Fillmore Midtown residents: Righting the wrongs of racist urban renewal

Fifty years ago, Fillmore residents protested relentlessly, stopping Redevelopment bulldozers with their bodies, but Justin Herman was just as relentless, bulldozing 2,500 Victorian homes under the racist policy called urban renewal, nicknamed Negro Removal. This photo was taken in about 1960. – Photo: SF Examiner

Pack the meeting: Midtown Rehabilitation Design Review, Tuesday, June 18, 6:30 p.m., at the Hamilton Rec Center, 1900 Geary Blvd, San Francisco

by Phyllis Corrine-Genie Bowie

Midtown residents – who we are

We are the proud long-time residents of Midtown Park Townhomes located in the historically Black Fillmore district. There are 128 households currently living at Midtown. The majority of residents are African American and 80 percent are women.

We are native San Franciscans – your teachers, your Muni drivers, your postal workers, your veterans – the heart of the working class in San Francisco. I am a proud disabled veteran and a 25-year resident of Midtown.

I grew up in the Fillmore, not NOPA. My heart breaks every time I walk down the gentrified streets of Fillmore and Divisadero, the area known worldwide before redevelopment as Harlem of the West, and don’t see people who look like me. Compounded by not having control over the future of my home, this senior struggles through many sleepless nights.

Midtown was built in 1964 for resident ownership as a direct result of the documented, racist urban renewal under the tutelage of Justin Herman, then head of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency.

“Starting in the 1920s and 30s, federal housing agencies distributed color-coded ‘residential safety maps’ so banks could identify the best places to back mortgages. Areas with old buildings or the ‘threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro or lower grade population’ like the Fillmore were outlined in red, a warning against granting loans there,” reports Walter Thompson in “How Urban Renewal Destroyed the Fillmore in Order to Save It.” This residential safety map highlights the 1947 project area. – Photo: localwiki.org

Urban renewal destroyed the Fillmore. More than 2,500 Victorian homes were demolished and an estimated 10,000 Black families were displaced out of the Fillmore and out of San Francisco.

As a result of redlining – banks refusing to give rehabilitation loans to Black homeowners – the Fillmore offered ripe pickings for Herman to determine that these “painted ladies” were “blighted” – in slum condition and in need of demolition.

Fifty years later, we relied heavily on a resolution signed by former Mayor Gavin Newsom that stated once we paid off the mortgage, the ownership would be ours. This reliance proved to be detrimental, because now the Mayor’s Office disagrees with the resolution. They let us know that it is not a legally binding document, just a suggestion. They told us the resolution represents “politicians making you promises that were impossible to keep.” Therefore, the City is having to do the hard job of reneging on the resolution’s ownership promise.

We have been advocating for ourselves for now more than five years. We are overwhelmed and exhausted but still advocating for the promised ownership and the return of a peaceful high quality of life in our townhomes at Midtown.

Throughout the five-year duration, we have accomplished a lot. Ambassador Andrew Young was our advocate and told us to stay strong. We organized the longest rent strike in the history of San Francisco, held more than five community BBQs and concerts, held several press conferences, participated in over 15 peaceful protests for police reform and against all injustice, stood in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, created #BlackHomesMatter, printed thousands of flyers, held two town halls, made countless public comments to the Board of Supervisors that they never responded to, established a strong social media presence and much, much more.

We have been relegated to substandard property management by Mercy Housing, whose standards are designed for housing people too poor to dare protest. These standards include a draconian 75-page lease that takes away civil rights, human rights, tenants’ rights and basic dignity. We, Midtown working class and the very poor all deserve better.

U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young wrote this note of encouragement and support to the residents of Midtown: “’Freedom is a constant struggle! Keep [the] faith, stay strong.”

With the support of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD), Mercy Housing property management has made egregious mistakes – by canceling 40 years of rent control protection, raising rents as much as 300 percent, terminating our 24-hour security, eliminating pest control, reducing the lights in the garage and cutting off interior chain locks to gain entry without the residents’ permission and the list goes on.

There are no elevators at Midtown and MOHCD refused to move disabled seniors to first floor units for easier ground level access. We have asked for temporary ramps until we are made ADA compliant, but our requests continue to be ignored.

Lack of access has resulted in falls, injuries and hardships for our disabled seniors and their caregivers. One of our beloved seniors and a pillar of the Fillmore community had been hospitalized and was required by his doctor to be moved to the first floor in order to be released.

While he was still in the hospital, Mercy told him he had to pay more rent in order to move to a first floor unit. He told me, at his bedside, that his rent checks and needed paperwork were continuously lost by Mercy Housing employees.

