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SF could extend affordable housing benefits for black families displaced by redevelopment

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A man walks past a poster of a black fist plastered on the wall of an abandoned Muni substation in San Francisco’s Fillmore District Wednesday, January 3, 2018. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco is running out of time to repair the damage done decades ago by redevelopment-era policies before a generation of elderly black residents who were displaced from the Western Addition and Hunters Point dies off.

A certificate of preference program that gives black families priority when applying for highly desired units of affordable housing in San Francisco is set to expire in three years. But San Francisco could still right the wrongs of the past by extending the program for another five years and reviving a proposal to extend the benefit to grandchildren of the displaced.

The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s “urban renewal” displaced nearly 6,000 households from black neighborhoods during the 1960s and ’70s. The City recently revived the issue when the Board of Supervisors succeeded to November in getting park officials to remove the name of the agency’s then-head, Justin Herman, from Embarcadero Plaza.

Whether San Francisco will take a more tangible approach to make amends will be up to the commission for the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure. OCII succeeded the Redevelopment Agency when it was dissolved in 2012 and has the power to extend the housing preference program for an additional five years after the benefits expire in January 2021.

It would be up to the commission and the Board of Supervisors to extend the benefit to grandchildren.

“I would like for you guys to work on that,” said Oscar James, a long-time Hunters Point resident and certificate of preference holder.

James raised the issue after Maria Benjamin, director of below-market-rate programs for the Mayor’s Office of Housing, told the OCII commission The City is aware of at least 1,618 certificate of preference holders who are dead.

The idea to extend the benefit to the grandchildren of those displaced — the children of those who were children at the time they were displaced — was suggested in the past but never implemented.

“[Benjamin] made a statement that a lot of persons who are certificate holders have passed but they still have grandkids,” James said. “The commission at that time was really trying to get that passed.”

The Mayor’s Office of Housing said it is likely the program would be extended for another five years, but declined to comment on extending the benefit to grandchildren.

“While it is not guaranteed, it is likely that it will be extended through 2026,” said Kimberly Dubin, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Housing, which took over administration of the certificate of preference program in 2012.

OCII’s executive director Nadia Sesay said it would be up to the OCII commission and the Board of Supervisors to expand the program.

The City has faced criticism for not doing enough to track down those who are entitled to certificates as well as help them secure housing. But in recent years, The City has improved the process, such as by hiring employees to focus on doing just that.

For each housing project, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and OCII takes steps to alert certificate holders of affordable housing opportunities, which are obtained through a lottery. Thousands of housing hopefuls compete in each lottery, not just certificate holders, but the certificate gives them priority.

Last fiscal year, The City housed 43 of the 215 certificate of preference holders who applied for housing, according to Benjamin.

Winning the lottery doesn’t guarantee housing. Other criteria must be met, such as income eligibility and credit history — but there’s some help for certificate holders there, too. The nonprofit Q Foundation, for example, will help certificate holders boost their income with rental subsidies to qualify for units.

Of the 172 who didn’t get housing last fiscal year, 24 were under income, 28 over income, 17 were under age for the senior units applied for, five were denied due to bad credit, and 98 didn’t follow through for various reasons.

There were 55 new certificates issued, meaning decades later displaced residents successfully applied to receive the entitled benefit.

Only those who were living in the households at the time of displacement are entitled to a certificate for preference.

A total of 5,893 San Francisco households directly experienced displacement as a result of redevelopment activities. There are 1,757 certificate of preference holders who have used their certificates to secure affordable housing in San Francisco, according to Benjamin.

James recalled the debate about a decade ago by the then-Redevelopment Agency Commission to allow grandchildren of those displaced to obtain the housing benefit.

At the time, now Acting Mayor and Board of Supervisors President London Breed served on the Redevelopment Commission and voted to have the agency explore extending the benefit to grandchildren.

Breed’s paraphrased comments, according to July 2008 minutes, said letting grandchildren have certificates “could increase the number of African Americans that return to San Francisco” and that it was “not enough to undo the extreme injustices of the past, but a start.” Certificates can be used twice, for a rental and for a home purchase.

Breed’s legislative aide Samantha Roxas said in an emailed statement Wednesday, “The certificate of preference program was established to allow people who were forcibly removed from their homes the opportunity to return to their neighborhoods. San Francisco must honor the promises made to these families.”

Also helping The City administer the certificates program and making it easier for anyone to apply for affordable housing is creation of an online system called DAHLIA. The system allows applicants to enter lotteries, the results of which are now electronic. Before then, the process was done with paper and site visits.

Since its launch last year, about 85,000 people applied on DAHLIA for 1,015 affordable housing units, Benjamin said.

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