Gentrification as a Threat to Cultural Diversity in San Francisco

Within its 47 square miles, San Francisco is home to numerous thriving ethnic groups and cultural districts. While these neighborhoods host global tourists who come to enjoy the foods, arts, and culture, they have also persisted through generations as living, breathing communities where residents can feel at home with groups they identify with. For example, my friend’s parents lived and raised their family in Chinatown for 50 years and still can’t speak English. Before I became an advocate for affordable housing, San Francisco’s cultural diversity and the topic of gentrification were separate topics in my mind – I didn’t believe one had anything to do with the other.

The lack of affordable housing and the city’s prioritization of profit over people is erasing these communities. The irony is that while the cities rake in huge profits from tourism in these neighborhoods, they don’t provide support for these groups to survive. For example, tourists from all over the world come to enjoy the architecture, art, and cuisine of Japantown and spend money at Japanese-centric businesses, all while the city allocates its shopping districts for new Chipotles, Gaps, and Sephoras. How can Japantown make it if the city’s planners and policy-makers choose businesses that maximize profit rather than preserve the spirit of the residents? Also, these neighborhoods need more affordable housing so that families can move in and sustain the community over the long term. Instead, city planners and policy-makers allocate new housing developments for market-rate luxury units that the average family cannot afford. According to a recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an individual needs to earn four times the minimum wage to be able to house their family in a two-bedroom market-rate apartment in San Francisco.

San Francisco’s city planners, officials, and policy-makers must understand that their decisions to prioritize profit over people are cannibalizing the city. They cannot keep boasting of San Francisco’s rich diversity, inviting the world to enjoy Chinatown’s New Year’s Parade or the annual Pride Festival while making decisions that essentially erase the communities behind them.

Affordable Housing Sitting Empty?

Given the high rates of homelessness on the streets and the urgent calls for more affordable housing, I was surprised to see the recent news in the San Francisco Chronicle that San Francisco has 305 below-market-rate apartments sitting empty despite having ~20K applicants for those spaces. Affordable housing is available, so why isn’t it being occupied?!

However, we should start by mentioning that the overall San Francisco rental market HAS become more affordable. Rents have come down ~12% since pre-pandemic times, meaning that more individuals who were previously shut out of the rental market can now get housing. However, that doesn’t change the situation for the individuals who still cannot afford the rents. Such individuals need to rely on programs like San Francisco’s below-market-rate housing program to attain housing for their families.

San Francisco requires housing developers to reserve between 15-21% of units at below-market-rate (BMR) for individuals and families earning less than 55% of the area median income. This program is a lifeline for many low-income families and is a model for cities around the Bay Area, but getting occupants into these units is inefficient and getting worse in the current rental market. In the past, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD) reviewed around five applications before they filled a unit. Now, they review ~31 applications per vacancy as more people drop out of the program to get a better deal elsewhere. It is good news that more applicants can now rent elsewhere but highlights the gross inefficiencies in the review process as the MOHCD wastes time looking at out-of-date applications. A possible solution may be to enforce a penalty for applicants who don’t notify the MOHCD that they have dropped out of the pool, such as prohibiting them from re-applying for the next one or two years.

Reviewing 31 applications instead of the typical five makes an already-long review process six times longer. The review procedure for a BMR unit is much more involved and time-consuming than a simple rental application. The MOHCD office needs to verify the income of every occupant in the new unit to ascertain that they meet the income criteria. The long wait time is not just a burden for the new renters having to wait for housing but also for the building owners who may need the rental income to pay off debts.

Our inability to promptly fill all available BMR units highlights another obstacle in our quest for affordable housing – a slow-moving bureaucracy. In fact, the MOHCD has been compared to PG&E as one of the most inefficient organizations to work with. It is unfortunate that so many units are sitting empty while thousands of families are in such need. Unless the MOHCD figures out how to streamline the process to get families into these affordable units, it just looks like they don’t care.

Inflation: Another Roadblock to Affordable Housing

In recent months, we have seen significant job gains in the Bay Area and unemployment falling to a low 3.4%, comparable to pre-pandemic days. But just as we were looking forward to financial relief for those who lost their jobs and livelihoods during the pandemic, we face another roadblock to affordable housing – inflation.

