Formerly homeless say city ignores complaints over living conditions in subsidized housing

A city review revealed tenant complaints about mildew, mold and rodents, as well as harassment.

Standing in the common room of the Jordan Apartments on a recent Wednesday, tenant Liza Murawski’s hands were shaking as she recounted an incident in 2015 in which she and her service dog were attacked by a neighbor’s dog.

Murawski said that the incident cost her thousands of dollars in veterinary bills, resulted in a court ordering her neighbor’s dog muzzled and prompted both parties to seek restraining orders against each other. But she was far more traumatized by the four years of harassment that she said followed from male tenants in the permanent supportive housing property as management and city leaders turned a blind eye.

At the Jordan Apartments in the Tenderloin— a permanent supportive housing community for formerly homeless residents with mental health or substance use disorders — Murawski described a “disconnect between management and case management.”

“You are left to your own devices — chaos can be circulating around you and it doesn’t ever get contained. This already marginalized population suffers because its a break in the whole community that turns into dysfunction if people’s bad behavior is reinforced and not looked at,” she said. “Why are we delegating funds to these places when they are destroying people’s lives?”

Murawski is not alone in her feelings.

A review by The City’s Mental Health Board last September shared with the San Francisco Examiner found that the Jordan Apartments, which is owned by the Supportive Service provider Conard House and managed by John Stewart Company, a low-income property management company, found that female residents reported fearing for their safety. Female tenants comprise around 11 percent of those living in the 54-unit Section 8 apartment building, according to tenants there.

Liza Murawski walks down the hall to her apartment at the Jordan Apartments in the Tenderloin on Wednesday, July 24, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The review also revealed tenant complaints about John Stewart ranging from simple maintenance issues to health hazards — including years of mildew, mold, rusty pipes and rodent infestations left unaddressed. There were also concerns about a site manager who tenants felt “harassed by” and “were afraid to complain about legitimate issues due to retaliation and threats that they could be evicted.”

Safety and health concerns are not unique to the Jordan Apartments. Last month, the Mental Health Board passed a resolution urging The City to develop “a system of oversight and accountability for buildings providing permanent supportive housing to people with behavioral health challenges.”

Per the resolution, which will move before The City’s Board of Supervisors for consideration, some of The City’s permanent Supportive Housing properties “are in varying states of neglect and disrepair with incidents of mold, structural damage, missing or broken fixture and appliance, vermin infestation, and outdated and potentially hazardous spluming, electrical and mechanical systems, rusty pipes and brown water.”

“There’s an overall lack of accountability at almost every single one [of these properties] that exists,” said Mental Health Board member Judy Drummond. “They are owned by large corporations and managed by people that don’t own it. You have to go through many layers to get through to those that make the changes. [The complaints] are all watered down by the time they get there and no one cares about the process.”

The Jordan Apartments are owned by the Jordan Housing Corporation, a single entity housing nonprofit that is headed by Conard House’s board of directors. The corporation contracts with John Stewart Company, which is charged with managing the operations of the buildings and enforcing the provisions of tenants’ leases — including those related to behavior.

Conard House has a multi-year contract with The City’s Department of Public Health to provide supportive services to the residents of the building on a voluntary basis, according to Executive Director Richard Heasley.

The company receives a mixture of city, state and federal funding for its services, and holds contracts with Public Health and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing for a combined 700 units in San Francisco, according to Heasley.

Conard is mandated by the state to fill half of its units with tenants who have a mental health diagnosis.

Heasley acknowledged that “bullying activity” is rife in supportive housing settings, and said that eligibility restrictions for permanent supportive housing are an “impediment” to transferring tenants who request it.

“People aren’t able to just move out,” he said.

In response to tenants’ grievances, Heasley said residents of the Jordan Apartments and other Conard-owned buildings have “access to several different grievance routes,” including complaining to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, The Human Rights Commission, and the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment.

He added that as the property management company, John Stewart is responsible for addressing quality of life issues that violate tenants’ leases, which ensure them with the right to the “quiet enjoyment of their units.”

But Jordan Apartments tenants who attempted to air their concerns with the property management company told the San Francisco Examiner that they felt “ignored.”

“It makes me feel fucking worthless. I don’t matter, if the truth be told. And they are making it clear that I don’t matter,” said Markus Darkraven, who has been a resident at the Jordan Apartments since 2003 after being homeless for two years. “As long as I give up my money every month. There is no one that can help you.”

