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Lessons of The Tenderloin

When British sociologist Ruth Glass first coined the term “gentrification” in 1964, she was describing the process of displacement already underway in London as poor and working class people got forced out of their traditional urban neighborhoods due to an influx of higher-income renters and home-buyers. In the U.S., no city is more closely identified with this same trend than San Francisco, now one of the most expensive housing markets in the country.

Not long ago, San Francisco had many blue-collar neighborhoods, that were affordable and provided easy access to working class jobs. Now, as housing lawyer and community organizer Randy Shaw notes in his new book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco (Urban Reality Press, 2015), much of the city is “virtually off-limits to all but well-heeled residents.” Since 1990, its black population has decreased by 44 percent—more than any other major U.S. city.

African-Americans, along with a growing number of Latinos employed in the service sector, have been pushed far beyond the city limits in search of housing they can afford.Some of these workers have to commute long distances back downtown, at great expense in time and money. Meanwhile, the city’s up and coming property owning class—rooted in the new white-collar wealth of Silicon Valley—is renovating their old homes and apartments in places like the Mission District, turning a longtime immigrant stronghold into the Bay Area’s hottest hipster haven.

As Al Jazeera reported in February, Facebook’s multi-billionaire founder Mark Zuckerberg recently threw down $10 million in cash for a “pied-a-terre” in the Mission valued at $3.2; to give himself some elbow room, he then bought the house next door for $1 million above its asking price.

The only exception to this local displacement trend is a San Francisco neighborhood with a colorful 100-year history of naughtiness and non-conformism. It has been known, for most of that time, as “The Tenderloin”—a reference to the antique police practice of shaking down local restaurants and butcher shops by taking the best cuts of their beef in lieu of cash.

At various periods in its storied past, the Tenderloin has been home to famous brothels, Prohibition-era speakeasies, San Francisco’s first gay bars, well-known hotels and jazz clubs, film companies and recording studies, and professional boxing gyms. For the past 35 years, Shaw has worked there as co-founder of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC). After graduating from a law school located a few blocks away, he became involved in many of the neighborhood’s early fights for individual tenants rights. Among the crucial large-scale victories won by Tenderloin defenders was a pioneering “community benefits agreement” (CBA) with three powerful hotel chains.

As Shaw recounts in his book, Hilton, Holiday Inn, and Ramada wanted to build three luxury tourist hotels adjacent to the Tenderloin in the early 1980s. Given the city’s pro-development political climate—less prevalent then than now–the hospitality industry expected little organized opposition to its plans. The high-rise project originally proposed would, according to Shaw, have transformed the adjacent area by “driving up property values, leading to further development, and, ultimately its destruction as a low-income residential neighborhood.”

Community Organizing Case Study

Among those faced with the prospect of big rent increases and eventual evictions were many senior citizens, recently arrived Asian immigrants, and longtime residents of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) apartment buildings in dire need of better ownership and management. Fortunately, this low-income, multi-racial population included some residents with “previously unrecognized activist and leadership skills” that were put to good use by the full-time community organizers assisting their struggle. During a year-long campaign, they succeeded in mobilizing hundreds of people to pressure the city Planning Commission to modify the hoteliers’ plans. As Shaw reports, the resulting deal with City Hall created “a national precedent for cities requiring private developers to provide community benefits as a condition of approving their projects.”

“Each of the hotels contributed $320,000 per hotel per year for twenty years for low-cost housing development.“ They also had to sponsor a $4 million federal Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) for the acquisition and renovation of four low-cost Tenderloin SROs….Additionally, each hotel had to pay $200,000 for community service projects, and give priority in employment to Tenderloin residents.” 

Thirty years later, community benefits agreements of this sort are much more commonplace, if no less difficult to obtain. Where tax breaks or other forms of public assistance subsidize a major development project today, the value of negotiated community benefits—in the form of additional low income housing units, living wage jobs, local hiring, or preservation of open space for public use—can be far more lucrative.

In fact, the dozens of cities that have won community benefits agreements from developers in recent decades have already triggered their own big business backlash, in the form of proposed legislation in Michigan that would ban CBA’s. Not surprisingly this Republican initiative is directed at belated efforts by the city of Detroit to make land grants and tax breaks for developers come with a few more strings attached. But its corporate sponsors clearly hope that other states will also move to restrict municipal negotiation of binding agreements related to the local impact of hotel, casino, shopping center, office building, or luxury apartment construction.

Such “mitigation measures” in the Tenderloin were combined with later successful struggles over re-zoning and the Tenderloin Housing Clinic’s own acquisition and development of non-profit SRO buildings (which now house 1,600 of San Francisco’s most needy tenants). The result is what Shaw calls “an island of low-income and working class residents amidst a city of great wealth.”  He estimates that the Tenderloin today has “a higher percentage of housing in nonprofit hands than any central city neighborhood in the nation,” an arrangement which safeguards its distinctive character as  “an economically mixed neighborhood with thousands of low-income residents.”

“Nearly a quarter of the neighborhood’s buildings are non-profit owned, and many others are privately owned but with tenants’ rents subsidized by the federal government. Other buildings are off the speculative market because they are leased to non-profit groups whose tenants’ rents are stabilized by the city.”

As Shaw told a recent interviewer, “the story of most urban neighborhoods in the U.S. is that they either remain desperately poor, drug-dominated, and very unpleasant places to live or they become gentrified.” Like similar downtown areas elsewhere, the Tenderloin was long synonymous with drugs, crime, sub-standard housing, and terminal economic decline. Visitors to San Francisco were warned to stay away from the place. Now, as a result of four decades of successful community organizing around housing issues, this 31 square-block area has safer streets, more neighborhood oriented small businesses, pocket parks and art displays. Defying past stereotypes and current trends, it also has the highest percentage of children, among its residents, of any neighborhood in San Francisco.

Befitting a place that more people are now proud to call home, the Tenderloin will soon have its own local history museum (scheduled to open in June). This facility will help educate newer residents and out-of-town visitors about the Tenderloin’s colorful working class past—while also celebrating its current, all-too-unusual status as one of the nation’s “most racially and ethnically diverse communities.”

Of course, pride in any urban community doesn’t count for much if you can’t afford to live there anymore. For those resisting gentrification elsewhere—or fighting to insure that its benefits are more equitably shared—Shaw’s book will be an invaluable guide. It illustrates how persistent and creative grassroots organizing can challenge and change urban re-development schemes designed for the few, rather than the many. And, in many other cities, not just San Francisco, it’s the latter who continue to get pushed out and left behind in the name of neighborhood improvement.

Steve Early is a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area currently working on a book about progressive municipal policy making there and elsewhere. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions (Monthly Review Press, 2013). He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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