Inflation has reached 8%, a 40-year high. Inflation cuts into earnings for all workers but has dire consequences for low and middle-income earners. A family that could barely pay for food and housing may no longer be able to meet its basic needs and is thrown back into poverty. Those who don’t have the luxury to work at home may find that the increasing gas prices have left less for food and housing. But inflation is not just about higher gas prices or going to the store and finding that your milk and bananas are a couple of dollars more than you expected – inflation also makes things a lot worse for those seeking affordable housing.

We have heard of the stories of skyrocketing home prices during the pandemic, especially in places like Tampa, Florida, and Austin, Texas, which saw yearly appreciation of 43% and 40%, respectively. Though rising interest rates have reduced the numbers of those seeking homes, sellers still don’t have many incentives to lower prices because one house still receives many offers due to lack of supply. The scarcity of housing also drives up the rental costs, with rents increasing nationally by 15.2% on average. 48 out of 50 states saw overall rental increases, with increases as high as 35% in Austin, Texas, and 39% in Portland, Oregon. These increases would be acceptable if incomes grew at the same rate, but lower-income workers’ paychecks have not even remotely kept pace. As a result, affordable housing has become even more out-of-reach. A popular option for thrifty home buyers had been to purchase a fixer-upper, a cheaper home that needs work. But even this is becoming a less attractive choice as inflation increases costs for materials, and supply chain issues make materials challenging to attain.

The solution to the housing plight is and has always been to increase the supply of affordable housing. As we have explored in a previous post, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) has assigned Bay Area cities the task of building 441,000 new homes and apartments between 2023-2031. Chances are slim they will be able to meet this goal, with a quarter of the cities protesting their quotas for various reasons. Such an enormous task will naturally receive opposition; there is limited space for the many who need affordable housing in the Bay Area. But the mandate is an essential step toward something we have waited a long time for – action.

To California’s Public Officials Re: Affordable Housing

Dear California Public Officials,

I am writing to encourage you to promote opening up more locations in the state where Tiny Homes are approved. I am an active senior/still-working artist in Oakland who is going to need a new place to live in the near future. I am currently living in the house of a wonderful, elderly landlady, who may decide/need to move to easier housing at any time. To be honest, after this space is no longer available, there is no way I could afford to stay in my neighborhood and keep all the resources that I have come to know. I have applied to several subsidized senior apartments, but know that actually getting a place can require a long wait, if they manifest at all.

I could afford to acquire a simple live-in studio on wheels, or a trailer, but do not know where I would be able to park. Especially with the amount of homelessness and now complications from COVID-19, I don’t understand why Tiny Homes are not seen as a potential solution for so many people who are struggling and suffering.

I know the limitations for ADU’s are opening up, but this does not help the person who does not own the property, as they are mostly required to have a foundation, rather than be on a trailer.

Please do what you can in this regard, and let me know who I should speak to locally in the Oakland/Berkeley area. Thank you for all you are doing to keep California safe during this tragic time.

Sincerely,
Judith Schonebaum
Oakland, California

The Care For Us Website

Care Association is developing an affordable housing technology solution, a platform to enable homeowners with vacant rooms or units to offer housing to lower-income tenants who tell their stories on the CareForUs.us site. We have found that many homeowners wish to help those in need of affordable housing yet don’t know where to find tenants who are suitable for them.

The Care For Us site will also enable donors to search for, choose, and give goods and services to individuals and charities in need. Goods provided through the program are items that assist individuals in achieving a U.S. standard of living or quality of life and nonprofits in procuring supplies and equipment for their charitable operations. Services may be educational, legal, financial, or health-related. Beneficiaries are verified by Care Association as “in need” based on financial criteria and knowledge of individuals and organizations.

When I first started this nonprofit, I was providing nonprofits with equipment and supplies. I was also providing pro bono emotional regulation care. The website idea came after talking with people about their hesitance getting rid of things that are meaningful to them. Knowing who benefits from donations gets lost when donating to thrift stores. How can we find recipients who would appreciate them? Others mentioned their desire to help people, but didn’t have a way to help without committing to a program. Care For Us would enable pro bono services directly to people in need. But I realized that lack of affordable housing is probably the cause of most low-income stress. If the Care For Us site can connect donors to beneficiaries, why not connect landlords to prospective tenants?

