Three generations of the Sims family spend every Saturday afternoon in a new park in their freshly renovated neighborhood, as grandchildren play in the grass with the family dogs, overlooking surrounding views of the bay and downtown San Francisco.
Growing up in the housing projects, a scene like this was merely a dream for Rose Marie Sims.
But then came along Hope SF, an initiative to transform four of the most distressed housing projects in San Francisco through a trauma-informed blueprint. The project made the dream of safe, high-quality housing a reality for the Sims family, without having to move out of the neighborhood where they have lived for generations.
“We take that dilapidated, unacceptable, deferred-maintenance housing, and build incredible mixed-income communities,” said Theodore Miller, director of Hope SF, during a Health Commission meeting on July 18. “These are four of the most incredible, dynamic, diverse and resilient communities, and these are communities that need our system to do better, to do right by these families.”
The initiative is underway to replace each public housing unit at the Hunters View, Potrero Hill, Alice Griffith and Sunnydale complexes one for one, as well as build new market-rate units and affordable rental and ownership housing.
Hope SF became the nation’s first large-scale public housing transformation and reparations initiative, and its leaders committed to renovating the 2,500 housing units into sustainable and energy efficient homes without displacing residents. So far, the initiative is on track with its goal.
“We took our worries to Hope SF because we’ve seen what happened in the Mission, and we didn’t want that to happen,” Sims, a resident and housing specialist at Hunters View, said in reference to recent displacement of longtime residents in the Mission District. “Hope SF made a promise this wasn’t going to happen here.”
Hunters View, the first site where construction began, currently has a 64 percent rate of households that have moved into the new community. Eighty-six percent of households at Alice Griffith have moved on-site during construction and are slated to move into new units.
Miller called these numbers “historic and virtually unprecedented” retention rates for renovated public housing, adding that the federal program, Hope IV, has on average retained about only 15 percent of residents.
“Particularly in this climate in San Francisco, we were not going to push people out,” Miller said. “The core principle of Hope SF is non-displacement. It was a philosophical approach, it’s really a commitment that you have to decide to make.”
In other neighborhoods in The City, renovations have been a catalyst for displacement or gentrification.
The Mission has experienced an increase in the number of white residents, as the Latino population dropped by 40 percent from 2000 to 2008-2012, according to data from the San Francisco Controller’s Office.
In contrast, all three active Hope SF sites have experienced an increase in the percentage of people of color and a decline in population of white residents since the 2010-11 fiscal year, according to data provided by Hope SF.
The project’s phased development plan gives residents the option to either remain in their community while construction is underway or connects them with housing at the same rate elsewhere. Hope SF reaches out to residents who choose to move off-site during renovations to inform them of their right to return.
Most residents in Hunters View remained in the neighborhood while it was being transformed, including the Sims family.
“Hope SF has kept their word. If they say they’re going to do something, they’re going to do it,” Sims said. “And in the past, that never happened.”
Sims grew up near Middle Point and West Point roads, which used to be one of the most notorious intersections for crime in The City. She remembers looking out her window as a child to needle-littered streets, residents smoking crack in their doorways and the bang of gunshots ringing throughout day and night.
Decades later, her children grew up in an environment that mirrored her own childhood.
The gun violence hit close to home when Sims saw her nephew get shot on her own doorstep. Her children were not allowed to hang out with friends or go places unsupervised, for fear of them being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Although Sims worked full-time, she didn’t have the resources to move out of the neighborhood.
“You didn’t need bars to feel like you were kept in,” Sims said. “It almost seemed like a horrible dream.”
Everything changed the day then-Mayor Gavin Newsom visited the neighborhood. Newsom played basketball with Sims’ son and paid a visit to her home afterward to listen to the family’s concerns.
Sims and other community members feared promises would be broken, as they had been before, but they found that being included in the decision-making process made all the difference.
“Being able to have people listen to you and let you sit at the table when decisions are happening, that’s a big thing,” Sims said.
The idea for Hope SF came after funds dwindled for Hope IV, a project that worked to rebuild five public housing sites across The City. The Housing Authority, city officials and community members decided to take matters into their own hands.
Newsom and the Board of Supervisors created a citizen task force to study the needs of public housing sites in The City. As a result of the task force’s report, the mayor and board secured $95 million in local bond funding to launch Hope SF in 2006.
This funding eventually grew to $400 million in city contributions toward the project, according to Miller.
“At many times, we feel like The City doesn’t care about our well-being, but now we are actually seeing some results,” Hope SF Mayoral Fellow Terry Jones said.
Though Miller said housing is a key first step to improving these communities, he added, “If we only build the housing, we will have failed.”
Hope SF works to improve the wellbeing of the residents by working to boost local schools, access to healthcare and the overall sense of community.
“We were able to secure permanent funding from the public Health Department to create civil service permanent staff, as well as infrastructure to create permanent wellness centers across the four sites,” said Rhea Bailey, director of equity and community wellness programs at the Department of Public Health, at the Health Commission meeting.
On-site programs are key to maintaining a sense of community between residents. At Hunters View, they have provided financial workshops, food banks and job training for residents to assist them as they transition into new housing.
Each site has at least one community builder who is hired to build bridges between old and new residents, hear their concerns and plan community development activities like block parties or family nights.
The three sites that have been under construction have experienced a decline in violent crime rates since 2013, according to data from Hope SF, which is one goal the project intended to achieve.
“We’re trying to break beyond the strict medical model that can at times be rigid, and hope to come to cultural responses to trauma and to healing,” Bailey said.
Sims now works as a housing specialist at Hunters View, where she assists residents to overcome obstacles they may experience, like paying their rent on time. The number of residents who pay their rent on time is higher than ever before, according to Sims.
“We don’t want to lose anyone,” she said.
In five years, Hope SF expects to have completed half of their 2,500-unit transformation goal.
The public housing units will be fully replaced in Hunters View later this year, in Alice Griffith by 2021, in Potrero by 2024 and in Sunnydale by 2027. The market-rate, affordable rental and ownership housing will be finished about three years after the public housing is completed at each of the sites.
Sims has hopes to further improve the community by creating a neighborhood watch program and a garden, but the transformation her neighborhood has undergone already “feels like a dream.”
“We made it our sole mission to make sure no one was displaced, and we did it,” Sims said. “Now my grandkids are able to play outside when my children were never able to.”