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Thousands of SF Homes Destroyed Decades Ago During 'Redevelopment' Could Be Rebuilt for Lower-Income Residents

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An older African American woman stands in front of a residential building, looking at the camera.
Mattie Scott, a resident and board president of Freedom West Housing Corporation, stands in the housing cooperative in the Fillmore District on Sept. 11, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Decades after San Francisco bulldozed thousands of homes in the name of redevelopment, a state bill could boost efforts to repair that damage and make it easier for displaced families to regain a foothold in the city.

The push comes as San Francisco faces a state-mandated obligation to produce nearly 46,000 units for very low, low and moderate-income households in the next eight years. Supporters of the bill say it could make a dent in an area that many Bay Area housing and racial justice advocates assert is long overdue.

But success isn’t guaranteed.

Some West Coast cities have seen mixed results from their efforts to remedy similar urban infrastructure projects during the 1960s and 1970s.

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“San Francisco went through a very ugly period where in the name of ‘urban renewal,’ the city bulldozed and destroyed thousands and thousands of homes, primarily in Black, Japanese and Filipino neighborhoods,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who authored Senate Bill 593.

The bill aims to fund the production of nearly 6,000 affordable housing units that were destroyed during the mid-century redevelopment era in San Francisco’s Western Addition, Fillmore, Japantown and SoMa neighborhoods.

“It was just a horrific situation and San Francisco has a legal responsibility to replace the homes that were destroyed when redevelopment ended a decade ago,” Wiener said.

SB 593 cleared the California Legislature on Wednesday and is now awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature. The bill would allow residual property tax dollars to remain in the city’s Redevelopment Property Tax Trust Fund, rather than be redistributed to the city.

The Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure could then issue bonds to construct or add 5,800 units of replacement housing that were never rebuilt after redevelopment.

In San Francisco, there are between 500–900 units in the city’s own pipeline for affordable housing construction that could benefit from the new financing structure. The city will also solicit projects and developers that could maximize the number of new affordable units.

Homes at Freedom West, a housing cooperative, seen from the interior courtyard in the Fillmore District on Sept. 11, 2023. The property will be redeveloped in what is referred to as ‘Freedom West 2.0,’ with new buildings for current residents and community facilities. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

There are a number of housing projects in the works that could seek funding if they are approved. Among them is Freedom West cooperative in the Western Addition, which is currently working on a renovation and expansion project with the developer MacFarlane Partners to replace 382 co-op units and add 133 affordable homes to the site.

Mattie Scott is a longtime resident of the Western Addition and president of the Freedom West Housing Cooperative in San Francisco, which supports Wiener’s bill. She remembers growing up in the neighborhood before redevelopment cleared it out to make way for new expressways and shopping centers.

“It was just wonderful being a teenager to have that experience with so much diversity,” Scott told KQED of the variety of businesses and restaurants near the Western Addition in the early 1960s. “Fillmore was the Harlem of the West at that time. You couldn’t wait to get to Fillmore Street with your families on any given day. There were Italian meat markets, Jewish delis and Japanese restaurants.”

When the U.S. federal government began implementing the National Housing Act of 1949, San Francisco’s Western Addition and Japantown were among the first areas selected for redevelopment in the name of addressing so-called “urban blight.”

To make way for a widened Geary Boulevard, the government bulldozed thousands of homes in the area that were predominantly owned and lived in by Black, Filipino, Japanese and some Jewish residents.

Today, San Franciscans like Scott who remember the vibrant neighborhoods that were destroyed say the urgency to rebuild the lost homes is long overdue.

“They called it urban renewal, but I call it urban removal,” Scott said. “All of a sudden, you just see your neighborhood just demolished, you know, homes demolished, Victorian houses demolished, whole communities. Grocery stores down the block where you go to eat with your family were no longer there. To me, as a young person, it was very devastating.”

Families in nearby Japantown have passed on similar stories.

“The community had just returned from concentration camps during World War II, and a lot of businesses and homes had already been lost. Then redevelopment happened, so it was this one-two punch that really devastated Japantown,” said Jeremy Chan, a board member with the Japantown Task Force. “The creation of the Geary Expressway created this physical barrier that divided Japantown from our African American neighbors in the Fillmore, and we’re still struggling to repair and rebuild those connections to this day.”

Jeremy Chan (left) and Glynis Nakahara stand in a residential area of Japantown in San Francisco on Sept. 7, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Back then, the city promised to rebuild homes and give preference to families who had to flee. But it’s largely failed to follow through with promises to rebuild those homes, and only a small fraction of people have used their opportunity to return.

