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Public housing in SF’s Potrero Hill, Sunnydale ready for revamp

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Potrero Terrace. (Mike Koozmin/2011 S.F. Examiner)

After eight years, San Francisco’s plan to transform two dilapidated public housing sites with more than 1,000 households into mixed-income developments is on the verge of becoming a reality.

With the environmental review complete and development agreements with nonprofit housing developers pending approvals, The City is expected to begin the projects next year, phasing in the replacement of the existing public housing units at Potrero and Sunnydale public housing sites and adding more than 1,000 market-rate homes to the large swaths of land.

All told, the development should take between 10 and 20 years.

The moment is being celebrated by city officials who have long faced political pressure to improve the conditions of public housing, overseen by the San Francisco Housing Authority.

“In many ways, we are repairing a wrong that has been a blight on our city for decades,” said Theodore Miller, director of HOPE SF in the Mayor’s Office.

He added, “This is no longer going to be ‘the other side of Potrero’ and the ‘swamps’ in Sunnydale.”

Residents living in the sites now will remain there during construction but move into newly constructed units as they come online during the many phases of the developments.

To much fanfare, the Planning Commission on Nov. 17 unanimously approved the projects, and the proposal is now pending approval by the Board of Supervisors. Approvals included development agreements and special use districts, specifying unique design and building standards.

“This project has been so strong,” Planning Commissioner Kathrin Moore said at the Nov. 17 meeting. “Everything is as solid as it possibly could be.”

But there was one uncertainty on Moore’s mind, a concern on the mind of many these days in San Francisco: the impact of President-elect Donald Trump. Those concerns center around Trump’s promise to cut federal funding for sanctuary cities like San Francisco following his inauguration on Jan. 20.

Kate Hartley, deputy director at the Mayor’s Office of Housing, said the vital Section 18 applications for such projects were already submitted to the federal U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and she expected an expedited approval process of some two weeks.

“The Housing Authority and the sponsors submitted their applications. I heard from HUD staff that they are trying to push them forward very quickly,” Hartley said.

Public housing also depends on HUD’s Section 8 rental subsidies.

“The Section 8 program … houses millions and millions of people. Banks all over the country rely on it. We think that is something that will continue on,” Hartley said.

Mayor Ed Lee has previously said he would direct the city attorney to sue over any federal funding cuts to agencies like HUD, which has a “constitutional mandate” to provide services to the poor.

Assuming the “Trump factor” doesn’t impact the project, work is expected to begin next year. Many have long called upon The City to invest more in these communities.

“Historically, our neighborhood has been systematically ignored by the powers that be,” said Fran Martin, chair of the Visitacion Valley Planning Alliance, a group founded in 1999 to improve the area through housing and retail efforts. “Sunnydale is a blight on the reputation of our city and a poster child for social injustice. The people living there deserve much better.”

The projects are being done under the HOPE SF program, which was conceived of eight years ago under then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, who faced intense political pressure over public housing conditions.

The guiding principle of HOPE SF, according to a Planning Department staff memo, is to “take advantage of the relatively underdeveloped character of Housing Authority sites by planning for greater densities. A portion of the additional densities would be low-income affordable housing, and market-rate housing that would help cross finance the reconstruction of Housing Authority units and reduce the concentration of poverty on the site.” The first project undertaken under the program was Hunters View.

Sunnydale is located in Visitacion Valley and, with 50 acres, is The City’s largest public housing site. But the current design makes it an isolated area and the housing is “in an extreme state of disrepair, well past its useful life,” said Leigh Lutenski, project manager with the Office Economic and Workforce Development.

Mercy Housing and Related California will in partner with The City and the Housing Authority will create the master plan for the area and construct and manage the affordable housing sites, while other parcels will be sold to market-rate developers.

The current site, which borders McLaren Park, contains 93 residential buildings and 775 occupied public housing units.

The new development, which include a network of roads, sidewalks and bike paths, would result in up to 1,770 units, including the 775 replacement public housing homes, along with about 200 low-income units and up to 694 market-rate units.

Over at the 38-acre Potrero site, there are 619 households currently. The development, in partnership with Bridge Housing, would result in up to 1,700 housing units, including the 619 replacement public housing homes. There would also be at least 200 low-income units and up to 800 market-rate units.

Barbara Smith, director of the Housing Authority, called the projects a “dream of the Housing Authority.”

“Everyone has worked really hard to get to this point,” Smith said. “This will truly transform these severely distressed and dilapidated public housing sites into vibrant mixed income communities.”

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