Preserving San Francisco’s Character, One Apartment at a Time
This is a guest post by Megan Natt. Storytelling and subtext really butters her bread.
It’s no secret that San Francisco has been going through a transformation. In every corner coffee shop, neighborhood bar, and local grocery co-op, San Franciscans have been commiserating — some with vitriol and some with laughing resignation — over the soaring costs of living in our beloved city. While it’s a quotidian topic that affects nearly everyone with a 415 area code, it’s an issue without an obvious solution.
But not everyone is sitting by passively, watching the city’s most tenured residents be priced out of their homes. For the last 10 years, the San Francisco Community Land Trust has been quietly advocating for low-income tenants and chipping away at the city’s affordable housing deficit, laboring to keep families in their homes even as housing prices skyrocket.
Great news, of course, but it begs the question, what the hell is a community land trust? I recently caught up with Tyler MacMillan, Organizational Director at the SFCLT, in the afterglow of the organization’s 10-year anniversary, to discuss the role of community land trusts and how exactly they can help preserve metropolitan communities.
So first and foremost, what the hell is a community land trust?
Essentially, it’s a shared form of ownership of either land or property. In the Community Land Trust’s case, we buy residential apartment buildings with anywhere from five to 20 units to preserve the homes of the low-income residents living there. Residential trusts are really a new part of the ancient history of shared ownership; they’re an innovative model of community-shared ownership.
Shared ownership already exists around San Francisco — take Rainbow Foods and Arizmendi Bakery, for instance — but the idea of residents sharing ownership of their homes is pretty new within the city’s portfolio.
How do land trust models differ from other conventional models? What are those conventional models?
We actually craft and implement both conventional models and resident-controlled models. In the land trust’s portfolio, eight of our 12 buildings are traditional rentals, meaning the land trust acts as the landlords for the buildings. But while they’re traditional rentals, they’re permanently affordable rentals, and we go above and beyond to engage those residents around decisions that affect their community.
Three of our properties are resident-managed and one of them (53 Columbus) is resident-owned, so the residents make all the decisions around maintenance, rent levels, and any other decisions that impact that community, and we support them.
One of the most moving moments of your 10-year celebration the other night was when the gentleman who was previously homeless spoke about his journey to own his own home. Is that the usual success story for the residents in land trust buildings? Is there a common narrative for your tenants? Who qualifies for your program?
All of our vacant units are marketed through the city’s BMR (below market rate) program and so we’re under the umbrella of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development; we don’t really control who goes into our vacant units.
But the beauty of preservation and the acquisition model (meaning that we buy buildings and fill any vacancies based on the city lottery) is that [the resident pool] usually reflects the wonderful diversity of San Francisco — there’s low-income and middle-income folks, and even a couple higher income folks. There’s tremendous ethnic diversity and tremendous cultural diversity which really reflects the neighborhoods that they’re in. Fifty-three Columbus is a great example. It’s filled with Chinese families who have lived there for decades, and are trying to preserve not just their homes, but their neighborhood. It’s an exemplary model of how resident-managed housing can preserve the characteristics of the community, not just the affordability.
Can you tell me more about your relationship with the city?
The small price program was written and created — and even the funding was drummed up — by the affordable housing community and activists like the Community Council of Housing Organizations (CCHO, aka Choo Choo) to support land trusts. We’ve seen a number of housing bonds passed in recent years — like Prop C, can we get a plug for Prop C? — that provide millions of dollars for housing initiatives, $100 million of which would go to fund a model like ours. We have a tremendous partnership with the city and we’re really, really glad to have the Mayor’s Office of Housing host this program. But while all our properties were bought with city money, it was crafted by activists in the community. So it’s really a community program living under the city umbrella.
The properties are bought with city money, but people buy the units within those properties with their own money, right?
Yeah, and it’s important to note that the limited equity cooperative model you’re talking about — where folks actually get to purchase an equity share in the building — is really the gold standard and has only been achieved at one of our properties. So if you look at our portfolio of 12, we only have one property that fits that definition where people have purchased and own a piece of the cooperative. It takes a long time to develop the skills and comfort of a group of tenants to really own and operate their building.
And that’s really half of the work that the Land Trust does — half is buying, owning, and operating the buildings, and the other half is training and supporting the residents on this long journey of forming a 501(c)(3), learning how to operate a 501(c)(3), learning how to operate a building, learning how to work together, and ultimately taking on the ownership of the building.
The other model that we practice is the zero equity cooperative ownership model, where folks control and own the building, but there’s no financial element to it.
Is this model similar in any way to a commune?
I think depending on how you define “commune”, the answer would be yes. Typically, when people use that word it tends to invoke a hippie-ish vibe and things like free love and an aggressive elimination of capital, but one of the interesting things about the Land Trust is that we’re a market player. We buy things at market rate, and our cooperative-run buildings need to be run just as well as those run by private landlords or developers. While certain aspects of a land trust resemble aspects of a commune, it’s important to distinguish where the commune movement of the 1960s came from versus where the land trust movement came from.
I’m not an expert on the subject, but the hippie commune movement came out of a caucasian desire to disconnect from technology as a response to wealth and those sorts of modern problems. The community land trust movement, on the other hand, is really a social movement that comes from poor people of color trying to find creative ways to hold onto and own pieces of their community. So while the two movements came from very different places, where they landed are somewhat similar.
One common conversation among San Franciscans these days (and for the last decade at least), is the tension between Silicon Valley and the people who have lived in the city for years. Any comment on the tech boom?
You’ve got to start the conversation with a recognition of the impact of the tech industry. We have both long term, multi-generation San Francisco families, and newer arrivals who work at some of those tech companies living in our buildings. And so while we are frustrated like so many in the community with the ripple effect of high-income workers flooding San Francisco, we also need to be more honest about it. It’s not just the tech industry that is causing displacement and creating problems; there are all kinds of industries that are drawing people to San Francisco, and from the Land Trust’s perspective, we see all of those groups as potential partners.
We wouldn’t be able to fund our projects without those partnerships. People from the tech community get very excited about this model because they realize that a land trust is one of the more scalable solutions for really attacking the affordable housing crisis. So, while we’re frustrated by the problem, we’re even more excited to tackle it in partnership with not just tech, but banking folks, lawyers, the real estate industry. Whoever’s a part of this community, we’re going to work with them to fix it. That community part of our name really does mean something and we treat everyone who’s part of our community as such.
Finally, what does an ideal San Francisco look like to you and the San Francisco Community Land Trust?
For us, we’d like to see a San Francisco that’s as economically and culturally diverse as it always has been. We want to preserve the unique neighborhoods and the unique people that make this place so special.
The SFCLT is a member based organization. Join today and help us realize our vision of creating better options for affordable housing in San Francisco. Become a member of the SFCLT
NEXT SFCLT POLICY COMMITTEE MEETING
April 04, 2017
6:00 PM – 7:00 PM
Kanbar Performing Arts Center
44 Page Street #401
San Francisco, CA 94102