Groundbreaking anti-displacement legislation to preserve affordable housing and protect tenants

By Maya Chupkov and Fernando Martí

SF Examiner

A groundbreaking bill that tackles San Francisco’s displacement crisis will be heard at the Budget and Finance Committee of the Board of Supervisors this week. The Community Opportunity to Purchase Act, or COPA, will allow nonprofit housing organizations to buy an apartment building before it goes on the open market, thereby protecting tenants from displacement and preserving their homes as permanently affordable.

The legislation, introduced by Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, is San Francisco’s most recent anti-displacement effort. COPA was unanimously recommended by the Planning Commission, and now has a total of nine supervisors cosponsoring as it goes for board adoption hearings.

The program is similar to Washington D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), a first-right of refusal ordinance. TOPA has resulted in the long-term preservation of dozens of affordable apartment buildings in D.C.

San Franciscans will be able to provide public comment on COPA on Wednesday, April 3 at 10 a.m. in Room 250.

Building on Success of Anti-Displacement Programs

San Francisco’s housing nonprofits have worked hard for decades to preserve The City’s affordable housing stock, including “single-room occupancy” residential hotels as supportive housing for the formerly homeless.

More recently, our nonprofits have implemented a “small sites” acquisition-rehab program, which has resulted in the conversion of nearly two dozen buildings over the last three years into permanent affordable housing. In many of these cases, it saved tenants from pending Ellis Act or Owner Move-In evictions, brought buildings up to life-safety standards, and provided long-term stability for families.

The success of the small sites program was boosted by a 2016 ballot measure for The City to allocate bond funds toward these acquisitions, and then the establishment of a privately-funded Housing Accelerator Fund, which provides “rapid response” loans for acquisitions.

Why COPA, Why Now?

COPA will not only protect existing affordable housing stock in San Francisco, but more critically, the working families, children and seniors who are most vulnerable to displacement.

“If COPA gets passed, it will be really important for families here,” said Alexa Drapiza, a resident of a South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco whose building was recently put up for sale. “There has been constant stress among tenants in our building. The fear of eviction is exhausting.”

The tenants in Drapiza’s building have been working with the South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN) as a resource for tenant counseling and emotional support.

Sometimes tenants experience harassment or are moved out for major upgrades to buildings and often don’t return. Speculators can flip these units for extraordinary profits at new market-rate rents, or convert them into condominiums or illegal short-term rentals.

Drapiza explained that in the last few months since her building was up for sale, she experienced harassment and threats from the former building manager and potential buyers. “They really tried to scare you and show up at your door last minute. I am grateful for SOMCAN because they helped me and my neighbors understand our rights and recognize when actions are illegal.”

Community-based nonprofit organizations have no clear pathway to buy these rental buildings so that existing residents can stay in their homes, even if they have the funding means to match the seller’s price. COPA will level the playing field by allowing nonprofits to adequately compete for buildings when they are put up for sale.

“Recent events highlight the need for COPA legislation to enable non-profits to be on equal terms to speculators,” says Keith Cooley, interim organizational director of San Francisco Community Land Trust (SFCLT). “Sellers find cash offers from speculators very appealing because closing can occur relatively quickly.”

SFCLT recently came across a six-unit building occupied by senior households. Five were African American families who had lived in the building and their neighborhood for more than 25 years. At the first asking price, there were no takers. The sellers then lowered the price and a buyer swooped in with a cash offer. If SFCLT had the right to match offers after expressing interest as COPA will provide, they are confident they could have acquired this building.

“I want to raise my kids here and I want to live here,” said Drapiza. “Families want to be able to thrive and have kids here, and still be able to afford rent.”

COPA comes at a perfect time, with the recent allocation of the surplus property tax revenues going towards purchasing and preserving small apartment buildings, and with the housing bond up this November, which will provide an infusion of funding for these types of acquisitions.

Passing COPA is the next big step in a comprehensive community stabilization and affordable housing strategy, one that begins with addressing people where they are at: in their homes.

Maya Chupkov