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A Moving Experience 

Delays and mismanagement endangered a $20 million federal reconstruction grant for North Beach Place. So the Housing Authority tried to speed the project up -- by tricking longtime, elderly residents into leaving.

Wednesday, Dec 12 2001
Sitting in the midst of her living room, 64-year-old public housing tenant Sally Lee is surrounded by stacks of bags that nearly reach her water-stained ceiling. The pink plastic bags, she explains through a Cantonese interpreter, have been packed since 1998, when she was first told that the San Francisco Housing Authority would knock down and rebuild her home, the North Beach Place housing project. Living without being certain where she'll end up is difficult, she says, but the packed bags are the least of the problems.

There was, for example, the day in July when a Housing Authority staff member called her at 7 a.m. and told her that she had to sign papers and move immediately from the home she'd occupied for 24 years. "She said that they were going to knock the place down in October, so I said I'd wait until then," Lee says, gesturing wildly with hands that are arthritic from years of working in a sewing factory. "I said I'd wait until October, and she said that if we waited, we'd be bussed out to Treasure Island and have to live in trailers. So I said that I heard it was very pretty there, and that if everyone was going, I'd go too.

"Then she laughed. ... It was kind of silly for her to say that when there's no housing there. Was she joking? Why would she joke about something like that?"

Actually, Lee knows the ruse was no joke; Housing Authority pressure tactics have become a way of life now at North Beach. To say the Housing Authority has mismanaged North Beach relocation matters is to understate by several orders of magnitude.

To illustrate how bad things have gotten, Lee recalled a conversation from this summer, when her 84-year-old best friend told her that dealing with the authority just wasn't worth the trouble anymore. "She said it would be fine to just die, she's so old anyway," Lee recalls. ""All the talk about moving is so stressful, so it would be better to just die.'

"It was very difficult to hear that."

When the Housing Authority received a $20 million federal grant toward demolishing and rebuilding North Beach Place in 1996, it was immediately clear that tenant relocation was going to be a sensitive issue. Many tenants had lived in North Beach Place, which is located only a few blocks from Fisherman's Wharf, on a two-block plot bordered by Bay, Francisco, and Mason streets as well as Columbus Avenue, for decades. Many were elderly and Chinese, and depended on the site's proximity to Chinatown for access to doctors, friends, and families. And the tenants knew there was little reason to trust the Housing Authority: Just identified as one of the nation's worst, the agency had been seized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which fired the board and replaced the executive director.

Even the Housing Authority realized there was a credibility problem, and it brokered a so-called exit contract with the North Beach Place tenant association that, essentially, guaranteed against the tenants' worst fears becoming reality. Specifically, the contract promised that tenants "in good standing" would be allowed to return to the project once it was rebuilt, and that those most wary of moving -- such as the elderly Chinese tenants -- wouldn't have to move farther than a block away. The project was to be built in two phases, with the east block being demolished and rebuilt before construction started on the west block. In other words, phased construction would allow some residents to stay within the confines of North Beach Place for the duration.

The contracts, signed by then-Housing Authority Executive Director Ronnie Davis and general counsel Carl Williams, gave the tenants peace of mind.

It didn't last.

After a lengthy developer selection process, in 1998 the Housing Authority awarded the reconstruction of North Beach Place to a collection of experienced builders and managers of public housing called North Beach Development Associates. But it became quickly apparent that, although the three interests making up the development group had experience in the public housing arena, none had experienced anything like Ronnie Davis.

"I've never seen anything like it in my career," says developer John Stewart, who has worked with housing authorities in Oakland, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley, among others. "We were unable to get closure on a lot of important deal points. There was no communication at all between the Mayor's Office of Housing and the Housing Authority. ... We needed various commitments on relocation, things like Section 8 [vouchers for affordable housing]. We didn't get them."

For about a year, the project moved in fits and starts. Designs were drafted. And discarded. And drafted again. But nothing tangible was accomplished. And then, in late 1998, at a moment in San Francisco's history when construction costs were escalating at historically unprecedented rates, everything stopped entirely.

"So far as I can tell, there are 10 months in this project where absolutely nothing happened," says Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents North Beach and has attempted to mediate on the tenants' behalf.

In April, Davis -- by then under indictment in Ohio for alleged misappropriation from Cleveland's housing authority -- was banned from working with federal money. Because housing authorities need federal funds the way people need air, Davis was suspended and replaced by one of his deputies, Gregg Fortner, a former Sacramento public housing chief.

Around the same time, Mayor Willie Brown met with Mel Martinez, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who told the mayor that, unless progress was made on North Beach soon, San Francisco would lose a $20 million grant for the project. Brown, never one to suffer losing funds quietly, let his new housing director know about it.

"I wasn't in on the conversation [with Martinez], but the mayor took it seriously enough to contact me," recalls Fortner, with a weary, humorless tone that seems a stark contrast to a previous, private-sector career in stand-up comedy. "I would characterize it as a warning. HUD was looking at this money we'd had for a long time and hadn't used. ... "Flux' was a pretty good word for it at that time."

About The Author

Jeremy Mullman


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