Can reparations bring black residents back to San Francisco?
SAN FRANCISCO — Standing on the doorstep of her childhood home — a sleek but stately Victorian house shaded by an evergreen pear tree — Lynette Mackey pulled out a photo from a family gathering nearly 50 years ago. The men were all in suits, the women in skirts. Mrs. Mackey, a teenager in red flared trousers, stretched her arms wide and smiled brightly.
Soon after, in the 1960s and 1970s, Mrs. Mackey saw the slow erasing of black culture from the Fillmore District, once celebrated as “the Harlem of the West.” The jazz clubs that attracted the likes of Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington disappeared, as did the soul food restaurants.
By the mid-1970s, many of her friends had also disappeared, driven out by city officials who seized homes in the name of what they called “urban renewal.” Then, finally, her family lost the house they bought in the 1940s after emigrating from Texas. In many cases, the old Victorian houses were demolished and replaced with housing developments, but the city kept Mrs. Mackey’s house standing and it has since been renovated into government-subsidized apartments.
Her grandfather suffered a heart attack while fighting to save their home. “He died saying, ‘I’m not going to sell this house,'” she said.
Today, against this backdrop of loss and displacement, San Francisco is considering reparations that would compensate black residents for policies that displaced them and hindered their economic opportunities. Cities across the country are studying similar restitutions, but none are as ambitious as San Francisco, whose 15-member task force made 111 recommendations in a preliminary report to city leaders.
To close the racial wealth gap, long a central argument for reparations, the task force has declared a moonshot: a one-time payment of $5 million to anyone who qualifies. By comparison, the California reparations task force has recommended a sliding scale that works out to about $1.2 million for older black residents.
The cash figure has made headlines, but it’s widely seen as unrealistic in a city with growing budgetary problems and a lack of political consensus on the issue. The $5 million payments could add up to $100 billion — many times San Francisco’s $14 billion annual budget — and London Breed, the city’s mayor, has not committed to monetary reparations.
Ms. Mackey, 63, who has remained in town, is working on a more likely path to get incentives for other long-time black residents and their descendants to return to San Francisco. One idea is for the city to provide them with housing subsidies, access to affordable housing, and allowances for moving expenses.
San Francisco’s black population has shrunk from 13 percent in 1970 to about 5 percent today, driven first by cycles of redevelopment and then by the gentrifying forces of tech employers. Black residents have been pushed to remote Bay Area suburbs with cheaper housing and long commutes, if not other cities and states.
When thousands of black migrants arrived to work in the shipyards in the 1940s, housing practices confined them to the Fillmore District of Bayview-Hunters Point, a windswept southeast corner of San Francisco. The center of black cultural life in the Fillmore no longer exists, and today most of San Francisco’s black population lives in Bayview-Hunters Point. But even that neighborhood is now about 30 percent black compared to more than 75 percent in 1980.
“There aren’t many people who were born here who are still here,” says Oscar James, 77, who has lived in Bayview-Hunters Point all his life and bought a home in 1978. moved.”
When the city seized homes in the Fillmore, it issued certificates to families that allowed them to get public housing. Since then, the documents “have gone untracked and rarely honored,” the reparations task force wrote. The story of the black displacement was the subject of the 2019 film ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’, in which the main character laments the loss of his family’s Victorian style.
Mrs. Mackey, who now rents a subsidized apartment in the Fillmore, recently started working for a city program that uses a private investigator to track down people who lost their homes to redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s and educate them about their rights to getting money. public housing benefits.
“Everyone knows the impact of slavery,” said Majeid Crawford, whose nonprofit New Community Leadership Foundation works with the city to track down former residents. “But we also had our own apartheid that took place in San Francisco through urban renewal.”
As a child, Alicia Walker had to move from San Francisco when her family’s three-story Victorian home in the Fillmore was lost for redevelopment. She completed her education in nearby Half Moon Bay and eventually settled in Sacramento.
Ms Walker, now 63, said she has not paid much attention to the reparations debate but hopes San Francisco will make it easier for former black residents to return.
“My bags are ready to go back to San Francisco because that’s my kids’ childhood and that’s my childhood,” said Ms. Walker, who spent part of her adulthood living in a San Francisco rental where she raised young children. raised.
The reparations task force cited several factors aside from redevelopment that have left black residents behind, from a statewide ban on affirmative action to discriminatory barriers that have led to reduced access to health care. So how does a city compensate them for what has been lost?
Task force members believed the $5 million figure would settle “the decades of damage,” said Eric McDonnell, a management consultant and lifelong San Francisco resident who chairs the panel.
“Our mission was not a feasibility study,” he said. “It was, assess the damage, assign the value.”
What is feasible, however, is the big question. Every member of the Board of Supervisors, which will consider legislation later this year after receiving the task force’s final report, has expressed support for some form of reparations, though not all believe it should be in cash.
Mayor Breed, who would be eligible for reparations as a black resident who grew up in the city, has been noncommittal, saying she would evaluate the task force’s final report. Jeff Cretan, her spokesperson, said the mayor is focused on her Dream Keeper Initiative, a grant program launched in 2020 that he said is “putting money into the African American community right now.” Last month, Ms. Breed said she had no intention of supporting a proposal to spend $50 million on a city recovery office.
The Rev. Amos Brown, who has been leading the Third Baptist Church in Fillmore since 1976, has seen similar discussions emerge in recent decades. Sitting in a conference room at his church, Mr. Brown pointed out the rich history of his neighborhood — Maya Angelou worked in a record store, the Black Panthers handed out books and food — and the many commissions on the decline of Black San Francisco which he has been a part of over the years.
Despite past promises going unfulfilled, he said, he is “very, very cautiously optimistic” that the city will make some form of reparations, even as he fears the idea of $5 million black residents could give false hope.
“Out of all these billionaires in San Francisco, you could create a recovery fund,” he said.
Reparations for black Americans have been discussed since the end of the Civil War. In recent years, the idea gained traction as influential voices called for reparations, and momentum grew during the 2020 racial justice protests following the police killing of George Floyd.
The movement has spread to a number of local governments. Modest programs have been established in Evanston, Illinois, Providence, RI, and Asheville, NC, offering restitution to black residents
In San Francisco, the task force focused particularly on redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s, when authorities declared entire blocks “destroyed” and used eminent domain to buy businesses and homes. The panel called it “the most significant example of how the city and county of San Francisco as an institution played a role in undermining black wealth and actively driving the black population out of the city.”
Ms. Mackey now talks to people who left San Francisco several decades ago to track down housing certificate holders in Hawaii, Alaska and elsewhere. Often, she said, they are still angry about the displacement. Many of the original certificate holders are deceased and their descendants often know nothing of their family’s loss story in San Francisco.
She dreams of a black renewal in her city. Reparations in the form of housing aid may lead some to return, but she knows how challenging that dream is today.
“Almost everyone says the same thing,” she says. “That they can’t afford to live in San Francisco.”