Chinatown tenants start affordable land trust housing co-operative

The housing crisis in the U.S. existed long before the current recession. in many cities, people have been driven out of their communties for decades by skyrocketing rents. And in San Franciso, that’s been a trend in numerous neighborhoods, including Chinatown. But low-income immigrant tenants, community groups and housing activists are pioneering a new approach to create new affordable housing. They’re converting rental units into cooperatively managed land trusts. From San Francisco, Puck Lo brings us the story.

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Chinatown bakery and street ambient

San Francisco Chinatown streets and alleyways brim with bakeries, dim sum joints, herb shops, and small groceries. Small businesses cater to both the monolingual, Cantonese-speaking clientele who’ve made this neighborhood home since the late 1850s.

Fade out Chinatown street ambient

Two blocks from the hustle and bustle of Chinatown, 65 year old Jian Guan Ji is happily settled in his remodeled apartment. Ji has lived here for the past 14 years as a renter… but now, he’s an owner of his unit in the first and only land trust owned, resident-managed, affordable housing complex in San Francisco. Staying in his flat is not a luxury Ji takes for granted.

This immigrant from Southern China fought a long, hard battle that lasted eight years.

Ji: When I first heard that we had to move out of the building, I felt really helpless.

Ji says that when he received his eviction notice, he initially felt helpless.

San Francisco City College decided to buy the apartment building where Ji lives – 53 Columbus Street. At first, the college promised to pay to relocate all of the residents. But a few years later, City College announced that they lacked the funds to go through with needed renovations, and they began shopping the building around to a private buyer. Ji panicked.

Ji: We realized that if City College sells to a private owner, then our housing would be in danger.

But the talk of buying the building gave Ji an idea. Instead of making plans to leave, he called a meeting with his neighbors.

Ji: So I discussed with some of the tenants, since they’re going to sell the building and many of the tenants can afford to pay for their own unit, I suggested that we could buy back the Fong building.

But – like most low-income tenants – the residents of 53 Columbus Avenue did not have the funds to buy their homes.

The residents held on to their dream. Ji convinced them that collectively, they could find a way to stay.
For the next eight years, residents — calling themselves Columbus United — held weekly and monthly meetings. They appealed to community groups and tenants rights activists for help. In 2005, their attempts finally paid off.

A new organization, the San Francisco Community Land Trust (SFCLT), came forward to help the residents buy the land from City College.

Buying 53 Columbus was no regular change-of-title, says SFCLT co-founder, James Tracy. He says they bought the land to create permanent affordable housing in the city.

Tracy: We’ll own the land; That’s what a land trust does and we’ll hold it in trust to leverage permanent affordability.

The residents – and others who make the equivalent of 37-thousand a year or less for a family of four – are eligible to buy their units at the affordable rate of $10,000. They will never be able to sell their apartments for a profit, Tracy explains. At the same time, they’ll be almost immune from an eviction.

Tracy: We put deed and resale restrictions on the land that basically stipulate that the building must remain affordable for generations. There’s no incentive for eviction because there’s no profit to be made… There’s no owner move-in, no Ellis Act; They pretty much create gentrification-proof bubbles in neighborhoods that are being gentrified.

That’s crucial in a city like San Francisco, where market speculation inflates property values – even during economic downturns.

For years, San Francisco housing activists and community groups have fought for the right of low-income residents to remain in their neighborhoods. They’ve successfully convinced city officials to pass rent control laws and ordinances mandating commercial developers to build affordable housing. Even so, according to Forbes magazine, San Francisco topped the list of most expensive rents in a survey of US cities in 2008. And the city continues to lose its affordable housing.

Privately owned, mid-sized rental units have been especially hard to safeguard, says attorney Malcolm Yeung, who represents the Columbus United residents.

Yeung: Buildings that are like six units, to 25 or 30 units, where we don’t really have a model for how to kind of preserve those units, protect the tenants who are living in there…

So Yeung and the San Francisco Community Land Trust authored legislation to allow buildings with six or more units to convert into cooperatives… and the ordinance passed in December. Yeung says it’s important is to keep making it easier to convert rental housing into cooperatives.

Yeung: That’s what this project is all about, right – this project is about walking down that path so we can see exactly what the hurdles are, so we can kind of re-craft financing and regulatory mechanisms so that the next set of folks who want to attempt this can do it in a much more efficient and expedient way.

Columbus United is unusual in another way. The building will be managed cooperatively by its resident-owners, who will make all the decisions on repairs, regulations, and policies. What this means for long-term residents is stability, says Jian Guan Ji.

Ji: The policy works like this: the SF Communty Land trust owns the land, and the tenants own the rights to the building and the management of the building. This is a new policy, and this is the first affordable housing land trust coop in San Francisco.

Still, both Ji and San Francisco Community Land Trust co-founder, James Tracy, admit that the land trust-owned, resident-managed, affordable housing model they’ve pioneered has its limitations.

Tracy: Why aren’t there more coops in SF? Well, it’s a rare opportunity to find another building similar to 53 Columbus, which was not already privately owned. It took millions of dollars in grants from the city, and help from non-profits in order to retrofit and buy the building. We also put in thousands of hours organizing. Not everyone can do this; you really have to be committed…

But the Columbus United residents are riding high from their victory. And Tracy says that the San Francisco Community Land Trust intends to grow.

Tracy: The long term strategy is to partner with community groups that are fighting to preserve their communities and finding places where the land trust model can make a difference.

Ambient of outside building

Outside Columbus United, children race on the sidewalk while elders walk arm in arm.

Ambient of child running

Eighteen-year-old Nancy Mai gives a tour of the building she’s always called home.

Mai: This is the first floor… safe for seniors…I’ve lived here since I was born… laughs…

Mai says she’s relieved that her family doesn’t have to move.

She was in grade school when the meetings to resist the eviction first began. Now she’s in college, living in a nearby town. She says she’ll always come back.

Mai: Going through this actually made me stronger… because I attend some meetings, and I learn more about what a co-op in, and what a land trust is… This process of fighting for our own home is really meaningful.

Puck Lo, San Francisco.