Rewriting Fillmore’s redevelopment history
It’s no secret that San Francisco is an expensive place to live.
Take renting an apartment, for instance. On average, a San Francisco tenant pays more than $1,800 a month on rent, according to real estate research firm Reis, Incorporated. That’s more than what you would make in a month working 40-hour work weeks on minimum wage.
So you might find it hard to believe that right now, in the heart of San Francisco, it’s a good time to buy a home for comparatively low-income earners. In the Fillmore, the city’s Redevelopment Agency is building 32 units of below-market-rate townhomes and flats. It’s part of an effort to revitalize this historic jazz district, but it’s not the first time the Fillmore has been the site of redevelopment.
Many people who lived there in the ‘60s were pushed out of their homes by a similar desire to “revitalize” the neighborhood. Now, those former residents are invited to be at the front of the line as the city considers applicants for these homes tomorrow, October 19.
Unfortunately, locating those onetime residents, and fixing the mistakes of the past, isn’t that easy. In a story co-produced by Adelaide Chen, Angela Bass reports.
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ANGELA BASS: On a Saturday morning, Dennis Clay is attending an application workshop for potential first-time home-buyers.
Clay holds a “certificate of preference.” It could be his key to a new home. The piece of paper gives the 55-year-old bio-tech worker first rights to return to the district his family was forced to leave when he was just a boy.
DENNIS CLAY: I was displaced from the Fillmore District, oh, probably approximately 45 years ago. I didn’t know anything at that particular time about being displaced because I was only a kid. The only thing I knew – that I was moving.
Back then, Fillmore was a thriving black community with black-owned restaurants, barbershops, and jazz clubs.
RONALD GLAZE: It was a time that everybody used to come to Fillmore, wouldn’t even go downtown...
Ronald Glaze remembers the Fillmore in the 1960s.
GLAZE: …‘cause we had the speakeasies and the stores right here. And all the little speakeasies, barbecue joints, you know, little doo-wops.
Glaze’s uncle, Sammy Simpson, made a name for himself as a saxophone player in the district, performing with jazz legends like John Coltrane.
GLAZE: I’ve seen a lot of greats come through here. You like to think that what your people went through, that you can still fulfill a dream by getting back into the Fillmore, and this is where I come from, you know.
Glaze also has a certificate of preference. He hopes to qualify for one of the new homes, which are priced between $150,000 to $375,000. And for weeks, the grocery store cashier has been wading through paperwork.
GLAZE: Right now, I’m just getting it together. You know, all my W-2 forms, bank statements...
Certificate holders like Glaze are rare. Less than a quarter of the nearly 5,000 certificates issued by the redevelopment agency – back in the ‘60s and ‘70s – have been successfully redeemed.
That’s where Reverend Arnold Townsend comes in. In his youth, the activist fought the demolition of homes during redevelopment. Nowadays, he’s tracking down certificate holders and walking them through the application process on behalf of Fillmore Park’s developer, Michael Simmons.
ARNOLD TOWNSEND: One of the biggest problems with people that I run into is convincing folk that it can happen.
Credit is a barrier…
TOWNSEND: You know certificate holders are not wealthy.
Coming up with money for a down payment can be tough…
TOWNSEND: …the things that restrict poor people from buying homes, traditionally.
And, Townsend says, for many African Americans, there’s another problem.
TOWNSEND: I never hear people, black people saying, “San Francisco – man, I’d love to live in San Francisco.” It’s not considered a friendly place for African Americans to live.
But Townsend’s quest is not just for African Americans. It’s multicultural. The Fillmore District has also historically been home to Japanese Americans.
RICHARD HASHIMOTO: I would love to move back into San Francisco, but unfortunately it’s still out of reach for me.
Richard Hashimoto’s family was evicted from the district in the early ‘70s. Today, the 53-year-old is the corporate manager of the Japan Center Garage, a few blocks from Fillmore Street.
HASHIMOTO: Even I can’t afford these home prices, and I live in Vallejo now.
Because he already owns a home, and makes too much money for affordable housing, Hashimoto doesn’t qualify for the new Fillmore Park development. But his grown-up children do.
HASHIMOTO: I would love to see them move in, particularly now because my children are starting their own families. My son has a two-year-old son. My daughter has one son with one on the way.
Hashimoto used to sit on an advisory committee that gave locals a say in all redevelopment activity in the Western Addition.
In 2007, the city’s redevelopment agency, under director Fred Blackwell, began fine-tuning its policies for certificate holders.
FRED BLACKWELL: We are doing things to improve those communities – that people who lived through the bad times get a chance to experience the good times. And so, I do think that is an obligation of ours.
This obligation includes offering down payment assistance to low-income certificate holders. But the demand for affordable housing in the Fillmore may soon outweigh the supply. Fillmore Park takes up the agency’s last parcel of land in the district.
BLACKWELL: That does not mean that in the future, the agency, through its citywide housing program, won’t acquire parcels in the Western Addition and develop affordable housing in the Western Addition in the future.
So far, there are no future housing benefits for the grandchildren of certificate holders. But the city’s redevelopment commissioners have wrestled with that idea for years.
BLACKWELL: The issue that I think is important for the commission to consider is that obviously, the farther you get away from the original head of household and the people that were actually displaced, the shakier the ground you stand on in terms of being able to defend this as a housing preference.
Back in the Fillmore District, that’s a big part of what bothers Reverend Arnold Townsend.
TOWNSEND: We had always argued for years if you had built those homes when you were supposed to, right after you moved it out and tore this land down, if you had built for-sale homes, then grandparents would be able to leave that property to their children because it’s inheritable. And we believe the certificates represent value so they ought to be inheritable.
It’s a point that would have changed the lives of 70-year-old LaConstance Collins and her descendants. In 1968, the redevelopment agency evicted her from a rental property in the Fillmore. Today, she’s a certificate holder bidding for one of Fillmore Park’s 32 townhomes and flats.
LACONSTANCE COLLINS: Well because I like living in San Francisco and to buy a home here, nowadays, is impossible, so that’s why. And I never had owned a home and I just thought, you know, it would be it.
Collins is a mother of five, grandmother of 18, and great-grandmother of three. If picked for Fillmore Park, the full-time security guard could eventually hand down her home to her family members.
COLLINS: All my kids was born here in San Francisco. That’s one of the reasons I’m still here, too, ‘cause my kids don’t want to leave here.
For those working hand in hand with certificate holders, October 19 will be a big day. Azra Samiee leads home-buyer workshops. She says there’s a bigger crop of certificate holders applying for homes this time, thanks in part to Reverend Townsend’s efforts.
AZRA SAMIEE: I think it’s because we… it was a more thought-out plan. It was like, him reaching out, somebody else being there to pick them up, another person to hold their hands, so it was like a conveyor belt – I don’t know (laughs) – of people, you know.
That conveyor belt is running now, but it’s set to stop on January 2, 2016. That’s when the redevelopment agency plans to retire its certificate program – for good.
In San Francisco, for Crosscurrents, this is Angela J. Bass.
Reporter Adelaide Chen also contributed to this report. And see this map of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency's Western Addition A-2 project area.