulting in the very gentrification those advocates who opposed creative public measures claimed they were concerned about. A self-defeating, self-fulfilling prophecy.

City Hall was for a local “capture and reinvest the property tax boom” mechanism before it was against it. In spring, 2012, at a breakfast hosted by farmerbrown, Mayor Ed Lee addressed a prominent group of Tenderloin/mid-Market arts & education stakeholders and local foundations and announced he would get behind the formation of a local property tax capture district to invest in neighborhood projects.

From the March 27th, 2012 memo the Office of Economic and Workforce Development staff prepared for the Mayor to prep him for the breakfast:

NOMNIC’s Board feels very strongly that for complicated, ambitious projects like 950 Market and others to come to fruition, the City needs to find a financing source.  Your Central Market Economic Strategy agrees and calls for the pursuit of an Infrastructure Finance District (IFD).  IFDs would arguably be an achievable city funding strategy given its utilization would help underwrite the development of cultural/educational facilities at 950 Market, the Strand and Market Street Cinema.  NOMNIC is also looking into other finance mechanisms such as a cultural/educational facilities bond to take on mid-Markets derelict properties.

A blast from the not-too-distant past! At that time my old crew NOMNIC (better known as the Tenderloin Economic development Project) and I were fighting to make 950 Center for the Arts happen and were also advocating for repurposing other major derelict assets like the Market Street Cinema, Crazy Horse and the Strand.   We envisioned a multi-tenant 950 Center for Arts & Education, a new landmark home for the beloved Alonzo King LINES Ballet Dance Center up the block, and a mid-Market destination for the annual SF international film festival at the new home of the San Francisco Film Society. (Initially very skeptical, SFFS’s visionary Graham Leggat was warming up to mid-Market before he tragically passed.)

The mayor hasn’t acted on the finance district yet. Word is some in city hall got concerned about communities all through the city wanting their own tax districts, creating a chaotic situation for the city. Also, some key local affordable housing developers declined to support it because there wasn’t money for new construction affordable housing through the readily available post-redevelopment tax capture mechanism (IFD).

While we haven’t heard from the mayor again and his staff is now reportedly hostile to reinvesting local tax dollars in the Tenderloin, Supervisor Kim took initiative to create a fund based on property tax revenues so the precedent has been set. Maybe we don’t need to form a district after all and can just add more to Supervisor Kim’s recently created fund. We can call it the “After Decades of Neglect, Exploitation, and Extreme Socio-Economic Segregation We’re Going to Reinvest the Gains from the Tech-Fueled Real Estate Boom for the Benefit of Equitable Development for Tenderloin Residents. Fund. (Forgot the F word.)

And, also very encouraging, director Brian Cheu is calling on city hall to get creative. So maybe the door is still open. Maybe there’s still time.   I of course have to think so with so much at stake. If not, let’s at least have the integrity to be straight-up with our arts community and tell them we’re cool with their moving elsewhere if they can’t make it in San Francisco. Unless, of course, that would result in big empty dark spaces on Van Ness, in which case we might finally get inspired and float a bond measure for the arts.

Sly and Family Stone Approve 1028 Market Street Project

It was a unanimous vote by the Planning Commission.  Congrats to Craig Young and ilana Lipset!  The public comments were across the board positive, though there was one from an undefined mid-Market “coalition” that expressed concern about the risk of “psychological displacement” as higher-income residents move into the neighborhood.

Psychological displacement.  I’m guessing this means that the Tenderloin’s poor, living in protected rooms/housing, will look at the new people moving in – their new apartments with toilets and fire sprinklers, the businesses that cater to them (the Black Cats, the Biigs), maybe the clothes they wear – and feel an immediate need for psychological counseling services?

This, by the way, is a primary reason why the arts are so important.  We want a level playing field to counteract “psychological displacement?”   Then we should invest heavily in arts facilities, public markets, playgrounds, rec centers where we all can meet, break bread, and share these fundamental human experiences regardless of our backgrounds.

Here’s my admittedly non-scientific take on the situation.  Nice people who have money will move into both 1028 and 950.  They will be neighbors and interact with the Tenderloin’s nice people who have little or no-money.   Have money, have little money, have no money – we will all be nice people together.  Of course, there are low-income, middle-income and high-income people that are jerks, but we’ll deal with them.   There will be a yellow one that won’t accept the black one, that won’t accept the red one that won’t accept the white one.  And different strokes for different folks.  And so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby.

