SAN FRANCISCO: People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights (PODER)

San Francisco’s Mission District is the heart of the city’s working-class Latinx community. In the northeast area of the Mission, land use planning policies have prioritized expensive condominium and retail spaces, often pushing out longtime residents and the small locally owned stores that provide income to neighborhood residents. This contributes to ongoing gentrification in San Francisco by raising the cost of living and pricing out low-income families and renters.

The Excelsior District in southeast San Francisco is a diverse and growing community that is predominantly working-class people of color. The area is also home to the city’s two major freeways. In San Francisco, 88 percent of the people living near the freeways are people of color and the Excelsior has had the highest overall number of people hospitalized for asthma for six years in a row. It has been historically neglected and underrepresented in City Hall.

People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights (PODER) envisions a community where everyday people are the planners of their own neighborhoods. PODER and local residents have been organizing to reclaim public lands for neighborhood assets such as parks and open space, affordable housing, urban agriculture, and worker/community cooperatives. PODER believes in equitable development that is accessible and affordable for everyone regardless of immigration status, is protective of public health and the environment, and includes community-based governance and stewardship.

Equitable Development and Affordable Housing

PODER is creating new people-powered equitable development opportunities in both the Mission and Excelsior districts by organizing against displacement and working with the city to identify public and private sites for affordable housing development.

In August 2016, PODER released Better Neighborhoods, Same Neighbors, the results of a community mapping effort in San Francisco’s District 11 that identified appropriate sites for investments and equitable community development. The report highlights potential locations for affordable housing, community-serving businesses and social enterprises, open public space, and spaces for nonprofit and community-based organizations. Since then, an Action Team composed of more than 20 neighborhood residents convenes regularly to strengthen their organizing skills, monitor development, and advocate for community priorities based on the mapping effort.

PODER has also partnered with nonprofit affordable housing developers to ensure the development of affordable housing in the neighborhoods they organize. In 2016, PODER organized with a developer to secure the permits for two 100 percent affordable housing projects in the Mission: a 94-unit building for seniors and a 127-unit family housing building. Through various Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors hearings, several dozen residents and allies mobilized to support the projects. By the spring of 2017, permits for both projects were approved.

In addition, PODER has also joined forces with other local community-based organizations through the Communities United for Health and Justice (CUHJ) alliance. CUHJ is moving forward a mixed-use affordable housing development in the Excelsior at the Balboa Park BART Station Upper Yard. Instead of relying on a developer to lead the design process, CUHJ has engaged more than 300 community members in face-to-face community surveys to determine priorities around affordability, community-based development, public space, healthy development, and community-based decision-making and self-governance.

Parks and Farms for the People

The people-powered vision in the Excelsior District has centered on equitable development of two sites: an urban farm in the local Crocker Amazon Park, and a mixed-use affordable housing development. PODER’s Urban Campesinxs program engages local residents to develop a farm design that maximizes green space and local food production.

Chan Kaajal Park (Mayan for “my little town”) opened with a community celebration in June 2017. The Mission and the Tenderloin neighborhoods have the highest number of Mayans from the Mexican state of Yucatán outside of Mexico. PODER organized to rezone this city-owned land 15 years ago from a parking lot to open green space and engaged residents in the park design and naming process. Built at a cost of $5.2 million, it is the first new park to open in San Francisco in 10 years. PODER youth leaders are stewarding the garden at the park with weekly volunteer days.

Community-Owned Resources

For PODER, building neighborhood assets and fostering equitable development also includes creating innovative, community-based models for meeting economic needs that simultaneously build networks of support. In addition to the Upper Yard development, PODER and other neighborhood partners have also created a culturally responsive and linguistically appropriate workforce hub in the neighborhood that provides employment, housing, and legal services to more than 200 mostly Chinese and Latino immigrant residents in the neighborhood. In addition, a community-based steering committee provides strategic oversight to ensure that the values of the center remain community focused and to support its long-term sustainability.

The organization has launched a political education and leadership development series on community and worker-owned cooperatives and is supporting youth-led social enterprises. One example is the Bicis del Pueblo initiative, which fosters resiliency by providing low-income youth and families in the Mission and Excelsior districts with the knowledge, skills, and resources to incorporate bicycling into their daily lives. In December 2016, PODER secured new space for the program in Bayview-Hunters Point, a historically African American neighborhood with a growing number of Latinx and Asian immigrants.

PODER’s Green Zone efforts counter the gentrification pressures in San Francisco impacting the Mission and Excelsior neighborhoods by fostering people-powered equitable development that benefits local residents and nurtures a healthy local living economy. They show that with sustained organizing, policy wins can lead to tangible benefits on the ground.

People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights organizes Latino immigrant families to address environmental injustices and implement solutions to achieve healthy, sustainable communities. PODER works in San Francisco’s Mission and Excelsior districts on community-based campaigns and projects in collaboration with neighborhood-based organizations, government agencies, and academic institutions to achieve change.