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San Francisco public housing shouldn’t be left hopeless

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It was 2007 when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom launched the ambitious Hope SF initiative, making a promise to the residents in eight of San Francisco’s most-dilapidated public housing projects that help was arriving. The unlivable conditions arising from years of underfunding and deferred maintenance would be addressed with the old buildings being torn down and new mixed-economy community would be built.

But after all the grand fanfare, with impressive deals made in anticipation of city funding contributions and millions of dollars raised for design and preliminary development, the harsh reality of the national housing meltdown brought the dream crashing to a halt. Public housing residents who have been repeatedly disappointed are back in limbo, living day-to-day in homes that — in many cases — are vermin-infested, lack heat, have broken walls, ceilings or windows, and are consistently rated as dangerous and life-threatening.

In U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development inspections, a score of at least 60 out of 100 is considered passing. Scores at the eight public housing projects supposed to be upgraded by Hope SF range from 51 to 65 — and HUD found “life-threatening conditions present” at all of them.

For decades, running well into the early ’90s, the rundown condition of San Francisco’s public housing was a disgrace to The City. Executive managers were ousted and angry federal reports blasted the projects’ inadequate upkeep. Then between 1994 and 2006, money from the federal Hope VI program successfully revitalized public housing in the Mission, North Beach, Western Addition, Hayes Valley and Bernal Heights.

But the money from Washington eventually disappeared. Newsom tried to continue the work by assembling one of his bolder programs. Hope SF was a complex package partnering with private or nonprofit developers who would make money by building market-rate condos in the area. However, with the housing market and real estate financing limping along in the Bay Area, four years after Hope SF began, only two of its sites — in Hunters Point and the Bayview — actually have the public funds to move ahead.

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Funding has run dry for six other developments, including the 769-unit Sunnydale housing project, sites atop Potrero Hill and in the Western Addition. The dismal news arrived in The City’s March report outlining San Francisco’s next decade of development: City Hall needs $127 million for infrastructure upgrades such as utilities, street paving and drainage before money becomes available to finish the public housing rebuild.

The fact remains that Hope SF made a four-year-old unfulfilled promise to San Franciscans whose needs have been shoved back to the end of the line for a disgracefully long time.

There can be no arguing about how difficult today’s municipal spending constraints are. But simply giving up and leaving Hope SF on the back burner will only worsen the problems plaguing these low-income communities. This is a time to try moving beyond the bureaucratic envelope. Some ways should be found to sweeten the developer deals so they become more attractive to private funding. It would seem that a task force of creative business people ought to be able to find some way to move Hope SF forward.

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