Gentrification — there’s a loaded term. When I think of it, I think of the young lawyer and his wife I met in the late 1980s who had bought a gorgeous Victorian and fixed it up. Despite just being at the beginning of their careers, they were able to take on this economic burden because they bought the Victorian right in the middle of San Francisco’s Western Addition. A hundred years ago, it was a very nice middle class neighborhood, filled with detail rich, high ceilinged Victorian houses. By the 1960s, however, it was a predominantly black slum, a characteristic it still retains. In a City with as tight a housing market as San Francisco’s, however, where first time home ownership is almost impossible, buying a Western Addition Victorian seemed like a good idea. In some ways, it was. As I noted, the house was absolutely beautiful. These homeowners to my mind also did a mitzvah (by which I mean a good deed) by rescuing from total decay an architectural gem of the kind that will never be built again.
In other ways, buying the house wasn’t a good idea at all. Friends didn’t want to come and visit, because any cars left on the street were almost invariably robbed or vandalized. The night I went to dinner there, the lawyer had a harrowing tale of coming home from work and being chased with broken bottles by neighborhood “youths.” These same home owners had also made the classic real estate error of becoming the best home on the block. If they were to resell, no one would pay what the house, standing alone, was worth, because you simply couldn’t ignore the dangerous slum surrounding it on all sides.
It’s important to remember, though, that my acquaintances didn’t buy the house to resell. That is, they weren’t just real estate speculators without any interest in the community around them. Instead, they bought the house as a place to live, in the hopes that other cash strapped yuppies would make the same decision they did. If that were the case, one by one, the houses in this benighted area would be renovated, the neighborhood or, at least, their street would be renewed, and they’d end up both with a lovely place to live and an increased net worth. Good liberals that they were, they also knew, but were willing to overlook the fact, that, were these positives ever to occur, the poor people who lived in the neighborhood would be displaced, because property values would drive rents up.
I lost contact with these people almost two decades ago, so I don’t know what decision they ultimately made. I do know, though, that the Western Addition continues to be a scary, crime-ridden neighborhood. There are a few gentrified houses on the fringes of the Western Addition, as there have long been, but the neighborhood really didn’t get even marginally better. Certainly, that lack of change wasn’t good for this young couple, but I also have to ask, is the neighborhood’s static quality good for the poor people who live there? Sure, they get cheap rent, but at what price? They are jammed cheek by jowl in a place where it isn’t safe for their children to walk the streets, and where the schools are so bad there’s no way for them to get worse. Would some gentrification have been such a problem?
And even if one wants to say, let the rich, or soon to be rich, yuppies find their own neighborhoods to enrich, what about gentrification, not for the rich/yuppies, but for the working class? That battle royale is playing out right now in San Francisco, with immigrants and squatters blocking a property owner from building affordable housing for his workers. In other words, it’s not the aristocracy versus the proletariat, it’s the lower proletariat versus the upper proletariat (with the former getting some back-up from the City of San Francisco itself, in the form of economic blackmail):
Ron Mallia wants to build eight apartments and condominiums on an empty parking lot next to his Mission District auto shop and rent some of the apartments to his mechanics.
His project seems like the kind that would be endorsed by the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, but the group has fought Mallia, insisting that his project not go forward until the city evaluates how new development on the city’s east side will affect industrial land, jobs and housing.
The fight is one of many recent battles being waged by the coalition, a handful of community organizations focused on immigrants’ rights, development and social services that was formed a decade ago to resist gentrification during the dot-com boom. Supervisor Chris Daly, a former tenant activist, takes credit for helping found the group, which has a reputation for staging street protests and illegally occupying private property.
More recently, it has used environmental laws to stall more than 50 market-rate housing projects before narrowly losing a bid this month to block a condominium project on Cesar Chavez Street that will replace a shuttered paint store.
But some longtime Mission residents and business owners question whether the group is going too far, blocking developments that would add middle-income and affordable housing to the neighborhood, in addition to cleaning it up and making it safer.
“They don’t want any development at all in the Mission because any development makes the area better. … They don’t want that because they believe that by improving the area, the cost of housing might go up,” said Mallia, who has owned gas stations and car repair shops in the Mission for 25 years.
In April, facing pressure from the coalition, the city Planning Commission approved Mallia’s project but with the condition that he pay more than $150,000 in fees that will help fund city services.
Incidentally, Mallia is not the only one who is trying to turn a decrepit San Francisco neighborhood into a livable place for the working and middle classes. According to the same article, Supervisor Chris Daly’s little group has managed to block 50 other developments aimed, not at providing homes for the new gentry, but at providing affordable housing for ordinary people.
As an aside, am I the only one who spots the irony in the fact that a San Francisco supervisor is sponsoring and promoting a group that engages in illegal land grabs? I’d say it’s only in San Francisco, but I think these type of economically and socially damaging theatrics can be found in every major Western City — not just in America, but around the world. These people think they’re being cute, provocative and progressive, but what they’re really doing is continuously enlarging the urban blight that has destroyed the world’s once fine cities as working people — not poor people, working people — are forced to look elsewhere for viable living opportunities.
Filed under: San Francisco