A Home of One's Own
Tomorrow night I'm attending a forum on gentrification sponsored by the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council. Apart from trying to render my social life rock-dull, I have three reasons for going to this event. In no particular order:
First, I'm trying to decipher San Francisco's housing crisis and develop a more socially acceptable response than the kill-the-IPO-fattened-yuppies bile that currently wells up in my gut whenever I look at houses.
Second, one of the topics of discussion at the forum will be Proposition G, the rent-control measure that passed with an overwhelming margin at the polls last week. As much as I want the city's insane housing crisis to ease, I think Proposition G is a wrongheaded, counterproductive way of approaching the matter. While seeking to protect tenants, the measure has also effectively eliminated the ability of many people of moderate incomes to buy houses. In a backhanded way, Proposition G ends tenancy in common (TIC) — a method of purchasing property in which people pool their resources and credit-worthiness to make a purchase none could make on his or her own — as an avenue that leads to home ownership in San Francisco.
The third reason I'll go to the gentrification forum involves one of the panelists, Calvin Welch, co-founder of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, a consortium of nonprofit housing funders and developers. Anyone acquainted with local politics knows Welch is a big deal. Apart from being an affordable-housing honcho, he acts as an informal adviser in Willie Brown's kitchen Cabinet. Welch has run political campaigns, pushed legislation, and organized communities going back to the days of Mayor Jack Shelley. He is one of the wise men of S.F. politics, and I try to listen to wisdom whenever I can.
But there's another reason I want to hear Welch talk about the housing crisis. I want to listen to him because I enjoy a good paradox. You see, Calvin Welch supported Proposition G. But his life experience as a renter, homeowner, and political leader serves as a powerful argument against the anti-homeowner provisions of that ill-advised initiative.
Proposition G prohibits the owners of a building from using the owner-move-in eviction process to clear tenants from more than one apartment in any apartment building. This one-OMI-per-building limit is meant to stop tenancy-in-common home-purchasing arrangements.
It will do that. It will also put home ownership out of the reach of everyone without a trust fund.
Under a TIC, several people pool their resources and buy a building together. For example, three families may use tenancy in common to buy a three-flat building; each family will then live in one of the flats. The families might do this if they are not rich and can therefore afford to live in the city they love only if they buy a piece of a house — a flat — instead of the whole thing.
TIC arrangements are not a speculative, rich-guy game. But tenancy-in-common purchases do produce evictions. When three families manage to combine resources and buy a three-flat building to move into, there is a corresponding reaction: The people who had been renting those three flats are evicted in owner-move-in proceedings.
At least, that is what had been happening, until Proposition G passed.
In supporting Prop. G, tenant advocates have focused, wrongly I think, on a temporary disruption of the rental market: the spike in owner-move-in evictions related to increased use of tenancy in common as a way of owning a home.
But when I think of TICs, I think of how the city is gaining resourceful, committed homeowners. I think of how the city is grabbing onto a class of people who will dedicate themselves to San Francisco in a relatively permanent way, people who will raise families, start businesses, create art, and engage in politics over a long period of time.
When I think of tenancy in common, I don't think of evictions so much as the tenant churn, the natural transience that's created when housing policy favors renting over home ownership.
And from now on, because I have researched the property records relating to a particular home in the Upper Haight, when I think of TICs and how they add to the civic life of San Francisco, I will think of Calvin Welch.
Welch came to San Francisco in 1962 to attend San Francisco State University. Ever since, he has burned with political energy. He is the embodiment of civic commitment.
A full account of his career would fill an entire column and more. But even a partial resume is impressive.
