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Faulty Towers: Theft, Lies, and Public Housing in San Francisco 

Wednesday, Nov 4 2015
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The Clementina Towers — two Cold War-era high-rises of reinforced concrete at the end of a South of Market cul-de-sac — aren't much to look at.

Fifteen stories of beehive-like balconies jut from the buildings' twin faces, the pattern interrupted and buttressed by featureless monoliths. Following the design preferences of the era — automobile access and "security" over the then-unknown concept of "walkability" — you enter the towers via a security gate and a walk through a small parking lot. This isolates the complex from the rest of San Francisco despite the choice location, fewer than two blocks from the penthouses of the St. Regis. Inside the towers, drab linoleum tile floors and institutional cinder block walls give the impression of an outmoded budget hotel on the wrong end of Miami Beach.

Nevertheless, this is one of the most in-demand addresses in San Francisco, because it is public housing. The waitlist to get a room at Clementina Towers, or any of the San Francisco Housing Authority's other 6,259 units across the city, is thousands of people and multiple years long. At Clementina, the selection process is even more exclusive: To live here, you must be either a senior or disabled, as well as low-income.

Terry Bagby, a Coast Guard veteran and retired construction laborer in his 50s, has back problems, along with anxiety and depression issues. He's lived in a studio apartment in Clementina Towers since 2006. He has earned a reputation as — depending on whether you're a fellow tenant or the Housing Authority's beleaguered staff — a diligent tenant organizer and advocate, or a troublemaker and conniving pain in the ass.

Bagby is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last year against the Housing Authority over the complex's elevators, which for years broke down with almost military regularity. This is a problem in any high-rise, but especially in one inhabited by people in wheelchairs. Whenever the elevators went out, tenants were trapped in their units — or in between floors (Bagby was stranded for 45 minutes in this way, he says, just a few weeks ago).

About a dozen other Clementina tenants have signed onto the suit, which is scheduled to go to trial early next year. They're seeking damages as well as repaired elevators (a long-awaited, multi-million dollar "modernization" of the vintage Otis lifts, at least, is at long last happening). In the meantime, Bagby remains a regular fixture at Housing Authority Commission meetings at City Hall, where he regularly presents this and other grievances.

His most recent crusade concerns a spate of unexplained and unsolved thefts in the building, where small items — gift cards, prescription medication, jewelry, even stashes of medical marijuana — have supposedly gone missing from tenants' rooms.

Failing to receive satisfaction from the SFHA, Bagby has presented this case to San Francisco police and the District Attorney. Nothing has come of it, he says, because by the time the police became involved, they told him that the year-long statute of limitations for misdemeanors had passed. According to authorities, tenants at Clementina could never present enough evidence of wrongdoing to warrant a case. (Many tenants who claim to have had items go missing failed to file a police report; an internal investigation conducted by a law firm hired by the Housing Authority also failed to turn up any nefarious conduct.) Nonetheless, Clementina's property manager, who Bagby suspected was involved — she, after all, had a master key to everyone's unit — and publicly identified as a suspect, was transferred to another property in the SFHA portfolio earlier this year. (Some residents suspect the stress of Bagby's public relations campaign against her was a cause.)

But "[w]e're still having problems with theft," says Bagby, who trekked to the SF Weekly offices in order to be heard in person. "And the police have not followed up."

Police records show a litany of theft-related calls to the area, though it's not clear which visits were to Clementina (the SFPD's Media Relations unit did not return a call seeking comment). A spokesman for the DA says the case was taken seriously: SFPD inspectors, as well as the DA's "neighborhood prosecutor," a liaison tasked with solving small-time quality of life crimes, met with the tenants and heard them out, but did not find sufficient evidence to warrant further investigation.

It's easy to see how, even if there were a thief about, a case would be difficult to make.

Some of Clementina's residents are not well. And unwell people make for unreliable witnesses.

After hearing Bagby recount tales of his neighbors' purloined items, SF Weekly asked to hear alleged theft victims' stories first-hand. We heard nothing for weeks until one day when an elderly man called. "I was told to call you," he said by way of introduction. When prompted, he agreed to dig up the number of the police report he'd filed and call back when he had it. Within half an hour, the phone rang again. "I was told to call you," the man said. He did not have the report number, and did not recall being asked to find it.

This was months ago. To date, he has not called back.

In modern models of public and supportive housing, on-site case managers and social workers deal with day-to-day issues that arise when vulnerable people forget or neglect basics that the rest of society takes for granted. This is a key service at most of the transitional housing run by the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, which is slated to take over operation of Clementina Towers from the Housing Authority — like public housing agencies in the rest of the country, San Francisco is slowly exiting the business of managing public housing — next summer.

Many of the 300 or so residents at Clementina have social workers who drop by for visits, and there are a pair of social workers in the buildings who work a combined 72 hours per week, but there are no regular mental health or drug and alcohol counseling services available on-site. That presents a conundrum, especially since Clementina's newer residents are moving inside after time living on the streets.

Under Mayor Ed Lee, the homeless and veterans are given preference when a Housing Authority unit becomes available.

According to the Housing Authority, Clementina has had only one new tenant move in since last fall, and it was not immediately clear if he or she fit that description.

Nonetheless, the tenants say that the tenor of their home has changed.

"A lot of the people on the street, they just placed them here," says Deborah McDonald, who has lived in a fifth-floor unit in 320 Clementina for about a decade. "That's when we started getting more roach infestations, bedbugs, things like that."

"Everybody needs a place to stay, I understand that," she adds, "but some of these disruptive people that move in — there's police activity, people sleeping in the lobby at night."

Outsiders trying to make sense of the situation are further thwarted by low-level chaos that characterizes public housing in San Francisco even on a good day.

Off the record, observers of the situation declare Bagby manipulative and mentally unstable (he was sued once by a fellow tenant for alleged racial harassment, though a judge tossed the case).

When you ask Bagby why the in-house tenant council has been no help with the theft complaints, you are subjected to a monologue about tenant funds misused on takeout pizza and other petty beefs. Council president Kevin Lee, who said he had an iPod go missing from his unit but believes a former friend took it, called the allegations "rumor and speculation." (He also calls Bagby a former friend.)

Absent video surveillance — there are cameras in the buildings' lobbies but not in the units — If there are thefts here, it's anyone's guess. It's also anyone's guess if things have indeed gone missing. Maybe they were just misplaced, or loaned out?

"Yes, small things would come up missing, but I probably just blew it off," says McDonald. "I don't have a whole lot of value up in here anyway."

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Bio:
Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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