Sam Moss was on vacation when the email came in.

It was July 2015, and the young executive director of Mission Housing Development Corp. was roaming the streets of New York with friends — and, in fact, complaining that this specific email was two months late and might end up bearing bad news.

But the news, from the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, was not just good — it was historic. Mission Housing had been awarded its first project in more than a decade, and it would be the first 100-percent affordable project granted in the neighborhood in 11 years.

It was 157 units at 1950 Mission St. to be developed in partnership with BRIDGE Housing, a project that will officially break ground today.

It was a really big deal,” Moss recalled. “The Mayor’s office of housing was recognizing Mission Housing as a developer again.”

Back in San Francisco,  a couple of staff members cried, recalled Marcia Contreras, Mission Housing’s deputy director and Moss’ counterpart. “It was an emotional day for us,” she said. 

And not only because it was a win. It was the end of years of Moss and Contreras having to repent for Mission Housing’s past mistakes — years of affordable housing leaders, neighborhood leaders, and the city officials not “trusting Mission Housing and being told to quit,” Moss said.

The leeriness toward Mission Housing was not without reason. In 2006, the city stripped the nonprofit developer of funding for various acts of impropriety on the part of its leadership.

By 2017, that leadership was long gone. And, thanks to Moss, 36, and Contreras, 46, the once-embattled nonprofit developer was actually going to build again.

Now Mission Housing has 1,000 units in its pipeline on four different sites. It has officially broken ground on an 81-unit affordable project at 490 South Van Ness Ave., and soon will embark on its most ambitious endeavor yet: about 700 units at the Balboa Reservoir and more than a 100 more at the Balboa Upper Yard. The groundbreaking at 1950 Mission St. will take place March 18.

In addition, the nonprofit manages 1,600 units across 35 buildings in the Mission, while renting space to community-based organizations such as Calle 24, PODER and Mission Graduates. Of the city’s roughly 10 nonprofit developers, Mission Housing is among the most active, ranking 4th by units in the pipeline behind BRIDGE, Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, and Mercy Housing.

The Mission Economic Development Agency, Mission Housing’s chief competitor, is the most active developer in the neighborhood, with five projects currently in the pipeline.  

Few in 2005, however, thought Mission Housing would exist in 2019.

The city defunded Mission Housing in 2006, stripping it of thousands in city funds and the legitimacy it needed to seek federal grants. Suddenly, the organization founded in 1971 was a pariah in both the affordable-housing community and the Mission.

“There was very little desire from the city and funders to work with them once they broke that trust,” said Fernando Marti, a Mission Housing staffer at the time and now the co-director of Council of Community Housing Organizations.  

By the time Moss and Contreras took the helm in 2013, the company was debt-burdened and on the verge of bankruptcy.

The expectation, Moss said, was that the city “could cut up our portfolio and give it to the other nonprofits, and we would go away.”

If stories of a struggling institution that survives generally depend on the will and leadership of one person, Moss is the first to say that this simply isn’t the case at Mission Housing. Survival depended on the ingenuity of both Moss, the son of a lawyer, and Contreras, an immigrant from Nicaragua who one colleague calls a shrewd shot-caller.

“Sam has a curious mind and a nimble intellect. He’s a thinker and doer,” said John Barber, who has been working for seven years as a consultant at Mission Housing. “Marcia is decisive, disciplined and consistent. Steady.”

Contreras was already at Mission Housing for two years when she helped hire Moss in 2011.

Yet their paths to the top of one of the neighborhood’s oldest and most important organizations couldn’t have been more different.

Moss’s journey began in Fresno. His mother was a child psychologist and his father was an attorney. Moss clerked for his father and, eventually, Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, recruited him to play baseball.

After it became clear he would not become a professional athlete, Moss fell into the real-estate industry – eventually cleaning property titles at a Baltimore-based company and then setting off to San Francisco in 2008 with his former partner, and now friend, Allie. “We were driving across the country when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt,” Moss remembers.

By contrast, Contreras left Nicaragua in 1981, two years after the Sandinista Revolution. She was eight years old at the time and her first U.S. residence was the Ingleside home of her father’s sister. She lived there with her mother and four siblings – she was the youngest. “It took us 45 days to get here,” Contreras recalled. “My father ended up joining three years after.”

