San Francisco’s public housing is in the middle of a huge transition. In 2007, the city rolled a plan to redevelop four of the city’s public housing sites in phases to avoid displacing any residents. Now, residents in Potrero Hill are in the first phase.
Our stories are made to be heard. If you can, please listen.
Harold Davis is packing for his move to 1101 Connecticut. It’s a brand new building, the first in the redevelopment of Potrero Hil’s public housing.
“See that little bar thing? That’s gotta go. That neck brace. Know what? Not those shoes. The shoes you can leave those, those are garbage,” Davis says, as he sorts through his belongings.
There’s a crew of movers here to help him, paid for by a government subsidy.
With less federal money, local housing authorities have been scrambling for solutions for their decaying public housing. In phases, residents move into new buildings, the old housing is demolished, and then higher density, mixed-income housing is built in its place.
Davis moved into Potrero Hill’s public housing in 2007. He’s originally from Alabama but came to California to be with family and try a different way of life.
“Once I was here, I thought the city itself was beautiful,” Davis says he was struggling to find suitable work because of a back injury, and his legal blindness. When his family couldn’t host him anymore, he had to go to a homeless shelter. Eventually, he landed in one of the 61 buildings that dot the hillside in Potrero Terrace and Annex. They look like old army barracks.
“I knew this was a public housing unit,” Davis says. “I didn’t really know anyone over here, so I tended to stay to myself.”
The movers put things in boxes and carry out the big stuff. Davis has to tell them what stays and what goes. He shakes his head when he sees where the movers left a hat on the bed.
“That’s bad luck! Bad luck!” he tells me. “And I have enough bad luck.”
Davis tells me he’s receiving regular radiation treatment for prostate cancer. On top of that, there’s the move. He takes a break from packing and stepped outside for a cigarette.
"You know, I imagine there would be people that would be excited about this," Davis says. "I’m not excited about this. I’m just doing what I’ve gotta do cause I don’t have any other choice or any say-so in the matter."
He walks me to his neighbor’s door. Lisa Gant is also moving into 1101 Connecticut, but she’s more optimistic than Davis.
“I feel great,” Gant says. “I’m glad we’re finally moving!” She tells me she didn’t get to pick out her new apartment, and won’t have a view. “So that’s the only downfall about my situation. Yeah, but other than that I’m happy that we’re moving,” Gant says.
They were both picked in a lottery to go into 1101 Connecticut. Everyone on this block is moving, either to the new building or into one of the existing public housing units.
For years, this part of the hill has seen a constant stream of contractors surveying the steep hillside, planning new infrastructure and talking to residents about their future homes. The city chose non-profit developer BRIDGE Housing Corporation to redevelop Potrero Hill’s public housing.
“In certain ways I feel it’s a setup,” Davis says. “It’s a move to set people up to fail. And then I can get you out, and then I’m a private owner and I have this beautiful view on this hill and all of this convenience. I can get you out and I can get other people in here that’s got big money.”
The north side of Potrero Hill has million-dollar homes, nice restaurants, and shops. But the south side is another story. The streets curve to follow the hilly landscape, which isolates residents from the rest of the neighborhood’s grid. There’s less access to parks and it’s a food desert. The closest supermarket is a Whole Foods on the other side of the hill, whose prices aren’t affordable for these residents.
The developer held monthly meetings to get community input on some things. In those meetings, residents asked for more educational opportunities, job training, safety, choice, and a feeling of dignity and ownership in their own community. But what gets built comes down to budget.
Davis says he wished residents had a bigger say in the design of the new building and who is moving into it. “I just don’t think that there’s a lot of fairness and thought given to the residents’ situations over here. It’s as if we’re not individuals. It’s like we’re all the same, so throw ‘em all in the pot and cook ‘em up the same way.”
Private Developers For Public Housing
It’s not surprising that residents, such as Davis, are suspicious of this plan. San Francisco doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to taking care of its public housing residents. We’ll get into that history in a minute. But first, public housing 101.
The federal government created publicly owned and operated housing during the Great Depression to provide low-income families with decent living conditions. But the government was hands-off in their mandate, entrusting localhousing authorities to build and manage these low-income properties. The bulk of San Francisco’s public housing stock was built as temporary housing for war workers in the 1940s. Public housing residents pay rent and make maintenance calls to the San Francisco Housing Authority.
That’s about to change for Davis. “I was under the impression it would be still under San Francisco Housing Authority,” Davis says. “But, just recently, I found out now we will be going under a private owner.”
That’s right, this public housing is going to be privately owned. Which begs the question: Is this still public housing? Technically, no. But practically, kind of.
I ask Theo Miller, director of HOPE SF, the public/private partnership leading this project. He tells me what the late Mayor Ed Lee used to say.