As a simple guiding principal I propose: New or long-term resident, rich or poor, you respect the Tenderloin – and its residents – or you need to leave.

Poor people are not necessarily helpless people.  Quite the contrary; in the Tenderloin you will find some of the strongest people you’ve ever met.  No psychological counseling necessary, though moving toward a healthier, more integrated community, sharing the same stuff everybody needs, would be nice.  Time for the champions of segregation to step aside.  We’re all Everyday People.  Oh sha sha.  We got to live together.

21 Club Reunion

Frankie, Veronica, George, John, Cookie, and of course Joanne of Jonell’s at Ellis & Jones. Many other Tenderloin old timers and residents.    The problem-bar-that-had-to-be-shut-down crowd.  Happy.  Hugging each other.  Celebrating.  The powerful and positive life-energy of the 100K+ Women’s March was palpable everywhere in the Tenderloin as the crowds streamed into the neighborhood afterward.  It was fitting to host the reunion at Jonell’s on that evening: Jonell’s run by three women who have been in the Tenderloin for ages and are not to be messed with.


21 Club icon Frankie (left) and Chef George @ Jonell’s.  Old TL theater stage hand John photobombing.


A lot of the old 21 Club crowd has since moved over to Aunt Charlie’s across the street.  I’ve moved over with them.  Aunt Charlie’s has the same “All are Welcome” vibe that Frankie’s place always had.  Joe and Barry, the barkeeps, have been there for decades. José and ninety-plus year old Bob, who has travelled the world, have been there for a mere 14 years or so.

That’s what I loved about Frankie’s.  It didn’t matter who you were, whether you had money or not, lived in a SRO or Pacific Heights mansion.  Your race, whether you did time (so long as there was no violence), who you slept with, none of that mattered.  (It helped if you were a Giants fan though.)

During 21’s last few years the corner @ Turk & Taylor got really rough.  Lots of drug trafficking and violence, culminating the night when eight people were shot outside. Frankie himself was a non-escalation Buddha master.  He had a disarming way with people.  The girls selling crack outside would come in sometimes to use the bathroom, but they never disrespected the place by trying to conduct business there.  Frankie was easy with people and loved by everyone.  He would only get irritated when the press reported shootings at the 21 that actually took place outside on the corner.

The new watering holes in the Tenderloin – the Black Cats, the Biig and the like – are fancy joints.  I’ve walked by a couple of times and have seen zero Tenderloin residents hanging out.  They’re “Uptown” establishments whereas 21 was, and Jonell’s and Aunt Charlie’s are, definitively Downtown.

Biig now occupies 21 Club’s notorious old corner.  They discuss seasonal drink concepts with patrons.  I don’t understand what’s so complicated; haven’t they heard of scotch?

I’m just kidding, I’ve had one wee dram too many  – Lagunitas 16! – courtesy of two dear friends of mine.  (I know what you’re thinking – I should be drinking Ron del Barrilito!)   I shouldn’t be a snob or hater, there’s way too much of that going around.   I have my own nostalgic inclinations that can lead to ignorance and intolerance for others. I’ll save up and stop by for a seasonal drink consultation one of these days, though I can imagine pops in heaven looking down at me and having a good laugh.   Pops, and Brooklyn/Queens Mets fans (after losing their beloved Dodgers), were Schaefer or Rheingold Extra Dry people.  (You don’t even want to talk about the Yankees.)   I remember driving by Schaefer’s giant plant each day on the way to the factory in Greenpoint.

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In the meantime, see you all at Aunt Charlie’s.  I don’t care what the plaques say – it’s in Downtown Tenderloin, and we don’t need the federal government to tell us where we are, who we are, or how important we are.

Forty-two years at Turk & Taylor.  Bon voyage Frankie.


Supervisor Kim’s Ridiculous Comparison of the Tenderloin to Chinatown; The Fires of East New York; Commercial Gentrification of the Tenderloin

Vallejo Bogeyman

“Elvin!  If it weren’t for the Tenderloin all these people would be living in Vallejo!”

A flash-argument broke out while chowing on some slammin’ phở at Turtle Tower on Larkin.   Supervisor Kim had me at a disadvantage: I didn’t know where Vallejo was.  I could only wonder: Do the apartments there have toilets?

