Can Reparations Carry Black Residents Again to San Francisco?

SAN FRANCISCO — Lynette Mackey stood on the steps of her childhood home — a sleek but stately Victorian house shaded by an evergreen pear tree — and evoked a photo of a family reunion from nearly 50 years ago. The men wore suits and the women wore skirts. Ms. Mackey, a teenager in red bell bottoms, stretched her arms wide and smiled brightly.

Soon after, in the 1960s and 1970s, Ms. Mackey watched the slow erasure of black culture from the Fillmore District, once hailed as the “Harlem of the West.” The jazz clubs that drew artists like Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington disappeared, and so did the soul food restaurants.

By the mid-1970s, many of her friends had also disappeared, driven out by city officials who were confiscating homes in the name of so-called “urban renewal.” Then her family eventually lost the house she bought in the 1940s after migrating from Texas. In many cases the old Victorian houses were demolished and replaced by housing projects, but the town kept the stock of Mrs Mackey’s house and has since been converted into government subsidized housing.

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 impacted their economic opportunities. Cities across the country are considering similar refunds, but none have been as ambitious as San Francisco, whose 15-person task force issued 111 recommendations in a preliminary report to city leaders.

To close the racial wealth gap that has long been a central argument for redress, the task force has declared a moonshot: a one-time payment of $5 million to all beneficiaries. By comparison, the California State’s Reparations Task Force has recommended a staggering rate that’s around $1.2 million for older black residents.

The amount of cash has made headlines but is widely considered unrealistic in a city facing mounting budgetary problems and a lack of political consensus on the issue. The $5 million payments could exceed $100 billion — multiples of San Francisco’s annual budget of $14 billion — and London Breed, the city’s mayor, has not committed to any cash compensation.

Ms. Mackey, 63, who stayed in the city, is working on a more likely way to incentivize other former black residents and their descendants to return to San Francisco. One idea is for the city to give them housing grants, access to affordable housing, and relocation grants.

San Francisco’s black population has shrunk from 13 percent in 1970 to about 5 percent today, due first to cycles of redevelopment and then to the gentrifying forces of tech employers. Black residents were pushed into remote Bay Area suburbs with cheaper housing and long commutes, if not into other cities and states.

When thousands of black migrants arrived to work the shipyards in the 1940s, housing conditions confined them to either the Fillmore District or Bayview-Hunters Point, a blustery southeast corner of San Francisco. The center of black cultural life in Fillmore no longer exists and today most of San Francisco’s black population resides in Bayview-Hunters Point. But even in that neighborhood, about 30 percent are black today, compared to more than 75 percent in 1980.

“There aren’t too many people who were born here and are still here,” said Oscar James, 77, who has lived in Bayview-Hunters Point all his life and bought a house in 1978. “Many people have either died or been moved away.”

When the city confiscated homes in Fillmore, it issued certificates to families that enabled them to move into public housing. Since then, the documents “have not been prosecuted and have rarely been recognized,” the Reparations Task Force wrote. The story of the black expulsion was the subject of the 2019 film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, in which the main character mourns the loss of his family’s Victorian home.

Ms Mackey, who now rents a subsidized apartment at the Fillmore, recently joined a city program that uses a private investigator to track down people who lost their homes to redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s and advise them of their housing rights elucidate social benefits for housing.

“Everyone knows the effects of slavery,” said Majeid Crawford, whose nonprofit New Community Leadership Foundation works with the city to locate former residents. “But we also had our own apartheid, which took place in San Francisco through urban renewal.”

Aliciea Walker was forced to leave San Francisco as a child when her family’s three-story Victorian building at the Fillmore was lost to redevelopment. She finished her schooling in nearby Half Moon Bay and eventually settled in Sacramento.

Walker, now 63, said she hadn’t paid much attention to the reparations debate but hoped San Francisco would make it easier for former black residents to return.

“My bags are ready to go back to San Francisco because this is my children’s childhood and this is my childhood,” said Ms. Walker, who lived part of her adulthood in a San Francisco rental apartment where she raised young children.

Beyond the remediation effort, the reparations task force cited several factors that have left black residents behind, from a statewide ban on affirmative action to discriminatory barriers that have led to poorer access to health care. So how can a city compensate them for the loss?

Task force members believed the $5 million would “fix decades of damage,” said Eric McDonnell, a management consultant and longtime San Francisco resident who chairs the panel.

“Our mission was not a proof of concept,” he said. “It was about assessing the damage and assigning the value.”

The big question, however, is what is feasible. Each member of the oversight panel who will deliberate on the legislation later this year after receiving the task force’s final report has expressed support for some form of redress, although not all are convinced it must come in the form of cash payments .

Mayor Breed, who would be entitled to redress as a black resident who grew up in the city, was noncommittal and said she would evaluate the task force’s final report. Jeff Cretan, her spokesman, said the mayor is focused on her Dream Keeper initiative, a grant program launched in 2020 that he says is “making money available to the African American community right now.” Last month, Ms Breed said she has no plans to support a proposal to spend $50 million on a city reparations office.

Rev. Amos Brown, who has led the Third Baptist Church at Fillmore since 1976, has faced similar discussions over the decades. Sitting in a conference room at his church, Mr Brown referenced the rich history of his neighborhood — Maya Angelou worked in a record store, the Black Panthers distributed books and food — and the many commissions to black San Francisco’s demise he’s been a part of over the years of that.

Though previous promises have not been kept, he said he is “very, very cautiously optimistic” that the city will make some form of redress, though he fears the $5 million idea will give black residents false hope could.

“You could set up a reparations fund from all these billionaires in San Francisco,” 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 spoke out in favor of redress, and momentum picked up 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 offering compensation to black residents have been established in Evanston, Illinois, Providence, Rhode Island, and Asheville, NC

In San Francisco, the task force focused particularly on redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s, when authorities declared entire city blocks “derelict” and used significant tracts of land for business and home purchases. The panel called it the “most significant example of how the city and county of San Francisco as an institution has helped erode black wealth and actively displace the city’s black population.”

Ms. Mackey is now speaking to people who left San Francisco several decades ago to track down housing certificate holders in Hawaii, Alaska and elsewhere. Often they are still angry about the eviction, she said. Many of the original certificate holders have died, and their descendants are often unaware of their family’s history of loss in San Francisco.

She dreams of a black renewal in her city. Housing reparations may persuade some to return, but she knows how difficult that dream is today.

“Almost everyone says the same thing,” she said. “That they can’t afford to live in San Francisco.”

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