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After lengthy legal battle, Mission Language & Vocational School will remain in its building

After a lengthy legal battle that placed Mission Language and Vocational School (MLVS) in jeopardy of losing its building, its board members, students, local politicians and community members gathered on Nov. 20 to celebrate the return of the MLVS building to the community.

MLVS was able to keep the building, located at 2020 19th St., through a new partnership with the 701 Alabama Consortium LLC, which includes Jamestown Community Center, Mission Neighborhood Centers, Inc. (MNC), and Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA).

“Today is a miracle. It is a historical day,” said community activist Roberto Y. Hernandez as he conducted the opening blessing. He recalled an email he wrote on March 29, 2017, which read: “Mi gente, I am very concerned about the people speaking and talking about the situation at [MLVS],” which referred to the moment that the community learned about MLVS’s troubles.

“The road to resolution started in May when MLVS entered into a purchase agreement of $4.75 million to re-acquire a 12,600-square-foot portion of its building,” said Tracy Gallardo, MLVS’s executive director. “MLVS also agreed to pay $700,000 in damages to Huckleberry Friends, LLC to avoid a forced sale of the building.” 

According to Gallardo, on Aug. 23, 2019, MLVS closed escrow on their building. The consortium received $1 million from the mayor’s Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative program, which was used as a down payment to purchase the building’s section that was previously lost. 

There is also new support for MLVS’s programs. 

MLVS board members, students, local politicians and community members gather on Nov. 20 to celebrate the return of the MLVS building to the community. Courtesy: Christopher Gil

“Kaiser Permanente has joined to support the launch of the rebuilding of MLVS through a $500,000 grant that supports MLVS building expansion and bringing the Medical Assistant program equipment current with industry standards,” said Gallardo.

The mood was jubilant as the community celebrated the return of the building. Among those present were Mayor London Breed, District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton, District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí and State Assemblymember David Chiu.

“By taking complete ownership of this building, the nonprofit organizations that make up the 701 Alabama Consortium are sending a clear message that they are not going anywhere and will continue investing in the futures of our most vulnerable families in the Mission and throughout the city,” Ronen said. 

Back in July 2016, Huckleberry Friends filed a lawsuit against MLVS for a breach of contract arising from a 2013 lease agreement. That lease agreement was a result of MLVS being in a dire financial situation, which led to its Board of Directors and then-Executive Director Rosario Anaya, to sign the lease agreement giving Huckleberry Friends the “option to purchase” the part of the building it was leasing.

MLVS’s building sits on land that would be divided into two parcels if Huckleberry Friends decided to exercise its option to purchase. At the time Huckleberry Friends exercised its option to purchase, MLVS’s financial situation was grim. MLVS had a $2.5 million mortgage with Wells Fargo, who was concerned about MLVS’s cash flow ratio and was afraid it would have to foreclose. MLVS was able to find a private loan, but payments were $18,000 a month. 

“We had to get out from underneath this hard money loan,”  said MLVS board member Ray Sloan. “That’s when Saul Griffith [Huckleberry’s managing member] heard about our plight and approached Rosario with a deal that he wanted to buy part of the building. And with [former board chair] Jose Chapa, we entered into an agreement with Saul Griffith and HF that he would get the Alabama side and make certain improvements that the school would benefit from as well. For example, he was going to replace the roof.”

MLVS was able to secure the private loan after making the agreement with Griffith.

In August 2015, Anaya died unexpectedly, unbeknownst to the community that she had been battling lung cancer. Before her death, Anaya brought Daniel Brajkovich to the board, who served as the interim director after Anaya’s death. Brajkovich, however, stopped making the mortgage payments in March 2015, which led to further financial troubles. The board only became aware of the situation when Griffith informed that the mortgage was not being paid.

“The executive director who followed Rosario when she passed away failed to keep making payments on the loan that she got after signing the 2013 lease,” said MLVS board member Tony Fazio. “That lease was guaranteed by HF. MLVS ended up owing over $300,000 to HF who was continuing to make payments to avoid going into default. Otherwise the school would have gone into default and the bank [would have] foreclose[ed] on the building.”

Once MLVS’s situation with Huckleberry Friends became public, various community members and organizations banded together to see what they could do to help MLVS. After many negotiations and lengthy litigation, in early 2018, a third of the MLVS building was sold to Griffith for $3 million.

Together with the help of the mayor, city leaders, and the community members, MLVS was able to purchase back the building’s section that was lost, even if not all parties were happy.

Griffith noted that he lost at least half a million dollars in the settlement in legal fees and other costs, but estimates that the loss is likely several million dollars if he included damages to his business. 

“My wife and I simply could not afford to continue fighting this fight so we relinquished and sold the property as a significant loss,” said Griffith. 

“I think it was rather unfortunate the way it turned out, that [Griffith] was not given the benefit of the agreement that he originally signed with the school,” said Scott Freedman, Griffith’s attorney. “Because of the opposition that he was facing…he ultimately made a decision to step away from the building and let the school do with it what it wanted to.”

“At the end of the day, it is, to me, a fair deal,” Gallardo said. “Everybody wins in this deal and everybody loses…It’s too bad we had to go through this ordeal. I think the original intent was made in good faith…It’s just [that] the community never agreed to the sale of such a historical asset. When the community came out strong and felt ownership and connection to the building, I feel that Saul had to give us the opportunity to at least attempt to buy it back and so … some kind of thanks is in order for allowing that to happen.”

At the Nov. 20 celebration, Breed stated: “There is nothing like having a place in your community to call home … MLVS has been that community space for over 40 years, here in the Mission … to open the doors of opportunity for people who need a place to feel safe and feel secure, to develop the skills, to learn the language, to learn so many amazing things, but most importantly, to have a community.”

Assemblymember Chiu also highlighted the importance of community and stated, “At a time when our Latino community [and] our immigrant community are under assault of a so-called occupant of the White House and from economic forces that are looking to push us out, we have to stand up in coalitions with families to say that we’re not going away, we are here to stay, and [that] no one is kicking us out.”

The significance of the building to the community was heavily recognized throughout the celebration.

Besides MLVS, the building also houses nonprofit organizations that serve transitional age youth, immigrants, and families, such as the Jamestown Community Center, Five Keys Charter School, the Roadmap to Peace Initiative, and the Bay Area Community Resource Access Center.

“It’s one of those buildings in the community that is the community’s city hall, the community’s place of organizing, the ground zero, where people come together to break bread, to celebrate,” said Gallardo. “It was where we had had many Cesar Chavez breakfasts, dances, many communities and groups coming in. MLVS has historically been that place for community. A place with a lot of memories and organizing.” 

Story by: Elizabeth Silva