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Four Steps to Success for Gavin Newsom 

Wednesday, Jan 30 2008

Yakking and posing-wise, Gavin Newsom got his second mayoral term off to a busy start. To differentiate between his promises and the truth, let's examine the facts.

On Jan. 8, San Francisco's mayor said that this year government will "start the task of rebuilding 2,500 of our most distressed and antiquated public housing units — without losing one unit — and without forcing one tenant out of the system." He also vowed to spend "more on our local HOPE SF program to rebuild public housing than the entire federal government is spending in all 50 states."

Newsom's comments astonished insiders, because they didn't seem to jibe with reality. To get an application to rebuild public housing in the way the mayor describes, you have to show where the funding is coming from and demonstrate a specific relocation plan for existing residents. But according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, San Francisco has taken none of these steps. And while the city has no explicit official expenditures for rebuilding, the federal government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding public housing in places such as New Orleans.

As further evidence of the hollowness of Newsom's words, when a construction proposal of this magnitude demonstrates a hope of success, operators come out of the woodwork threatening to hold up the project and demand ransom. Note, for example, the announcement last week by Supervisor Chris Daly that he'll campaign to halt plans for 10,000 housing units near Candlestick Park. Regarding the mayor's promised reconstruction of public-housing slums, however, the city's band of roving extortionists hasn't made a peep.

On Jan. 15, the mayor announced a new anti-global-warming plan he calls "SForward," whose most specific initiative consisted of changing the types of lightbulbs used in city buildings. In the press release, he was quoted as saying, "The San Francisco of the future will be a place where words like 'green' and 'sustainable' are meaningless because it will simply be understood that any action includes best practices for the environment."

This perplexed those who actually work in the area of sustainable development. Newsom's sloganeering, alongside meaningless token initiatives such as changing lightbulbs and ordering subordinates to forgo bottled water, has contrasted with four years of foot-dragging and lack of leadership on transportation and development, the policy areas most important to protecting the environment.

On Jan. 25, after meeting with Democratic bigwigs to talk about making cities environmentally sound, Newsom led a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, titled "Urban Renewal: How Cities are Aiming for Sustainable Growth." Given the paucity of Newsom's success thus far at aiming for sustainable growth, the event seemed to challenge the Davos confab's pretensions to seriousness and influence.

However, to upend Shakespeare's Mark Antony, I come not to bury Newsom, but to praise his good intentions. I'm rooting for our mayoral cipher to fulfill his promises for sustainable growth, improving government efficiency, and rebuilding the city's gang-ridden, uninhabitable slums. The alternatives are urban stagnation, poverty, environmental degradation, and the continuing deterioration of our quality of life. We've heard four years of empty promises that we'll leave this rut. But I see no alternative but to accept the latest round of rhetoric at face value and wish for the best.

Little attention has been paid to the staff reshuffle Newsom performed after his November re-election, although he has been criticized for giving ambiguous job titles and six-figure salaries to insiders. I recently joined the aforementioned dogpile with a column questioning the qualifications of the mayor's new homelessness czar.

Buried behind this kind of squawking is a promising reality: At least two of Newsom's newly appointed policy czars are eminently qualified to transform San Francisco from a can-say to a can-do city. A few humble measures we're callling SF Weekly's Frisco Foreward might help accomplish just that.

In no particular order, here are the plan's components:

1.) The mayor should finally make good on four years of promises to rebuild public housing.

Mirian Saez, the new acting Housing Authority chief, is as qualified as anyone to help turn around San Francisco's troubled public housing bureaucracy. But she has to move fast, because the city is on the verge of ceding control of the agency to the federal government. (Saez, through a spokesman, said she wouldn't speak with me for this article.)

Saez previously worked as a court-appointed receiver of the dangerous and decrepit Housing Authority in Chester, Pennsylvania, where she oversaw the demolition, rehabilitation, and construction of dozens of buildings after the federal government was sued for failing to repair what had become a ghetto slum. Last year she served on a mayoral commission recommending that San Francisco move forward with the long-delayed reconstruction of our most hellish public housing projects.

In other words, Saez is a qualified troubleshooter who comes to the agency at a crucial time. The San Francisco Housing Authority has been so poorly run during the first four years of the Newsom administration that it's on the verge of being taken over by a receiver after it failed to pay $15 million in lawsuit judgments last year stemming from a 1997 apartment fire. The order is pending appeal. But even if San Francisco somehow wins that battle, the agency is far from healthy. The Housing Authority is now in such disarray that the federal government is considering seizing control of it, independent of the issue of the aforementioned lawsuit.

Federal officials are tabulating the results of a series of inspections conducted last year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). A previous inspection revealed the city's public housing to be so dilapidated and dangerous that the Housing Authority was labeled a "troubled agency." There has been no meaningful improvement. HUD rules say that if the agency fails the latest inspection and receives another "troubled" rating, it will be taken over by a federal receiver.

Newsom's inaugural address referred to long-ago-drafted plans to overhaul the worst of San Francisco's housing projects, the Hunters View project just north of the Bayview. It's now a shooting gallery, where about a third of the apartments are boarded up; others are leaking or otherwise damaged. There are plans to tear down Hunters View and create a larger housing development, including market-rate apartments whose rental or sale would subsidize the reconstruction of units for needy residents.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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