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City program saves eight units of affordable housing and El Rio bar

Thanks to the little-known but wildly important Small Sites Program

A close up of a black logo reading “El Rio” and a polished piece of wood.
El Rio logo on shuffleboard table.
Photo courtesy of El Rio

The 41-year-old Mission bar-slash-music venue El Rio, a Latino/LGBTQ mainstay, almost closed this summer until the city’s Small Sites Program stepped in to purchase the glorious dive and the adjoining residential units above it.

The Small Sites Program helps San Franciscans avoid displacement or eviction by removing rent-controlled properties from the speculative market and turning them into permanent affordable housing. In this instance, however, the program saved homes and a beloved watering hole.

“A few months ago, we had to face the possibility that El Rio wouldn’t exist anymore,” owner Dawn Huston told the San Francisco Chronicle, who first reported the story. “I can’t express enough just how immensely grateful we are.”

With an $8.6 million loan from the San Francisco Housing Accelerator Fund—which preserves and invests in affordable housing for economic-disadvantaged residents—the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) purchased the properties at 3156-3158 Mission. The two buildings include eight apartments that rent to low- to moderate-income households.

After roughly $800,000 of upgrades and repairs to the properties, which will include seismic retrofitting, updating electrical and building systems, and exterior renovations, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development will grant MEDA financing for the building next December.

While keeping the current tenants safe was the main focus of the buying the property, giving El Rio another shot at life was an added bonus, especially in a city rife with gay bars getting replaced by homogenous craft cocktail lounges. As SFist points out, the recent losses of queer establishments like Lexington Club, Truck, and the city’s oldest gay bar Gangway show how quickly the once-thriving scene has eroded.

“The fact that this acquisition also comes with the preservation of El Rio, which is an incredible part of our City’s LGBTQ and Latino nightlife, makes it even more special,” said Mayor London Breed in a written statement.

Through the city’s acquisition programs, 34 buildings consisting of 278 units have been acquired, and another 12 buildings with 110 total units are in the pipeline. According to the Mayor’s Office, “Over $83 million of city funds have been committed for acquisition and preservation programs,” with over 500 households saved to date.