Buck Bagot: The Fight for Improving Affordable Housing in Bernal

With rapid growth and an escalating housing market in San Francisco, it seems each year it becomes less affordable to live here. Buck Bagot, long-time Bernal activist and resident, has been fighting for affordable housing since he moved to San Francisco in 1976. He’s a board member of the BHNC (Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center) and knows alot about the struggle to keep Bernal Heights racially and economically diverse while offering services for seniors, young people and the community-at-large.

We sat down at Progressive Grounds coffee house where Buck shared his stories about the long battle with the city to create and maintain affordable housing developments that are safe, clean and an integral part of the fabric of the Bernal community.

What brought you to Bernal Heights?

I moved here in ’76; I was part of the peace and civil rights movements.  My cohort was largely labor and community organizers, so I got a job in the Public Defender’s office and moved to Bernal Heights.  I moved here because it was so different from the neighborhoods I grew up in on the East Coast where there was a lot of segregation. I stayed here because of the diversity.

When I started in the public sector there were already troubles around housing development and speculators. Back then, under Mayor Moscone, developers could pretty much build anywhere they wanted.

Is that how you first got involved in community activism and fighting for affordable housing?

Together, my sister, some friends and I all got involved. We decided to set up the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center (BNHC) as a community non-profit to help the neighborhood.

We got some money to do affordable housing and bought four lots on the East slope here. We built owner subsidized housing, albeit with limited capacity, in four beautiful units. In doing so, we slammed right into the NIMBY operative: Not In My Backyard.

Can you explain what NIMBY is?

People who support NIMBY oppose any change in development. They’re fiercely opposed to affordable housing. Why is that? Many different kinds of subsidized housing exist, and no matter whether it’s non-profit or for-profit, there’s a limit as to what the locals can pay. You can reduce the monthly cost of housing to what people can afford through offering subsidies. That’s why affordable housing is called subsidized housing.

NIMBY is what happens when people feel powerless. They try to exercise authority in their immediate area, very often to stop things. People in this country equate any kind of subsidized housing with public housing. They have an idea that the housing projects are going to be built near them and they carry racial stereotypes that scare them… like black drug dealers and so on.

Sometimes it’s true. What makes your work different?

A big difference is our members elect the board of the BHNC. Locals have control. So we built four units of housing. People who were opposed to it went nuts. Of course we won the fight and the subsidized housing was built and everything is fine. We learned a big lesson, too: if it’s this much trouble to build four units of housing, we should build bigger developments!