Has the Tenderloin Built a Poison Pill Against Gentrification?

hotel_unionNew Orleans   While in the Bay Area I made a point of dropping by to visit with Randy Shaw, the longtime director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, the neighborhood filled with SRO hotels, union offices, bars, and whatever within blocks of City Hall, the Opera, and other civic monuments. Shaw had recently published a book on the history of the Tenderloin called, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime, and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco. I wanted to get him on tape for a radio interview on Wade’s World and Social Policy had excerpted his book in the current issue, so this was all on my mind. Randy is also a veteran organizer with thirty-five years under his belt, so always has some insights. Besides, San Francisco is a case study of gentrification where real estate costs are constant conversation, so how has the Tenderloin fared?

The Tenderloin Housing Clinic is a serious institution with a budget of $23 million mostly through local city contracts to manage and support a host of SRO hotels in the Tenderloin. Shaw says they have three-hundred people on staff, importantly including tenant and community organizers assigned to each of their buildings. It goes without saying the residents of the single room occupancy hotels are a reserve army ready to be mobilized by the THC and its on-site organizers at any provocation. Undoubtedly the ability to couple those two forces has been part of Shaw and the THC’s recipe for success and is something that Mayors and council members keep constantly in mind. It is probably also the reason that the City of San Francisco pitched in the first million and change to build out the 3500 square foot Tenderloin Museum that Shaw and the THC team are opening in mid-July on the history of the area.

In this executive city with its legendary housing prices, banking, oil, tourism, and tech wealth, it is still surprising that the Tenderloin is allowed to exist at all. The THC and Shaw were strategic in this regard. They used the exorbitant cost of land to hedge against development by shrewdly campaigning and winning a height restriction blocking any development over eight stories, essentially trumping almost any developer’s financial models of what it would take to balance the books on a new hotel, office tower, or condo development. They also have rent control in force and a number of other measures in the Tenderloin, further preventing the SRO’s from simply being converted to condos along the New York City, Vancouver, or Seattle models.

Shaw also invested the time and energy in making sure that the Tenderloin and the city ordinances and developmental restrictions that protected it could not be swept away by shifts in the political wind at City Hall. Telling me the story, he described years of lobbying in Sacramento at the state capitol until they were able to win legislation that put some dead bolt locks on their housing protections for the Tenderloin. Naturally, I asked him why other communities in San Francisco had not tried the same strategy. He was clear that he thought the Mission should have done so and the sweeping gentrification occurring there now was somewhat the result of missing the opportunity. Talking to Mike Miller, a veteran community organizer in the area about Randy’s point, he disagreed, arguing that the Tenderloin was a relative small area compared to the size of the Mission, and the same strategy would not have worked.

Maybe? But, there are important lessons to be learned from the Tenderloin Housing Clinic about how to block developers, speculators, and the wannabes that inevitably follow by building the doors and securing the locks to keep them out while improving the housing stock for the existing residents at the same time, and these lessons are not in a museum but in thinking about how to adapt similar strategies and tactics to other neighborhoods in the same disciplined and committed fashion.

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