Part I: Could We Stay or Should We Go? Perspectives on NonProfit Displacement in the San Francisco Bay Area

The San Francisco-Bay Area's social sector is at a critical junction. Surges in real estate prices are forcing nonprofits to close their doors or relocate. Many of these organizations' beneficiaries have also faced eviction, or have had to move. Foundations and city governments are searching for solutions and innovative strategies to maintain the Bay Area's cultural integrity, and long-standing social institutions. At Foundation Center West, we strive to highlight the issues and trends that are important to our region. We provide a platform for the voices and the perspectives of our social sector community. We were inspired by the Northern California Grantmakers' recent study on displacement and eviction in the San Francisco-Bay Area, and reached out to representatives from nonprofits, foundations, city governments and others to continue the conversation. We are excited to bring you this blog series, Could We Stay or Should We Go? Perspectives on NonProfit Displacement in the San Francisco Bay Area. Join us every Wednesday over the next few weeks to learn new perspectives on this timely and critical issue. In this first installment in our blog series, we speak with Paul Cohen, executive director of the Eviction Defense Collaborative in San Francisco.

What is your experience with displacement in San Francisco?

Paul Cohen post image - skylineday

Displacement is a relatively new concept that has only been added to the eviction defense vernacular since 2000.  I became a full-time housing attorney focused on eviction defense in 1995.  There were no mandatory settlement conferences in eviction cases and there was no non-profit focused on offering assistance (legal or rental) at or before an unlawful/eviction trial.

Families were historically “displaced” due to fire, flood, earthquake or a structural collapse.  Gentrification of San Francisco neighborhoods was in full swing by 2000 and landlords wanted to take back their properties from rent control.  Owner move-in and Ellis Act (taking the property off the rental market) evictions became popular and tenants suffered.  Entire neighborhoods were targeted and this is where the concept of displacement as an eviction term took root.

The Eviction Defense Collaborative (EDC) started in 1996 with two employees in response to an increasing number of evictions impacting low-income tenants.  No single agency existed to take on the volume of tenants facing eviction.  Twenty years later the EDC has a staff of more than 25 that serves over 6,700 San Francisco residents each year.

How has displacement affected your organization?

The EDC suffered displacement from our former commercial rental property much like our clients regularly face displacement from their residential rental properties.  The owner of 995 Market Street chose not to renew our lease after 10 years as a responsible tenant.  The agency was given a 12 month notice of the decision, but the cost and logistics of moving an agency, still responsible for serving 50 – 200 clients in any given week, was daunting.  The EDC eventually landed at 1338 Mission Street, but our rent has more than doubled, we incurred moving, storage and IT costs for which we did not properly budget and we were unable to negotiate more than a 42 month lease for the new space.  The EDC was lucky to find anything given the commercial rental market at the time.

Our clients have collectively suffered a much greater impact.  The diversity of San Francisco is diminishing, long and short term residents of San Francisco that are low-income have had to relocate either within the City or increasingly outside of the City. The residential rental market has become unforgiving as property owners and property managers move swiftly to terminate a tenancy on either a reasonable or unreasonable basis.  Rent control does not protect everyone.

The EDC has steadily grown since 2000.  We have two primary components addressing displacement in legal services and rental assistance.  We have been engaged by the City as a fundamental partner in homelessness prevention services and we are seen as a part of the solution.

How has displacement affected your relationships with funders?

The City is our primary funder so the relationship has only grown as the needs of the community of tenants has grown.  Other funders, primarily private foundations, have just started to get the difference between keeping residents housed and providing homeless services. The EDC is part of an affordable housing strategy because every rent controlled apartment lost is a reduction in affordable housing.  The relationships are growing and now EDC is being invited to discuss these issues and apply for support.

How has displacement affected your relationships with your beneficiaries?

Clients tend to look at the EDC through a single lens.  They first ask, “can you help me?”, which leads to the question of, “have you helped me?”  There are situations that the EDC cannot help, but we report that the overwhelming majority of our clients have been helped in a significant way even if they cannot stay in their home past a certain date.  We cannot change the facts and sometimes they do not support a more positive outcome.

What, do you think, does the future hold for nonprofits/foundations/philanthropy in the Bay Area?

These three sets of stakeholders (a fourth should be the government funders) need to be prepared to take action now to find creative combinations of localities that could be used to collocate services in places accessible to the clients.  Large rentals, purchased properties, asset and capacity building combined makes a lot more sense than dealing with several hundred grantees individually.  Otherwise, there will be a reduction in services and only the fittest agencies will still be here to perform multiple services.

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Paul joined the Eviction Defense Collaborative on July 16, 2015 as the Executive Director. In assuming the leadership of the Eviction Defense Collaborative, Paul looks forward to dedicating himself to protect and preserve housing for the residents of San Francisco.Paul has dedicated most of his adult life to social justice issues primarily as a tenant civil rights attorney. The EDC brings Paul back to his home of San Francisco.

To learn about funding patterns and trends among Bay Area foundations, please stop by our regional Center or one of our Funding Information Partners to access Foundation Maps. The new Foundation Maps platform allows you to create maps illustrating funding flows in specific regions and issue areas, including visualizing those who support capacity building and technical assistance, which could be helpful for organizations developing strategies to mitigate displacement.  If you are a member of Northern California Grantmakers, you can access Foundation Maps: California with your member log-in, and if you aren’t already part of the Get on the Map campaign, you can learn how you can benefit from contributing your funding data to the collective whole.  

Read Part II in this blog series, featuring Brian Cheu, director of Community Development for the City and County of San Francisco.

Read Part III in this blog series, featuring Landon Williams, program director of community development and investment at the San Francisco Foundation.

Read Part IV in this blog series, featuring Molly Wertz, executive director of Tandem.

Read Part V in this blog series, featuring Molly Thomas, communications director, and Kyle Elliot, partner at WRNS Architecture Studio.