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Staving off displacement: SF fund helps anti-violence youth organization buy building

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Gabrielle Lurie/Special to The S.F. Examiner
Rudy Corpuz

For Rudy Corpuz Jr., the well-known, tireless anti-violence leader, the two-story building at 1038 Howard St. in the heart of South of Market is like a church.

“Home, safety, stability,” is how the former gang member describes the headquarters of his organization.

It is the clubhouse of United Playaz, which Corpuz founded 20 years ago amid heightened racial and gang conflicts in San Francisco. It's where youths — many from the nearby Bessie Carmichael K-8 public school and some whose families live in tiny, crowded single-room-occupancy units on nearby Sixth Street — go for after-school and summer activities.

Sitting in the clubhouse's one-car garage, Corpuz greets passers-by on a recent afternoon. Some come in to shake his hand. He grew up decades ago on these same South of Market streets among the area's once-thriving Filipino community.

Nowadays, Corpuz might seem but a glimmer of SoMa's past, yet he remains an integral part of the community. His organization happens to be in one of The City's fastest-evolving neighborhoods. High-priced buildings are rising amid the ongoing development and technology industry boom, sometimes pricing out nonprofits similar to United Playaz.

The organization could have faced such a fate, but instead its future appears stable and prosperous.

COMMUNITY ANCHOR

Under a unique transaction, the organization will purchase the building — unmistakable with its colorful mural on the facade — it has operated within for the past five years for $1.4 million. The sale is expected to go through Jan. 14. That means no amount of gentrification will displace United Playaz.

“By having this, I feel we still have a flag in this community that we can call our own,” Corpuz said of the building. “It is a victory to us. We're not to be moved. We are a part of this community. We always have been and we will still remain here.”

The Board of Supervisors on Dec. 19 approved a $400,000 allotment from the SOMA Stabilization Fund, a special account paid into by developers in the Rincon Hill area to offset impacts on housing and other costs in the neighborhood. The fees were part of a 2005 development deal that increased height limits to allow for the two Rincon Hill towers to exceed 500 feet.

The fees were criticized at the time by The City's more moderate politicians, but similar fees are now a staple of most large-scale developments.

United Playaz will use the $400,000 grant for the down payment on the purchase of the building. In addition, the group has raised $400,000 in private donations toward the building's purchase price and will take out a loan and make mortgage payments during the next 20 years, which will be about what it currently pays in rent.

“This stabilization fund is doing exactly what we wanted it to do,” Supervisor Eric Mar said.

To date, fees have generated $16.5 million for the fund since 2005. There is an existing balance of $9.8 million. Previous projects funded by the fee revenue include a subsidy for 49 below-market-rate units as part of the Emerald Fund's 333 Harrison St. development, tenant counseling at the Veteran's Equity Center, and the creation of a midblock crossing signal at Russ and Folsom streets.

REFORMED, ON A MISSION

Corpuz's charisma and his own troubled past helps him connect to youths to get them to see a different life, one free of gangs, drugs and crime.

“I used to rob people,” he said. “I used to put guns to people's head and take their shit.”

Corpuz said he was smoking marijuana and part of a gang by age 10, and that “in our neighborhood around here that was the thing to do.”

“I was born into it, I wasn't sworn in to it,” he said. “It was just a rite of passage. To me, United Playaz, we are still a gang. But we bang for change now. We don't do things that are in the dark no more.”

The nonprofit has a staff of 12 employees and an annual operating budget of about $800,000, Corpuz said.

Corpuz said his own transformation was a matter of needing to grow up. He quoted a Corinthians passage from the Bible: “I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Corpuz's journey to United Playaz went through another community organization.

Out of jail for drugs and other charges, Corpuz in 1994 spotted a job posting seeking a Filipino gang counselor at the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center. He landed the job. That same year he visited Balboa High School amid tensions between black and Filipino students. After a half-hour of mediation, he was able to broker peace. Meetings continued between Corpuz and the students and they started calling themselves United Playaz. The group still has a presence at the school.

Corpuz said he is trying to build relationships with developers and tech-industry leaders to create opportunities for the youths he serves. That includes the 75 who come to the Howard Street location and hundreds more through off-site efforts.

“The challenges are just growing up in the neighborhood where there's a lot of poverty, but at the same time, there is opportunity right there in front of your face,” Corpuz said.

But unlike some, he is not criticizing the technology industry. The man often bashed for the adverse impacts of tech on San Francisco is Ron Conway, an angel investor and prominent Mayor Ed Lee backer. Conway donated close to $50,000 to United Playaz, and made two recent appearances at the organization to speak to youths and impart life lessons.

On one visit, he was accompanied by former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana.

<p>United Playaz Program Director Misha Olivas said among today's youths, there is “a lot of hopelessness” and many are “floundering.”

“A lot of time, they just need to know that they are loved and that they are special and that they can accomplish whatever they want to accomplish,” Olivas said. “Sometimes they need help figuring that out.”

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