This story was reported by David Young and edited by Todd Lappin
For as long as many can remember, Fiesta on the Hill has been a Bernal Heights tradition. Organized each year by the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center (BHNC), Fiesta on the Hill is a time when Cortland Avenue shuts down to traffic to play host to a sprawling street party that fills Bernal’s main street with a colorful cross-section of neighbors, families, bands, merchants, food stalls, community organizations, and kiddie rides. Fiesta usually happens in October. But this year, it’s been canceled.
“Fiesta on the HIll was our annual fundraiser, but for the past several years the organization has actually paid out more to put it on instead of it being a fundraiser,” says Gina Dacus, BNHC’s new executive director, “Where we are as an organization is, we have to really be cognizant of our finances.”
The cancellation of Fiesta isn’t the only sign that BHNC is rethinking its priorities. Last year, BHNC executive director Rachel Ebora left the organization abruptly. This year, BHNC shuttered Gifts on the Hill, the thrift shop it operated from a BHNC-owned storefront next door to the organization’s headquarters on Cortland. Most worrisome of all, when the devastating Cole Hardware fire ripped through four buildings at the foot of Bernal Hill on June 18, BHNC was conspicuously absent from efforts to organize assistance for the fire victims — even though the fire took place across the street from Coleridge Park Homes, the BHNC-operated affordable-housing facility on Mission Street above the Big Lots store. The fire left 56 Bernal residents homeless and facing an uncertain future, until activist Edwin Lindo, the Mission-based Mission Economic Development Agency, and an ad hoc group of Bernal neighbors stepped into fill the void by organizing fundraising drives that raised $140,000 for the fire victims. (Lindo is a BHNC board member, but his fundraising effort was undertaken independently.)
Together, such incidents and absences fuel the perception that the BHNC has become a diminished organization. “Basically, what happened is that BHNC got stale,” says Buck Bagot, a longtime Bernal activist and original co-founder of BHNC during the late 1970s.
Though few are willing to comment publicly, some observers point to systemic mismanagement as root cause of BHNC’s woes, while others claim the Center failed to keep up with the times. Cortland merchants say BHNC has become disorganized and aloof. Left-leaning activists point to the gentrification of Bernal Heights as proof that BHNC’s has failed to fulfill its core mission to “preserve and enhance the ethnic, cultural, and economic diversity of Bernal Heights.” Newer Bernal residents say BHNC’s political agenda is part of the problem, as BHNC uses its resources and connections to oppose the construction of new housing in Bernal Heights.
Undeniably, however, BHNC’s most urgent concern right now is to get its finances in order. Since the Great Recession, BHNC has struggled as revenues plunged 43% between 2008 and 2014:
As funding sources shriveled, BHNC was slow to reduce expenses, and the result was a series of painful years during which the organization operated deep in the red. In 2009 alone, BHNC recorded a massive net loss of $383,000 due, in large part, to a sharp decrease in contributions and grants. The steep losses continued until 2014, the most recent year for which filings are available, when BHNC managed to eke out positive net revenue of $555:
In September 2015, the San Francisco City Controller placed BHNC on a list of nonprofit contractors receiving City funds that do not meet the City’s financial monitoring standards. With 16 such findings, BHNC ranked third on the list of noncompliant organizations, which Controller’s office says “can signal potential instability in the organizational and financial health of a nonprofit – and ultimately an organization’s ability to provide effective and sustainable services to residents in need.”
Originally called the Bernal Heights Community Foundation, BHNC was founded in 1978, at a time when some Bernal residents sought to combat City Hall neglect, market-rate housing construction, and an influx of new residents moving to Bernal to take advantage of cheap rents and inexpensive homes. In the 1980s, the BHNC began working with at-risk teens and collaborating with St. Kevin’s Church to provide services to local seniors. In the 1990s, the BHNC spread beyond Bernal by launching community-service programs in Bayview/Hunters Point, the Mission, and Visitacion Valley.
Today, BHNC operates 15 publicly subsidized-affordable housing developments throughout the City, including the Bernal Gateway apartments on Mission at Cesar Chavez, the Market Heights apartments adjacent to the Alemany Flea Market, and the Coleridge Park Homes above the Big Lots on Mission. All told, BHNC manages 369 units that provide homes to 600 low-income seniors, adults, and youth.
Along the way, the BHNC has also been a key player in Bernal’s own brand of left-wing politics, and political action has always been an integral part of the neighborhood center’s agenda. The Bernal Heights Democratic Club, which still meets regularly in BHNC’s community room, was first established in the early 1980s by BHNC co-founder Buck Bagot. Over the years, many BHNC board members and staff have left the organization to work directly in politics. In 2011 Joseph Smooke, who was BHNC’s executive director at the time, quit to pursue opportunities in the offices of supervisors Eric Mar and David Campos. Edwin Lindo, the former Frisco Five hunger striker and D9 Supervisoral candidate (and Cole Hardwire fire fundraiser), remains a member of the BHNC board of directors. Recent BHNC board member Sheila Chung Hagen now works as a legislative aide Supervisor David Campos’s office, and the ties between Supervisor Campos’s office and BHNC remain close.
