Tuesday, March 22, 2005

A Failed Generational Leadership Transition

Mission Housing Development Corporation (MHDC) and Valencia Gardens

Eric Quezada, formerly of MHDC resident services,
speaks to "Save Mission Housing" press conference, March 21, 2005

On March 21, 2005, the new Valencia Gardens housing complex in San Francisco had its official groundbreaking. Anyone who has seen the site knows that foundations have been going in for weeks, but this was the day for the dignitaries to show themselves in this rough neighborhood. Valencia Garden’s 248 sub-standard low-income units are about to be replaced with 260 new low-income apartments, thanks to the unique partnership between a locally-based, non-profit developer Mission Housing Development Corporation (MHDC) and the Valencia Gardens Resident’s Council. Unlike many federally funded "improvements" to aging public housing that amount to schemes to remove poor people, this development partnership means that the folks who lived in the decayed old project will get first chance at coming back to new homes.

This seems like a happy story and we can hope that it will continue to be. But as was reported by the San Francisco Bay Guardian of March 8, 2005, "about a year ago, the nonprofit Mission Housing Development Corp. … abruptly decided to shift its basic mission and focus. Instead of concentrating on building permanently affordable housing for low-income people, the board of directors decided, the MHDC would start looking into joint ventures with for-profit developers and looking toward building higher-end housing for people who could afford to buy their own homes."

Over the last year, two thirds of the MHDC staff have been fired or quit. According to former workers who are represented by SEIU Local 790, the MHDC Board "has also eliminated services at almost all MHDC family buildings, systematically dismantling the community-empowerment services model for which MHDC was respected. They have squandered community resources on P.R. consultants, attorney fees, and management perks. They have engaged in aggressive anti-labor practices including outsourcing union jobs to consultants and temps, hiring private investigators to interrogate staff, and creating a hostile work-environment by harassing staff with guards."

Former staff and North Mission community members fear that the MHDC Board may not deliver the services promised to the residents of Valencia Gardens.

What happened to MHDC? I believe that MHDC fell victim to a failed generational transition of a sort that is afflicting many contemporary non-profit community organizations.

Back in the early 70s there were in the Mission many brave Chicano and other Latino guys (and some less visible Chicanas and Latinas too) who had had enough of being treated as brown working scum by the white establishment of San Francisco. They organized; they protested police brutality; they founded community organizations. MHDC was one of those organizations. Because it was how such things were done and because it was how you got grants, both from private foundations and sometimes the government, their community organization took the form of a non-profit; they needed a board, so the founders were the board.

Time went on and the pioneer founders turned out to be successful people who had a lot of skills that enabled them to make a success of themselves in business and government. Many of them stopped living in the Mission; they'd made it against great odds -- why shouldn't they raise their families in a nice suburb? Meanwhile the organization they had founded prospered and began to be run day to day by professional staff who had the expertise to jump the financial hoops necessary to create low-income housing in the 'hood -- but who also were starting out in life, often lived in the Mission and had a vision of empowering the diverse residents.

But the MHDC organizational structure, the primitive non-profit, had never evolved with the organization. The same good old boys were still the Board. And they thought of MHDC as their show, though they no longer worked there. And when politics in San Francisco pushed them out of the center of the action with a change of mayors, it seemed just and normal to them that they should go back to running "their" organization. There was a lot of money floating around in the housing development world; without necessarily being venal, they couldn't see why after their years of "service to the community" (after being pioneers) they shouldn't get a piece of the action, or at least a well-paid consultant's job. They also saw nothing wrong with moving the mission of MHDC toward building housing that would become privately owned; after all, wasn't that what they'd done when they succeeded in the US?

Meanwhile the professional MHDC staff responded to organizational growth by unionizing. And they began to agitate for term limits on the Board and resident representation in organizational governance. The Board looked on these demands as an attempted coup in "their" organization -- and began to get rid of the "troublemakers." The funders, including the City of San Francisco, looked at the turmoil at MHDC and turned off the taps. And now the wonderful new Valencia Gardens may be something of an orphan in a neighborhood rapidly gentrifying but without one of the historic pillars of community leadership.

The Board at MHDC are (like this blogger) Boomers. As insurgent youth, they broke new ground for their communities by fighting for civil rights and community empowerment. They are proud that they pried open opportunities that their families had never had before. They easily delude themselves that they are still those insurgent youths. And they have no model for gracefully allowing those who come after them to take over leadership. Insofar as their models would have been older US radicals, they followed no models, because McCarthyism had ensured that there was no visible older radical generation. And insofar as their models were immigrants, the dynamism of contemporary US society tore them away from their parents' ways as they seized a new space for themselves in the new country.

We Boomers have to give up the pretense of youth and let new generations lead. We're done as leaders, though we still know things that can be very useful to those who follow. MHDC is not at all unusual in foundering on the rock of generational transition, far too many community organizations have similar troubles. How do we make this necessary process go more smoothly?

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