The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, is trying to fight State Sen. Scott Wiener’s transit-development legislation Senate Bill 50 with a campaign that compares his zoning plan, which would allow four- and five-story buildings to rise near some train and bus stations, to racist urban renewal schemes. The foundation warns that, if passed, the proposal could gentrify San Francisco and drive out communities of color.
AHF mailed inflammatory flyers to California residents decrying the bill last week and ran similar television ads, provoking criticism from Wiener and from black community leaders at a Monday press conference. The senator called the rhetoric “offensive” and “full of lies.”
The mailer features images of 20th century writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin and several Baldwin quotes lamenting “urban renewal” schemes from the 1940s through the 1970s that resulted in the destruction of the Fillmore neighborhood and displaced San Francisco’s black cultural center.
“Urban renewal means Negro removal” read the flyers, continuing, “San Francisco is engaging in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out.”
The quotes come from Baldwin’s comments in a 1963 TV interview:
A boy last week, he was 16 in San Francisco, told me on television, he said, I got no country, I got no flag. And couldn’t say you do. I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does.
They were tearing down his house because San Francisco is engaged, as most cities are engaged, in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out. It means Negro removal, that is what it means, and the federal government is an accomplice to this act.
We’re talking about human beings, not such a thing as a monolithic wall or an abstraction called the Negro Problem, we’re talking about human beings, Negro boys and girls who at 16 or 17 don't believe that the country means anything that it says and believe they have no place here on the basis of the performance of the entire country.
The flyers declare “SB 50 is a handout to greedy developers” designed to “displace working class communities of color” and “build luxury towers without adequate affordable housing.”
The mailer also misspells Wiener’s name several times.
Despite criticism of the campaign, AHF CEO Michael Weinstein stood by it when ABC 7 reporter Kate Larsen, who received one of the mailers at her home, questioned it.
“The truth may hurt, but the reality is that San Francisco has become a place that only rich, and mostly white people, can live in,” said Weinstein.
At a press conference for a separate rent-control proposal this morning, Weinstein continued to defend the flyer, saying, “As far as the mailer goes, Senator Wiener is trying to change the subject. He doesn’t really want to talk about what the impact of SB 50 will be, specifically.”
“We stand by the mailer 100 percent,” he added.
According to estimates from the U.S. Census, the number of people living in San Francisco who identify as black has declined since the 2010 census, from 55,927 to 55,436. However, other populations of non-white people have increased and the percentage of white residents as a portion of the overall population has declined.
This isn’t the first housing proposal AHF has tried to quell. In 2017, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation was the primary financial backer of Measure S, a defeated effort to block real estate development projects in Los Angeles.
The Coalition to Preserve LA, another SoCal non-profit that has teamed up with AHF in the past on political issues (like suing the city of LA in 2018), has launched similar volleys against the bill in recent weeks.
A Preserve LA campaign refers to SB 50 as a “demolition derby” and to the zoning areas affected by bill as “demolition zones.”
“Will California Bill SB 50 wipe out your neighborhood?” the Preserve LA site asks, alleging that the bill “rewards developers to buy and demolish single-family housing and apartments near rail, train, ferry, or busy bus stops AND near jobs and good schools.”
At Monday’s press conference, Wiener called the broadside “a despicable act to try to take advantage of a horrific tragedy that happened here in San Francisco.”
Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco NAACP, declared, “We don’t need anyone to pimp African American’s pain for petty political gain,” calling the ads insulting.
Jackie Flynn, director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, said, “We resent these tactics that use our black faces and our history to manipulate the truth,” adding, “I encourage my community members to stay vigilant during these shady times.”
Other prominent San Francisco figures, like Mayor London Breed and former Mayor Willie Brown, have also criticized AHF in recent days.
SB 50 is set for its second big committee hearing this week. The bill would sharply limit the kinds of zoning restrictions that cities can place in neighborhoods within a quarter mile to half a mile of major transit hubs like bus lines and ferry terminals, encouraging taller buildings and denser housing near transit and places of employment.
SB 50 has endorsements from the mayors of several Bay Area mayors, including San Francisco’s, but the SF Board of Supervisors (on which Wiener previously served) voted to decry the bill in a 9-2 vote in March.
After Monday’s press conference AHF Board Vice Chair Cynthia Davis boosted the group’s campaign once again, arguing via email that it was meant to highlight the historical trend of “code words used to hide the fact that gentrification and displacement are devastating communities of color.”