Residents concerned about homes, rent as S.F. complex undergoes changes 

click to enlarge Mary Watkins | Rufus Watkins
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Mary Watkins, left, and her son Rufus are worried about the proposed market-rate housing and possible rent increases at their Western Addition housing complex.

Mary Watkins has lived in the same Western Addition apartment for 47 years. At 68, she still works full time, at a hotel, and shares her three-bedroom unit with her son Rufus Watkins. It's also where she raised her other three children. Scattered around the place, on walls and tabletops, are framed family photos.

"You couldn't ask for a better place to live," said Mary Watkins, who declined to say what she pays in rent. "This is a community. We've lived here a long time. They are having a lot of problems with the housing. We don't want to lose our housing.

"I call it the changing of the guard. Every day I don't know what's going to happen."

Some residents of the decades-old Midtown Park Apartments community, in the heart of the Western Addition, are worried about displacement after recent city actions. Those include proposed rent hikes and the termination, just days before Christmas, of a lease with Midtown Park Corp., the nonprofit tenant group that oversees operations of the low-income apartment complex at the corner of Geary Boulevard and Divisadero Street.

The City owns the 139-unit, six-building complex and the property on which it sits. The complex composed of one- to three-bedroom apartments was built in the 1960s and has served as below-market-rate housing for low- to moderate-income tenants.

The future of Midtown Park Apartments has been debated ever since a 40-year-old Federal Housing Administration mortgage was paid off on the property in 2008, giving The City the option to terminate its agreement with the nonprofit tenant group.

In partnership with below-market-rate developer Mercy Housing, The City is moving forward with plans to renovate the entire property and add more units, including some at market rates.

The proposal is to renovate four residential buildings containing 96 below-market-rate units that front Scott, O'Farrell and Divisadero streets. Two buildings containing 44 below-market-rate units that front Geary Boulevard would be demolished to make way for residential buildings containing up to 114 more such units, according to a Planning Department document from October.

The project would add 70 units to the site, and "a minimum of 188 units would be affordable." Plans include "a new building for seniors since there currently are no accessible units at the property," said Teresa Yanga, director of housing development for the Mayor's Office of Housing.

"We are a community of San Francisco that's about to be dispersed," said Marchell Johnson, a 40-year tenant and president of Midtown Park Corp.

Tenants are understandably wary after living through the urban renewal efforts of the 1960s by the now-defunct Redevelopment Agency that displaced much of the area's black community. Add to that the current housing climate of soaring rents and evictions.

Rufus Watkins, 50, who sits on the board of the nonprofit management group, said residents' fears of losing their homes are exacerbated by the economic pressures surrounding them.

"At Divisadero and Geary, a lot of people see the Google buses and the Genentech buses right across the street," Rufus Watkins said. "So people wake up in the morning and see that, and people start worrying and asking, 'What's going on?'"

In a series of tense meetings, city officials and tenants have debated their future. But relations have become strained after the Mayor's Office of Housing terminated the lease with Midtown Park Corp. effective at the end of January.

"How arrogant and disconnected they could possibly be to terminate our relationship, and to do it two days before Christmas," Johnson said, adding that, "We're hurt; we're beyond not happy."

With the termination, she worries about tenant representation as residents face rent increases. The site also is slated to undergo major renovations.

The Mayor's Office of Housing stands behind the most recent rent increase proposal, which would be tied to the current below-market-rate income levels, as being fair and said tenants have no need to fear displacement.

"There will be no displacement; there will be no rent increases for at least three months or longer," Yanga said. "If there are any, it would be prorated over a five-year period."

The City will soon begin certifying the incomes of tenants, a process that would take up to three months. No formal rent increase would be proposed until that process is complete, Yanga said.

For those who refuse, their rents would go to the market rate, as would those of the tenants who do not qualify for subsidized rents. Also, tenants would be moved into "size-appropriate units." The lowest rent currently paid at the property is $381 per month for a three-bedroom apartment, Yanga said.

"We haven't been monitoring the property as well as we should, but we're trying to correct that now," she said, noting that The City needed to cut ties with the nonprofit since it wouldn't qualify for the low-income-housing tax credit to help pay for the site's development plans.

There have been $750,000 in repairs identified by the property manager, the John Stewart Co., Yanga said. But the company is leaving the job because it was unable to secure liability insurance due to the property's condition, including mold and leaky roofs, city officials said.

The situation is politically challenging for Supervisor London Breed, who represents the neighborhood where the complex is located. Breed said she is supportive of moving forward with rent increases and the termination of the lease with the nonprofit management group, which she said would lead to better-run and maintained housing. Breed said the nonprofit was not doing everything it should have been doing to manage the site, such as ensuring people were in the right-size units, weren't occupying units illegally and weren't subletting properties.

"I don't want anyone to be homeless as a result of what we need to do," Breed said. She said that in cases where rents do go to market rate, she wants to ensure there are city subsidies so people can continue to afford those units.

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