An open discussion about San Francisco’s shrinking black population and some possible solutions to curb the decline led by former Mayor Willie Brown drew a modest crowd to Pilgrim Community Church on Saturday, Feb. 18.
Advertised as a community forum on gentrification in the Bay Area, with a call to “Help stop the exodus of Blacks out of SF communities and the depletion of the Black church,” about fifty residents called for a renewed black organizational movement by the end of the event.
After prayer and introduction, Brown gave a speech spanning his roots as a child in Mineola, Texas, the history of black San Franciscans, and concluded with his policy toward affordable housing during his two terms as mayor between 1996 and 2004.
When Brown arrived in the city to attend San Francisco State University in 1951, he witnessed the rise and eventual withering of the city’s black population.
“I became involved early on with everything that was happening in San Francisco from a black perspective,” Brown said. “It was a great, great viable community.”
Although San Francisco had a thriving black church community and a vibrant arts and culture scene in the Fillmore, blacks were still not allowed to hold a range of jobs in the public and private sectors.
The black population peaked at 13.4 percent in 1970, before beginning to drop steadily. By Brown’s second term as mayor began in 2000, the city was 7.8 percent black.
Changes in the OMI
Between 1980 and 2010 the black population in the Ocean View, Merced Heights and Ingleside neighborhoods, known as the OMI, dropped from 61 percent to 14 percent, according to census data. Over the same time period the OMI’s Asian population grew from 11 percent to 54 percent.
In Ocean View, known as Lake View in the black community, the population change has been even more drastic. Because it was one of the only residential neighborhood that allowed black residents, the Ocean View attracted many black families looking for a quiet residential neighborhood.
Brown’s speech outlined some of the housing policies underlying the city’s shrinking black population beginning with redevelopment programs beginning in the 1950s.
“Almost instantly, as the redevelopment process unfolded, theoretically they were going to upgrade the quality of the structures that people lived in,” Brown said. “They never admitted that once they removed people from those places they would never, never return.”
Calls for Anti-Gentrification Game Plan
After Brown’s speech two current city officials answered questions from attendees about how to receive assistance from the city.
Leah Pimentel, a commissioner with the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure, and Maria Benjamin, director of the Home Ownership and Below Market Rate Programs, fielded questions about how to qualify for below market housing, receive home improvement loans and improve credit scores.
After the questions period, Wilfred T. Ussery, a retired project manager for the Housing Authority, called on the crowd to keep organizing and to develop a “game plan” for fighting further gentrification in the black population.
“I’ve heard too little about the nature of a game plan that we can implement politically and financially that would have some impact on why and how [Black people are leaving] the city,” Userry said.
Userry provided a few reasons for Black residents leaving the city. Other races are now coming to cities rather than leaving for the suburbs and black San Franciscans’ job skills do not match the lucrative tech industry – “students get masters degrees or doctorates and they want to come to San Francisco to work at the headquarters of [international tech companies].”
Userry called on the group to schedule another meeting to make a plan for how to confront gentrification in San Francisco.
“I’m 88 years old and I’ve been around long enough to know that you don’t take on these big issues without a game plan,” Userry said.
Outreach to the neighborhood’s shrinking and aging black population has been difficult. A similar meeting a few months earlier without Brown on the ticket had a much lower turnout, according to Rev. Dr. Harold L. Pierre, who organized the event. However, after the forum, Pierre said that he hoped to organize another meeting in a few months.
For more information on below market rate housing or homeownership assistance, visit www.sfmohcd.org and www.homeownershipsf.org. This article first appeared in the Ingleside-Excelsior Light‘s March 2017 edition.
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