Ken Garcia: Tenderloin’s heart and soul still trying to meet the need

Taking a small idea and transforming it into a civic institution is no easy matter. It takes dedication, hard work, faith and time. Lots and lots of time.

But 25 years after the first seed of hope was planted, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation has grown into one of The City’s leading nonprofit housing providers — an agency that in many ways has become the heart and soul of one of San Francisco’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

The organization will celebrate its silver anniversary with a glittery bash at the Marriott tonight, drawing as it has over the years an impressive array of The City’s philanthropic community. But it’s probably the only glamorous aspect of TNDC’s work on behalf of seniors, minorities, people with HIV and the generally dispossessed.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a quarter-century since leaders in the Tenderloin came together and petitioned The City to rezone the district from commercial to residential and reduce the building-height limit from30 stories to eight. That simple move resulted in nearly 200 buildings being saved from destruction, many of them studio apartments and hotels. And with some seed money in hand, the Franciscan monks who ran St. Boniface Church and St. Anthony Dining Room managed to purchase the Arti Hotel on Leavenworth Street — refurbishing it into a small apartment house.

That was the beginning of the fledgling real estate cooperative that uses a variety of financing mechanisms to purchase and refurbish units in partnership with The City’s housing agencies. Today, TNDC owns and operates 23 buildings with almost 2,500 tenants — almost all of them among San Francisco’s most needy. The vast majority of TNDC residents live on incomes between $5,000 and $20,000 per year, but they can afford the housing because the agency’s rents are 30 percent to 40 percent of market rate.

“It’s hard to know how people can make ends meet even with our affordable rents,” said Don Falk, TNDC’s executive director. “But we’ve been able to make it work because San Franciscans find our work valuable and people trust us to do it well.’’

Falk has been with TNDC for half of the organization’s history, spending most of his career there as the head of housing. But the agency has developed many new programs since its inception, including an after-school program that serves 300 children, an employment training center and an ever-expanding staff of social workers at each of the organization’s buildings.

“Just putting people in an apartment and closing the door isn’t enough,’’ said Chris Gouig, president of TNDC’s board of directors. “You have to provide both services and housing to make it work, and that’s what make the organization so valuable.’’

Rather remarkably, the agency has grown from a grass-roots community movement into an organization with real estate assets worth more than $150 million that now employs 215 people. TNDC manages more than 15 percentof all Tenderloin residential housing.

Yet the organization’s mission is as much spiritual as practical. With San Francisco being the least affordable city in the country, the need for supportive housing grows as quickly as the escalating rents. As Gouig said: “We could be building housing for years to come and still not meet the need.’’

But lord knows, they’re trying. The $1 million gift the organization started with at the merciful hands of the Franciscans has probably resulted in among the most proactive, positive payouts in The City’s history.

“It’s an important things for us that we not lose our community focus and connections,’’ Falk said. “As hard as it is for a nonprofit to survive, being here 25 years is a remarkable achievement. But we want to be here 25 years from now — so that’s part of our challenge.’’

Of course, finding ways to save souls is no small task — it requires creativity, cooperative partnerships and an annual splashy fundraiser. As much as the organization is known for its benevolent housing programs, it is also known for having one of the more fun-filled annual benefits — a fall celebrity pool-dunking party at the Phoenix Hotel. A lot of very colorful local characters have walked the plank for charity — last year’s event raised close to $250,000.

That’s not bad for an organization that started with such humble beginnings. But humility is a good thing to have on hand when dealing with the poor, just like, as one writer once said, that the richest property is the fundamental truth.

And the truth is that TNDC deserves its success. Deep down, it benefits all of us.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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