Guest Editorial: Bayview Residents — the Hidden Treasure

by Grace Martinez on May 29, 2008

It is common knowledge that San Francisco is known for its progressive and “progressive” politics, but what is really happening in low-income communities is a testament to the hypocrisy that goes on in our city by politicians and reputed community leaders. Despite all the media and political attention that Bayview Hunters Point has undergone, very little has been accomplished by some so called progressives fighting for social change.

The decision to negotiate with Lennar and support Prop G stemmed from the Community Benefits Agreement created by the community most vulnerable to displacement. This process was outside the input of the “progressive politicians,” their organizational allies, and even the city. Is that why it’s being questioned?

Proposition F and Proposition G, on the June 2008 San Francisco ballot, have their problems and advertised good points, but how much of the content of each proposition actually address the needs of the community?

The Bayview Hunters Point is plagued with crime, violence, foreclosures, and Alice Griffith public housing with severely poor housing conditions – which, of course, make it the prime target, not only for developers, but non-profits and ambitious progressive politicians as well.

It should be understood that no one should expects a large profit-driven development company to provide community benefits because it sounds good – the rich didn’t get rich by giving their money away –but they will do good if it makes business sense. The community has a role to determine which businesses do business in their neighborhood, and also to determine the standards by which they do business.

As horrible as Lennar’s track record is or is hyped up to be, a real challenge is finding another developer that has a better one. In this case, the practices of Lennar are defined through a Community Benefits Agreement, a legally binding document that allows the community to hold Lennar accountable to those terms through penalties and lawsuits.

In challenging the choice of Lennar and the feasibility of a carefully constructed CBA, the proponents of Prop F also challenge the work that community members who benefit from the CBA they themselves constructed, and are the most vulnerable to displacement. Also you also delay the Alice Griffith Public Housing Project rebuild by five to ten years.

You could think what you want about public housing residents, but a truth that also must be understood is that public housing is just that – public housing. It’s not a concentration of criminals ready to gun the next person down or a group of people waiting for a hand out. If we even considered a real definition of working class family, this is where would find them.

There are single mothers struggling to make a better life for their children, seniors that have worked all their life to have a little bit at the end of their life, and families that have lost it all only to be given a second chance to make something of themselves. Alice Griffith represents the very essence of the problems of the Bayview Hunters Point and SHOULD be a starting point that paves the way for a solution.

Prop G provides for 8,000 jobs, 10,000 units of housing of which 25% is an encouraged to be affordable. Long story short, it’s a policy piece that guarantees little and overturns city zoning and subsidy caps that SF voters voted on 10 years ago. Left to its own devices, it’s a policy proposition that’s worth $2 million, might provide something for some eligible residents, and win Lennar a $1.4 billion deal. With the CBA, it becomes something real.

The Affordable Housing Initiative Prop F demands affordable housing that cannot save the Bayview. All of its 50% of Affordable housing is 100% rental. A proponent of Prop F once told me that “housing provides permanence.” The distinct line between lower and middle class is homeownership. A renter is someone that doesn’t have an investment in the land or ownership and is a transitional tenant which provides permanence.

Aside from the idea of renting indefinitely, which is one problem with Public Housing when there are no other options, Prop. F doesn’t guarantee jobs or any additional community benefits.

The Bayview Hunters Point has the highest homeownership rate in the entire city (65%) and one of the highest concentrations of union members in San Francisco. Most of the city’s major services, such as the Main San Francisco Post Office and Waste Water Sewage plant are located and employ residents in the Bayview Hunters Point. This is what has retained long-time residents: homeownership and well-paying jobs.

In the Bayview Hunters Point, there are problems, but fighting only for affordable housing is not going to solve those problems.

Every year, the Bayview Hunters Point receives approximately $ 80 million a year in city grants and retains over 300 community based organizations that address the different community concerns. A portion of funding that goes to youth services only funds programs that service at risk youth, who comprise only 10% of the entire youth population of district 10. The other 90% of youth receive very little or nothing.