“We’re ending public housing. No more public housing in San Francisco. We’re all San Franciscans.”
1101 Connecticut and all future buildings in Potrero’s rebuild are owned and operated by the developer, BRIDGE. But the land underneath is still owned by the San Francisco Housing Authority. This “ground lease” keeps the buildings under government oversight, and ensures that these residents get government money to help with rent.
But how will things change for residents like Davis when a developer is the landlord?
“Now we will have to do the annual review with BRIDGE as well as Housing,” Davis says.
Every year residents go down to the property office, bringing all of their documents with them: IRS, social security, proof of whatever income or benefits they receive. Similar to how you sign a lease for an apartment, except public housing residents have to do it every year. And they have to prove they don’t make too much, instead of proving they make enough. So now Davis will have to do this with two authorities: The private developer that built his apartment, and the government agency overseeing it.
San Francisco has been trending toward private developers in public housing for years. One prominent example is HOPE VI. It was a public/private partnership that stretched through the ‘90s and early 2000s using $118 million in federal grants, as well as $186 million in private and public funds to redevelop projects such as Valencia Gardens and North Beach. Politicians and the building community were excited about HOPE VI, but people in the African American and housing rights communities were not.
“We tore down 300 units of housing, and only built 200,” says San Francisco Mayor London Breed. “We made a lot of mistakes and we moved so many of the people that I grew up with out of San Francisco.”
Breed grew up in the city’s public housing. Her housing project, Plaza East in the Fillmore, was one of the sites that badly needed redevelopment.
“Don’t get me started on the mold and the pipes and the roaches and the drama.”
Five sites had the HOPE VI makeover between 1999 and 2006. The buildings were good, but HOPE VI built fewer units than they demolished, and many residents were permanently displaced. This happened at the same time as the dot com boom and contributed to San Francisco’s loss of 3,000 black households in that era.
When federal grants for HOPE VI redevelopments ran dry, the city stepped in to help save the remaining public housing stock.
In his 2006 State of the City speech, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom announced a new plan. “I believe we can rebuild hope in our city,” Newsom said. “That’s why we are initiating HOPE SF — an effort to rebuild our most distressed San Francisco housing authority properties into mixed-use, mixed-income communities. Creating more low-income housing more middle-income housing, and more housing generally overall.”
Newsom was early in his Mayorship of San Francisco when he launched HOPE SF. It would give these decaying sites to non-profit developers to rebuild, as long as they ensured that there would be a one-for-one replacement of all public housing units. The developers would recoup their building expenses by creating denser housing, and selling some land off at market rate, creating a mixed-income community. These projects also rely on local housing bonds. There are four HOPE SF sites. Potrero Hill is the third to be rebuilt.
“HOPE SF is designed according to really rigorous non-displacement principals.” says Theo Miller, director of HOPE SF. “The HOPE SF neighborhoods that we’re in the process of transforming will be rebuilt one-for-one in terms of public housing. But we’re also increasing the supply of affordable housing. And integrating market rate housing on the sites.”
This will nearly triple the number of housing units on this land, going from 619 units to an estimated 1,700 units. All the current public housing residents are guaranteed units in new buildings, such as 1101 Connecticut. Roughly another third of the new development will be Affordable Housing for people making up to $50,000 a year. And the final third will be sold off at market rate. The redevelopment plans include homes for sale, but none below market rate.
The idea of putting people with differing incomes in the same place to create a thriving mixed-income community has been here in San Francisco since the ’60s.
In a 1965 television documentary ‘Where San Francisco Lives’, narrator Ed Fleming describes ambitions for a new development in Hunter’s Point: “Instead of more institutionalized housing, a mixture of low and medium cost dwellings could make Hunter’s Point not a ghetto, but a desirable neighborhood where people of different backgrounds and income wish to live.”
But Hunter’s Point remained notorious for violence and poverty.
Potrero’s New Building
In Potrero, it will be another two years before the next building is erected. But first comes a celebration for the completion of Phase 1. The atmosphere at 1101 Connecticut’s ribbon cutting ceremony is lively. Mayor Breed does the honors.
“This is what I do for a living,” Breed says, amidst laughter. “Alright let’s do this! 5, 4, 3, 2, 1!” The crowd counts down with the mayor and Breed cuts the ribbon and shouts, “Welcome to the hill!”
“This is honestly, really a dream come true for me,” Breed says. “I think about my family, I think about my friends who aren’t with us here today and the conditions that we suffered through. And I am so hopeful. Because now, as a result of this work, that so many of you have contributed to — making this dream a reality — the next generation of young people growing up in public housing will have a completely different experience. And that’s what gets me excited!”
Officials, residents, and community members each took a turn at the podium. Lifelong Potrero Hill resident Shervon Hunter gives the opening blessing. “Continue to bless the space that these new residents reside in.” After the ceremony, there’s music, and food, catered by a high-end butcher.
