Nathaniel Y. Downes/Special to The S.F. ExaminerThe Rev. Ishmael Birch points to the dilapidated grounds at the Sunnydale housing project.

Nathaniel Y. Downes/Special to The S.F. ExaminerThe Rev. Ishmael Birch points to the dilapidated grounds at the Sunnydale housing project.

Old housing may have rampant lead violations

Nichelle Fulbright still isn't positive how her daughter, now 3, came to have elevated levels of lead in her blood last year.

But after the Department of Public Health contacted the 23-year-old single mother and asked if she wanted her unit in The City's Sunnydale housing projects inspected this spring, she has a theory.

During an April review, city health inspectors found lead dust in her bathroom at 15 times above acceptable levels, according to records. The culprit: Damage to the bathroom wall, which disturbed the ancient building's lead paint.

“At the time, I didn't even know my house had lead,” said Fulbright, who has lived in the housing projects near the San Mateo County border with her daughter, Kahlia, and her son, 8, since 2011. “Now, I put two and two together, and think that's maybe how my daughter got lead poisoning.”

Fulbright has since moved out of that unit, which was cleaned up and declared lead violation-free in late May, according to records.

But there could be more units like hers, Fulbright and community advocates say.

The problem is that no one is sure.

Fulbright's was one of nine units at Sunnydale inspected by the health department for hazards within the last five years, records show.

Lead paint and other potential hazards exist throughout Sunnydale, built in the early 1940s, and many other Housing Authority properties. Units are inspected before tenants move in, said agency spokeswoman Rose Dennis.

“We're always treating … there's no end to that,” she said.

Despite that, health inspectors still found health code violations at three of the nine units they inspected. Health officials do checks only after receiving a complaint or having a resident, like Fulbright, agree to a voluntary inspection, according to Joe Walseth of the DPH's childhood lead prevention program.

Fulbright was contacted for an inspection through her participation in the Women, Infant and Children program, a federally funded nutritional effort for women with young children.

That leaves 758 units at Sunnydale not checked by health inspectors — and a host of other potential violations at the notoriously dilapidated housing project, community advocates say.


Lead paint and asbestos were used when Sunnydale, The City's biggest housing project by landmass and its most isolated, was built to house workers employed in San Francisco's wartime industries during World War II.

About 1,600 people live in the crumbling buildings today, which the Housing Authority — which receives its money from the federal government but is managed locally by a director and a board appointed by Mayor Ed Lee — has long said it simply does not have the money to maintain.

Exact occupancy figures were not immediately available this week, but on a recent visit, many units in Sunnydale were unoccupied, with plywood boards nailed across windows and doors.

As many as 80 percent of the 767 units there are families with small children, said Mattie Scott, executive director of the nonprofit Healing 4 Our Families & Our Nation, based in nearby Visitacion Valley.

Disrepair, water damage, as well as renovation and shoddy work can all disturb lead paint and create an unsafe environment, according to health officials.

“Every unit here should be checked, not only for lead, but for all hazards,” she said. “It's sad families have to live in that today … sad and absurd and unhealthy.”

Other residents contacted by The San Francisco Examiner declined to go on the record, fearing retribution from the Housing Authority. Many said they were also concerned about potential unsafe conditions.


The Housing Authority is confident other units' lead paint is not damaged enough to cause health hazards, Dennis said.

“Would I feel safe living in one of these units? Yes,” she said. “Would I feel safe with one of my familiy members in one of these units? Yes.”

Fulbright says the lead levels in her daughter, who has been spending more time with her grandmother in Vallejo, are back at acceptable levels.

“I don't know what effects it'll have in the long run,” she says, and adds that she wonders about her neighbors' health. “Half of the people living here never go to the doctor.”

Unsafe conditions, incomplete inspections

Out of 767 units at Sunnydale, San Francisco's most isolated public-housing development, public-health officials have inspected nine for lead violations and found unsafe conditions in three of them.

– 1732 Sunnydale Ave.

– 1913 Sunnydale Ave.*

– 21 Santos St.

– 40 Santos St.*

– 63 Santos St.

– 65 Santos St.*

– 236 Santos St.

– 73 Brookdale Ave.

– 201 Blythedale Ave.

*lead violations found

Source: Department of Public Health

Bay Area NewsHousing Authorityneighborhoodspublic housingSFHA

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