City Buys New Affordable Housing Site From Luxury Developer

Up to 150 affordable units could now be built at 1515 South Van Ness Ave., the site of a former navigation center.

The large building at 1515 South Van Ness Ave. used to be a navigation center before it shuttered in June 2018. (Photo: Nuala Sawyer)

It’s been nearly one year to the day since the Navigation Center at 1515 South Van Ness Ave. closed so that property owner Lennar could develop the old electrical contracting warehouse into a six-story, 157-unit building. It was a fairly typical development for the times, with the minimum amount — 12 percent — being marketed at “affordable” rates. The neighborhood fought Lennar on this percentage for years, even christening the site “the Mess on South Van Ness” in the style of the “Monster in the Mission” or the “Beast on Bryant.”

But their efforts appeared to be in vain — that is, until this week. Mayor London Breed announced that the city reached a deal to purchase the site from Lennar, and plans to build approximately 150 100-percent affordable units in its place.

The city is paying for the site through a myriad of sources. Some comes from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s JumpStart fund, and some from the $415 million in windfall money that came in earlier late last year. If voters pass Breed’s $600 million affordable-housing bond measure this November, that will garner another $45 million for developing the site. If everything falls into place, construction could begin in the next two years.

But as of Tuesday, 1515 South Van Ness Ave. still sat vacant. Once a refuge for the unhoused, it’s now been altered to deter them. Metal Public Works barriers line the perimeter along South Van Ness Avenue and 26th Street, to discourage people from setting up camp on the sidewalk. Big “no trespassing” and “no loitering” signs are posted on the doors and windows. People living in RVs parked outside sat in chairs in the shade.

But nearby, the mood was boisterous, as Breed, District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, Planning Commission President Myrna Melgar, and many members of the Mission gathered to celebrate the news of the city’s purchase. The press conference was held in the shadow of 1296 Shotwell St., an affordable senior home on a neighboring lot that the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) is building.

“Government sometimes takes a really long time to make things happen,” Breed said. “We are really lucky that we got this windfall money. The first thing I thought about was all these sites in the Mission, and whether or not we would be allowed to acquire these sites for 100-percent affordable housing.

“We all know the sad history of redevelopment in this city,” Breed added, citing her childhood neighborhood of the Fillmore, which saw massive displacement in the wake of new developments. “We are going to protect our diversity. We’re going to protect our communities. We have to start making the right kind of investments.”

Ronen has been pushing for these investments in her district since her early campaign days.

“When I was running for office, I made a goal and a pledge to build 5,000 units of affordable housing in District 9 in a decade,” she said. “I’m proud of each and every unit. Right now we are at 1,182 units, and that is because the Mission is united — not just with itself, but with City Hall.”

That unity has the potential for a massive impact. The Mission went through a full decade without any affordable housing being built — and much was lost, due to condo conversions or fires. But this year alone the Mission has seen ground break on 157 units at 1950 Mission St.and 143 units at 1990 Folsom St.

Much of this newfound success is due to the presence of two major affordable housing developers that call the neighborhood home: MEDA and the Mission Housing Development Corporation. And these nonprofits are tirelessly committed to the fight for preservation and against displacement. On Tuesday, representatives of those groups — including several members of Mission cultural district Calle 24 — stood alongside Breed, Ronen, Melgar, MEDA, and MHDC to celebrate the news. That in itself is a feat.

“For the first time, I’m looking around at all of my colleagues, nonprofits, and all of the community instigators and collaborators … the Mission is united,” Melgar said. “For the first time, we’re all on the same page that in building affordable housing we are not only preserving our community but we are getting it back. Those 8,000 families that have been displaced from San Francisco, that are part of our schools, our churches, our community organizations. We’re getting them back.”

For longtime members of the neighborhood, that’s a big deal. Roberto Hernandez, often jokingly called “the mayor of the Mission,” says that all this work is building a legacy for future generations.

“It’s a beautiful ending to a story,” he said. “We knew that we didn’t need any more luxury units in our barrio. I believe in my corazon [that this development is] going to make a difference. It’s going to give people hope.”

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