Government isn’t moving fast enough on building housing, say developers Joe and Joey Toboni, so the father and son with two market rate projects in the Mission and Mission roots, are taking matters into their own hands.
“What the public and especially the less fortunate would consider to be the government’s role in helping people in need is not happening. It’s just not happening,” the elder Toboni said.
The plan is to start a nonprofit collective of developers to focus on affordable housing production. The younger Toboni says they have an edge.
“When you come from a business background, you’re forced into getting things done expeditiously,” said Joey Toboni.
Over the next few years the father and son, who own the Toboni Group, will take all of the apartments they are currently building as part of larger projects designated as affordable – about 35 units – and sell them at below market rates instead of renting them at a below market rate. The family company has two projects in the Mission – one, completed, at 17th and South Van Ness and another, in progress, at 19th and South Van Ness.
Toboni anticipates that the money from those sales will seed a nonprofit to build affordable housing. At around the $20 million mark, Toboni and his son Joey will start looking for matching funds from the tech industry and other developers.
At around $35 or $40 million, Toboni expects to be able to go forward with projects.
Toboni floated this plan publicly at a recent hearing where a project his building at 19th Street and South Van Ness Avenue won approval.
It’s his second project within two blocks. His company recently completed 27 units at 17th Street and South Van Ness Avenue – 23 market rate, four affordable.
These two projects mark a sort of return home. Toboni’s family once lived in the Mission, he still maintains ties there despite now living in St. Francis Wood. Returning to the neighborhood to build housing gave him and his wife a bit of a laugh – but also some trepidation.
“We actually chuckled about how we ended up in the Mission again,” said Toboni, 65. And then they didn’t.
“We go into these meetings and we just get everyone yelling at us and they hate us,” they thought. “Is this what we want?”
The criticism against building market-rate, Toboni and his son Joey say, is off the mark.
“Builders get a bad rap,” the younger Toboni said. “More inventory is not creating the housing crisis.”
Before the success that allowed him to get involved in charity, Toboni tried several careers – running a deli, construction work and then renovation and contracting work. Next came the acquisition of small properties – cheap in those days – and from there, he started exploring renovation and building projects.
“Everything was just tight, and I was lucky because I had a spouse working…she was able to really support the household while I took a few chances,” he said of his wife Mary.
His father’s story has left a lasting impression on the younger Toboni.
“This is a guy who came up from nothing, with a single mother who was leveraged to the brink as a 35-year-old but still decided to choose what he thought was right instead of maximizing income which is definitely not the case with a lot of these out-of-town developers,” he said.
As it turns out, nonprofit housing will not be a new market. Toboni’s first project in 1989 was a 42-unit Section 8 housing for seniors built in the Excelsior.
“This project did not have a positive cash flow for 17 years,” Toboni noted.
Since then, Toboni has worked mostly on smaller developments – single-family homes and a few multi-unit buildings on Lombard Street, Capp Street and South Van Ness Avenue. He’s used those projects to build a network of contractors who stay with him.
“You go into a deal with Joe, first and foremost, he’s a businessman. He’s a shrewd businessman. But he is caring, and what he wants to do is also make sure that you’re successful in your endeavor on the project,” said Jeff Flood, a concrete contractor who has taken on jobs for Toboni going on 20 years now.
For Flood, what comes through in conversations with Toboni are his humble beginnings, not his current status. When the two get together, they talk shop. Then, they talk baseball.
After dropping off fire relief donations at Toboni’s Sacramento Street office one October weekend – Toboni was going to drive them up to the affected areas that day – Flood said he found Toboni sitting with the contractor’s son and coaching him on technique.
“He’s sitting there, telling him how you can work on a circle change, you know, ‘this is how you change your grip, this is your release point,’” he remembered.
Finding contractors who have long worked for Toboni is not difficult.
Javier Ramirez, a tile and stone contractor has worked with Toboni for around 19 years. “Pretty much when he starts working with somebody, he likes to keep that person steady. It’s like being a long-term job.”
The relationships have given him an informal team of advisers.
“He’s a real gentleman, a good listener,” said Steve Vettel, a prolific local land use attorney. “He takes advice from the people he works with – his architect, attorneys and other folks, and is willing to incorporate recommendations and advice and modify projects and improve projects.”
Now, Toboni hopes, these relationships will help him mount a large-scale response to the displacement pressures that bring neighbors out to oppose him at meetings.
“We’ve always felt that we’ve had a role to help the less fortunate,” he said. “I think this world would be better off with more compassion, empathy.”
Though he now lives in St. Francis Wood, Toboni’s Mission roots stretch back to 1906. The earthquake destroyed their North Beach homes and the family, along with other Italian families, moved to the Mission.
His aunts and uncles grew up in the neighborhood, with one even rising to posthumous fame – Frank Campbell, a family friend whom Toboni knew as an uncle, was killed in a boxing match in the Mission.
Toboni’s mother raised him on her own, and later on his father-in-law, Mike Driscoll of Driscoll’s mortuary, became a sort of surrogate father.
“Special man, my mentor,” Toboni said. “Mike was really a father figure to me after I met my wife.”
After his move, Toboni remained active with local organizations, joining the Board of Directors of Mission Dolores Academy, the Holy Family Day Home on Dolores Street and 7 Teepees, a youth program in the Mission.
Both father and son are involved with 7 Tepees, a nonprofit youth mentorship program.
“[The Tobonis] always impress you with how much of themselves they dedicate to the city, to the people who make up the city,” said David McMonigle, who serves on the board 7 Tepees. “That’s sometimes a complicated task with the work that they do, because the reputation for folks who develop properties is not always in line with people who are caretakers of the community.”