Soon after, I catch up with Hunter. She takes me to her office, located in one of Potrero Hill’s community centers. Actually, her husband dropped us off there because she said it would be dangerous to walk.
Her office is in the same barrack-style building as the public housing in the neighborhood. It’s a bare-bones room with a metal desk and creaky old office chairs. From her window, there’s a view of a neighborhood childcare center.
Hunter is the founder and director of Stand In Peace International, an organization that promotes healing in communities affected by trauma.
“I do healing circles, I do peace walks,” Hunter says. “People that have loved ones that have been lost to violence, that’s where some of the healing circles come from.” Potrero Hill has a high crime rate. Especially around the housing projects. Hunter doesn’t live in public housing, but this has always been her community. She says, “Potrero Hill gym is where I learned how to play basketball.”
And she has history here. She tells me her grandparents moved here in the 1940s. “My grandmother had a fourth grade education, was a paraprofessional at Daniel Webster until she retired. She lived in public housing until one of her children moved her out of public housing to live with them when she was too old to live by herself.”
Hunter is one of the community members concerned about the HOPE SF plan in Potrero Hill. We speak for an hour, and there’s one phrase she keeps coming back to: “Blatant disregard for the actual people that live in the public housing.”
HOPE SF says their goal is to change whole systems, so that race and place are not barriers to prosperity and opportunity. But Hunter is skeptical.
“Everybody’s acting as if 1101 is the savior for the people,” Hunter says. “But the reality is if they’re not addressing the equitable situations, or the historical genocide is what I call it, of African Americans in San Francisco, it’s really not being honest and authentic with the real work that needs to happen for the people.”
Remembering The Fillmore
The story of public housing in San Francisco is intrinsically linked to the city’s African American population. During World War II, there was a huge migration of Southern African Americans into the city, and most of them worked in the shipbuilding industry. Redlining and racially restrictive housing covenants limited Black families’ housing options. So they settled in places like the Bayview, and the Fillmore.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, jazz clubs and theatres made the Fillmore district famous as the Harlem of the West. People like Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald frequently played. The neighborhood was filled with black owned businesses and homes.
But the ‘urban renewal’ movement was sweeping the nation. The government used “eminent domain” to clear housing that they considered blighted and demolished thousands of homes and businesses to make way for Geary Boulevard. The community rallied and protested, like black pharmacy owner Wesley Johnson Jr., featured in the 1968 television documentary “One Nation, Indivisible.”
“This must stop.” Johnson said. “We are going to make some moves, some demands, to retake our black businesses. Retake our black land.”
But in the end, the redevelopment displaced thousands of African American residents. Many of those who stayed in the city were pushed into public housing sites. The black population in San Francisco has been on the decline ever since then.
Because of the displacement in the Fillmore, and the redevelopments of the ‘90s and early 2000s, many people in the African American community are distrustful of the city’s housing efforts.
While it’s true that the old buildings on Potrero Hill are overdue for remodeling, it’s also true that the land they’re built on is very valuable.
“And like literally, this whole side at the end of the day will be market rate,” Hunter says. “Get the water views, got the skyline, you got the bridge.”
The redevelopment plans show the market rate housing will be built on hills with unobstructed views. Neighborhood advocates such as Hunter worry what will happen to the community when wealthier residents start buying those units and the current public housing residents are moved into their new, denser buildings.
“This is a home for people. You’re taking away people’s homes. What they consider home,” Hunter says. “I’m not talking about providing a shelter, providing a house. I’m talking about home. There are communities, generations and generations of people here, who have been together, thriving together. As much as they’re like, ‘oh there’s violence, or it’s unsafe or it’s public housing,’ ... It’s communities, it’s family, it’s in the fabric.”
HOPE SF’s Philosophy
“When I talk about HOPE SF I call it the nation’s first large scale reparations initiative,” says Theo Miller, director of HOPE SF. “We are unapologetically intentionally trying to repair what decades of bad public policy has done on top of these communities.” Miller knows this isn’t just about providing a new building.
“In some ways the city and county is like three generations late on this issue.” He also knows people in the community are skeptical. “I’m sorry, it’s been a long time coming. And, stay with me, stay with us.”
Miller implores the community, “As you look at the affordable housing bond that’s on the ballot where $150 million is set aside for your community — as you look at all these resources, it’s still not enough, just know that we are trying to do our part to fulfill our promises.”
But what about the widespread anxiety residents have about displacement?
“You know sometimes I go to community and like my young people, my kids will say ‘Hey Theo, what’s up Theo? Is it true they’re building condos and they’re gonna kick us out?’ No. We are not building condos and kicking people out,” Miller says.