I listened while he reminisced about all the famous celebrities and jazz greats whose hair he did or hosted them overnight in his large Victorian in the Fillmore. The hotels downtown did not allow Blacks, so the Fillmore was their safe home away from home.

He died soon after, at the VA Medical Center at the age of 89, never making it back to Midtown. Rest in peace, Mr. Jose LaCrosby.

Midtown residents were devastated when Mercy Housing refused to allow their beloved neighbor Jose LaCrosby, pillar of the Fillmore, to live in a first floor apartment, as his doctor ordered, without a rent increase. He died in the hospital without ever returning home.

Because I refused to sign the lease, I was threatened with eviction and deemed a troublemaker. I have been criticized for voicing my opinion about the low quality of Mercy Housing management and their developer services at Midtown. I only speak facts and my personal experiences.

During the two-year mold removal project, the materials were so low quality that residents became ill from toxic, cheap materials and developed back and knee problems because of the thin padding under the cheap, toxic carpet Mercy put on our concrete floors.

During the mold removal project, one of my long-time neighbors was temporarily relocated to my floor. Because I know moving is so stressful, especially with the Mercy relocation employee who rushed us like herding cattle, I bought a dozen donuts from Safeway for her and her teenage son. She was so thankful we formed a friendship.

Her son became very ill and was under doctor’s care due to the toxic new carpet in her temporary apartment. Once she discovered that Mercy had installed the same carpet in her now mold-free original apartment, she asked that they replace the carpet with non-toxic floor covering.

Not only was she refused the replacement floor covering, she was served with a vacate-the-premises notice and threatened with eviction if she did not move back into her toxic apartment within 48 hours. The movers came while she was at work and her son was home sick. The Mercy Housing relocation specialist banged on the door and harassed her son to allow the movers to pack their things and move that afternoon.

I would not have believed it if I had not witnessed it myself. I was raised a Catholic, so I actually was hopeful in the beginning to work with Mercy Housing, a Catholic non-profit founded by the Sisters of Mercy, to improve how they do things.

Hope went out the window when Doug Shoemaker, head of Mercy Housing California, told me that Mercy Housing was an outstanding organization and that their policies were not the problem, but I was the problem as a troublemaker. He said they have never had complaints.

With signs proclaiming #Black Homes Matter, Midtown residents march in 2016 for Justice for Mario Woods to protest the young man’s death by SFPD.

What I know for sure is the marginalized, oppressed communities that Mercy Housing serves, such as Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, homeless people and the very poor, usually are not asked for feedback or given a satisfaction survey. And, by the way, I did ask for an independent residents’ satisfaction survey and MOHCD told me they did not understand what I was asking for and flat out refused.

Most of us are so happy to have an affordable roof over our heads, we do as we’re told. So what if we are forced to sign draconian leases, be subjected to humiliating yearly income certifications and live in substandard housing – we dare not complain for fear of eviction.

When Midtown residents complained loudly and publicly, Mercy hired a public relations firm to create a website and a media spin that painted the residents of Midtown as making annual incomes of more than $200,000 and taking advantage of the system – living high-on-the-hog with big expensive cars, while cheating on government subsidies. All untrue.

Most of us are so happy to have an affordable roof over our heads, we do as we’re told. So what if we are forced to sign draconian leases, be subjected to humiliating yearly income certifications and live in substandard housing – we dare not complain for fear of eviction.

They even went as far as to meet disingenuously with our supporters, like the labor union, and told them we were lying about our weekly meetings. We were lucky to have a Midtown resident and long-time member of the union at the meeting to quickly stand up and correct them publicly.

They told the media that everything was great at Midtown and it was only a few troublemakers making noise for political reasons. I am still shaking my head over that one.

I have an idea for a solution: Why don’t we San Franciscans email and call Jane Graf, president and CEO of Mercy Housing Inc., and ask her to require Doug Shoemaker, head of Mercy Housing California, to conduct a non-biased, independent satisfaction survey of all Mercy Housing properties in San Francisco to discover how these policies are being received by those living in facilities owned and managed by Mercy Housing.

Midtown and our poorest communities deserve better than “decent” housing or, at minimum, we need to redefine what “decent” actually means.

We the residents have met every Thursday, except Thanksgivings and Christmases, since 2015, staying united and voicing grievances from these types of incidents. Originally, the plan of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD) was to demolish Midtown’s six buildings and replace them with a high-rise with maximum density to assist with the housing crisis.

After years of having our request for no demolition blatantly ignored, upon presenting MOHCD with a signed petition, demolition is finally off the table. And that is only the tip of the iceberg. We are exhausted. I was often told by both MOHCD and Mercy Housing: “We know what’s best for you people. Stop your complaining.”

