When you walked into Centro Del Pueblo and heard the sound of a Latino man playing his acoustic guitar, smelled the scent of quesadillas in the air, and overheard a sentence spoken in two languages, you might have thought — and may even hoped — that the historically Latino Mission Street would never change.
But then you discovered why more than 70 community membered gathered at the center Tuesday night: to discuss the effects of luxury housing units on Mission Street.
At present, the largest completed project is Vida at 22nd and Mission Street, but others include 1825 Mission St. and Vara at 15th and Mission streets. Moreover, as many as a half a dozen market-rate projects have been proposed, including one with more than 300 units at 16th and Mission.
This was the first meeting hosted by a coalition of activist groups called United to Save The Mission at 475 Valencia St. to get concerned community members organized to build a plan to save Mission Street, said Carlos Bocanegra, a lawyer at the legal nonprofit La Raza Centro Legal.
“The way to get things done in politics — if you don’t have money — is through numbers,” Bocanegra said.
As people trickled into their seats at seven folding tables across the auditorium, they picked up plate of quesadillas, nachos, dip and cake.
Activist Francisco Herrera did his best to make the mixed crowd of English-only, Spanish-only and bilingual speakers feel welcome. He brought out his guitar and played a tune.
“Organize, my brother, organize, my sister. If we organize, we can change the world,” he sang first in Spanish and then in English. Eventually, he got the crowd to sing in unison.
When choir time was over, Bocanegra began a presentation outlining some of the problems facing the community — including frustrations over red bus lanes on Mission Street and a general sense of displacement felt by the Mission’s Latino residents.
He cited a 2015 Budget and Legislative Analyst study presented by then-Supervisor David Campos, which showed that the Mission expects its Latino population to decrease from 48 percent in 2015 to 31 percent in 2025.
Bocanegra said part of the reason for that population decline is the loss of affordable businesses. He offered the example of the Dollar Store at 2100 Mission St., which is facing possible demolition to build 29 units of housing.
“For years, [the Dollar Store] provided crucial necessities for families at prices they could afford,” Bocanegra said.
Bocanegra said 85 percent of those 29 units would be luxury housing with a price tag out of the Latino community’s reach. “If we don’t do something, the community we know now will be completely unrecognizable,” he said.
While Bocanegra was lecturing, his girlfriend, Sandra Becerra, a paralegal, was translating to the Spanish-only speakers through a wireless device that goes into the listener’s ears like headphones.
When asked about the difficulty of translating words so quickly, Becerra says “what’s challenging is explaining legal terms related to housing.”
Becerra joined La Raza legal center after the election, and specializes in aiding Latino residents with legal and immigration services.
After Bocanegra’s lecture ended, the community’s work began.
English-only and bilingual speakers were told to stay at each of their six tables while the six Spanish-only speakers in attendance were moved to their own table to freely speak in their native language.
Facilitators at the seven different tables wrote down people’s general thoughts and ideas about the Mission — cost-of-living-related or otherwise — on large sheets of paper, which Bocanegra said will be collected and built on at the next meeting.
The comments ranged from “too many fancy coffee shops” to a request for more murals and, finally, a desire for people of color not to feel like outsiders in their own community.
At the Spanish-speaking table, six older men and women were much quieter than the other groups. One man said he thinks there’s “too many crazy kids” at the park. Another woman complained about the city’s upkeep of park restrooms.
Melina Sandoval was worried about rent — hers increased by $400 this year.
Sandoval, a Spanish-only speaker, immigrated to San Francisco from Nicaragua in 1990 and has never left. She said her rent has never been raised like the rent of so many others, so she can understand the landlord’s point of view. Still, her only income comes from taking care of kids, and she says she simply can’t afford any rent spike.
After about an hour of working in groups, Bocanegra called on each facilitator to present their findings to all the groups.
One facilitator from table five said he envisions a ground-floor restaurant where Latino people hang out, and the floors above are filled with Latino residents.
The facilitator from table one, Luis Avalos, said he’s tired of all the expensive coffee shops in the Mission.
“I don’t care if it’s artisan; I want ethnic,” Avalos said.
At 8 p.m. after many attendees had trickled out, table three was the last to present its findings. The facilitator from that group, a young man, ended his impassioned presentation by saying “and if we need to, we sue the city.”
Before the meeting was adjourned, Bocanegra said he will aggregate all of the information collected and build on it at the next meeting on Tuesday Nov. 7, at the same venue.
To be sure that people actually come back, Herrera brought out the guitar again and started a final rally cry. This one everyone knew.
“Si se puede, si se puede, si se puede,” the crowd chanted.
One woman leaving the auditorium said, “you gotta love that guy.”
This story has been corrected to reflect a more accurate descriptions about the organizers of the event, the demographic study cited, and the number of attendees.