“The city exploits the Tenderloin,” I responded, “to avoid paying for quality affordable housing.  There are numerous quality SROs, but much of the housing is substandard, if it can be considered “housing” at all.   Are you saying there’s no such thing as substandard housing in the Tenderloin?”

“No, there is not.”

And with that the brief argument ended as quickly as it began.   There’s no debating with someone who thinks all the 8 x 10 rooms without toilets or sprinklers qualify as decent housing.  Different, and ironic, world views I suppose: one’s money Upper East Side Manhattan and one’s no-money East New York Brooklyn.   One prioritizes place over people, often accompanied by the argument that we can’t provide any better.   The other prioritizes people over place, and wants to force us to provide better.

I’ve heard similar arguments on numerous occasions from various progressive friends: the Tenderloin is the last affordable neighborhood downtown is a common refrain.  This always mentioned geographic factor overrides all other considerations, like healthy living conditions and environment.  It makes me wonder what’s the great privilege in living downtown that the city would concentrate poverty so intensely – is it so we can be close to Macy’s?

Displacement in East New York Brooklyn

I can understand the emotional attachment to place at any cost.  I grew up in a no heat or hot water, rodent and roaches infested apartment in East New York Brooklyn, one of the most violence-plagued neighborhoods in the country.  Each night before I went to sleep I would rehearse in my mind the emergency evacuation sequence in case we woke up to one of the fires burning down the buildings all around us:  I’d jump down from the top bunk, open the window, grab my kid brother, and climb out onto the awning over the convenience store beneath us.  Then we would slide down onto the safety of the sidewalk below.  I used to worry about the fall from the awning to the sidewalk, but always concluded that a broken leg would be better than burning to death.

Fires, gunfights, chains, bricks, bottles, knifes, gangs, heroin, bodies, human feces, needles.  Fear was omnipresent.  As a kid leaving in the morning on the way to school I would routinely have to step over someone to get out the front door downstairs (or jump, if there was more than one body).  Coming home at the end of school, I remember wondering if there was someone waiting to assault me in the stairwell upstairs.  I would start talking out-loud, in the deepest voices I could muster, with a make-believe companion to scare away would-be assailants.  Strength in imaginary numbers.

But there was also Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas tree and presents, visits from kings on el Día de Los Reyes, weekend mornings café con leche, rolling Matchbox cars on the crooked floor, making fun of my sisters as they sat under the hair dryer with their rollers, mami’s awesome pollo guisado con arroz blanco y tostones, watching the Mets on Channel 9 with pops (the best), my brother and I celebrating when pops’ car got stolen and he would stay home, and music, always music: Tito, Celia, Hector, Willie.  In all this there was a lot of love and happiness, and the nightmare around us was kept at bay.

So, when our place got condemned by the city as “Unfit for Human Habitation,” I felt a powerful sense of loss.  Our place was dangerous and substandard, but it was home.   We moved to a gigantic Section 8 project – Starrett City, the biggest in the country – built on a former landfill on the outskirts of East New York and Canarsie.  Our high-rise apartment had heat, hot water, the toilets flushed, there was grass out front – real grass! – walking paths, and handball courts free of feces and needles.  There were no roaches or rodents; no bodies to step over or assailants waiting at the top of the stairwell. No smell of burned-down buildings.   In short, it was heaven.  The old corner of Rockaway Avenue and Fulton Street vs. the new apartment in Starrett City was no contest.

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Home, above the TV repair shop, after condemnation by the city.  That fire escape was my great outdoors.


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My favorite toy shop around the corner on Fulton Street.  That window above the Coca-Cola sign is where my brother and I would escape the fire we always waited for.


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The vestibule where we had to step or jump over bodies on our way to school.


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Take the A train! The subway right below us, we could tell whether it was the C Local or A Express by the way the apartment shook.


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Starrett City. That’s real grass!


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Pops and his Plymouth Fury III. A monster V-8 with huge torque steer, I learned to drive in that car around the factory in Greenpoint without killing anybody.


