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IN A PLEASANT LITTLE neighborhood in southeast Santa Rosa, there is an apartment complex called Bennett Valley that has seen better days—but normal repairs are not what I am talking about. The better days at Bennett Valley ended in October when A. F. Evans Co. of Oakland bought the 180 townhouse units and jacked up the rent. Residents who cannot meet stringent income and credit criteria are on the eviction block.

Calling the neighborhood "blighted," Santa Rosa mayor Sharon Wright recently went on record offering "help" to the soon-to-be-displaced tenants. Last week, Wright acknowledged that many of the Bennett Valley families, a lot of whom are Spanish-speaking, will have to "leave Sonoma County due to the high cost of market-rate affordable housing." The only help the city managed to produce were generic lists of affordable apartments, apartment brokers, credit counselors and mortgage lenders in the area.

"Blight" is a word of amazing power. When a city official or redevelopment bureaucrat or "nonprofit" developer utters the b-word, it is usually coupled with "crime-ridden" and "drug-infested." In reality, "blight" is government code for "nonwhite" and "people on social security and welfare."

For decades, "blight" has been used to justify the demolition of black and Latino neighborhoods around the country. In urban areas, redevelopers gentrified vibrant communities, erecting walls of condos, boutiques and high-rises for the middle classes. In the late 1960s, the Rand Corporation labeled the process by which poor people of color are driven out of the core of an inner city: "spatial deconcentration."

Arthur F. Evans learned the spatial deconcentration ropes at the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency from 1967 to 1976, the last two years as its executive director. During his tenure, the agency destroyed the "blighted" Fillmore District, which had been internationally renowned for its music, cuisine and African American culture. Evans went on to start a private redevelopment company, A. F. Evans Co. His three-score development projects have been capitalized with $760 million in private investment funds, government grants, loans, public bonds and tax credits.

He has a modus operandi. In San Francisco's Tenderloin District, in 1990, Evans built Geary Courtyard with $18 million in affordable-housing bonds issued to him by the city under extraordinarily favorable terms. Shortly after the supposed "multifamily" units were built, the 168 apartments were transformed into pricey corporate rental suites—with only a handful of affordable apartments reserved for those who can afford them. For his debut in Sonoma County, the financier snapped up the low-rent Bennett Valley, which he is "renovating" and permanently removing from the affordable-housing market. Evans declined to comment for this story.

"This is some of the last privately owned, semi-affordable housing in the county," says David Brigode, director of Fair Housing of Sonoma County, pointing out that the property is an undervalued asset that Evans can sell at a profit once he gets rid of the low-rent tenants.

"We lived here for nine years," says Bennett Valley tenant Joerinda Severa. "My partner, Denise, and I are on social security. We have two children. We were paying $900 for two bedrooms. Now they want $1,395. They say that to stay here, you need to make two and one-half times the annual rent, and you have to have good credit.

"It's like a bad dream," Severa says. "Sonoma County has no renter protection laws. All the people here who have [rent subsidies] can stay because their share of the rent is fixed. Everybody else is moving out in droves.

Severa and her family have been told to vacate by June. "We cannot afford to even look for an apartment. Every time we make an application, we have to pay $90 for credit checks on me, Denise and our 18-year-old son, who works at Target. We will have to leave Sonoma County.

According to U.S. census data, the median household income in Snoma county is $57,500. David Gouin, director of Santa Rosa's redevelopment agency, defines "affordable" as costing 30 percent of income. To afford the rent increase, Bennett Valley households will need to pull down $56,000 a year.

Brigode says that once workers are displaced from the local renter market, they move to Vacaville and Lake County—commuting to their jobs in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Petaluma. The wealthy, home-owning majority of Sonoma County—80 percent of the population is white, 60 percent own their homes—has yet to see its way to protecting the living conditions of the renters whom they pay to do their gardening, clean their homes and pick their wine grapes.

It is about time for some rent protections. How about it, white Sonoma Greens and liberals? Stop grieving over Kerry-Edwards, Nader and Cobb (talk about blight!) and pass some laws against trouncing the poor neighbors—who, as we all should know, are statistically mostly children.

Oh, and happy Thanksgiving.


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From the November 24-30, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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