Funding for a proposed affordable housing development at the site of the Forest Hill Christian Church was pulled this month by the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)

Inching toward an affordable Westside: Lessons from Forest Hill

Earlier this month, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development pulled the funding on an affordable housing development in Forest Hill. It would have joined other affordable developments on the Westside, including senior housing at the old Harkness Hospital by Mercy Housing, Parkview Commons in the Inner Sunset and St. Peter’s Place in the Richmond by Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center in partnership with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

This affordable development in Forest Hill would have made a positive impact, preserving a much-loved preschool, giving new life to the church sanctuary and, above all, bringing critically needed senior homes to a generally affluent neighborhood. By expanding the footprint of affordable housing beyond our traditional working-class Eastside neighborhoods, it would have proved San Francisco’s commitment to affirmatively furthering fair housing across The City.

Unfortunately, after a yearlong string of challenges, including a campaign to preserve the existing preschool, neighborhood opposition and costly historical and geotechnical issues with the site, the Forest Hill Church project proved too uncertain for The City. This points to the need for The City to change course and go back to its roots in seeing community development as the way to do affordable housing.

In understanding what happened, we should acknowledge the broad need and substantial support for affordable housing in the southern and western parts of The City. It was not just NIMBYs that stopped this project, as social media chatter has focused on; there were also some decisions on the part of The City that made the project a challenge from the start.

Affordable housing has been successful in San Francisco because it has been deeply grounded in the model of community development. By selecting a developer with limited experience in San Francisco and no local organizing partner to be on the frontline of moving affordable housing into a wealthy San Francisco neighborhood, the MOHCD turned away from this proven model of connecting with local community leaders and organizations to create a base of support. It is this local capacity and knowledge that can move a project successfully through the development process. Although the developer has a strong record of good work in the East Bay, neither their efforts, nor the subsequent support of local residents and affordable housing advocates, could overcome this risky beginning.

Enthusiastic and reckless supporters took advantage of the community process early on to grandstand and create immediate confrontation to NIMBYism, thereby provoking the very resistance that they decried and adding fuel to the fire in an already challenging situation.

Creating spectacle and notoriety can have its purpose, but it’s not a strategic way to engage with a community. With community development, the process of creating an affordable project is as important as the end product. Building housing is about more than just the actual bricks-and-mortar building — it is about building community.

The hallmark of 40 years of affordable housing work in San Francisco has been to win over hearts and minds, to educate and listen to neighbors, to create relationships that help a project past the finish line and lay the foundation for continued support down the line. These relationships also ensure new affordable housing residents are welcomed, overcoming social isolation that can be challenging in a new neighborhood.

This has been the successful model from Chinatown to the Tenderloin to the Mission to the Bayview. Unfortunately, the Forest Hill developer didn’t have those community relationships, and had no local organizing partner, except the church itself. While the ”outside lands” do not have their own community housing developer yet, there is a rich history of organizing, from faith-based networks like Faith in Action to tenant organizations like Housing Rights Committee, as well as community-based nonprofits with existing relationships that can be leveraged to build support.

The unfortunate failure of the Forest Hill project is a valuable lesson for The City and for all of us in the housing movement. We know how to do affordable housing successfully, starting with vital decisions at the front end of the process. We hope the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development moves quickly to secure a new Westside site, to pick up the momentum built under Supervisor Norman Yee’s leadership. This time, they should play to the strengths of the community development movement, using community-based development and organizing capacity to build the wider base of support for affordable housing that is possible.

There is a lot of affordable housing opportunity in the outer neighborhoods. Let’s do this, and do it right.

Peter Cohen and Fernando Marti are co-directors of San Francisco’s Council of Community Housing Organizations.

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