I hear rumblings now of gentrification coming to East New York, which has always been considered impossible.  From what I’ve read the neighborhood needs to go up to keep costs down, and that is a cultural problem for a place characterized by old 4 story walk-ups.   Mayor de Blasio has proposed a major upzoning of East New York to add more affordable housing.  Rebuilding East New York, like my old building that was constructed in 1910, would introduce over a thousand new affordable units, but would it still be East New York?  Activists and preservationists are opposing upzoning/new development while offering in return nostalgia for the old days and the myth of a neighborhood that will be affordable in perpetuity.  Today’s protectionism laying the foundation for tomorrow’s displacement.

But maybe I’m calling balls and strikes from 3000 miles away; even worse than what Bay Area progressives do to the Tenderloin.   Best I shut up before my old ENY homies come find me at farmerbrown’s and bust me upside the head.

Segregation and the Intense Concentration of Poverty in the Tenderloin

I’ve heard Supervisor Kim say on a couple of occasions the goal is to make the TL a stable low-income community like Chinatown.   I don’t know if Chinatown is a stable low-income community, but in this we are in agreement.  It will be impossible, however, for the Tenderloin to achieve this socioeconomic equilibrium until the Department of Public Health (DPH) and Human Services Agency (HSA) treat the Tenderloin and Chinatown on equal terms, and on this measure we’re not remotely close.

This, of course, would require an advocacy that does not exist in the Tenderloin.  Unlike Chinatown, without DPH and HSA programs, many Tenderloin SROs would be economically obsolete and sit empty.   And if our goal is historic preservation of buildings at any cost – even at the cost of constructing new high-quality affordable housing – then we won’t push back against DPH or HSA.  Our policy is poor people – or, more specifically, the government funding they bring with them – in the service of buildings, rather than the other way around.

If President Obama and HUD argue that neighborhood poverty at or over 40% constitutes “Extreme Poverty” and segregation hurtful to poor people, why are they funding a city with placement programs that far exceed that number in the Tenderloin?  (Mere “High Poverty,” by the way, is considered 20% or higher.)  In the Tenderloin, and adjacent blocks in mid-Market, the number exceeds 90%.  Indeed, given all the literature dating back to William Julius Wilson, the War on Poverty and the more recent research on Social Determinants of Public Health from major public health foundations, a strong argument can be made that the worst offenders to the public health interest of the Tenderloin’s poor have been the San Francisco Department of Public Health and the Human Services Agency.

Since Supervisor Kim’s office tried to prevent DPH and HSA statistics from being made public (see Housing, page 24) it’s no surprise she would not challenge this strikingly inequitable status quo that renders her comparison to stable low-income Chinatown completely absurd.   How would she challenge DPH and HSA? – by telling them to take their bean-counting bureaucratic boots off the neck of the Tenderloin.  The Tenderloin doesn’t belong to city hall to exploit.  (Though through its Master Lease Program, much of the Tenderloin is de-facto controlled and exploited by the city; effectively privatized public housing, without the toilets.)  Or, if parity with Chinatown is truly Kim’s goal, she could tell DPH and HSA to apply the same placement practices to both.

Who’s Afraid of the Black Cat? 

Now that I’m back in the neighborhood I’m noticing what appears to be a conversion of SRO hotels back to tourist hotels.  Heretofore illegal but now going unchallenged (perhaps the new owners have the right connections to avoid legal action being taken against them), it will be interesting to see if and how this trend continues, and the impact it will have on the city’s 90%+ placement number.  If the result is more income-diversity, local spending on small businesses and a drop in the concentration of poverty, this would be a good development for the Tenderloin’s poor.  Maybe we can get the placement percentage down to a mere, say, 45%; that still qualifies as egregious, unhealthy segregation per government and public health policies, but would still be far less oppressive for the Tenderloin’s poor.

How about Tenderloin low/moderate income entrepreneurs?  The conversion back to hotels, if this is indeed happening, could be a benefit or threat.  Many low/moderate income entrepreneurs took a giant hit and went out of business years ago when hotels converted to 100% residential; hundreds of low-cost lodging rooms that catered to low-income travelers were lost.  These low/moderate income travelers patronized the Tenderloin’s small businesses.   Maybe some of these travelers will come back now as a result of these conversions.  Or perhaps we’ll see another wave of extinction as more mom & pop New Star Chinese restaurants and Lafayette Coffee Shops give way to sleek and high-end Black Cat “Uptown” establishments.