Each resident coming from public housing has a right to return. It’s in the city’s administrative code. “And the only condition for them moving into a new unit,” Miller says, “is that they need to be in quote-unquote ‘good standing.’”
What does that mean? “There’s a new sheriff in town. Right?” Miller says. “You gotta pay rent. You’ve gotta be in compliance with your lease.” That includes following house rules and avoiding criminal activity.
“And if families um, are having trouble with that, several things happen,”Miller says first the property management has to check in with the family, and if need be, get them extra support through the Mayor’s office.
Before, residents were supposed to get support from the housing authority. But the San Francisco Housing Authority is in trouble. Last year an audit revealed that it was at least $20 million short of their budget. The federal government, in the form of HUD, demanded that the city take over the functions of the SFHA. So now protections for these former public housing tenants lie with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development. Miller says any household that’s received a 14-day notice comes across his desk.
“And so no eviction should happen, not one, no eviction should happen without the Mayor’s Office being aware of it,” Miller says. “We should be notified, we should make sure supportive services have been provided. Families should have multiple chances to stay in that building.”
1101 is just the beginning of Potrero’s transformation. And the HOPE SF team still has a lot of work to do to honor the community’s history.
“There’s joy in people moving into high quality housing,” Miller says. “But there’s tremendous loss, there’s tremendous pain that a community that you called home for decades is no longer there. That the courtyards that you ran in, or the porch that you sat out on, or the open air that you had—the fact that you didn’t have people on top of you or beneath you — is gone. And there’s loss to that.”
The Potrero rebuild won’t be done for at least another 10 years. There’s a plan for how the roads will be straightened, which buildings will be built, and how it will all be paid for. But blocks will still be divided by income.
Theo Miller says he welcomes resident feedback. “I don’t get anxiety with residents who are concerned, because they have a right to be concerned. But it just holds us accountable to do our job even better, which we try to do each and every single day.”
For years, the developer, BRIDGE, has held community meetings once a month to keep Potrero Hill residents updated, and to get their input. BRIDGE staff says that the input gets distilled into goals, and they try to meet those. But in the end it comes down to budget. That means initial plans, like having a washer/dryer in every unit, don’t always happen.
After The Move
I visited Harold Davis two months after his move into 1101 Connecticut. He has unpacked his bedroom, but there are still boxes on the floor of his main room. He’s had more health problems, so settling in hasn’t been his top priority.
Though he hasn’t been here long, he’s already got some critiques. “My coming over here, okay, has cost me nothing but money I didn’t have,” Davis says. “In your bedrooms you have no lighting, so you have to go buy some lamps.”
Davis couldn’t bring his old washer that he paid for himself because there’s no hookup in the new unit. So now he has to pay for every load of laundry. And he has concerns about how some of the tenants are using the communal washers. “And then she had some Pine-Sol in a Hennessy bottle and she poured that in the machine as well. You never know what you’re gonna encounter within the confines of the laundry room,” Davis says. It may seem small, but tensions like these add up.
“The irony in this for me is you are rushing people over here,” Davis says, “and then we get over here and it’s not anything like what we were told, to me.”
Most of his concerns are about safety. 1101 was supposed to have someone at the front to check you in when you arrive. But when I went to visited, there was no security.
“You just got in here, nobody knew who in the hell you were, you coulda been a killer,” Davis says.
Last month Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, came to Potrero Hill on a so-called “fact-finding mission.” HUD is the branch of the federal government that has continually cut funding to public housing. There were protesters and media crowding around 1101. The protesters from housing advocacy organizations chanted “HEY HEY! HO HO! BEN CARSON HAS GOT TO GO!”
There I caught up with Lisa Gant — Davis’s neighbor with no view and a positive outlook. I wanted her perspective on the shift away from federal money and toward private and city money for redevelopments like this.
“For us to get this building is a wonderful thing,” Gant says, “so if that’s what you’re asking me, yeah! We need this! We have nowhere else to go, we can’t afford this type of stuff. I don’t want to leave San Francisco,” she says. “If it wasn’t for this place, I couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco. So this is great to me.”
I ask Gant what the residents think of all the media and protesters at their new home.
“They out here today, but they won’t be out here no other day, they just be out here this one time,” Gant tells me about her fellow residents’ reactions to the protesters. “They need to be at the meetings and see what we talk about and see what’s going on.”
She’s referring to a monthly meeting, started by the residents of 1101 Connecticut. They discuss things like getting new security guards or how to entertain the neighborhood kids, so they won’t ride bikes in the hallways.
That’s because despite the monthly meetings that BRIDGE and HOPE SF held, there are issues on the ground that the developer and the city didn’t anticipate. So the residents themselves are picking up the slack, and inviting BRIDGE staff to attend. They’re making space for their voices to be heard, at least by each other.