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Please, In Our Backyard 

We need increased housing density in San Francisco as a way to protect our poorest residents and get them out of the ghetto

Wednesday, Jan 11 2006
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For San Franciscans, 2005 was a year of intellectual enrichment, and the combined lessons just might add up to a way to improve life for some of the city's least fortunate residents.

We learned from riotous France how ghettoization begets alienation, criminalization, and violence. We learned the same thing at home, as unsolved murders ballooned, with a high proportion of them in what is called public housing, but is really government-created ghettos. L'lle St-Denis near Paris, in other words, isn't fundamentally different than San Francisco's Potrero Terrace or Hunters View.

In this city, we learned that because residential real estate has become extremely expensive, developers might be willing to personally subsidize a third of apartments in a large development for low-income tenants in exchange for the proper permits. For example, thanks to a midsummer deal between developer Angelo Sangiacomo and Supervisor Chris Daly, 34 percent of 1,410 units to be built over the old Trinity Plaza apartments will be rented cheaply so lower-income people can afford them.

It just so happens that there's an official plan on the books that, if fully executed, could allow San Francisco to profit from this learning and turn murderous public housing slums into safe, integrated neighborhoods.

But as seems to always happen here, neighborhood interest groups, allied with demagogic politicians, are already circling their wagons in a protest effort that may scuttle a plan to make San Francisco more comfortable and secure for its poorest, most vulnerable residents.

Unless the city commits to making 2006 a year in which residents quit impeding anything that smacks of making other people's lives better, it's unlikely that the plan will break up a ghetto and provide its residents with a new, diverse, and vibrant neighborhood.


Potrero Terrace and Potrero Annex are names given to public housing projects about a mile south of Mission Bay, in which 1940s and 1950s barracks-style concrete buildings are scattered on a dirt-and-grass-covered hillside. They serve a dual role as gang fortress and 635-unit public slum. According to Sangiacomo/Daly math, a new neighborhood made up of 2,000 apartments -- creating about half the population density that's now filling the more urbanized parts of Mission Bay -- would offer subsidized housing sufficient to provide homes for residents currently living at the Potrero projects.

The Potrero slums happen to possess an amenity that would make this plan quite feasible -- a hillside with stunning bay views. If a builder were to redevelop that now-squalid place, and those views were sold as an amenity to condominium buyers, the resulting money would be sufficient to include in the development subsidized apartments for residents who already live there, albeit much nicer and safer apartments than their current homes.

The resulting economically integrated neighborhood would provide a nice, subsidized place in which to live, shop, stroll, and play -- as Mission Bay is becoming -- for poor people who now live in a dangerous tenement. The resulting expanded tax base would allow the city to spend money on presently shortchanged government programs. San Francisco's real-estate-price-inflating citywide apartment shortage would be somewhat assuaged.

And most important, such an enterprise might help curb the gang killing in that area. A large, economically diverse political constituency of the sort that would populate such a neighborhood wouldn't tolerate the type of police neglect Potrero residents now complain of. If you doubt the potential for such a phenomenon, stand at night in a quiet, rich neighborhood such as the Marina, and you'll see a lazy parade of police cruisers.

This whole promising concept may be impossible, however.

In San Francisco, members of the city's 400 neighborhood associations rise to arms every time someone threatens to build apartments somewhere. Public housing residents and members of the Housing Authority Commission are already using the rallying cry "anti-gentrification" to protest increasing the number of units on Housing Authority land.

Unless San Francisco residents and leaders apply the intellectual enrichment of 2005 to improving the lives of the poor, the anti-gentrification demagogues may succeed in keeping things the awful way they are.


In the summer of 2003 San Francisco city government officially invited developers to come up with plans to rebuild 18 of the city's most dilapidated public housing projects.

These range from vacant buildings on tiny lots, to vast plots such as the 31-acre Potrero Terrace and Annex and the 49-acre, 767-unit, bullet-plagued Sunnydale project in Visitacion Valley, down to a vacant duplex in Bernal Heights.