In the 1970s, Welch organized food giveaways demanded by the kidnappers of Patty Hearst, helping to bring that insane standoff to a reasonable end. In 1986, he was a prime mover behind Proposition M, the slow-growth initiative that checked downtown construction and kept San Francisco from developing an even more severe jobs-and-housing imbalance than it now has. He has assisted in the funding and construction of thousands of units of affordable housing. He was a key participant in the campaign to pass a bond that funds the seismic repair of unreinforced brick buildings, and which has also created jobs and maintained the character of several San Francisco neighborhoods. He has watchdogged fat and stupid city agencies, including the Planning Department and the Redevelopment Agency. He fought a lengthy battle with the Catellus Development Corp. — for more than a decade — to ensure that its Mission Bay development would include a proper amount of housing, both affordable and market rate. He has helped run supervisorial and mayoral campaigns. In 1996, he helped pass another bond to finance affordable-housing construction and create a low-interest mortgage assistance fund.
But perhaps most important, Calvin Welch has involved himself in his neighborhood in a personal and creative way, caring about his neighbors and neighborhood merchants to an unusual extent.
When I called him to test my theory about Prop. G and its negative effects on the social well-being of the city, the conversation wandered. During one part of it, Welch told me he learned about a greengrocer in his Upper Haight neighborhood who was facing an untenable rent hike. Welch knew the owner of the grocer's building. He knew the “big comer from Texas” who was buying the building and raising the greengrocer's rent. He knew the exact amount of the rent, before and after the hike. And he kept track of the grocer's attempts to stay in the neighborhood. (A nearby building owner eventually rented the grocer twice the space for a little less than he was paying before the Texan entered the picture.)
In short, Calvin Welch cared — and cares — about his neighborhood.
I know a lot of renters contribute to their neighborhoods. I know that when they get evicted through no fault of their own, it is a loss to the city. But I also know how much more homeowners such as Welch pour into their neighborhoods and their city.
You can take issue with Welch's politics, his sometimes flinty personality, or even his stance on development issues. But there can be no dispute over this: Among the legions of political activists in San Francisco, Welch is one of the most effective and dedicated. The city is better off because he has been here.
The city is lucky he was able to buy a house and stick around.
Like a lot of people who come to San Francisco from elsewhere, the Welches — Calvin and his wife, Michelle — were renters at first. From 1962 until 1973 to be exact.
In 1973, when Welch was 29 years old, after 11 years of renting, he reached a point where he wanted to buy a house and make a permanent dedication to San Francisco.
I have seen many of my friends leave this city. Unable to afford a house here, they saw at least the possibility of permanence in another city — a city where home ownership isn't treated as a bourgeois crime against the proletariat.
I am at the point — as are a lot of people I know — when I would like to make the jump from renter to owner; from uncertain connection to long-lasting commitment. That's why Welch's experience 25 years ago still has meaning for me and probably a lot of other folks in my situation.
And that's why Prop. G makes me mad.
You see, if Proposition G had been in force in 1973, Calvin Welch would not have been able to buy his home in the Upper Haight, the home where he still lives, the home he plans to leave to his son and his daughter.
On Aug. 10, 1973, Calvin Welch, his wife, Michelle, Calvin's longtime political partner, Rene Cazenave, and Cazenave's wife, Sylvie, pooled a combined $2,000 down payment and entered into a tenancy-in-common purchasing arrangement. They bought — and subsequently evicted two renters from — a multiunit building on Ashbury, near Haight Street. Now, theWelches and Cazenaves paid moving expenses for the evicted tenants, as wellas the first month's rent for their newapartments.
But facts are facts. It was a tenancy-in-common purchase, followed by two owner-move-in evictions from a single building.
Calvin Welch has accomplished a lot in the last 25 years. Specifically, he's helped build a lot of housing for folks who aren't rich and never will be.
Someday, someone will write a book about San Francisco politics. Welch references will fill a full index page, if the book is done right.
He was able to make that kind of mark on the city because housing policy in 1973 was not being made on an election ballot by radical kulak-haters who think property is theft, and who are more interested in maintaining their political constituency — tenants — than in the well-being of the city.
Last week, I announced a Nov. 14 footrace between me and superrich-guy Warren Hellman. It has come as no surprise that the advantage-oriented Hellman has stalled negotiations over the race (something about proper pre-race accommodations). We have now been forced to move the event to a date uncertain, but will let you know when Hellman's seconds inform us he is available.
George Cothran (email@example.com) can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco,