Buying up homes for the people
In 2019, when Elizabeth Bell’s apartment building in San Francisco’s Mission District went up for sale, she joined other residents — a diverse mix of longtime Latino families and low-income seniors like Bell — and approached housing advocates, who introduced them to the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), a longtime non-profit to help them save the building. Bell knew she couldn’t have afforded to stay in San Francisco, where she has lived since 1975. “I am very bonded to the city. I don’t know where I would pick up and start again at this point in my life,” she told High Country News.
MEDA bought Bell’s building in February, offering Bell and others some financial peace of mind.
Over the past few years, MEDA has emerged as a leader in an anti-gentrification effort, known as the right-to-purchase, where local non-profits can buy residential buildings to prevent eviction and displacement. To date, MEDA has bought 32 buildings — more than 250 units — with two more on the way.
This and other tenant-protection policies are spreading across California. The covid downturn has caused unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression, and experts fear a housing crisis will follow. San Francisco’s city council recently passed an eviction ban. Oakland and Berkeley had already introduced their own right-to-purchase polices pre-covid, both of which have now gained urgency with the pandemic. Los Angeles has extended eviction protection across the summer and, spurred by covid, is considering its own right-to-purchase policy. And a bill has been introduced in the California legislature that would create a statewide version of the policy.
As properties foreclosed in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, developers bought up big and turned them into upmarket condos. The enormous loss of wealth for, and displacement of, low-income and Black and Latino families convinced MEDA it had to be prepared “for when the next financial crisis comes,” as Johnny Oliver, an organiser for MEDA, put it. He described MEDA’s work as “reversing gentrification in the Mission District,” which has been transformed by years of unrestrained housing development and speculation.
In 2014, Oliver and other housing organisers developed a program to publicly fund local buildings and a law was passed last year that guarantees local nonprofits such as MEDA a five-day window in which to make an offer on a distressed property, before the building owner can sell. The non-profit then has 25 days to match other bids.
Chloe Jackman-Buitrago, who was born and raised in San Francisco, owns a photography studio around the corner from her apartment building. When her building hit the market, she looked at other rents in the area and doubted she’d be able to stay in the city if forced out. MEDA bought the building instead, and so she could stay. “[MEDA] is keeping people in their homes,” she said. “These are the people who keep this city running, who make this city what it is.”
The new program requires all residents of a property to agree to the purchase. When Jackman-Buitrago talked to her neighbours about supporting a MEDA purchase, however, she ran into an unusual problem: to people aware of the city’s real estate history, it seemed too good to be true. It took some convincing, but eventually they came around. With the help of the city, MEDA will manage the building on a 99-year lease and is undertaking major repairs the previous landlord neglected.
Though it took a pandemic for tenant-protection policies to gain momentum, Oliver cautions these policies are small fry compared to the scale of California’s housing crisis. And although there are more potential properties moving to market, there are fewer than ten housing nonprofits that can afford to buy and manage them. And because of covid, there’s less in the state budget for non-profit purchases of local real estate. Building more affordable housing is a better, more sustainable and longer-term solution.
ABOVE Chloe Jackman-Buitrago with her son outside her apartment building
PHOTO Christie Hemm Klok/High Country News