San Francisco seeks model approach to improve public housing

Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerMayor Ed Lee cited Valencia Gardens at 15th and Valencia streets as an example of a housing project that has thrived under a public-private partnership.

Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerMayor Ed Lee cited Valencia Gardens at 15th and Valencia streets as an example of a housing project that has thrived under a public-private partnership.

San Francisco’s experience with traditional public housing might be coming to an end, replaced by a privately funded model that other cities could follow.

All public housing in the U.S. relies on federal government funding, and in recent years the stream of cash needed to maintain such communities has dwindled. The result for The City is a chronically underfunded San Francisco Housing Authority with permanently dilapidated housing stock that “does not work for getting people out of poverty,” Mayor Ed Lee said Tuesday.

“There’s a better model, and the model is right here in San Francisco,” he added.

Some of The City’s most “distressed” public housing projects have been rebuilt by private developers, who now also manage those properties.

This model transformed Valencia Gardens in the Mission district and North Beach Place on North Point Street from places where “you went in not knowing what was going to happen to you” to places “people don’t even see as public housing,” Lee said. “That’s the model I would like.”

Those two developments were rebuilt under a Clinton administration program called HOPE VI. Though that program has long since ended, more public housing in Hunters Point is being rebuilt under a similar model by developer The John Stewart Co. City and federal money is combined with private investment to pay for new construction, which is then managed by the private company.

The program is called Hope SF, and it’s a model Lee wants to use for all local public housing.

Federal officials are in The City working to craft recommendations by July 1 for a drastically reformed Housing Authority that follows the Hope SF model, Lee said.

The City’s public housing could hardly be in worse shape. Bad management and finances have landed the authority on federal inspectors’ “troubled” list. And management of Section 8 housing — privately owned homes rented out to low-income people who receive subsidies — also has earned the lowest marks possible.

“How can you screw up Section 8? I don’t know,” said Lee, adding that he also might remove Section 8 management from the Housing Authority’s duties and give it to another agency or even a private third party.

The Housing Authority manages 6,476 units of public and Section 8 housing in San Francisco, according to spokeswoman Rose Dennis. There are 45 different public housing sites, with half reserved for seniors, veterans or disabled tenants and the rest for families, she said.

Fewer than 1,000 of the units are managed under the public-private partnership Lee envisions for the entire housing stock, Dennis said.

At Hunters Point, the land is owned by the Housing Authority but leased to The John Stewart Co. under a 99-year “residual receipts lease,” which stipulates that The City is due a payment if the company turns a profit, according to Olson Lee, director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing. Otherwise, there is no government oversight of the private companies managing public housing.

Activists such as Ed Donaldson, a former counseling director at the federally funded San Francisco Housing Development Corp., have pushed for new legislation that would provide blanket rules for public-private housing.

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