Af-Am Church in SF Blocks Subsidiary Nonprofit’s Plans to Sell Affordable Housing

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February 8, 2016; San Francisco Chronicle

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on the settlement of a dispute between Third Baptist Church in San Francisco and Third Baptist Gardens Inc., a nonprofit housing “subsidiary” created by the church. In July, the church sued the nonprofit after learning of an attempt to sell an affordable development with 104 units that is owned by the nonprofit. The news of an impending sale into a “hot” San Francisco rental market triggered tenant and community fears of displacement. About 80 percent of the tenants receive rent subsidies through the housing choice voucher program. This week’s settlement is outlined in “Third Baptist Church settles suit against S.F. housing nonprofit.” In the settlement, the nonprofit housing board members who solicited bids for the sale of the Frederick Douglass Haynes Gardens were removed and new trustees installed.

There’s not enough information in the Chronicle article to determine whether a sale would have automatically triggered displacement. The Chronicle makes note of the outgoing board members claims that they had every intention to maintain affordability. On the other hand, since tenants were receiving subsidies through the housing choice voucher program, their right to remain was not so clearly established in law, as would be the case if the property had a project-based subsidy. (There are more details about the dispute and the lawsuit in an article in BayView, a national Black newspaper.)

Church officials saw the settlement as a bigger victory than preserving just this single development. Louise Renne, attorney for the Third Baptist Church, told the Chronicle, “The settlement was a warning to owners of publicly subsidized housing developments that, like the Third Baptist nonprofit, are on the verge of paying off their mortgages to the federal government.” That bigger vision of the struggle was the result of a skillful community organizing campaign.

The pastor of Third Baptist Church, Rev. Dr. Amos Brown, is a former City Councillor and current president of the San Francisco Branch of the NAACP. In August, Rev. Dr. Brown held a rally that included “social activist grandson of the late revered pastor Rev. Dr. Frederick Douglass Haynes Sr., for whom the complex was named.” Rev. Dr. Brown also involved tenants and local community leaders.

In contrast, officials of the nonprofit subsidiary were pretty quiet in public statements throughout the struggle with the church. When Rob Meiksins covered the issue for NPQ in a July 2015 newswire, “Church Sues Nonprofit It Created over Possible Sale of Housing Development,” he noted that officials of Third Baptist Garden were unavailable for comment. There’s scant evidence that they ever made their case in the court of public opinion.

Most likely, the church’s interests extended beyond efforts to protect low-income tenants. It is easy to imagine that at least some of the tenants at Frederick Douglass Haynes Gardens were members of the Third Baptist Church. Clearly, it was within the interest of the church to keep its parishioners close by in the neighborhood. Newcomers who could pay the estimated $3,000-$7,000 monthly rents if the property were sold to a for-profit developer would not likely be potential church members.

Preservation of affordable developments in gentrifying communities is an ongoing concern at NPQ and an underlying theme of a new movement for redevelopment without displacement just unveiled in Baltimore.—Spencer Wells