Image of the Galvin Apartments The Galvin Apartments
By Randy Shaw, Executive Director

On October 19, 2006, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic marked the official opening of the Galvin Apartments, a 56-unit apartment building at 785 Brannan named in honor of Sister Bernie Galvin, founder of Religious Witness With Homeless People. The building is unique, since a private developer covered the entire cost of land acquisition, construction and permanent rental subsidies. The Galvin is forever affordable without any public funds, while serving tenants of very low incomes. As non-profit housing groups are being forced to give tenants steep rent increases, and the federal government is abandoning the Section 8 program, one would think that San Francisco city officials would be looking to replicate the Galvin model. But personal and political issues have prevented this.

One of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s guideposts from his candidacy to his tenure as Mayor has been a stated commitment to “Best Practices.” This notion that policies should be determined by their effectiveness, not the surrounding politics, is sound, and gives hope that city officials will finally examine the Galvin Apartments model on its merits.

The Galvin has its origins in a conversation I had with former Residential Builders Association head Joe O’Donoghue back in 2001 (O’Donoghue’s involvement explains why many do not want to praise the project regardless of its success). After being told that the RBA’s Joe Cassidy had an approved 172 unit live-work project at Fourth Street in SOMA that was only 55 feet tall, I asked why Cassidy could not build a higher project in exchange for providing affordable housing (the approved project included zero affordable units).

Cassidy was open to the idea, as he had been compelled by Planning to include an expensive underground parking garage for fans of the San Francisco Giants. A revised project could eliminate this garage, and allow him to save money by building the rest of the parking aboveground.

In exchange for raising the height limit on the site to 85 feet, and gaining an additional 30,000 residential square footage, Cassidy would provide affordable housing in an amount equal to 17% of the total residential square footage of the new project. The project used the same 17% off-site formula required by the city’s inclusionary law, resulting in an affordable project of around 25,000 square feet.

Since Cassidy’s approved project was in District Six, the next step was to run the idea by Supervisor Chris Daly. Daly liked the idea, particularly a plan whereby occupancy in the new project would be limited to former SRO tenants. Daly understood the difficulty these tenants had moving up to apartments, and saw the Galvin as a great opportunity to address this.

Image of the Sister Bernadet Galvin Sister Bernie Glavin

Whereas the RBA’s involvement raised concerns among progressives, Daly’s participation angered the Supervisor’s downtown and corporate opponents. These forces campaigned against Daly in 2002 and now in 2006 on the grounds that he is “anti-business,” and “anti-middle class,” two claims rebutted by the Cassidy agreement.

So even before any public hearings on the proposed Galvin Apartments, enemies of the RBA and Daly were out to either kill the project, or prevent either from claiming that it represented a model for the future. Forget what was good for low-income tenants; the battle was to stop either the RBA or Daly from looking good.

At the Planning Commission hearing on Cassidy’s revised project, the only opponents who were not immediate neighbors were the Carpenters Union, land-use attorney Sue Hestor, and non-profit housing representative Calvin Welch. The Carpenters were angry because the RBA was using the Laborers Union and Operating Engineers instead of the Carpenters; they kept insisting the project was non-union even though the general contractor was Webcor, a 100% union company.

Hestor claimed Cassidy was only revising the project because live-work units were not selling, and that he never intended to build on the site but was “land-banking” for a future sale. As ludicrous as such contentions were at the time, she even convinced the San Francisco Bay Guardian to include Cassidy’s site on a story about projects Planning had approved that were simply sitting vacant. But the trusting reporter did not bother learning that Cassidy’s site was vacant because he did not have permits to build the revised project.

Hestor supports affordable housing, but not if built by the RBA. She later told the Planning Commission that the housing for former SRO tenants would attract “dumpster divers” who would spread trash throughout the neighborhood. Hestor insisted to the Commission “garbage is a conditional use issue.”

Welch had his own axes to grind with the project. Like Hestor, he despised O’Donoghue and the RBA, though that had not stopped him from joining with the group in campaigning for Willie Brown’s re-election in his 1999 race against Tom Ammiano.

Welch views himself as the gatekeeper for affordable housing policy in San Francisco. Damned if he were going to allow a new approach to affordable housing proceed without his sign-off.

Welch disputed that any affordable housing would ever be built in connection to Cassidy’s revised project, and repeatedly referred to the affordable units as “lipstick on a pig.” Welch also insisted that the project was a “run around city law,” by which he meant that rather than be targeted to tenants at 60% of area median, our project wanted to charge rents affordable to those at 40% of area median.

Welch convinced the Planning Commission that our proposed housing was too affordable, and that we should be allowed to rent units to those earning 50% of area median, rather than the 40% we proposed.

When the Galvin Apartments held its public opening on October 19, 2006 rents were at 35% of area median, or $561 per month. Had we not done a “run around” city law, we could have charged $952.00 per month, which is 60% of area median for a studio.

Supervisor Jake McGoldrick is jealous of Daly and hates the RBA, so this project was payback time. McGoldrick claimed Cassidy would build inferior “mongrel” units, and demanded that one and two bedroom units for families be eliminated so that all units were 400 square feet. Rather than continue to fight over the project, we agreed to the change, which prevented larger families from moving into the building.

The Galvin Apartments are located on an alley whose condominiums sell for $500,000 and up. From its high-quality internal finishes to its external construction and design, the Galvin Apartments is at least equal if not superior to its market-rate neighbors. The building was also constructed in less than a year, far faster than any other nonprofit project has ever been built.

Building truly affordable housing with no public subsidies sounds too good to be true. But it happened at the Galvin Apartments, and can be repeated if city officials ignore personal agendas and allow best practices to steer the city’s affordable housing agenda.