Michael Theriault headshot

In about 1991 I turned to the ironworker beside me as we reinforced a brick parapet on Valencia Street, and I said, “Look, Valencia is getting trendy.”

His expression questioned my sanity.

But he was not from the City, and I had lived almost all my life within a few blocks of Mission Street, and most of my twenties in the Inner Mission. My family roots there went back to a time when my little French Canadian grandmother walked from her apartment on Linda, across from the outdoor pool of Mission Playground, a few blocks to her job in an industrial laundry, where she warmed her lunch on the steam pipes.

My brother ironworker saw the neighborhood’s rough edges, its continuing poverty.

I saw yet another change in a lifetime of changes. I saw young bohemians, artists and those who wanted to be or appear artists, the “urban pioneers” that frequently presage so-called gentrification. I saw professionals and new residents with money. I saw also that the population, which had grown browner in my childhood, was turning whiter again.

The changes in the Mission that some decry now began more than two decades ago. If their acceleration from the Dot-Com Boom through the present could not have been precisely forecast, they were nonetheless entirely predictable.

In an earlier column I described how Supervisor David Campos’s proposed moratorium on the construction of market-rate housing in the Mission might have effects contrary to what he claimed to desire.

Here I note that as countermeasure to departures of the working class and Latinos from the Mission, whether helpful or harmful, his proposal is woefully late. Much could have been done much earlier. Landlords and developers are easy to blame for exploiting a trend already well underway, but what few politicians will admit is that the current crisis of the working class in the Mission is as at least as much a political failure as a market effect.

Development of low-income housing in the City has long been divided between non-profit developers somewhat by neighborhood. In Chinatown, for example, there was and is Chinatown Community Development Center, where Mayor Ed Lee once worked as a tenants’ rights lawyer. In the Tenderloin, there is the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation and the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and in the Bayview the San Francisco Housing Development Corporation.

In the Mission there is the Mission Housing Development Corporation, or MHDC.

In the last two decades MHDC has been embroiled in political and ideological fights. Ultimately the right or wrong in these is unimportant. In practical terms, the harm they did to staffing and funding meant that valuable time was lost, as Randy Shaw has remarked in BeyondChron.

In recessions, when MHDC should have acquired land at lower prices for affordable housing, it couldn’t. In upturns, when it should have been able to use fees paid to the City by prospering developers to build housing, it was unable. MHDC was the organization that, given funding, would have been best positioned to acquire and preserve rent-controlled apartments, and so to have prevented evictions and buyouts that have pushed working-class residents from the Mission. Politicians denied it funding. They offered no alternatives.

Some of these politicians claimed to be “Progressive,” and to stand for the working class.

Their refusal to look beyond ideology to practical result, to have either funded MHDC or helped nurture in a timely way an alternative organization, has resulted instead in the dilemma of the working class in the Mission.

It has resulted also in a situation in which we in the Trades, standing genuinely for workers, are accused of doing the opposite. We have endorsed Maximus Real Estate Partners’ plans to build mixed market-rate and middle-income housing at 16th and Mission, which was profiled in this newspaper last month. The Maximus proposal includes also funding for construction of low-income housing at another Mission site.

The Maximus project has engendered furious opposition, and Maximus has stumbled in putting it forward. At its Parkmerced property, it has replaced a union-signatory janitorial company with a non-union company. This has given labor unions already inclined to side with a coalition opposing the 16th and Mission project good excuse to do so, and we in the Building Trades have sanctioned picketing at Parkmerced. Maximus’s political consultant, Jack Davis, has now angered many in City government and elsewhere by thundering against construction of the Warriors arena, a job he is doing for another, largely anonymous employer.

But the Mission needs the Maximus project’s middle-income and low-income housing.

The coalition opposing the project calls it the “Monster in the Mission.” The coalition says only low-income housing should be built on the site, but has revealed no plan to acquire it. The owners have given no hint they will sell to anyone to develop low-income housing. No non-profit developer has stepped forward with a plan for low-income housing there.

Ideology in place of practical plans, name-calling in place of careful and reasoned solutions, politics in place of an effective concern for the needs of the working class: These are the real Monsters in the Mission.

Left to roam, they will devour much of what remains of working class life there.

Organized Labor


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