The Care For Us Demo

Today, the Care For Us demonstration website is under construction. We need a demo in order to raise funds, and to show that the Care For Us site will work. Results will enable us to effectively apply for grants. For this demo, I wanted at least five participants who needed affordable housing to be “users” and beneficiaries of the site. I put together an online form where prospective beneficiaries could upload photos and write their stories. I learned that few people are willing to allow someone else to choose housing for them, and that those who struggle with low income do not want to broadcast their needs. Our society looks down on people with low income, leading to shame and embarrassment. Only one out of ten people invited to become participants of the demo completed the form.

The demo site is meant to be a working prototype. So far, the participant who completed our form has a live page hosted at careforus.us. We have been reaching out to landlords and property managers and will soon place an ad to find the participant’s family a home.

Volunteers Are the Heart of Care Association

While we wait for more people to sign up for our demo, there is a lot of work to do. I have been building the demo site by typing out the html markup. It’s not super pretty, but it functions. One volunteer is working on our technology infrastructure with Salesforce at its center. Another volunteer has written an article to boost marketing. Soon we will look for a web architect to plan construction of the launch site. Since we were unable to raise enough funds to hire an engineer, I will be coordinating site construction with volunteers. We had an original beta launch date of January 2019, but it will be much later than that. I am also a volunteer, enabled by loved ones to carry on with this venture. This means 100% of funds received will go toward operations and housing assistance. Currently, we have a GoFundMe campaign to raise a security deposit to help our participant find a home.

Six months ago, when someone told me that nonprofits take a long time to make accomplishments, I thought that I would be the exception and be able to launch our project expeditiously. Now humbled with a fourth revision to our business plan, I still have hope to make this world a better place for some.

Humble Beginnings for a Grand Plan

Building a business is difficult, but building a nonprofit has its own unique challenges.  For starters, nonprofits like ours don’t have anything to offer in return for revenue except a sense of goodwill.  Many nonprofits rely on donations to complete their missions.

To make things more difficult, our project is based on technology — the WWW.  The site needs to provide an easy-to-use interface, to be safe with its data secure, and to connect to secure third-party software for income verification.  And it needs to look good. Building a site that accomplishes what we want, provides the security its users need, and functions in a way that benefits and doesn’t frustrate is no small feat.  To accomplish this successfully, we need money, and a lot of it.  Unfortunately, relying on volunteers is neither efficient nor effective for a technology product that is not about technology.  The computer platform Ubuntu was built by volunteers but for computer purposes.

On September 1, we began fundraising so that we can hire developers to build the site.  We found a table for free on Craigslist and covered it with an old sheet with Sharpie-colored words, “Make Affordable Housing Happen Now.”  Since we are starting from nothing, we had to start somewhere.  At least a picture of our table gave us something interesting to post on our Instagram account (@careforus.us).

Beginning Care Association

When this project first started, it was just me with an idea: create a networking site where people who needed things for a better quality of life could connect with people who had something to give.  Care For Us went on the drawing board.  Unfortunately, someone else in California had the name, another nonprofit that serves children with autism.  As opposed to supporting a silo of people who had differences from others, I wanted to create a nonprofit that could involve anyone in the United States.  With Bruce Wolfe as Treasurer and Cedric Bertelli as Secretary, and with the help of Larry Ross, CPA, we formed Care Association and applied for 501(c)(3) status, but kept the Care For Us name for the project.

When our status letter arrived in the mail, it came as a surprise having been months after the window of time in which the IRS said they would inform us of our status. By then, I had started graduate school thinking the project would never happen unless I funded it myself.  I needed to make money if I were to fund it, and there weren’t any jobs out there that interested me enough.  Someone at the Internal Revenue Service believed in what we want to do… or we just completed Form 1023 correctly, thanks to Mr. Ross.

More than a year after applying, our business plan is written, the organization’s website is up, and wireframes are in process.  Most important, our focus has changed to affordable housing.  While writing the business plan and looking for feedback, I realized that exchanging goods and services wasn’t on the forefront of people’s minds.  But many people, perhaps most in the San Francisco Bay Area have been struggling with the lack of affordable housing.  Even people with money that can afford the high prices are unhappy with the costs.

As with any business, building a nonprofit takes a lot of work.  But unlike for-profit businesses, we rely on donations to help us get started.  Having a business plan and applying for a loan isn’t really an option right now.  Our first project is the Care For Us site, and it won’t be providing revenues right away if at all.  Not only are we not for profit, we are also tech-related.  We don’t have a program with active volunteers going out and meeting people’s needs, but we do have a plan and a vision.  That vision includes bringing the nonprofit world to the frontier of technology.