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Rooms With a View 

Hunters View residents stand up to the Housing Authority in the name of self-governance

Wednesday, Oct 25 1995
The Rev. Willie Carter and Peter Byrne stand in the middle of the West Point cul-de-sac up at Hunters View, one of the largest public housing projects in the city. Since August of last year, they've been sprucing up the neighborhood and doing what little they can to eradicate crime and drugs. And today, they want to show off a little.

The 275-unit development, perched on a hill between Hunters Point and the old naval base, still bears the telltale signs of urban decay: lime-green and jaundice-yellow buildings marred by graffiti, chipped and peeling paint, and boarded-up windows. But here and there, as the two men point out, there is evidence of rejuvenation. Trees have been planted, lawns seeded and grown.

"Where there was nothing -- no trees, no lawns, just dirt and broken-down cars -- there's trees and green lawns and gardens," says tenant advocate Byrne, showing a reporter the landscaping work the residents have completed.

Last summer, the San Francisco Housing Authority awarded the Hunters View Resident Management Council $675,000 to landscape the site. Additional grants for security guards (to prevent abandoned units from becoming crack dens), a tutorial program for 60 schoolchildren, and drug rehabilitation soon followed. As the new year dawned, the tenants controlled close to $1 million in grant money and employed 30 local residents. Housing officials from Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., visited the drug rehabilitation center, and the federal Housing and Urban Development Administration (HUD) was so impressed that it used the drug program as a model in offering funds for similar programs.

Carter's pride and joy, however, is the community garden, 10 planter boxes full of wet peat moss, waiting for kids and seeds. "Built those boxes myself," he says, leaning on the garden's gate.

But a harsh fiscal reality intrudes on Carter's boasting. "We used to have eight people in rehab," he says. "But money ran out this summer." Since August all the programs have been shuttered and the employees laid off. What's worse is the problem isn't the usual paucity of government funds. Hunters View tenants say the reason they haven't been able to continue their work is entirely political: They insist they're being punished by local housing officials, who're delaying a continuation of grants because the tenants are too critical of the agency and the five-member commission that oversees it.

But some say what's really irked housing officials is the crime of successful self-governance. They've done too good a job, showing up the San Francisco Housing Authority bureaucrats who're supposed to oversee quality of life in the government-controlled boroughs of the city.

The form of penance city housing bureaucrats have chosen for tenants is appropriately bureaucratic. They're burying them in paperwork. The Housing Commission, made up of mayoral appointees, has requested all manner of documentation -- articles and bylaws of the tenant council, nonprofit tax status filings, an audit of expenditures on the old grants. Until the paperwork is in order, the grants will not go out. Last week, the tenants finally compiled all the relevant material and delivered it to the commission. But they still wonder what new stumbling block the commission will throw in front of them.

"I'm not sure what will happen next," Byrne says.
On the surface, the commission's requests seem appropriate. Surely the government has the right and the obligation to track the money it doles out. But the tenants and their attorney, Robert Noel, say the requests are unnecessary, amounting to harassment. Tenants have already provided the requested documents many times over, Noel says. He adds that the requests keep changing, too. When they seem to have met one set of demands, the demands change, Noel says. "It's a moving target," he comments.

Attorney Noel and others say the level of scrutiny being applied to Hunters View is extraordinary. "No one else has to meet these requirements," Byrne says.

Housing Commissioner Barbara Meskunas agrees that the document requests are unnecessary, saying that her fellow commissioners are pursuing a vendetta against Hunters View.

"I've never heard of any housing authority being this exacting," Meskunas says. "It's discriminatory. It sets up a double standard. We don't scrutinize any other contracts in this manner. We shovel money out the door. But when it comes to tenants, it's, 'Let's get out the microscope and look at every penny.' "

"The tenants got all this national attention," she continues. "[The commissioners] are jealous. They don't like them because they are feisty and arrogant and they do a better job than the Housing Authority ever could."

Noel shares a story to illustrate the political nature of the document requests.

At a recent Housing Commission meeting, some of the commissioners complained that they had not been given the documents they had asked for, only to be informed that the documents in question were literally sitting in front of them in the informational file they had been reading from.

"The tenants are being horsed around and harassed; it's that simple," Noel says in a phone interview.

Deputy City Attorney Marie Corlett Blits, who represents the commission, says Noel and his clients are reading way too much into the commission's requests.

"We are simply asking them to comply with HUD regulations," she says.
Blits adds that new, stricter HUD regulations were enacted in August and that Hunters View simply has the misfortune of being the first resident management council to have to comply.

Meskunas' view appears to be a minority of one on the commission. Housing Commissioner Sululagi Palega, the only other commissioner to return phone calls, gave the same defense as Blits.

"Pure bullshit," Noel responds. "They are not citing new regulations. There are no new regulations. They are citing the same old regulations that have been on the books for years, and which the tenants have always complied with."

Evident from the tenor of the debate, the relatively minor battle over the grants is part of a larger struggle between tenants and housing officials.

The source of the tension, some say, is the concept of tenant management. Certainly nothing new -- tenant management was developed by Jack Kemp when he ran HUD in the '80s -- the concept still generates acrimony between the Housing Authority and its tenants.

There's just something about tenants demanding change and calling the government on its missteps that drives housing officials crazy. Whether it's holding the commission to the strict rules of public meetings laws -- Byrne once filed a police report against the entire commission when it met in secret -- or lambasting the agency when it wastes money, the tenants of Hunters View have become more than gadflys. They're horseflies. And they can bite.

Last year, then-Commissioner Karen Huggins became so incensed over a critical article Byrne had written in the New Bayview News, a local newspaper, that she convinced her fellow commissioners to rescind a contract they had previously approved giving resident management councils across the city legal standing to inspect Housing Authority financial records and to advocate for public housing tenants.

"She stood up and on the record at a public commission meeting said, 'We should rescind our vote, we shouldn't be granting contracts to people who criticize us,' " Noel says. The comment led the tenants to file a civil rights suit against the Housing Authority and commission this year. "After the suit is when they started asking for all this documentation," Byrne adds.

The chances the agency will improve its relations with Hunters View and other tenants' groups are not good. But surprisingly, some of the Housing Authority's top officials are beginning to side with the tenants and attack their own province.

"The people who ask for help and try and control their lives always get beaten down," says Barry Stewart, chief financial officer for the Housing Authority. "The agency is totally resistant to change.

About The Author

George Cothran


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