Ideally, the extensive inventory of ground floor commercial space owned and/or controlled by nonprofits can be made available at below market-rate rents to displaced low/moderate income entrepreneurs.  That can be tricky, however, as some affordable housing developers don’t see providing affordable commercial space as part of their mission (not unless they’re subsidized for it, like they are for residential units). Hopefully the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC) will, given that the organization’s name suggests a holistic focus above and beyond affordable housing. (Perhaps TNDC’s opposition to public funding for neighborhood-serving facilities and improvements was an aberration.)  Between TNDC, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, Mercy Housing, Community Housing Partnership and Chinatown Community Development Corporation, there’s plenty of commercial space that arguably should be protected.  Will they help?

Back to the quiet conversions – like the Warfield Hotel at Turk & Taylor for example, or the Adrian Hotel on Hyde – the historic preservationists at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic must be happy. Whether facilitated by poor people’s or tourists’ money, the buildings remain intact and the gentry are visiting.  A return to the glory Uptown days of yesteryear.   They’re drinking Champagne at the new high-end bars after indulging at the new luxury spas, i.e. the kind of community serving retail the Tenderloin Housing Clinic advocates for in Community Benefit Agreements with market-rate real estate developers.  The socioeconomic chasm between rich and poor in the Tenderloin may be worse than ever, but the party is on.


Mayor Ed Lee getting himself some Uptown.  The decades old Chinese family restaurant is out.



Community-serving Uptown Champagne and Caviar are in.



I’ve heard concerns from Southeast Asian community activists (all API children of refugees, none progressives) that hotel landlords have been harassed to evict Southeast Asian moms & pops to make way for the Uptown Black Cats.  But I don’t buy that: Taking poor people’s Supplemental Security Income to keep the 8×10 rooms/one-sprinkler-per-floor buildings economically viable, while squeezing out low/moderate income moms & pops on the ground floors to make room for Champagne and caviar joints more befitting the Uptown profile, would constitute the most insidious and disgusting example of poor people exploitation and gentrification ever witnessed.   Besides, I’m sure HUD and/or HHS would have investigated.

Maybe once upon a time it was about protecting poor folks, but at some point the focus in the Tenderloin turned a corner and became principally about protecting nostalgia, not the people.  I know from experience the vast majority of poor folks in the Tenderloin care little, if at all, about the history stuff or plaques; they’re just fighting to get through the day.   If it were about the people, we would not accept the extreme concentration of poverty.  And we would go up, give them better housing, fire sprinklers, and maybe even toilets, like I suspect they have in Vallejo.

I’m not suggesting the Tenderloin goes high-rise like Starrett City.  I’m suggesting we rebuild obsolete buildings – and go higher in the process – that haven’t served the needs of poor people or the city for a long time, except maybe to save an expedient buck in the short run.  In some instances we may want to rebuild entire blocks (we’ll take a look at an example later).  Put the needs of the people, not the buildings, first.

Despite the harsh environment I come from, I’m the beneficiary of a loving family and privileged education; I’m an incredibly lucky person.  Still, given the history of substance abuse and mental illness that runs in my family, and maybe a little “residual stuff” carried over from childhood (you never forget the fires, the smell of burned buildings, the fear),  I occasionally wonder about the possibility I’ll someday wind up in a placement program of some sort, somewhere.  If that day comes, I hope I’m nowhere near the likes of SF public health/human services officials or progressive, status-quo protecting politicians that have such complete disregard for the welfare of poor folks and decades of public health research.

And I’ll especially keep a lookout for nostalgic preservationists who would exploit me – and what little money I have – for their own poverty theme-park creation purposes.

Mid-Market Censorship & Class Warfare; Ed Lee Tries to Leverage Zero

Class Warfare

Ed Lee’s laundry list, as San Francisco Foundation CEO Sandra Hernandez dubbed it, went by the official name of Central Market Economic Strategy (CMES).  Not without its flaws, CMES (central-marketeconomic-strategy-november-2011) attempted to lay out a comprehensive road map to revitalization without displacing existing low-income residents.  It was developed after an exhaustive outreach effort and extensive vetting among mid-Market stakeholders and government officials.

CMES was recognized by the American Planning Association for its 2012 Grassroots Planning Award.  Not bad props.  From what I observed during the marathon development of CMES, this was recognition well deserved.  Any and all community gathering spaces were used by organizers to connect with neighborhood residents, ask lots of questions and solicit input.  I participated in many meetings in my capacity as Tenderloin resident and director of a neighborhood community development organization.

