San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood was often on the receiving end of racially and economically biased “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” projects overseen by Justin Herman, the late executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood was often on the receiving end of racially and economically biased “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” projects overseen by Justin Herman, the late executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Renaming Justin Herman Plaza part of effort to correct decades of community damage

Removing the name from a popular San Francisco plaza of a head of an agency that displaced thousands of black residents may be easy, but righting that wrong that occurred four decades ago is another matter.

For decades, San Francisco has struggled to redress the thousands of households displaced during the redevelopment era of the 1960s and ’70s that destroyed black communities in the Western Addition and Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhoods.

Those displaced are entitled to certificates of preferences, which gives them priority over other applicants in affordable housing lotteries, but the program has had many flaws.

Hundreds who The City knows about remain actively trying to move into affordable housing. But many say they need more assistance or give up altogether, thinking they aren’t eligible, according to a new city-survey released Tuesday.

A symbolic stand against those racist development policies of the past was taken Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors in a unanimous approval of a resolution introduced by Supervisor Aaron Peskin that calls on the Recreation and Parks Commission to remove Justin Herman’s name from Justin Herman Plaza, which is at the foot of Market Street, and later rename it through a community process.

SEE RELATED: Petition launched to rename Justin Herman Plaza after Maya Angelou

Herman was executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and oversaw “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” projects in the Western Addition during his tenure from 1959 to 1971, according to the resolution.

“In 1970, Herman said, ‘This land is too valuable to permit poor people to park on it,’ to give credibility to this ‘urban renewal’ project that sought to buy up buildings and evict people who were poor, old, black and brown,” the resolution reads.

“It’s more about a misguided series of policies than the individual named herein. This was not just about Justin Herman. This was about a national misguided policy,” Peskin said, referring to “urban renewal.”

But while The City may delete his name from the plaza, it still is struggling to help those impacted by that era secure affordable housing in San Francisco.

San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood was often on the receiving end of racially and economically biased “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” projects overseen by Justin Herman, the late executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Last year, the commission of The City’s successor agency to the dissolved Redevelopment Agency hired Lake Research Partners, a consultant in Berkeley, to analyze the demographics of known COP holders.

The consultant’s survey reached out to The City’s 891 “active” certificates of preference holders, those whose contact information is current. But an untold number also are entitled to the benefit. Of those, 251 have used them once. They can be used twice, once for homeownership and once for rentals.

With the promise of $10 CVS gifts cards, 114 responded. David Mermin, an LRP consultant, called it a very high response rate. The results, he said, are representative with a 9.2 percent margin of error.

Most continued lived in San Francisco or the Bay Area, and 83 percent said they wanted to use their benefit to move into affordable housing in The City. The single most desired location was the Fillmore, but anywhere was welcomed.

SEE RELATED: Leasing report reveals monumental demand for SF affordable housing

Most surveyed were ages 50 to 75 — anyone in the household at the time of displacement is entitled to a certificate — a majority earn incomes under $60,000 and almost four out of five are black. Most are renters, and a majority of them say they are paying more than half of their income in rent.

“Most of these current COP holders said they have never applied for housing using their COP,” Mermin said. “The No. 1 reason they offered for why they have not applied is that they don’t believe they qualify.”

Nearly 80 percent said they could use “assistance in applying for housing,” such as information about housing opportunities.

Miguel Bustos, who sits on the Commission on the Community Investment on Community Investment and Infrastructure, the successor agency, was disappointed by the results.

“We’ve been dancing around this stuff for a long time now and I don’t think we really cracked it,” Bustos said during the commission’s Tuesday hearing. “We’ve spent a lot of money hiring people, hiring organizations, nonprofits to go out there and find certificates of preference holders and still people don’t know if they are eligible or not. And still people say that it is too much of a complicated process. We shouldn’t be down this road. We should have passed that a long time ago.”

Maria Benjamin, director of below-market-rate programs for the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, defended The City’s efforts and said they reach out to certificate holders 18 months before new developments come online and applications are due.

“Whether they actually come … and work on the issues that might be barriers to affordable housing for them is another story,” Benjamin said.

There may be many more displaced residents The City doesn’t know about. There were 6,000 households displaced, and an unknown number of people living in the households. Those living in the homes at the time of displacement going back to the 1960s are entitled to the certificates.

“We don’t actually know all the people that were living in those displaced households until they come to us,” Benjamin said.

Bustos said The City needs to take a “deeper dive” with certificate holders and conduct a “little bit more hand holding” to right the wrong.

“Forty years ago, we offered those families the right to come back, and 40 years later, we are still here,” Bustos said.Politics

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