In previous decades, this mix of community engagement and political connections helped BHNC win lucrative grants and public funds. A decade ago, BHNC established youth scholarship programs and completed two then-new affordable housing projects: the Crocker Amazon Senior Apartments and the Excelsior Teen Center. In 2006, BHNC reported that its membership had topped 1,000 — a 13 percent increase over the previous year — as the organization’s total revenues hovered at $200,000. At the time, BHNC published also published its own print newspaper, The New Bernal Journal.
Then came the Great Recession of 2008. The intense downturn transformed the economic landscape for nonprofit community organizations throughout San Francisco, and BHNC was caught flat-footed. 2008 was also the year Rachel Ebora began working with BHNC. Ebora started with BHNC as a community development coordinator, before becoming director of community engagement. In 2011, when Joseph Smooke gave up his post as BHNC’s executive director to pursue opportunities in City Hall, BHNC’s board chose Ebora as his replacement.
Critics say Ebora was chosen largely because of her political credentials, but BHNC’s finances didn’t recover after she became executive director — even as the overall economy began to improve and San Francisco entered a period of rapid growth. According to IRS filings, in Ebora’s first year, total grants and contributions fell by 20 percent.
Year after year of red ink explains many of BHNC’s recent cost-cutting moves. In 2014, the New Bernal Journal, which the BHNC had published since 1987, ceased publication. By 2011, the Center’s subsidized-affordable housing development projects had stopped altogether, beginning the longest period of inactivity since BHNC was founded. IRS filings reveal that BHNC also slashed salaries and compensation, which fell from a high of $1.8 million in 2009 to $1.2 million in 2014.
As the losses continued, Ebora left with little explanation in July 2015. Gina Dacus, BHNC’s director of operations at the time, was chosen by the board to serve as interim executive director. Throughout the second half of 2015, rumors swirled that BHNC was having a hard time finding candidates with both the managerial skills required to turn the organization around and the political alignment needed to win over BHNC’s board. (Dacus’s interim executive director position became permanent in July 2016.)
Staff turnover hasn’t been confined to the executive director position. In 2014, after a brief tenure as the director of membership and development, Adam Kinsey quit, leaving BHNC with no full-time staff dedicated to fundraising. According to executive director Dacus, BHNC’s board has hired a part-time grant writer to pursue more private funding. In addition, several board members are writing grants and assisting in renewed fundraising efforts. This year, Julia Bennett also left BHNC’s board of directors. Bennett had been seen as a reformer who wanted to bring more professionalism and financial discipline to BHNC’s operations, yet after her departure she was replaced on the board by Barbara Bagot-Lopez, a veteran activist, retired UCSF administrator, and sister of BHNC co-founder Buck Bagot.
Dacus acknowledges that BHNC is trying to rebuild. “We’ve reached huge milestones in terms of our recovery process. We feel more comfortable about the sustainability of the organization.”
Still, other remain keenly aware of the challenges ahead. “I feel like, around the time that Rachel came in, the organization began to recede,” says Buck Bagot, who served as the BHNC’s executive director from 1978 to 1982, and has remained an active member and community organizer ever since. “The board became a little distant. And Rachel, in these tough times, didn’t address the tough times as well as I wish she would have. You have to keep revitalizing.”
Buck Bagot considers BHNC’s financial problems to be more of a symptom than a cause of BHNC’s difficulties. The bigger issue, he says, is that BHNC hasn’t listened to the changing needs of the community. “You can never coast, you can never stand pat,” he says. “It’s very hard to get funding these days. I’m not saying the Neighborhood Center doesn’t deserve its funding, but if you aren’t a vibrant, active organization, continually trying to tap into your community and find out what they need and do what they need with them…” Bagot trailed off, shaking his head.
Dacus, meanwhile, insists BHNC still serves Bernal Heights and its surrounding neighborhoods. “Our community looks a lot different, but we’re still meeting challenges,” she says. “Neighbors who can no longer afford to live here still find ways to come to our senior program. We still feed 350 families in the Excelsior every week. We have over 400 families living in our properties that we currently have in our portfolio.”
She also cites a string of other BHNC projects that are underway, such as a youth leadership program that provides additional career services, and expanded senior services that include a health and wellness program.
Yet in the midst of an ongoing housing shortage, and after several years of financial struggle, some Bernal residents wonder whether this is enough. For them, what is at stake is not just a organization with deep ties to Bernal Heights, but the vibrancy of the neighborhood itself. They want a Center that will not only support the basic requirements of the community, but will be a vital force in the community, as it was during its early years.
To do that, BHNC will first have to address some important questions regarding its structure, management, and funding. Dacus acknowledges this. “We’re looking to expand our community development,” she says. “That’s an initiative that we have for 2016, because this is really teaching us the importance of pulling neighbors into all the changes that are happening in the community.”
PHOTO: Telstar Logistics