In 2005, the city cut the budget to public health, crippling the handful of senior centers and one health clinic in District 10. Currently, St. Luke’s is scheduled to close, leaving the over crowed public hospital, San Francisco General, the only hospital in the Southeast Sector. With Bayview Hunters Point having the highest concentration of children and residents with asthma, how will its families get emergency medical care? This isn’t consistent with the “Mayor’s Universal Healthcare Plan.”

The T train, that once advertised “Bayview: the hidden treasure” and replaced the 15 line, in its first year had an average wait time of an hour and a half, longer during rush hour or a ball game. A recent survey showed that 10% of riders had lost their job because of the wait and another 30% were at risk of losing their jobs. Even in the T train’s construction, although many residents flocked to apply for jobs on the construction, very little residents were hired on and if so, were hired to hold up stop signs. This change and so called improvement in transportation is not benefiting the existing community.

It’s hard to attest to the real goings on of the political fight as the political contenders have not genuinely engaged the community. The real community work, you will find if one chooses to spend time in Bayview Hunters Point, happens with little or no money. The work that addresses the real immediate needs of the community is when the community advocates for themselves.

By making decision on behalf of a community whose challenges are systemic, you only contribute to and perpetuate the systemic problem. So wouldn’t it make sense that people who look to change the community systemically, on behalf of the residents, engage the residents and include them in the process of the change they want?

In 2002, ACORN, Labor, and several other groups embarked on a campaign to raise the minimum wage to pull families that they collectively organize out of poverty and into a position to increase their earning power. The ballot initiative that passed wasn’t just to increase the minimum wage for that moment in time, but to adjust for inflation, increasing as the cost of living and the worth of the dollar increases.

There were several big businesses that opposed having to pay their employees more but there wasn’t one progressive politician or organization that opposed it. Why? One, it was an investment in the future. Two, it put working class families into a position to move up into homeownership.

Again, the proponents of Prop. F contradict what they set out to do. Its affordable housing income threshold prices out the families who make minimum wage. How is this investing in our families or our future? A survey of 500 residents in the Bayview Hunters Point stated that the most important things to them were affordable home ownership and jobs that hired residents. Their voice is the mandate of what should be done in their community.

This is what the CBA is about: residents of working class and low-income communities fighting for things that provide economic stability, provide jobs and careers, provide opportunities for homeownership, and provide an opportunity for the children of the families that currently live in the Bayview to be able to buy a home in the Bayview 20 years from now. We shouldn’t think of redevelopment as only the redevelopment of the land, but as the redevelopment of the people who live there. The community’s revolutionary CBA is only one component of this transformation.

As you can imagine, it wasn’t work that happened overnight because it had to include community members. It became the summation of several years of door knocking, data collection and research, and most importantly, the education and organization of residents that saw beyond the political rhetoric, and handouts. In this organizing drive, a majority of the residents put together a series of house meetings to determine what they wanted out of a massive redevelopment plan; meetings that ran in Samoan, Spanish, and English.

In the Alice Griffith Housing Project, you find people like Sister Stephanie Hughes who uses all of her income to make sure the children in the community are given opportunities to go outside of their community or have afternoon snacks because, simply, “her children are hungry”; Jackie Williams, who tends to the community garden that receives very little city resources to operate; the United Fathers Coalition that works with men to become better fathers and relies on weekly fundraisers to support their work; the Good Samaritan Church down the street from the housing projects that turned their congregation numbers around from 15 to 300 in a year because they preach about community and leadership; the mothers and fathers in the neighborhood that watch each others children and care for them like their own because the only people they can count on are the people that, good or bad, are there to stay – or least, in light of everything, want to stay.

They have learned they cannot count on the people that just pass through the community, ask for their vote, signature, or support on an issue that they didn’t help to create but purports to help them. It is these people who should decide the fate of their community and future.

At any rate, change isn’t just policy and ideology of propositions on a ballot – it’s organizing people to hold policy makers and enforcers accountable to what the community decides. In this case, supporting Proposition G, and the CBA. Denying the change that a community wants isn’t a solution, but a part of the problem. Real change comes from educating people and then organizing them, not the other way around.

Grace Martinez is the Lead Organizer for San Francisco ACORN. She is a native San Franciscan from the Excelsior and Visitacion Valley, and has been organizing public housing tenants at Alice Griffith and Sunnydale for the last 2 years.

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