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

In the final installment of our blog series, Could We Stay or Should We Go? Perspectives on NonProfit Displacement in the San Francisco Bay Area, we revisit the partnership between Tandem Bay Area and architecture firm WRNS Studio. Tandem and WRNS connected through 1+, a pro bono service network for architects and designers. Together they found a new space that wasn’t just more affordable--but was also an upgrade from Tandem’s former office. We speak with Molly Thomas, WRNS communications director, and Kyle Elliot, WRNS partner and principal on the Tandem project, about their thoughts on nonprofit displacement in the Bay Area, and what role businesses can play in helping nonprofits stay here.

In your role at WRNS studio, what is your experience with displacement in San Francisco?

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Many of us at WRNS Studio have lived and worked in San Francisco for decades — we’ve never seen anything like what’s currently happening in terms of gentrification and displacement. As an architectural practice driven by place and embedded in the communities in which we work, it’s disheartening to watch our city lose its already tenuous grip on socio-economic diversity. Cities do better when the people who make it run and the people who make it interesting — teachers, firefighters, artists — are connected and able to afford living in them. What happens, for instance, when our teachers leave the public schools that some of us have been lucky enough to “win the lottery” by getting into? What does teacher turnover do to academic performance? How many of our families then decide to move away so that our kids can get a good education? There’s real displacement (the neighbors we all see moving away), and then there’s this ethos of imminent second-degree displacement that we think many of us live with that erodes community. Why would we invest in this place when we might be gone?

As a business we engage in projects that have strong social and economic justice components because we want to use our talents in service of community, and for many of us, this is a deeply personal endeavor. Most architects don’t earn the kind of income needed to make a life in San Francisco these days; we’re looking at about half of our workforce commuting in from nearby cities. So while we’re not in in fear of being displaced as a business, we as a collective of individuals working together live with the economic squeeze and displacement all around us, symptoms of the deepening economic inequity and the collapse of the middle class.

This was a very long way of getting to WRNS Studio’s first-hand experience with displacement in San Francisco, which happened when Molly Wertz, Executive Director at Tandem called us looking for help finding a new workplace for her nonprofit organization which was being forced out of its space.

How did you come into contact with Tandem?

Molly found us through the directory on Public Architecture’s 1+ Program, which we’ve been involved with since 2007. The 1+ Program asks architects to commit at least 1% of their working hours to pro bono services, with the goal of inspiring more than the minimum. We typically do 2-3% in a given year and we mostly work with organizations focused on making education and the public realm better.

It was through the 1+ Program that we linked up years ago with the Trust for Public Land, which worked in close partnership with the City of San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks to update Hayes Valley Playground. That project led to Boeddeker Park, which transformed a formerly unsafe park in the Tenderloin to a place that hums all day long. Other pro bono projects include an expansion to the Bridge School, which helps integrate kids with certain disabilities into the conventional school systems and the Firehouse Clinics (with Public Architecture), intended to help bring health care to vulnerable, low income, and uninsured people.  

What was the goal of the project with Tandem? Why did you want to help?

Tandem’s focus is on early literacy. They work with families and communities in support of early learning and future success. What they’re trying to do — spark joy in learning, foster long-term academic success and close the opportunity gap — strikes at the very heart of inequity, the lack of a quality education. 

Tandem needed help finding a new home, and this effort morphed into helping them craft a functional, comfortable place in their new digs. They’d been operating out of an office on Third and Stillman, just a few blocks from our office. With commercial rents at an all-time high and all eyes on South of Market, their landlord saw the opportunity to lease Tandem’s space for much more than what they’d been paying. When Molly Wertz reached out, she was evaluating three different spaces and needed help deciding which one would work, and quick, as she had to sign a lease within a few weeks. To her landlord’s credit, Tandem was offered another office in their existing building; however, it was a dim and uninspired space that lacked functionality.

We think that education should be a right, not a privilege. If a nonprofit organization trying to improve students’ chance at success in public education (already falling through the cracks) can’t afford to operate in the community it serves, where are we headed as a city? As a culture? Helping Tandem find the right space to rent and working with them to make their space functional and comfortable was the least we could do. It was an honor.     

Can you describe the outcome of that project?

Our team — Kyle Elliott, Edwin Halim, Stephanie Hebert and Francesca Martin — looked at different sites with Molly, conducted test fits and code analyses, landed on a space in the Bayview, and helped negotiate the tenant improvement allowance. We also provided basic interior design and branding services, including space layout, lighting and paint and color selection. We had furniture to spare from a recent tenant improvement of our own, and we donated conference tables and chairs.

Located close to MUNI, just off of 3rd Street, Tandem’s new office has a lot of space to engage with the community through their book sharing program, community meetings and family workshops.

Do you see WRNS working with other nonprofits in the future to address the displacement issue?

Ideally we wouldn’t have to because we don’t want to see other nonprofits get displaced, but yes, I could see being approached by other nonprofits in similar situations to that of Tandem.

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

With the economic upswing, we’re busier than we’ve ever been. You’d think that when companies are doing well, they’d give more, but when what you’re donating is your services, engaging in pro bono work becomes a pressing question of resources. So ironically, it becomes more challenging to give when we’re doing well. But we’re committed. Engaging in pro bono work reminds many of the architects here of that thing that drove them to become architects to begin with — to craft places that make people’s lives better.

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Molly Thomas is the LEED AP/associate and communications director at WRNS studio. A writer and editor, Molly helps craft WRNS Studio’s voice to advance the culture, practice and business of the firm. 

Kyle Elliot is NCARB/partner at WRNS studio. Over the last 25 years Kyle has finely crafted and appropriately scaled buildings that connect landscape, culture, structure, and space. 

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 I in this series, featuring Paul Cohen, executive director of the Eviction Defense Collaborative

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.