“People were forced to leave Japantown and then they were later unable to return either because they were priced out or because they ended up being disqualified for the certificates of preference they received,” Chan explained.

Redressing redevelopment

To address the displacement redevelopment caused, San Francisco and other cities have given preference for affordable housing to people who lost their homes and to their descendants.

Since the 1960s, San Francisco has distributed 6,957 “certificates of preference” to residents and descendants of residents who lost homes due to redevelopment, according to the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development. The certificates provide priority for certain housing units in the city.

But out of the nearly 7,000 certificates of preference issued by the city, less than 1,500 of those have been utilized as of Aug. 18, city data shows.

Those who do want to use their certificate often face long wait lists. There are approximately 115,000 applicants wait-listed for the 28,500 public housing units eligible for the certificates, according to the mayor’s office.

In addition to those 28,500 units, the city is also listing 1,274 home-ownership and rental units that certificate holders can apply for.

As of Sept. 7, there were nine below-market-rate homeownership units available for certificate holders, and one rental unit available, according to data from the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure.

SB 593 would increase the production of units that are eligible for the certificates and aims to prevent further displacement for families who are currently in San Francisco.

“San Francisco has actually, for a while, had this commitment to restore the units that were demolished during urban renewal, and this bill would provide some of the funding that’s required to help restore that,” said Sujata Srivastava, housing and planning director at the local public policy nonprofit, SPUR.

A view of the Japantown Peace Plaza in San Francisco on Sept. 7, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But many families who were displaced during that era have left, establishing lives, businesses and communities elsewhere, as affordable housing in San Francisco has lagged to meet a growing demand. When homes and businesses were destroyed, trust also eroded between the city and the communities it forced out.

“There is an argument for thinking more expansively about what it might look like if you were really trying to help, especially Black and African American households that were displaced from redevelopment,” Srivastava said. “How do you actually think about correcting those harms?”

Supporters of SB 593 don’t expect the bill to lead to a wave of migration back to San Francisco by families who were displaced decades ago.

But there is a hope that it can mitigate the housing crisis and acknowledge the ways that crisis falls disproportionately on communities of color.

Rethinking Reparations

California’s Reparations Task Force recommends giving preference to affordable housing, also known as “right to return” policies, for displaced African Americans (PDF) as one of several ways to address lingering effects of racism and slavery on African Americans and broader society today.

“Predominantly white neighborhoods are that way for a clear reason: the history of racist housing policies,” said Dr. Jovan Scott Lewis, chair of the Geography Department at UC Berkeley and a member of California’s Reparations Task Force. “The only antidote to that is to create a justice-oriented housing policy. The first step is to give community members who were dispossessed a right to return.”

Lewis pointed to places like Evanston, Illinois, which in 2021 became the first U.S. city to issue reparations for slavery through housing grants to Black residents. He said the effort was well-intended, but more limited in scale and scope than what he and other racial justice advocates want to see in California.

Meanwhile, other cities are putting forward policies that tie reparations to housing, but with different mechanisms for getting there.

In July, the city of Berkeley adopted a housing preference policy (PDF) that prioritizes affordable housing for current and former Berkeley residents, along with their descendants.

Berkeley’s plan would prioritize people who were displaced because of BART construction, foreclosure anytime after 2005, or no-fault evictions and other factors.

“We must face and rectify the wrongs of our City’s past and do right by those who were displaced,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said in a press release after the policy was announced. “This policy will prioritize housing for those who have faced injustices, and restore the diversity of our community.”

But some are skeptical of the idea.

More Stories on Bay Area Housing

 Historian Darrell Millner saw how his city of Portland, Oregon, sought to slow gentrification and address redevelopment harms by building new affordable housing to keep families in place and provide preference for housing to those who were displaced.

The program helped hundreds of lower-income residents lease subsidized apartments and at least 110 families buy homes, 94 of which were Black Portlanders, according to a city report (PDF). But some criticized the effort for having a relatively small impact compared to the damage that was done.

“I’m glad for the people who could find some decent housing in a decent part of town. But you haven’t replaced what was destroyed,” said Darrell Millner, professor emeritus of Black Studies at Portland State University.

“This happened to so many communities and in so many areas here in the Bay Area. We are now shining a light of hope that we bring families back,” said Scott of the Freedom West Housing Cooperative. “This bill is going to help us in many ways to address those issues and allow working class families and seniors to be able to afford to stay in the city.”

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