Eventually, her family moved to an in-law in the Crocker-Amazon neighborhood. Their front door was a garage. Like many growing up in the inner and outer Mission neighborhoods during the 1980s, Contreras didn’t have it easy.

“I was supposed to go to Balboa [High],” she said. “But at the time, Balboa was not doing so well, a scary school to join.” Instead, she participated in an independent study course.

By early ‘90s, she was studying accounting at Heald Colleges in San Francisco and, after more than a decade in sales, became a real estate agent in 2004. The 2008 crisis shelved that pursuit and instead she found refuge at Mission Housing, which was still alive but very much struggling.  

Marcia Contreras. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

When Contreras arrived, Mission Housing Development Corp. had already been through several convulsions.

In 2004, the company was at war with itself. Staff members and the company’s board of directors were at odds over the company’s identity: Would it continue to serve as a community-based organization engaging in political advocacy? Or strictly be a developer?

“It was really a board versus staff kind of thing,” said Martí, who was fired as a staff member. “I left in August 2004 and within a year everyone except for receptionist had left.”

Supervisors Aaron Peskin, Tom Ammiano, and Chris Daly pushed for a city audit of the company, which revealed the nonprofit was mismanaging its assets and lacked the competence to develop projects. That eventually led to the nonprofit being stripped of its city funding, its HUD community block grants, and its ability to win projects and developer fees.

“All of a sudden, one by one, funders stopped returning phone calls. The city stopped any funding for projects. The politicians were absent,” recalls Pete Gallegos, who joined the board of directors in 2006. “They were somewhat trying to destroy the organization. It was pretty bad.”

With few avenues to develop in San Francisco, Mission Housing looked elsewhere. It began ventures in the Central Valley, including a $14 million housing development in Fresno that never got off the ground.

“In retrospect, it wasn’t really a good move,” said Gallegos. “None of the projects were worth the energy.”

For the first two years that Contreras worked at Mission Housing as an assistant asset manager, the staff was slim. Negative news articles about the company were common. The company’s financials slumped. Contreras felt the lack of direction and watched moral plummet.

I saw the signs, the red flags, and I knew the organization was not in the best place,” she said. “It was almost like a sinking ship.”  

Contreras stayed.  The company’s history of supporting low-income families resonated with her and she wanted to see it thrive. She even had fantasies about building more housing for families.

When she was promoted in 2012 to direct resident services, she needed to find a replacement. That person was Moss.

“He was a very charismatic individual, lots of energy,” Contreras remembers from when she interviewed him for the job.

Moss had seen the ad for an open asset manager position on Craigslist and was encouraged to apply by his then-partner as a way to get health insurance — and to do something more laid back than managing the west-coast operations of an investment management company. “She literally said, ‘It won’t be stressful,’” Moss said.

Sam Moss sits in his North Beach home. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez

She turned out to be wrong — very wrong. Over the next several years, Moss and Contreras would be responsible for winding down Mission Housing’s out-of-town projects, rebuilding trust in San Francisco, and recapitalizing an organization that was down to a dozen employees.

“I would go to political events and it never failed that someone from our industry would make a point of coming up to me to tell me that no one trusted us, that I shouldn’t be working at Mission Housing, and to go away,” Moss said. “Very prominent people — leaders of our industry basically told me to fuck off.”

Contreras had deep roots and operational know-how, while Moss had the financial acumen. Despite the distrust, Moss was willing to put himself out there.

“Sam was meeting with players in the industry,” Contreras recalled. “My role was making sure the community leaders in the Mission had an opportunity to meet Sam.”

Contreras remembers that some people took meetings with the pair, while others remained skeptical. This, for the board member Gallegos, was a worry that was soon assuaged.

“My concern was whether he would be able to survive in the Mission community environment,” Gallegos recalled. “There are generations and generations of people who have been active here, and alliances all over the place. So you either you fit in, understand how things happen, or you don’t.”

With Contreras’ help, he said, Moss “passed with flying colors.”

Moss said he may have been doing well in meetings, but meanwhile, Contreras rebuilt the Mission Housing’s corporate structure and ensured each department was communicating effectively. “Marcia made sure that the wheels were greased and the company ran,” Moss said.