The invitation to developers was extraordinarily expansive, inviting them to come up with what could become entirely new neighborhoods, complete with mixed-income housing, stores, and any other amenities a planner could dream up. But it offered no specifics -- specific building plans incite NIMBY range wars in this city. The "request for qualifications" merely asked for developers to express willingness to come up with something -- anything -- that might allow the slums to be transformed from their dilapidated and dangerous state. This was no request for plans. And there exist none.

The possibilities inspire, however. Imagine vast swaths of underdeveloped land, some of it with spectacular vistas. Combine this with an open invitation for developers to come up with plans to erect whole neighborhoods upon it. Then fancy all of it in a city so overpriced that a typical condo costs near a million dollars. With potential government subsidies thrown in to sweeten the mix, this would be a developer's dream, right?

Not in San Francisco.

Here, NIMBY, anti-density, anti-gentrification battles can push back construction timelines by decades, add millions of dollars of financing costs to a project, and force developers to scale back plans into the deeply unprofitable zone. A molasses-slow bureaucracy stalls things further still, making San Francisco a place that all but the most tireless developers avoid.

Of 18 potential sites, only one drew a single offer by a qualified developer to sit down with city officials to discuss the possibility of rebuilding something that might make these awful places better and, by the way, pay for itself. That was Hunters View, 22 acres with 267 half-century-old, barracks-style apartments known mostly for out-of-control gang violence.

Nobody was interested in tackling what potentially could be the jewel of such developments -- Potrero Hill. They knew that homeowners' associations on the side of the hill near the Potrero projects are some of the most zealous anti-development advocates in America.

The John Stewart Co., an S.F. private developer specializing in public housing projects, led the consortium interested in Hunters View, which also included a nonprofit builder and a real estate financial consultant who works on low-income housing. In other words, the only developers interested were ones specializing in taking public money to build government housing. There were no worthwhile offers from other, more mainstream developers used to building cutting-edge mixed-use, mixed-income developments.

As things stand, a Housing Authority plan to improve the lives of public housing residents, by stretching scarce federal dollars, is now in year three. It so far has gotten almost nowhere. And everyone involved expects it to proceed just like any proposal to get something smart built in San Francisco: There will be years and years of neighborhood meetings during which once-idealistic plans are beat back into near nothing. Kudos will be handed out for this highly democratic public process. Neighbors and bureaucrats will feel like they've accomplished something. Only they will have done the opposite. They will have set back the possibility to improve the lives of city residents.

John Stewart Co. architects will meet with residents this week. They will carry no specific plans with them, however. In this city, having specific plans prior to holding years of such meetings means death.


Death knells are already ringing. Anti-gentrifiers on the Housing Authority Commission have said they hope there isn't "too much market-rate housing" in the new projects because poor and welfare families wouldn't be able to afford the nongovernment apartments built there. They've said they don't want to add any more apartments than are already there.

Now, I live in a neighborhood chockablock with houses and apartments I can't afford. The vast majority of San Franciscans suffer this same predicament, as we're a city primarily of renters. Yet astoundingly, I, and most everyone else, say I enjoy living here.

In fact, the San Franciscans living the most desperate, dangerous lives in this city are people who are surrounded by nothing but places they can afford -- that's to say, public ghetto slums.

Not-in-my-backyard homeowners are bound to become even more nettlesome than the no-gentrification commission members. Mission Bay, a former rail yard and industrial wasteland where builders are now erecting 4,000 apartments, plus parks, stores, office buildings, and a university campus, had lain vacant for 18 years as landowners were forced to hold charettes with anti-development homeowners' associations such as the Potrero Boosters. This group's neighborhood is a mile to the south, bordering Potrero Terrace and Potrero Annex. Any new development, even a mile from their front door, the Boosters said, would create traffic, noise, and shadows, and block vistas.

I can only imagine the battle they'd put up if buildings were proposed in a place that actually is in their backyard, as a now-nonexistent theoretical redevelopment of Potrero Terrace and Potrero Annex might be.

Changing this situation would require leadership. Housing Authority Executive Director Gregg Fortner has already shown some by shepherding the public housing revitalization plan as far as it's come. He needs our help.

And we're ready to provide it, because of all the education we got in 2005.

Let's make 2006 a final exam, and demand that our city leaders use increased housing density as a way to bootstrap our poorest residents out of violence and squalor.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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