After nine years in her Inner Richmond home, Chloe Jackman-Buitrago found herself in a scenario many tenants fear and some are faced with: Her landlord put the building up for sale, and suddenly her status in the city was up in the air.
The San Francisco native and her neighbors had weathered a building sale before, but the listing this time caught their eye: It claimed that tenants were not rent-controlled despite the building’s establishment shortly before the 1979 cutoff for such protections. Further, they say roughly half of the 12 residential units were hit with rent increases in April, the same month the building went for sale.
The tenants began to contest their imperiled rent-control status but another option emerged: have a nonprofit become their new, benevolent landlord through the Small Sites Program designed to stabilize tenants by securing permanently affordable rent. In December, the Mission Economic Development Agency finalized a $6.5 million sale for 369 3rd Ave. — its first in the Richmond District, one of several neighborhoods currently lacking a nonprofit like MEDA.
“There were times where it seemed like MEDA wasn’t going to be able to buy the building and we had to settle into reality about that,” says Jackman-Buitrago, a photographer with a studio nearby her home. “We could still be Ellis Act-ed out if someone bought the building. There wasn’t a safe option other than MEDA.”
The Small Sites Program began as a pilot in 2014 with $3 million. That funding has grown to $86 million, helping to preserve 35 buildings with 290 units and 27 commercial spaces as permanently affordable for more than 500 people, according to Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development spokesperson Max Barnes.
Nonprofits like MEDA must have the building retain an average of 80 percent Area Median Income to access program funds, locking in affordable rates to existing and future tenants. The San Francisco Housing Accelerator Fund supplied $8.1 million so MEDA could front the purchase price before city funds roll in.
“We’re in a housing crisis that is pricing out low-income and middle-income residents,” Mayor London Breed said in a statement Monday. “We need to build more housing of all types, but we also need to make sure that we’re protecting current tenants, and this acquisition ensures that 12 families in the Richmond will remain in their homes for years to come.”
MEDA’s latest acquisition marks its 26th small sites purchase and comes on the heels of a $5 million grant from JPMorgan Chase in October. While MEDA has long focused on the Mission, it’s expanded its efforts to buildings in the Excelsior, Haight, and Sunset districts as supervisors come to them. As the agency has gained experience in acquiring buildings, leadership has tried to share its expertise with other nonprofits in the city devoted to affordable housing.
“It can be really daunting when you’ve never done something like that and you’re a nonprofit,” says MEDA spokesperson Christopher Gil. “We realized very quickly it would be better for us to share that knowledge.”
MEDA partnered with the San Francisco Housing Development Corporation to buy up the seven-unit building at 520 Shrader in the Haight, where the latter group has a presence. The two nonprofits have an agreement to partner again for four more buildings over the next two years, according to HDC’s CEO David Sobel.
As for the Westside, Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer secured a $300,000 state grant to back a community process that will select or create a nonprofit that can focus on potential small sites sales.
“Having your own organization to be able to advocate and look out for this proactively is such a big difference,” says Ian Fregosi, a legislative aide to Fewer. “Lacking that right now, we were just super grateful that MEDA was willing to come over to this property and expand their geographic outreach.”
Fewer’s Community Opportunity to Purchase Act also plays a role in removing profit motives from further exacerbating the housing crisis. Passed in April, it requires sellers of a residential building with at least three units to notify qualified affordable housing nonprofits.
“It puts us in a much better position to compete with these properties than we have before,” Sobel says.
Another 137 units and nine commercial spaces across 15 buildings are in the small sites pipeline, Barnes says. Voters recently approved the city’s largest affordable housing bond, which sets $30 million aside for more acquisitions, while a Education Revenue Augmentation Fund surplus saves $40 million for the cause. Other funding comes from inclusionary fees, the Housing Trust Fund, and other sources.
Jackman-Buitrago and her neighbor Laura Marino-Nuno were unaware of the program before but are some of its biggest advocates now. They acknowledge that a couple neighbors don’t seem the happiest with the outcome of adjusted rents but that overall they feel it was best for the building, whose tenants voted to nominate MEDA for the sale with the help of the San Francisco Housing Rights Committee. Having lived there since 1978, Marino-Nuno had the best and perhaps only chance of retaining rent control. (The building’s former property management company West & Prasker did not return a request for comment.)
“You get to a point where don’t just think [of] what’s good for yourself, you think of the long-term impact for everybody,” says Marino-Nuno, a retiree and native San Franciscan. “There are avenues and people need to know that those avenues exist.”