Last weekend the California State Senate voted overwhelmingly to create a task force to study the possibility of reparations for African Americans in California.
The proposed bill, AB3121, titled “Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans,” would create a commission of nine members to study the long-term effects of slavery and present opportunities for restitution.
The panel plans to make its findings available to the state Legislature by 2023 and offer recommendations for options for redress including cash funds, housing assistance, tuition payments and student loan forgiveness.
Earlier this year San Francisco passed its own resolution for a study of a comprehensive reparations plan for Black residents.
San Francisco created and participated in a series of discriminatory policies that has resulted in the loss of land, foreclosure, eviction and homelessness of many African American residents. Black activists say complicity in these policies makes the case for a specific kind of reparations— housing reparations.
Black San Franciscans have a median income of $28,000; the median income for white residents is quadruple that amount; and while now comprising only 5 percent of our city’s total population, Black San Franciscans constitute nearly 40 percent of our unhoused residents.
This disparity in San Francisco’s homeless population can be traced in part to the foreclosure crisis, in which predatory lending on subprime mortgages specifically targeted Black families and rolled back decades of Black homeownership in neighborhoods like Bayview-Hunter’s Point and Lakeview.
The past century of racist housing policy—redlining, covenant neighborhoods, redevelopment, the privatization of public housing and the divestment from housing assistance such as Section 8—has decimated Black homeownership and housing stability in the Bay Area and beyond.
All of this results in a serious issue: that historically Black neighborhoods in the Bay Area are continuing to disappear. In the last twenty years, historically Black neighborhoods in Oakland have lost their Black populations by over 30 percent. In that same period, San Francisco neighborhoods such as the Western Addition, Lakeview and Bayview-Hunter’s Point have likewise lost almost 20 percent of their African American populations, as summarized in a recent report on urban displacement and re-segregation of the San Francisco Bay Area.
But there are two very real opportunities for redress some of the Bay Area’s gross historic inequities: the Midtown Park Apartments in the heart of San Francisco’s Western Addition, and the Golden Gate Village of Marin City, Marin County’s only Black township. Both are leading the call for Black housing in the Bay Area with two demands: “resident self-determination” and “equity ownership.”
Midtown is a historically Black residential complex created as replacement housing for those Fillmore-Western Addition inhabitants who lost nearby homes to the City’s ill-conceived Redevelopment program, which cleared 44-square blocks of San Francisco’s Black and Filipino neighborhoods.
The complex was originally conceived in 1967 as a rent-to-own opportunity for those displaced homeowners and tenants. But Midtown residents have been fighting for years both to fulfill the goal of equity ownership as promised by the city and to maintain resident-self management of their homes.
Their fight for reparations for displacement caused by Redevelopment has been picking up steam over the past few years, and residents have enjoyed several recent victories. While on San Francisco’s longest running rent strike, residents have resisted demolition and redevelopment plans and kicked out affordable housing developer Mercy Housing. Now, an ordinance is being finalized by District Supervisor Dean Preston that seeks to restore rent control to the complex. Once rent is stabilized, residents plan to craft an ownership solution in which they possess true equity stakes in Midtown. Earlier this year, the city agreed it would support that goal.
Midtown resident Phyllis Bowie poses the question: “Why not reparations? San Francisco can do the right thing and right the wrongs of the racist Justin Hermann era. After decades of racial inequality resulting from Urban Renewal, nearly 50 years of promised ownership of Midtown and years of protesting, the City claims they don’t have the funds available to address decades of their own neglect. We are human beings, not a budget line item. San Francisco’s Black working class is owed equity. We have earned the right to promised ownership.”
Golden Gate Village
Built in 1961 for the Black workers who had emigrated from the South to work in the Bay Area’s shipyards during WWII, Golden Gate Village has been an enclave for Marin County’s miniscule Black population. At the time, those workers were legally barred from living elsewhere in Marin, and indeed were kicked out of neighboring towns, like Sausalito and Mill Valley at the end of the war. Marin County is the state’s most racially segregated county; nearly all of its Black population lives in Marin City, functionally making the town a Black township within the white county.
Golden Gate Village is owned by the Marin Housing Authority, and by all accounts, the county has been a negligent landlord. Built by a protégée of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and on the National Register of Historic Places, Golden Gate Village is a community treasure, and the county should have invested in it over the years. Now, citing its state of disrepair due to deferred maintenance, Marin Housing Authority is seeking to enter into a public-private partnership with a New Jersey-based developer called Michaels Development Co., which plans to tear down the village and rebuild it as a mixed-income complex.
This exact scheme (albeit with different developers) was attempted—and rejected—at Midtown. In fact, there are remarkable similarities between the two communities, one in San Francisco and one in Marin but both majority Black.
At Midtown, residents were presented with a plan to demolish and redevelop Midtown as a mixed-income complex owned and operated by developer Mercy Housing. Residents, citing the city’s decades-long promise of resident ownership, fought the redevelopment plans for four years until Mercy Housing was forced to admit defeat and recused itself from the project. Golden Gate Village appears to be at the beginning of this same process.
Already the residents of Golden Gate Village have received broad support from Marin County residents. At a recent Zoom meeting of the Marin County Board of Supervisors, hundreds of residents from throughout the County called in and echoed dual demands of “resident ownership and self-determination” at Golden Gate Village. The Marin Sierra Club has also stepped up to endorse the Resident’s Plan, a green preservation-based alterative to the proposed redevelopment plans, an uncharacteristic intervention from an environmental organization. Meanwhile, the residents are suing the Marin Housing Authority for habitability issues in a 200 million lawsuit.
Says Golden Gate Village resident Royce Mclemore, “The lawsuit is being brought with the mindset of bringing them to the table… so that they can give us the money that we need to invest in the property, and the land that we need to live.” Royce Mclemore’s family moved to Marin City in 1946 when she was three years old. A resident of Golden Gate Village for 44 years, she is now one of the organizations leaders.
She explains, “Our elders came here to help America win WWII. That’s why we came here. Finally giving us our housing is the right thing to do. God is going to create an exchange of wealth, right here in Marin City. This is where it’s going to start… right here in Marin City.”
Both Midtown and the Golden Gate Village are uniquely poised for a transition to resident ownership because they are both currently publicly owned. The realization of resident ownership doesn’t depend on the cooperation of a private developer. It just depends on the political will of the municipalities in which they exist. And now seems as good a time as ever, as reparations are on the table.
If the city and state need candidates to repair the damage of the last 60 years of housing policy in the Bay Area, to create lasting stability for historic Black communities, here are two.