Updated 7:58 pm, Tuesday, July 28, 2015
A prominent San Francisco church sued a nonprofit it created decades ago on Tuesday, accusing it of being “blinded by the riches the gold rush dangles” and illegally attempting to sell a housing complex for low-income residents.
The nonprofit wants to sell Frederick Douglas Haynes Gardens, a 104-unit apartment community for low-income residents. Third Baptist Church — whose pastor, the Rev. Amos Brown, is a former supervisor — claims in the suit that the plan to sell the apartments violates the bylaws and fiduciary duties of Third Baptist Gardens Inc., a nonprofit the church founded in 1969 to purchase land and build affordable housing in the Western Addition.
Vowing to fight
But before that happens, she said, “I’m going to get out there with the rest of them and fight.”
Residents feared they might be evicted, according to the suit, because the nonprofit’s realtors had marketed the complex to possible buyers and included potential monthly rents of $3,000 to $7,000, far in excess of what residents pay and can afford. The deadline for bids is Thursday.
A news conference Tuesday in front of San Francisco Superior Court to announce the lawsuit had the feel of a Sunday church service, with prominent African American leaders proclaiming they would do whatever it took to preserve the apartments, located at 1049 Golden Gate Ave., as affordable housing.
“These are our homes,” said the Rev. Arnold Townsend, an associate minister at Church Without Walls who lives in the apartment complex. “To have to come here and confront this is absurd. … The wealthy and powerful covet the neighborhoods of the poor,” he said.
But the church’s lawsuit bucks the usual story line of longtime residents facing off against wealthy landlords or speculators. In this case, the historically African American Third Baptist Church claims it was duped by the very entity it created to preserve affordable housing — a personal betrayal of sorts.
“In San Francisco, somebody tried to snatch back our 40 acres and a mule. And the enemy this time was not from afar, but from within our own ranks,” Brown said.
The church’s lawsuit says the nonprofit’s board of directors engaged “in a series of inappropriate activities contrary to the purpose and goals” of its mission, that it refused to provide information to the church regarding its finances and sought to change its bylaws to gain “unfettered control” of Frederick Douglas Haynes Gardens.
The group “has lost its way and has repeatedly engaged in misrepresentation, refused oversight by the church that created it, through our duly elected board members, ignored its own articles of incorporation and bylaws, and engaged in self-dealing,” the lawsuit alleges.
The chairwoman of the nonprofit’s board, Rochelle Buford-Williams, didn’t respond to a message left at her office. The group’s attorney, Marc T. Cefalu, also didn’t respond to a voice mail and e-mail.
But in a letter sent to the church’s lawyers Tuesday, Cefalu said the nonprofit will cease trying to sell while the parties try to resolve the issues. Cefalu didn’t preclude the possibility that the nonprofit would attempt to sell the apartments in the future.
The church’s attorney, former City Attorney Louise Renne, said the church will move forward with its lawsuit.
“Even though there is a reprieve now for the tenants, nonetheless the battle still goes on because they are not saying they are not otherwise in the future going to get rid of this affordable housing for market-rate housing,” Renne said.
Residents of the apartments said they were blindsided by the news of a potential sale.
Stephanie Brandon, who has lived at the complex for 26 years and raised her two children there, said she found out about it Monday night, when the nonprofit held its monthly community meeting with residents. After months of telling residents the apartments would not go up for sale, the board chairwoman said they would.
“They betrayed us,” Brandon said. “Where am I going to go? Where am I going to live? In the street?”
Other residents said they were told they would be allowed to stay in their apartments. However, an e-mail between brokers listing the property showed that the units could fetch between $3,000 and $7,000 a month. The e-mail was provided by the church’s attorneys.
Board of Supervisors President London Breed said she would do whatever it took to preserve the apartments as affordable housing.
“What kind of nonprofit organization does this to people?”
Emily Green is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com