Extra cash for SF public housing won’t fix vacancy issue, substandard conditions

Religion was not the motive behind Leonard Helm placing a Bible in the windowsill of his bedroom in the Sunnydale housing projects.

The good book is there because of the black speckles of mold on the curtain, the window frame and the wall — mold that Helm said is causing breathing trouble for his 1-year-old daughter.

“We hope God can keep it out,” he said.

Housing Authority workers have been dispatched to take care of the mold. But the mold keeps coming back, Helm said Thursday at the unit he shares with his wife and daughter near Visitacion Valley, in what is likely San Francisco's worst-off public housing.

Helm, 38, and his wife, Phylicia Borela, 24, have asked to be transferred out of their two-bedroom unit under the shade of large, old trees in one of Sunnydale's several dozen World War II-era blockhouse-style buildings.

But while there are more than 310 vacant units operated by the Housing Authority, there's currently nowhere in The City's portfolio of 6,142 public-housing units to put the family.


None of the $2.45 million granted to the Housing Authority as part of Mayor Ed Lee's $8.6 billion budget can go to deferred maintenance.

That money is earmarked for fixing up about 20 vacant units a month for the next year for other families currently on the Housing Authority's waitlist, which is more than 7,420 households long.

Public housing is technically not The City's job. The Housing Authority is run by an executive director and board of commissioners appointed by Lee, but the authority's funding comes from the federal government.

And Congress has repeatedly cut the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's budget, to the point that HUD estimates $25 billion in deferred maintenance across its public housing stock nationwide.

The City has stepped in to fill some gaps locally. In April, Lee directed $5.4 million of city funds to fix broken-down elevators in Housing Authority high-rises. And in June, The City found $2 million, with another $450,000 in federal cash, to fix up vacant units for homeless families.

Some vacant units will indeed be fixed and occupied.

There were 314 vacant units as of July 31, the most recent data available, with 71 of them in Sunnydale and another 49 in Potrero Terrace, The City's oldest and most-dilapidated public housing.

Most of the cash to fix up vacant units for homeless families will go to units in these developments.

Another 173 units will be fixed up by nonprofit developers under a program called Rental Assistance Demonstration.

Other units will receive repairs as they become vacant. As many as 179 housing units will be fixed up with the city cash.

However, there's no extra city cash set aside for day-to-day maintenance.


Housing Authority maintenance workers visited Helm and Borela's unit after receiving mold complaints in August and fixed what mold they found in the bathroom, according to Rose Dennis, a Housing Authority spokeswoman.

Workers from a private mold abatement company hired by the Housing Authority have also visited the unit twice last month and were denied entry, Dennis said.

“We are to rectifiy this woman's problem, but it would be helpful if the head of household would cooperate with us,” she said.

But the unit has no central circulation, and even running the heater on full blast with the windows open doesn't clear the moist — thick air that Helm said causes mold to return near the bedroom windows in a matter of days.

Meanwhile, their daughter's chest “rattles” when she breathes, Borela said Thursday. The couple said they took their daughter to doctors, who say that their living conditions could lead to asthma or other chronic breathing disorders.


Someday, Sunnydale as it stands will be demolished and replaced with a mixed-income neighborhood with hundreds of market-rate units. However, there's no funding yet identified for that ambitious rebuild and no set start date.

In the meantime, “people here are suffering,” said the Rev. Ismael Birch, one of the community advocates who led staffers from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's office around Sunnydale on Thursday morning.

There's mold, but there's also unemployment and violence: 12 of The City's 25 homicides in 2014 were in or around the area, advocates said Thursday, and the jobless rate is about four times the city average.

The tour began in the Willie Brown Youth Center on Sunnydale Avenue, where a rotten smell hung over the mismatched furniture in the center's main function room, and ended in Helm and Borela's unit on Blythedale Avenue, where Helm showed reporters what he said is a Petri dish bought from Walgreens that's less than a week old and already thick with mold.

“This is one of the richest cities in the world,” said community advocate Mattie Scott, repeating a familiar refrain. “People shouldn't be living like this in San Francisco.”

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