Artist Scott Weaver at Root Division group show in 2009. Photo by Steve Saldivar.

Rising rents have forced the relocation or closure of several nonprofits in recent months, among them: Hyde Street Community Services, Under One Roof, and Root Division. A new initiative from The Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD), together with the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC), aims to slow down this churn.

The new program, which got its final approval from the Board of Supervisors in May, will grant $4.515 million to intermediary nonprofits tasked with helping smaller, struggling organizations. It’s the program’s hope that some injection of cash will help arts groups, as well as social-service organizations, battle the rising cost of operating in San Francisco.

The funds are not intended to be a long-term subsidy for rising rents, though they can be funneled into short-term emergency rent stipends. Instead, SFAC and MOHCD are looking for long-term solutions to an unending problem. The funding period remains unclear and will depend on the grantees’ needs.

The ideal candidate organization is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in good standing that has a strong track record of working with small or mid-size organizations in the arts or social services sectors. The applicant also needs to be an expert in technically managing the space needs of an organization, which can be anything from negotiating the terms of a lease to finding a new way to use the space.

One group thinking of applying is California Lawyers for the Arts, which provided an average of $22,000 in rent assistance grants to 23 organizations in San Francisco in 2001, according to executive director Alma Robinson. Though the month-long window for proposal submissions is shrinking quickly—proposals are due by July 22—Robinson said the time range was reasonable, especially because of the urgency of the need.

“Everybody who’s paying rent is at risk,” Robinson said. “There’s pressure from the city to try to find a reasonable response to this to help nonprofits stay in San Francisco. There’s quite an exodus underway.”

What’s different this time around is that there is funding available for technical assistance to form new strategies for long-term stabilization, Robinson said. That could mean capital campaigns, working with real estate brokers, or co-locating with other organizations.

“That’s an intelligent move,” said Christopher Rolls, the shop manager at Adobe Books and Arts Cooperative. “Rather than funneling money into organizations that are having difficulty to begin with.”

The bookstore-turned-cooperative has had its own troubles with rent increases in the past, but was able to stay in the Mission after a successful fundraising effort. Now, the gallery portion of Adobe is a cooperative funded both by book sale revenues and by grants. Nevertheless, Rolls expressed some skepticism.

“I’m always wary of these sorts of programs,” he said, expressing concern over the grant-giving organization’s potential agenda and biases. “Generally there’s a bait and switch involved somewhere along the way.”

Rolls also indicated that the city might take a look at making the rental environment less hostile by taking on what he called “predatorial capitalism.”

But Michelle Mansour, Root Division’s executive director, says she’s not complaining. Root Division will apply for funds as soon as they are available.

“The city has been as swift as it possibly can be as a government entity to move them along,” Mansour said. “The need is very time sensitive, for us as well as for other groups. It really escalated over the last four to six months.”

For now, the city is searching for ways to save immediately threatened organizations by looking for fresh approaches to both short and long-term solutions.

“We want to cast the widest net possible,” said Anne Trickey, office manager at SFAC. “The city has dealt with these swings in the past, but now we’re seeing a particularly hard situation.”

The goal of the project, drawn up by a working group late last year, is to help 35 as yet unnamed organizations maintain their location in San Francisco.

“In an economy where we’re competing with offers on spaces with companies that have $20 million in venture capital backing, $4.5 million split 35 ways might not seem like that much,” Mansour said, “But we’re extremely resourceful and efficient and have operated on a shoestring in the past and make our dollars stretch pretty far.”

Nonprofits represented at a bidder’s conference last week included the Community Arts Stabilization Trust, the Northern California Community Loan Fund, and the San Francisco Grants for the Arts. Trickey said that while the process has been relatively swift so far, she does not expect funding to be released by September, “No matter how hard we push.” At writing, SFAC had yet to receive a single application.

The application for the funds can be found below:

Nonprofit Displacement RFP by MissionLocal

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