Midtown: Broken Promises and The Ghosts of Redevelopment

On the evening of October 18th, citizens and activists packed the cafeteria of Gateway High School, intent on speaking out against certain injustices that have been visited upon the residents of the Midtown Park Apartments. Addressing the crowd were a somber set of officials. Some spoke for the Mayor’s Office of Housing, while others were representing Mercy Housing, the massive, development-oriented nonprofit. Since 2014, Mercy has served as property manager and development partner for “Midtown,” as the apartments are known. A group of six buildings that have stood at 1415 Scott Street since 1964, this complex houses 139 tenant families, primarily black, many elderly. The Mayor’s Office of Housing, during its presentation, made it clear that the structures that had long governed the gentle and cooperative community were about to undergo drastic change, and that the residents would soon face the loss of their homes.

The original vision of Midtown was to create a mixed-income homeownership community cooperative, similar to the nearby St. Francis Square apartments. But instead of transitioning residents to ownership, as previously promised, the buildings, under the stewardship of Mercy Housing, are now slated to be demolished and rebuilt at an indeterminate future date. Midtown’s current predicament echoes across history: Midtown exists because it was a rehousing site for families displaced by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s wanton, racist destruction of the minority-populated Western Addition during the 60’s and 70’s.

Conspicuously absent from the high school meeting was Supervisor London Breed, a supporter of Mercy’s new designs for Midtown. It’s more than a bit ironic that Breed seems eager to erase the memory of the Redevelopment Agency, voting recently to rebrand Justin Herman Plaza, which is named after the Agency director who presided over the demolition of the Western Addition’s “blight.” Symbolic gestures are easy. Breed’s apparent nonchalance about the appropriation of Midtown is easy. But doing the right thing by longstanding tenants and SF residents who have endured a legacy of negligence from the City and malfeasance from developers will require courage.

A Brief History of Midtown[1]

Shortly after Midtown opened, its original developer went belly-up and defaulted on the loan. The lenders soon came calling; in order to keep the property afloat, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) stepped in and negotiated for the City to take over the property. Shortly thereafter, in 1968, the City gave a 40-year lease for the property to the Midtown Park Corporation, a nonprofit established by tenants to oversee the upkeep of the grounds.

Midtown’s unique model of tenant self-management set a nationwide example during its heyday. A tenant board oversaw management for the property. Crucially, Midtown was never classified as affordable housing which, for the residents, cut both ways. While the thriving community retained its autonomy, the tenants sometimes struggled with the technical needs of large-scale building maintenance. Rent control added another wrinkle. In 1979, the City assured Midtown residents that they fell under rent control statutes, which allowed many residents to continue to afford their homes over the years. The flip side of that affordability was the lowered revenue potential for the building maintenance. Long-term residents with rent control did not pay as much into collective maintenance funds, a problem that was exacerbated over time.

The City was aware of this issue but did little to address the mounting crisis. Since rents remained static in the face of rising maintenance costs, maintenance funding inevitably became insufficient. At least once in the past, the City prevented the tenant board from increasing rent to raise more funds because the apartments were subject to rent control. Residents have reams of documentation attesting to this.

Midtown’s Modern History

Why is it important to recount the history of the relationship between Midtown and the City? Because Mercy Housing and the City now claim that Midtown is in such a state of disrepair that demolition is the only remaining option. Residents faced a tough situation and did their best to keep Midtown afloat over the past 40 years. Yet the City now seeks to erase all evidence of its decades of neglecting the buildings by razing them to the ground. The City was the ostensible property owner, responsible for its upkeep. When a property owner sits by as a building slowly falls into disrepair, it’s called negligence. The City failed to intervene, and now Midtown’s residents are being punished, again.

The rent control issue also looms large. When Mercy assumed control, they paid no mind to the unique arrangement that had been in place for decades at Midtown. Instead, they immediately sent around new lease agreements for tenants to sign — leases that imposed the same income-based rent scale that they use to operate their other properties. Supervisor London Breed had announced in a 2014 Board of Supervisors meeting that the residents would see no increase in their rent after the Mercy takeover. This was a brazen falsehood. Despite the City’s promises and their past invocations of rent control to deny rent increases, residents of Midtown saw their rent control protections stripped away . Midtown residents must now pay 30% of their incomes in rent. This has decreased the rent for some residents, but, for others, particularly those who had experienced income gains, rents jumped by up to 300%.

