More than 200 people attended a victory celebration June 16th in San Francisco for a group of tenacious tenants who successfully fought their eviction and now are in control of their building through their coop, the Columbus United Cooperative, at 53 Columbus Avenue. The celebration marked the completion of the project, with 16 original households now moved back in and the 6 new households also moved in.
This struggle goes back more than a decade ago when the San Francisco Community College District bought a 3-story brick apartment building with the aim of knocking it down to build a new community college campus.
The building itself is on a block that has played an important role in the history of the tenant movement in San Francisco. On the back side of the block from the Columbus United building is the site of the International Hotel — site of a massive anti-eviction struggle in the late ’70s. When the day of eviction came, thousands of people ringed the building in protest.
The block itself is on the edge of the financial district. The TransAmerica pyramid…a signature structure on the San Francisco skyline…is just across the street. For a long time investors have had their eyes on the low income housing across the street from the north edge of the financial district as an area for office building expansion. That’s what was at issue in the I-Hotel struggle of the late ’70s. Although the tenants in that case were evicted, it sparked a very strong tenant movement that was able to secure a variety of enhanced legal protections for tenants over the years. The developers who wanted the I-Hotel for an office building site were eventually defeated by community opposition. They were forced to sell the property for social housing — a 15-story non-profit rental building that now exists there, operated by the Chinatown Community Development Center.
When faced with the community college district aims, the residents could have passively accepted the situation. But they did not. For seven years the tenants were united in opposition. In their various legal battles they were represented by the Asian Law Caucus…a progressive law firm founded originally by Fred Korematsu> Korematsu is most famous for his legal challenge of the internment of the Japanese-Americans in World War 2. When Law Caucus lawyer Gen Fujioka started working on the case, he suggested that the tenants might be able to secure a higher level of compensation for relocation. But the tenants didn’t accept that. They had an ambitious idea…they insisted on staying and gaining control of the building.
This is how the San Francisco Community Land Trust was brought into the picture. SFCLT was founded to promote conversions of rental buildings into forms of shared equity resident ownership — such as limited equity cooperatives or limited equity condos. This was intended as a program prevent tenant displacement and ensure a pool of affordable dwellings for working class residents of the city.
By December 2005 the Columbus Avenue tenants had gained sufficient community support for their struggle that they were able to defeat the community college district politically. In that month the community college board threw in the towel and agreed to sell the property to the S.F. community land trust to convert the building into a tenant-owned cooperative.
The residents in the building are mainly low-income Chinese working class immigrants. Many work in hotels or restaurants. Because the community land trust approach is a form of homeownership, most CLTs in the USA tend to serve working class income levels at the middle-income range. The Columbus United Cooperative pushes the envelope on the community land trust model because the average household income in the building is only 40 percent of area median income.
This project also pushes the envelope in another way. Community land trusts typically do new construction as do most non-profit housers. This is possibly the first use of the community land trust approach as a solution for existing tenants in an anti-eviction struggle.
SFCLT had been created through the work of an organizing committee of a dozen or more people in 2001-2003. People in the organizing committee included activists who had been involved in tenant and anti-gentfication groups such as the Mission Anti-Displacement Coaliion, S.F. Tenants Union and Eviction Defense Network, plus affordable housing supporters. The group included some people who have worked professionally in real estate development.
Through the outreach and organizing SFCLT had done for several years prior to taking on this project, and due to the major support for the Columbus Avenue tenants, we were able to persuade two Left members of the city Board of Supervisors to sponsor a special fund for tenant coop conversions — the Real Ownership Opportunities for Tenants (ROOTs) fund. This fund was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors. This provided initially $1 million available as grants for coop conversions under a community land trust.
This provided only one piece of the $8 million project cost. The building was a rather run-down un-reinforced brick structure built in 1910. Much of the interior of the building was gutted to its stud frame and all new systems such as plumbing and electrical were installed. The brick facade was securely fastened to the frame. Part of the basement — site of a former garment factory — was converted to a community room and laundry room for the residents. As there are a number of older residents, an elevator was installed and the building was made wheelchair accessible.
Meetings between the architects and the tenants were held to get tenant agreement to proposed changes to apartments. Tenants were able to participate in the design process in some cases by selecting between alternatives. For example, tenants had the option of a kitchen open to another room across a counter or a fully enclosed kitchen.
This project was complicated due to the fact it’s a mixed use building. To help finance the conversion, the Asian Law Caucus agreed to move into office space on the ground floor of the building. The Law Caucus will own the groundfloor as a condo and the rest of the building will be owned by the tenants through their cooperative which will form another condo. The project enabled the Asian Law Caucus to move back to Chinatown so that it can be closer to many of the low-income people who it supports in its work.
Much of the actual work of the SFCLT has been in working with the tenants to ensure they have the necessary knowledge and skills to effectively self-manage the building. Thus we’ve been carrying on a series of workshops on such topics as financial planning and dispute resolution, and worked with the tenants in crafting a bylaws and decision-making process for the coop. The various meetings and workshops with the tenants have required translation between English and Cantonese as many of the residents have limited English proficiency.
When we advertised the six vacant apartments for sale, we had about 300 interested people attend workshops. Eventually through a process of self-selection and a lottery and interviews with the existing tenants, the tenant coop selected six new households.
At the grand opening ceremony, Green Party Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi described the SFLCT/limited equity coop approach as a "working class homeownership" program that needs to be "extended across the city." It will take a movement, though, to secure the kind of funding that can make that a reality.