Foreclosures threaten historic black neighborhoods

SAN FRANCISCO – An architect and housing expert said more than 90 percent of sub-prime loans are refinancings, contrary to commonly held statements discussed by policy makers attempting to address the credit crunch crisis.

Regina Davis, president/CEO of the San Francisco Housing Development Corp., said $10 million worth of black-owned homes in the Bayview/Hunters Point district have been lost to their owners in the last few months, with an additional $20 million at risk of being lost. Her organization has helped save $8 million by working with owners to date. “In 20 years of housing counseling, I’ve never seen a subprime loan to a first-time homebuyer.”

“Ninety-five percent of the foreclosures in San Francisco are in Bayview/Hunters Point,” said Davis to the second annual Preserving California Black Heritage conference. The southeastern San Francisco neighborhood is home to thousands of age-eligible buildings constructed as early as the 1870s, but property values were restrained until the past 10 years due to proximity to a former naval base and Superfund site and a power plant, both now in the process of being removed.

“I happen to think gentrification is a good thing, but African-Americans need to take advantage of it, instead of being victimized by it,” said Davis, who began her career as an architect with the New York City Dept. of Cultural Affairs and has helped to define an historic district in West Oakland around her own home. “Many of the people in Bayview Hunters Point have had a ten-fold appreciation. The reason they were targeted for predatory lending was that they had excess equity not at play. The temptation to use the house as a credit card has been too great for some people.”

A positive benefit of the housing crisis has been to reduce prices, said Davis, by as much as $200,000 per house in Bayview/Hunters Point. “I’m telling people, buy, buy, buy, because now a house that was $700,000 is $400,000 and with the $150,000 down payment assistance provided by the City of San Francisco, it is now within reach.”

She also encouraged neighborhood churches to use their borrowing power and cash to acquire homes, perhaps acting jointly, in order to preserve black ownership in these neighborhoods. One model she discussed was community land trusts, which retain title to the land, but sell the houses, reducing the cost of ownership even further.

The conference also discussed more than 60 historic church buildings owned by black churches in San Francisco, which together represent $100 million in unused equity which can be deployed for community uplift. Historian John William Templeton, the conference organizer and principal investigator of a context statement on African-American heritage in San Francisco, noted that the earliest black church building was built in 1871, with two dozen more predating the 1906 earthquake.

Commentators on the draft study described reasons why other properties would be appropriately designated as historic properties, making owners eligible for state property tax reductions of up to 75 percent and federal tax credits. National Park Service Ranger Frederik Penn of the Presidio discussed the role of Buffalo Soldiers at the Presidio between 1899 and 1904, and their interaction with black-owned nightclubs, churches and lodges which still exist today.

Kristin Morris, assistant curator of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, stressed the importance of artifacts and other historic resources being held in many family attics and basements. She noted a photo in 1968 of a black group which sought to occupy the former U.S. Mint at Fifth and Mission to turn it into a black cultural center. The Mint is now being restored to become the San Francisco Museum.

Chantal Reynolds, M.A. of the African-American Art and Culture Complex said there are homes which are important because of the relationship with African anti-colonial leaders who attended the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945 as uninvited activists. They were welcomed by local black leaders who had close ties with W.E.B. DuBois, who was one of only two black official observers to the event.

Guy Washington, Western regional coordinator of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, noted that San Francisco had a special attraction to black freedom activists as early as the 1840s. He agreed with a characterization of the local black abolitionists of the 1850s as an “all-star team” of Underground Railroad operatives, because many were evading sizable rewards as a result of their earlier activities on the East Coast by moving to California.

Templeton said many of those activists helped change American musical culture as well by providing venues and support for emerging jazz musicians as early as the 1860s. He discussed the exhibition JazzGenesis: San Francisco and the Birth of Jazz which highlights eight buildings which housed black-owned jazz establishments as early as 1907.

The conference also included three days of performances of a play Queen Calafia: Ruler of California based around a work of public art which depicts the black warrior queen whose allegory is responsible for the naming of California. The one-woman play, performed by actress/singer/educator Ajuana Black, attracted more than 100 students from Rosa Parks Elementary School, Balboa High School, the Scared Straight program and San Francisco State University. It was a benefit for the re-entry program Up From Darkness Transitional Housing and Education Program Inc., which has helped several black owners of historic properties by providing an income stream.

The first day of the conference focused on the role of local and state history in closing the achievement gap. Participants in the discussion included Francisca Sanchez, associate superintendent and Pete Hammer, history/social science coordinator of San Francisco Unified School District, which was actually launched in the 1840s by an African-American entrepreneur William Alexander Leidesdorff, former education dean Dr. Fannie Preston, Al Williams, president of the African-American Art and Culture Complex and Stewart Shaw, librarian of the African-American Center of the San Francisco Public Library.

For more information on historic preservation and education in California, contact eAccess Corp. at 415-240-3537 or visit http://www.californiablackhistory.com.

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