To recap: the City claimed to own Midtown. The City promised Midtown residents rent control. Midtown tenants struggled to meet the rising costs of maintenance. The City vetoed proposed rent increases, citing rent control protections for Midtown. Without increased revenue or support from its owner, the City, the complex fell into disrepair. Now that a backroom deal has granted control of the property to Mercy Housing, the City is looking the other way as rent control protections are destroyed. Midtown’s tenants are facing an injustice in triplicate: the City’s failure to help them maintain the buildings, the revocation of rent control, and, if the City gets its way, the complete demolition of their homes.

The Meeting

At Gateway High School that night, many residents demanded to know why their proposals to restore Midtown to its original promise — a rent-to-own, cooperative community — have fallen on deaf ears. If the City has no intention of restoring options for residents to move towards ownership, then why did they remove their rent control protections? The City and Mercy seem entirely disinterested in the cooperative ownership option, despite the success of the St. Francis Square Apartments. St Francis Square’s buildings were constructed around the same time as Midtown, and, as a St Francis Square resident noted at the meeting, are in perfectly good shape — no demolition looms on their horizon. Residents there not only enjoy well-maintained homes, but they also build equity that they can pass along to future generations. Such benefits were denied to the families who became lifelong renters at Midtown after their homes were demolished by the Redevelopment Agency.

During the meeting, whenever a Midtown resident asked about ownership, Mayor’s Office of Housing officials on the panel repeatedly insisted that they wouldn’t be able to afford it — all while pointing to a chart filled with absurdly inflated cost estimates for repairs and maintenance. As the meeting went on, Midtown residents grilled the panel on issue after issue, from the City’s neglect to Mercy’s actions to the details of the proposed reconstruction. The panel respondents, Office of Housing and Mercy reps alike, stumbled badly at times.

In a moment indicative to many of the callous way in which Mercy regards the residents, a resident asked about the curious mismatch between the number of current tenants and the number of units at proposed new towers. To this, the panel representative responded, “In development, there’s turnover.” ‘Turnover’ here was intended to mean, to the vocal displeasure of attendees, that Mercy and the City were assuming that some elderly residents would die before they had the chance to move.

In broader terms, the “turnover” the official referred to is also a euphemism for the displacement of hundreds of black long-time residents, some of whom live at Midtown because of the previous wave of “development” perpetrated by functionaries like Justin Herman. It’s a little too reminiscent of the way that hundreds of black-owned and occupied homes and businesses in the Western Addition, thriving neighborhoods that resounded with jazz, food, and culture, were condemned as “blight” and summarily bulldozed to make way for profiteering ventures.

Conclusion

Perhaps the biggest crime here is, as the city ignored Midtown’s decay over the years, a crime of neglect. Of indifference. Of waving away of the needs of the poor in the name of development; what they call progress. Supervisor Breed is (probably) not pulling strings in service of a cabal of bloodsucking developers. Rather, she seems blithely unconcerned with Midtown’s trials. Instead of attending the meeting at Gateway High, she was at a meaningless ceremony to bestow an award on some restaurants.

While Breed mugs for the cameras at PR-friendly events, Midtown residents, particularly the elderly, are suffering from crushing levels of stress in anticipation of their forced displacement. As is tragically so often the case in American housing policy, minority groups are caught in the gears of a power grab by self-interested organizations. With Midtown, the City has an opportunity to atone for a brutal and racist legacy of displacement. Their intractability on the issue, and their willingness to upend the lives of hundreds of people via fiscal and bureaucratic chicanery, suggests that while the Redevelopment Agency may be a thing of the past, this city has not seen the last of a powerful institution’s cavalier disregard for human rights and dignity in the service of wealth and power.

[1] For more detailed history, check out Natalia Kresich’s article on 48 Hills and the Save Midtown website.

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Tyler Walicek is an independent journalist.