Markus Darkraven points to mold in the bathroom of his apartment at the Jordan Apartments in the Tenderloin on Wednesday, July 24, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Darkraven said that his issues began with a water leak from a neighboring apartment in 2009 that caused moisture and mildew in his apartment.

“I have had problems ever since,” said Darkraven, who added that he has written letters about the issue to “every John Stewart property manager” — past and present.

“I have talked to everyone I can think of,” said Darkraven, who has polio and said that the state of his apartment has impacted his health negatively.

Mold lines the floor in the bathroom of Markus Darkraven’s apartment at the Jordan Apartments in the Tenderloin on Wednesday, July 24, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“It’s a building full of vulnerable tenants — John Stewart, Conard and everyone involved knows that. There is no ignorance here. The problem there is no agency in the city or state that anyone can go to and the ones that they do send you to placate you, blow you off,” he said. “It angers me, because there are people here who cannot advocate for themselves.”

John Stewart Company President Jack Gardner said in a statement to the Examiner that each of its properties — some 27 properties in San Francisco — “has a grievance procedure designed to respond to resident concerns and complaints in a timely and appropriate manner.”

Markus Darkraven looks through paperwork related to his tenancy in his apartment at the Jordan Apartments in the Tenderloin on Wednesday, July 24, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

That procedure includes allowing residents to “appeal decisions at the property level or with the initial interviewer, as well as formal procedures that escalate the complaint or appeal to a management representative that was not involved in the original decision.”

Per the statement, “life safety issues are always dealt with in the most expeditious manner, with immediate investigation and efforts to resolve the issue within 24 hours.”

Gardner disputed allegations of mold festering in tenants’ apartments, and said that management conducts “annual inspections of every apartment in addition to agency inspections that occur each year,” and that a licensed pest control company “inspects every unit every month.”

He added that evictions “are extremely rare” and that the company is “committed to housing retention.”

“All residents have an obligation to pay a portion of their income towards rent, but management works extensively with those who are late to remedy nonpayment,” said Gardner.

Murawski maintains that she has followed the proper channels for filing her complaints over the past four years, including verbal reports to Conard and John Stewart staff members,written complaints filed through a complaint box within her building and letters and emails addressed to management and officials within the Public Health and HSH.

In 2017, Murawski escalated her concerns to the Human Rights Commission, which determined that she was not a victim of harassment as a result of her gender or disability, absolving John Stewart and Conard of liability for failing to prevent discriminatory harassment.

However, the commission’s report pointed to “a number of problems” with the companies’ policies, and determined John Stewart’s grievance procedure was misleading to tenants “as it implies that tenants must first go through [John Stewart’s] complaint process before filing with any outside entity.”

The commission also recommended instituting greater transparency into the grievance process, providing training for all staff on anti-discrimination law and practices, and responding to harassing behavior between tenants in a more timely fashion.

“Part of the problem is that we have this huge system that is very confusing with multiple partners and contracting agencies that don’t necessarily have the same standards of care and ability to collaborate and implement best practices,” said Judith Klain, of the Mental Health Board.

“We found a gap in the complaint process. Our resolution is requesting that there be a place for people to also be able to bring complaints they have with property management company,” said Klain. “Right now they can file with federal government around health and safety issues, but there is no place internally where there can be an independent body looking at this.”

Tenants of the Jordan Apartments agree that the grievance process should be simplified.

“You are supposed to be confused about this. You are not supposed to know where to go and you’re not supposed to care about it either. You’re supposed to pay your rent and be happy you have a place to live,” said Doreen Paddock, who has lived in the Jordan Apartments for 15 years.

Paddock said that while she is now a client of the mental health system, she also worked within the system for nearly two decades.

“This is not the way it should be for people with problems. You don’t degrade people or make them feel less than. And that’s what’s happening here,” Paddock said.

This story is part of the SF Homeless Project, a media collaboration, coordinated by the San Francisco Chronicle, intended to draw attention to solutions to end the crisis. See related stories: Joining the SF Homeless Project to inspire solutions, Homelesness grows on SF’s sleepy west side , Homeless count shows sharp decline in Golden Gate Park — but where did everyone go? and Nolan’s Blues: One man’s tale of survival

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