For ten years, Rosana Alonzo has lived in the Tenderloin, where she shares an apartment with her mother and two children. That’s long enough for her. “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but it’s not the safest place of the world,” said the 43-year old childcare worker. A few years back, she looked into buying a home, but discovered that ownership would mean leaving San Francisco.

“But I don’t have a car, I don’t drive,” Alonzo said. “I live here. I work here. My children go to school here.” She gave up on her home search and stayed put.

On a recent Saturday, city nonprofits and lenders told her and other low-income San Franciscans that there may be a way to own a home and stay in the city.

“Too many people don’t make the effort” to check their options, said Wayne Kuschel, a mortgage consultant who tended Citibank’s table at the San Francisco Homeownership Fair held in the conference hall of St. Mary’s Cathedral.

As his colleagues, all dressed in red polo shirts, handed out brochures, Kuschel explained that the city’s assistance programs for home buyers “can fill the gap of what people don’t have.”

What Alonzo has is $30,000 a year. On the website of the Mayor’s Office of Housing, she can find a listing of homeownership units available to low-income families like hers. The prices are low, but finding one she can afford will still be a challenge.

For instance, the list includes a new two-bedroom condominium in the Mission District for $181,089. With good credit, Alonzo could apply for a 30-year loan from the California Housing Finance Agency. But monthly dues to the condominium association plus payments on her loan would come to just under $2,000 a month, or 80 percent of her income. Affordable housing costs no more than 30 percent of income, according to the federal government. 

Still, those at the one-day conference were upbeat.

Al Rodriguez, manning the Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals booth nearby, has used a combination of assistance programs to make San Francisco property affordable. “I got a stewardess into a condominium,” Rodriguez said, beaming. “She made $48,000 a year, and we got her into a $450,000 condominium.”

To do that, Rodriguez scraped together four forms of aid, including the city’s Downpayment Assistance Loan Program. The program, only available to low-income first-time home buyers who have been approved by a mortgage lender, provides subsidies on up to 30 percent of the home price. The subsidy or loan is deferred for 40 years at zero interest. It must be repaid at the end of 40 years or when the real estate is resold. If repaid at the time of a sale, the owner also pays a portion of the house or condominium’s appreciated value.

Rodriguez spent three months scouting for other loans for the hopeful home buyer to use. She was approved for a mortgage loan from Wells Fargo, and received a loan for low-income home buyers from the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco that is similar to the city’s assistance program. Finally, she applied for a Mortgage Credit Certificate, a federal tax relief program to help first-time home buyers. In the end, the stewardess wound up paying on just 60 percent of the home.

As Rodriguez and others told such encouraging stories, enthusiasm spread inside the conference hall. Lenders blew soap bubbles in the air to attract onlookers to their tables. Residents looked over banking brochures, ate hot papusas and stuffed their complimentary fabric bags with free pens, candy, and information on the city’s affordable-housing lottery.

The fair has expanded each year since its inception in the Mission District four years ago, according to Jane Duong of the Mission Economic Development Agency, which organized the event. It began when Duong and others found that many of the city’s programs were underused by Latinos and African Americans.

Myrna Melger from the Mayor’s Office of Housing said that four years ago almost all down payment assistance loans went to Asian and white borrowers. “Today, 60 percent are to African Americans and 19 percent to Latinos.”

Melger attributed the change to the city’s bolstered outreach efforts.

After attending two workshops, Rosana Alonzo, the Tenderloin resident, began to reconsider her options. After learning about the city’s lottery program for affordable condominiums, she signed up for a class to begin the application process. “I think I would like to live in the Mission District,” she said. “They speak Spanish, I know most of it, and they have good transportation.”

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Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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