Treasure Island residents who rallied for increased scrutiny of an ongoing toxic cleanup on the island Thursday said that they have more to worry about than potential health risks stemming from years of living on contaminated land.
With a massive development of up to 8,000 units expected to break ground on the island next year, residents say they are also fighting displacement.
In some cases, residents allege they have been subject to retaliation and lost their homes for speaking out about health issues they believe are caused by radioactive contamination and other toxins on the island.
In others, residents say that a development agreement signed eight years ago is blocking access to the planned new units for those who want to stay, and making it difficult to relocate for those who want to leave.
Even as preparations for the new development are underway, the man-made island is undergoing remediation for toxins including radioactive contamination left behind from its past life as a U.S. Naval base. As previously reported the San Francisco Examiner, current soil removal efforts focused on a residential parcel known as “Site 12.”
State health officials have confirmed that radioactive isotopes found on parts of Treasure Island include Cesium -137, Radium -226, and Thorium-232, but environmental advocates and whistleblowers caution that chemical toxins also pose health threats for residents.
Advocates have pointed to the fact that the cleanup involves some of the same companies responsible for a botched cleanup effort at Hunters Point Shipyard, and called for all of Treasure Island’s residents to be moved off the island due to health concerns.
Some current and former residents allege that for years they were kept largely in the dark about the cleanup, subjected to retaliation for asking questions, and in some cases lost their homes as a result of advocating for their wellbeing.
Former Treasure Island resident Andre Patterson, who lived on the island between 2004 and 2017, during which time he was diagnosed with cancer, is among those claiming retaliation.
“I got thrown off the island because I spoke out about my cancer,” said Patterson, who is one of dozens current and former residents preparing for a lawsuit over the contamination and alleged harassment.
Of the some 1,800 households on Treasure Island, Patterson estimates that about a third are formerly homeless, veteran and disabled. Patterson, a U.S. Marine veteran, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
When redevelopment plans for Treasure Island were approved in 2011, the development agreement was supposed to grant tenants certain protections, such as relocation assistance payments and the option of moving into the new development.
But those protections were never extended to new residents who moved onto the island after 2011 and residents who want to stay now say the agreement in some cases blocks their access to the planned new units. Some fear the new development will price long-term, low-income tenants out.
On the other hand, market-rate tenants who want to leave due to safety concerns said they are effectively stuck on the island, because the agreement renders them ineligible for relocation assistance.
Robert Beck, director of the Treasure Island Development Authority, which oversees the Island’s operations and new development, confirmed on Thursday that so-called “Post-DDA” tenants do not have a right to move into the new development — a stipulation criticized by Supervisor Matt Haney.
Haney, who represents Treasure Island, said he heard concerns and confusion from current residents about which protections they are eligible for at a town hall hearing held on the island last week.
Haney said that he has requested a report on the tenant protections from TIDA, and will be “meeting with residents and the City Attorney around tenants’ rights to the future development.”
“They made that agreement eight years ago. People in some of the units who moved there after 2011 don’t have protections. Are we really going to evict over 1,000 people when this development starts?” said Haney. “That is unjust. Whatever type of unit you’re in, if you’ve been living there for years, it’s unacceptable for you to just be pushed out.”
Asked if he felt the DDA needed to be revisited, Beck answered “no.”
“We are being booted off either because of the cleanup, because of the dilapidated [housing] conditions or because of the new development project,” Jeff Kline, a near 20-year resident of Treasure Island who is entitled to relocation and housing benefits, told the San Francisco Examiner on Thursday.
Kline said he is concerned that the new development will effectively price out “pre-DDA” tenants like himself. A proposed vehicle toll for Treasure Island has raised questions about equity for low-income tenant, and Kline said that he worries that even affordable homes in the new development will be out of reach for him.
“It’s going to be too expensive on this island — they call it affordable, but it won’t be affordable because most people need to drive in and out to to get to work. They are going to have a toll, $3.50 each way with a Fastrak,” he said.
Tenant protections also differ for residents who live in market-rate housing and those in affordable housing operated by a number of nonprofits on the Island, including Catholic Charities, Swords to Plowshares, and the Community Housing Partnership. This is true even when the market-rate tenants are receiving subsidies such as Section 8 vouchers.
According to Beck, the protections for affordable housing residents “focus on continuity of housing,” while the “market-rate program has options for home ownership and down-payment assistance for homeowners.”
“If [Pre-DDA tenants] live in a market-rate unit, even if its Section 8, they would be eligible under the [market-rate program], which is homeownership or in lieu payments, if they are asked to move and choose not to move into another unit,” he said. Beck added that some households who were required to relocate were offered the relocation benefit and everybody who asked for it received it.
After living on Treasure Island for nearly two decades, a current resident who gave her name only as “Veronica” for fear of retaliation said that she asked to take advantage of the Pre-DDA relocation benefits in an effort to move off the island.
Veronica and her family are one of 26 Section 8 households in the Treasure Island Villages, a 425-unit market-rate housing development on the island operated by John Stewart Company.
Veronica said that her children began developing bronchitis, allergies and other illnesses just a few years after moving onto the island, and that she herself suffers from kidney problems. She claims that mold and asbestos in her home have gone unaddressed by her landlord, and that she has seen other John Stewart tenants face retaliation for speaking up about health risks in and outside of their homes.
Veronica said that she met with a TIDA housing counselor in 2017 and was promised a check to move off the island, but it never arrived.
She also alleged that she received nothing more than a cryptic warning from her landlord about Treasure Island’s contamination when she first moved in.
“When I was signing my lease they told me not to have my kids play in the backyard and not to dig in the dirt and not to plant anything. When I asked why, they didn’t tell me anything — they just left it like that,” she said.
Jack Gardner, CEO and President of John Stewart Company, disputed Veronica’s claims in an email.
“We have extensive environmental remediation protocols that we implement immediately upon notification and/or request by residents, and we do not (and have never) retaliated against nor evicted anyone for bringing forward environmental or health concerns,” said Gardner.
He added that the company provides “comprehensive disclosures to all residents prior to their moving onto the Island” and prohibits planting “in an abundance of caution regarding potential health concerns.”
Gardner also said that TIDA holds monthly meetings about the ongoing remediation effort. But a 18-year resident of Treasure Island who declined to give his name told the San Francisco Examiner that those meetings are not well attended by residents, who fear retaliation and “don’t trust anyone.”