SF’s redevelopment miracle

Pub date February 8, 2011
WriterCalvin Welch

OPINION While many of us (and most of the rest of the state) can tire from time to time when we hear San Francisco “exceptionalism” being touted, especially when Gavin Newsom is doing the touting, there are some cases in which it’s justified. One of the most salient is the way San Franciscans transformed the city’s Redevelopment Agency and used tax-increment financing to build housing and infrastructure that served its residents, not elite developers.

This is an exceptional story that Gov. Brown does not want to hear. He should both listen and learn from San Francisco’s experience.

The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency started out like all others: destroying low income neighborhoods to create what the San Francisco Planning and Renewal Association, a strong agency supporter at the time, called ” ‘clean’ industries [and a] population … closer to ‘standard white Anglo-Saxon Protestant’ characteristics … ” But the big difference was that San Franciscans fought back.

In the 1960s in the Western Addition and SoMa, community organizations were formed that sought legal assistance and stopped the agency in its tracks. In the 1970s, new community coalitions were formed to deny the agency new federal funding. By the 1980s, the agency was broke and its mission of urban renewal so blocked and discredited that SPUR changed the last two words in its name from “Urban Renewal” to “Urban Research.”

In 1988, Mayor Art Agnos brought in the opponents of redevelopment and asked them how to redesign the agency. The product of that collaboration was a new mission statement and an ordinance fully integrating the agency into city government — transforming it into a financing agency, with no operational role.

Since 1990, the agency has become the major funder of affordable housing in San Francisco, pouring more than $500 million into low-cost housing both inside and outside redevelopment areas. More than 10,000 units have been built for working and low-income residents, more than half of those units for families with children. The urban infrastructure needed to transform Mission Bay from a toxic rail yard to a residential and biotech center came from the agency. Since 1990, not one neighborhood has been bulldozed by the agency and two new ones are being created (Mission Bay and Transbay).

Yes, some of the tax increment has been used to do some infrastructure work at ATT Park, and former Mayor Gavin Newsom wanted to entice the 49ers with agency funds for a new stadium at the shipyard. And yes, former Mayor Willie Brown gave Bloomingdale’s some agency money for its Market Street store. But the reality is that 50 percent of all tax increment since 1990 has gone to affordable housing development, and the bulk of the remaining 50 percent has gone for critical needed infrastructural work that has produced new property taxes more than paying for the investments. As the state and federal government turned their backs on central cities it was the only form of financing available.

And now Gov. Brown wants to end tax-increment financing. He points to the excess of other redevelopment agencies in other places. He does not, however, look to us and our experience. He should. San Francisco should be the model for what is required of all redevelopment agencies.

After serving as mayor of Oakland, Brown is probably tired of hearing about how different San Francisco is, how exceptional we are. That’s too bad, because in this case it isn’t hype. It’s real. *

Calvin Welch lives and works in San Francisco.