When I heard that, the little nappy hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention, since “you people” is the condescending colloquialism referring to Black people. Is it cultural insensitivity or racist ideologies? I want to believe the former.

MOHCD and Mercy Housing partnership

MOHCD announced that due to the City’s 50 years of maintenance neglect, the rehabilitation project will cost $91 million. This is all happening with the backdrop of the City having the highest cost of housing in the nation.

The Mayor’s Office also determined that the residents could not afford such a large mortgage and the City does not have the funds to rehabilitate Midtown. I find that hard to believe since San Francisco is listed as one of the wealthiest counties in the nation.

So, this year the Mayor’s Office announced they will be giving the property to Mercy Housing to develop using public housing project low standard, marginal quality materials and workmanship. I was told by the Mayor’s Office that they are committed to providing Midtown with “decent” housing. Can’t San Francisco, one of the richest cities in the world, do better for both the very poor and the working class like us?

Still struggling against the far-reaching devastation of urban renewal 50 years ago, Phyllis Bowie protests Mercy Housing’s rent increases, some as high as 300 percent, at a rally outside the beautiful Midtown townhomes on June 29, 2015. Just to the right of Phyllis is legendary Bayview Hunters Point leader Espanola Jackson; we lost her last year.

When I mentioned the far-reaching benefits of installing solar power, they laughed in my face. I simply ask, why should we the Midtown residents have to foot the huge bill that the City created? Is this fair and equitable?

Is this how San Francisco treats the last 3 percent of the population that is African American? Is this how the City demonstrates their accountability for neglecting the property and supporting the racist impact of urban renewal?

I can’t help but suspect that this is institutionalized housing inequality and racism; redlining still exists. Was this the plan from the beginning, to give the property to developer Mercy Housing?

Just a side note: The head of Mercy Housing California, Doug Shoemaker, was the former head of MOHCD. According to the San Francisco Ethics Commission, they cite no conflict of interest, because Shoemaker obtained approval.

So, the fact that before Shoemaker resigned from heading MOHCD, he gave contracts to his future employer, Mercy Housing California – is this not a conflict of interest? No need to answer, that was a rhetorical question. I believe we can and will do better than this, with your help.

We need community help

We need our entire San Francisco community to join together to assure Midtown residents gain economic empowerment via promised ownership. And that the Midtown property be rehabilitated with the state-of-the-art technology – and why not? Isn’t San Francisco the world headquarters of technology?

We deserve the best sustainable materials and union workmanship this City has to offer. Midtown needs to be protected as a historical landmark so this will not happen again.

Help us assure that Midtown, a predominately African American community, which continues to be marginalized and underserved, will be property owners and will stay in the Fillmore for always. This was the vision of original architects Skidmore, Ownings & Merrill. They designed Midtowns’ steel and concrete buildings to last forever, with proper maintenance of course.

No. 1: Let’s start by coming out in numbers on Tuesday, June 18, 6 p.m. (location to be determined) for the Planning Commission’s required community meeting. This meeting is called by MOHCD, Mercy Housing Development and Pyatok Architects, who will present to the community and residents the development plan to rehabilitate Midtown.

Resident ownership idea

What do you think about this idea? How about asking Google, Salesforce, Facebook and Amazon to sponsor the $91 million Midtown Rehabilitation. No. 2: If you work for or you know of anyone who works at these companies, simply ask that question to the community charitable donations department.

This is a San Francisco race issue that needs to be resolved by those who share this beautiful City with us. Since the City does not have money for Midtown, I cannot imagine these companies who occupy major commercial real estate saying No to the mayor of San Francisco.

No. 3: Call and email our Mayor London Breed and make the suggestion that she ask for corporate support of Midtown. You can be the loud voice for racial justice and equality for the Fillmore Midtown residents, and all of San Francisco will benefit from retaining and growing African American homeowners living in San Francisco. We can do this!

The meeting

The Midtown Rehabilitation Design Review Meeting is Tuesday, June 18, 6:30 p.m., at the Hamilton Rec Center, 1900 Geary, San Francisco. It’s open to the public. Check the SaveMidtown Facebook page for updates.

Phyllis Corrine-Genie Bowie is a proud Fillmore Midtown resident and Midtown community organizer. Her mother, Genie Bowie, was a Black Panther and one of the first writers for the Bay View nearly 30 years ago, after the Ratcliffs acquired the paper. Phyllis can be reached at info@savemidtown.org. Visit the Save Midtown website, www.savemidtown.org.