She also had to act as the counterbalance to Moss’ perpetual whimsy. “I need to be reined in more often than not,” Moss said. “I have a lot of ideas that don’t make it past Marcia.”

The company also embarked on an effort to refinance several of its existing properties. Moss and the company’s board of directors discovered a way to increase its Section 8 subsidies to market value and refurbish its buildings without passing costs onto its tenants. As a result, it was able to collect millions of dollars developer fees to pay off old debts, save, and reinvest in its other properties. 

In doing so, it almost completely recapitalized the company so that it could pay off its debts and not rely as heavily on public funds.

“Sam saw the underlying value in the properties Mission Housing had developed in the first 35 years and figured out a way to unlock them and monetize that through refinancing,” said Donald Falk, the CEO of Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, one of the Bay Area’s most active developers.  

“Doing that helped to stabilize them financially,” Falk added. “That gave them reflexivity and resources to work on the things they needed to work on.”

While Contreras has remained largely out of the spotlight, Moss has proven to be just the kind of unabashed public figure that San Francisco tends to like.

The 36-year-old executive director bounces off the walls when talking about housing policy, riddling his statements with hand gestures and expletives. He wears t-shirts to the office and speaks with the bro-ey patois of an early Millennial from the Central Valley. Without fail, he addresses this reporter as either “man” or “bro.”

Moss, who also constantly refers to himself as “a white guy,” has become an unlikely ambassador between two worlds seemingly at odds.

In early November, he marched down Mission Street, joining in a chorus of neighborhood activists opposed to the construction of a 331-unit development at 16th and Mission. (Larry Del Carlo, Moss’ predecessor, is being paid tens of thousands of dollars to advocate for the project.)

Yet only days later, Moss could be found sauntering around the campaign headquarters of then-District 6 candidate and notable YIMBY icon Sonja Trauss, wearing the t-shirt of an organization that has fervently advocated for the construction on new housing in San Francisco.  

“It causes controversy,” said Chirag Bhakta, a community organizer with Mission Housing who is also an organizer with the Plaza 16 coalition, a group that comprises most community organizations in the Mission. “A lot of people in the neighborhood see the contradiction often times.”

Bhakta stressed, however, that Moss’ heavy role in the YIMBY movement has not affected the organization and its core mission of developing affordable housing. “He might not agree with the public stance I take,” Bhakta said. “But he understands and respects it.”

For Moss’s part, his being a founding member of YIMBY Action “is the bed that [the Council of Community Housing Organizations] made” — referring to the early days when most in the development community, except for the pro-development Housing Action Coalition, shut him out. “Straight up,” Moss said.

Meanwhile, Contreras has taken it upon herself to keep Mission Housing rooted in its core values, even as it ascends. While Moss may fit the archetype of the excitable boy genius, Contreras is the wise and grounded matriarch with deep, lived experience in the community.

Contreras, in fact, has been living on the same block in the Crocker-Amazon that she moved into as a child from Nicaragua. She was evicted from her childhood home in 2002, she said, and moved into the house next door with her children.

Waning place for her own, Contreras eventually bought that house in 2003, and that where she developed her passion for real estate.

“I’ve been there for quite some time,” she said, adding later that she bought her 8th-grade graduation dress in the Mission and would frequently come into the neighborhood with her family for groceries.

Five years ago, Contreras implemented a policy at Mission Housing in which it now documents all its important decisions and milestones. “I thought it was a great way to capture all of our wins and remind ourselves all we had done for that current year but most important to celebrate together our accomplishments,” she said.

It was a mid-afternoon, and Moss had just bought a latte and a bag full of chocolate chip walnut cookies from Four Barrel Coffee, the chi-chi coffee spot across the street from his office. The irony is not lost on him.

He walked past the construction at 1950 Mission, where 157 affordable units will soon rise. “This is my dream job,” he said. “There are multiple times a week that I ask myself: How am I doing this for a living?”

For Moss, the developments at 1950 Mission and 490 South Van Ness have become tangible proof that Mission Housing is, indeed, back. For this reason, Moss walks past the projects every day — sometimes multiple times a day.

He peeked through the fence at men in hardhats moving dirt, steering machinery, planning their next move.

“Yeah,” Moss said, “build that housing.”