As far as I can discern, three things happened after this herculean effort.  First, there was no leadership from the mayor to move the multiple agendas forward.   Second, there was no money to move the multiple agendas forward.  Third, tech showed up and the mayor’s office effectively said: “What CMES?  May The Tech Be With Us!”

On leadership, it only fair to acknowledge this was a very ambitious plan to take on.  Numerous entrenched interests were being challenged, or at least questioned.   Statistics on placement programs were being made public for perhaps the first time, triggering at least one attempt to censor the CMES.   One prominent nonprofit ED went so far as to accuse the mayor’s staff of “class warfare.”  That’s a tough one, and a common paradox in progressive San Francisco: You listen to poor people, you respond to poor people, you’re accused of being anti-poor people.   What were plan organizers responding to?   Many testimonies from Tenderloin and nearby South of Market residents pleading for better housing conditions and cleaner, safer streets.

The failure in leadership was also, in part, our fault, when we opened wide and swallowed whole the Community Benefits Agreements approach the mayor and local supervisor laid before us after passage of the payroll tax exemption.  The larger, big budget, veteran mid-Market nonprofits, afraid or unable to challenge city hall because of their contracts/funding, raced to get in front of the line for the tech company handouts.  These large nonprofits squeeze out smaller nonprofits – especially those that focus on families and youth – even now as discussions with local builders/developers are ongoing.  One ad hoc assembly of groups, “Market Street for the Masses,” unwittingly became laissez-faire city hall’s best friend during this crucial time.  As one colleague who went to one of their meetings put it years later: “We gave city hall a Get Out of Jail Free Card.”

Let’s Not Go Dutch

The CMES’ had a task force: the Central Market Partnership Funders Collaborative.  As a participant I accompanied staff on the mayor’s magical mystery tour of imaginary Mid-Market messiahs (couldn’t resist!).  The Collaborative’s goal:

Launch a collaborative of foundations, corporate donors, social investors, and other private sector and commercial partners that will contribute and align funds to support projects outlined in the Central Market Economic Strategy.

We met with directors of several local foundations.  One especially respected figure in Bay Area philanthropy reviewed the CMES and concluded: “You’re looking at $100 million minimum; local foundations don’t have that kind of money.  Float a bond.”

They also famously said: Talk to the SF Foundation; while they don’t have that kind of money either they do have access to a network of immense wealth.  But Sandra wasn’t buying it, at least not without the city demonstrating it was going to put some skin in the game first.

Something along the lines of this might have gotten some traction: This is our program, to implement it’ll cost about $150 million.  We’re getting things started with $50 million by floating a bond.   We challenge and expect philanthropy to match with $50 million, and the private sector to match with $50 million.  Then we can work toward equitable development in the face of the tech boom.

Instead, the message was: Here’s our plan, please pay for it.   The neighborhood was left with city hall, philanthropy and corporate sectors all looking at each other and saying “You go first.”    (With the very notable exception of the Rainin Foundation.)

This was, in my view, the great failing of city hall on the eve of the city’s launch into a massive and inequitable period of growth.   It never presented a challenge; it instead raced to the back seat.  I’ve spoken with San Francisco real estate dynasty heiresses and young venture capital tycoons about their civic duties and they’ve all asked the same question in response:  Give back to what?

On this point I often think about one conversation in particular.  It was with Daniel Lurie, the Founder/CEO of The Tipping Point Community (TPC).  TPC gives away all the funds it raises each year, a different approach to conventional foundation grantmaking.  After hearing the city’s pitch, Daniel expressed skepticism about investing in the area.  “Who are your changemakers?  What will be different?  I don’t see new thinking or new models of anti-poverty programming in the Tenderloin.  What’s there has been there for a long time, and the intense poverty remains unchanged.”

It’s good to see, now years later, the Tipping Point Community investing in Larkin Street Youth Services.  If Daniel is reading this, might I also recommend the Vietnamese Youth Development Center?  The Asian Pacific Islander community in the Tenderloin has few voices representing their needs or rich and important legacy in the neighborhood; in fact, some consider them an inconvenient presence in the quiet but methodical campaign to upscale/gentrify the TL’s commercial businesses. (333 beer is out, molecular cocktails are in; alas, the Asian community is not down with the Uptown.  But you can help one family here.)


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.