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Right of Return

Public Housing in San Francisco's Hunters Point

Many call Hunters View the most distressed public housing project in San Francisco, and even in the United States. But 149 families call it home and they want to stay there once it is redeveloped. They are demanding their right to affordable housing, due process, and inclusion in decisions that affect their lives. They are determined to defy the history of public housing “improvements” that have shoved tenants aside like so much dirt dug out for new construction.

Hunters View will be the first project redeveloped under HOPE San Francisco (HOPE SF), the city’s alternative to the federal HOPE VI program. Before it shuts down in 2006, HOPE VI had displaced tens of thousands of public housing residents across the United States.[1]

Under HOPE VI, the San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA) demolished and rebuilt projects in Hayes Valley, Valencia Gardens, Bernal Dwellings, Western Addition, and North Beach. From 1994 to 1999 the projects lost more than 230 units. Hundreds of residents, mostly African-American, lost their homes and were forced out of San Francisco.[2]
The Housing Authority applied for HOPE VI funding for the Hunters View rebuild as well. By 2005, it had already selected the developers.

In response to stories about HOPE VI that had circulated from project to project, Hunters View residents gathered hundreds of signatures opposing SFHA’s HOPE VI application. However, the agency pursued its agenda until the federal program ended. It then transferred the project to the new local program and formed the HOPE SF Task Force to create guiding principles for the new program.

Community participation and one-for-one replacement of all public housing units are included in the HOPE SF guidelines, but many residents at Hunters View have little faith in developers, the Housing Authority, and the city to fulfill those promises.
The Hunters View Tenants Association began sending letters and public records requests several years ago demanding that the residents be informed of and included in the redevelopment process. Hunters View lies in a Redevelopment Area—which includes the Hunters Point shipyard—adding to residents’ suspicion. The Redevelopment Agency’s post-World War II urban renewal in the Fillmore District and the Western Addition—a.k.a. Negro Removal—killed the thriving African-American district, displacing some 2,500 families and causing nearly 5,000 businesses to close.[3]

“We need to be informed about development plans in progress for our homes in Hunters View,” Tenants Association President Tessie Ester wrote in a public records request to the Housing Authority on February 25, 2008. “In the past, we have not been given information relevant to the future of Hunters View, at other times we have been given misinformation.”

Hunters View will be the first mixed-use public housing redevelopment in San Francisco to include market rate homeownership, which is intended to pay for the construction of the public housing units. The plan includes one-for-one replacement of all existing 267 public housing units, along with 105 affordable rental units, 49 affordable homeownership units, and 315 market rate homes for sale.

Gaining a Voice in Decision-Making
“There’s been a tremendous amount of outreach and resident input,” claims SFHA Executive Director Henry Alvarez. But the developers didn’t form the resident working group in charge of making recommendations to the relocation plan until November 2008—three years into the redevelopment plans. According to Sara Shortt, HOPE SF Task Force member and Executive Director of the Housing Rights Committee, the firm hired by the SFHA to oversee the plan, Overland, Pacific & Cutler (OPC), has a reputation for sloppy relations with residents. “OPC did everything they could to do a bad relocation job.”

Once it formed, the relocation working group of 10 to 15 residents spent two months making changes to OPC’s plan, with the legal and technical support of the Housing Rights Committee, Bay Area Legal Aid, and the Bar Association’s Volunteer Legal Services Program (VLSP).

“We went into this knowing how they treated the other public housing residents. We didn’t want anybody displaced,” says Lottie Titus, a member of the relocation working group, whose members were also responsible for distributing information to neighbors. “We were adamant about having a say.”

Securing the Right to Return
The working group revised the relocation plan to include a comprehensive needs assessment of all residents to try to ensure that no one would be displaced due to lack of an appropriate unit. They demanded fairer rules governing eviction and return, and written guarantees of the right to return, including for former residents who have moved away since the 2005 developer agreement.

“One sneaky way of getting people out is, ‘whoops, we don’t have the right unit size or we don’t have an accessible unit and you’re in a wheelchair, go somewhere else,’” says Shortt. Another pitfall in getting tenants back to their units is the challenge of keeping in touch with the relocated tenants. “We’ve seen what happened at North Beach and Valencia Gardens,” says Tessie Ester, who sent the Housing Authority numerous requests for records of tenants displaced by HOPE VI redevelopments in San Francisco.

The first draft relocation plan of November 2007 stated that in order to return to the new site, residents had to have all their rent completely paid up; be in compliance with all provisions of the lease agreement; have the ability to obtain service from utility companies; and be free of felony convictions since the date of the initial relocation notice. This likely would have made it easier for the Housing Authority to refuse the return of many people, especially since almost half the units are vacant due to the high number of evictions carried out since talk of redevelopment began.
Hali Reiskin, a lawyer with VLSP, says that while there were gains in promoting the right to return in the relocation plan, “federal regulations and public housing authority policy permit and promote evictions of entire families for alleged acts of a guest or household member.”Reiskin calls the 1996 federal law on public housing “draconian.” Known as “one strike you’re out,” a tenant who has been accused of an offense is banned from federal public housing assistance thereafter.

Fighting Eviction
For the last few years, the SFHA has boarded up vacant units at Hunters View instead of moving people into them. The 118 vacant units will make it possible for the SFHA to carry out its plan for phased on-site relocation of tenants during rebuilding. But tenants feel unsafe next to empty units, which are sometimes occupied by squatters, and they question the exponential increase in evictions in recent years. Many have seen former residents become homeless and end up begging downtown.
“The problem with phased [one-for-one] relocation is that anyone who has a problem with the Housing Authority is getting evicted to make room for relocation on-site,” says Rene Cazenave, a housing rights activist who serves on the HOPE SF Task Force.

“It appears that for some time the SFHA has conducted an eviction program at Hunters View, which purposely denies the targeted tenants their civil and due process rights,” the Hunters View Tenants Association told the Housing Authority in a June 15, 2007 letter. The letter called for the creation of a joint eviction review committee that would review all evictions dating back several years.

Instead, in March 2008, the city set up the “Communities of Opportunity” program to curtail evictions and avoid displacement, in addition to linking residents to social services. Though the program is housed in a lavishly converted unit right at the center of Hunters View, many residents don’t trust the facility, because it’s connected to the Housing Authority and the city, and they don’t really know what it is, according to Sara Shortt.

No Loitering

The John Stewart Company, which manages North Beach Place, will manage the rebuilt Hunters View housing as well. Its lease includes a 17-page list of house rules that overlap with the Housing Authority’s rules but are much stricter. Based on the experience of North Beach residents, the Hunters View tenants fear they may have to fight to keep their living space livable.
Although activist tenants at North Beach Place achieved one-for-one replacement after the rebuild there, many of the John Stewart Co. house rules have gotten people evicted.

“They don’t let you stand on the sidewalk, so I have to stand on the street waiting for my children to come home from school,” says an African American resident of North Beach Place, as she stands near fast traffic between two parked cars, fearful of getting pegged for loitering and then evicted. “They won’t let my kids play.”

Indeed, North Beach residents are not allowed to roller-skate, ride bikes, or play ball. As a result, a boy bounces a ball on the sidewalk near the busy street.

Barbequing is prohibited. Residents must wear shoes in common areas. Bathrobes are not allowed in common areas. Audio or video recordings are prohibited without permission from management. The use of medical marijuana is prohibited and quiet hours begin at 10 p.m.

“How you going to tell a grown woman not to have guests after ten o’clock?” says Venitta Logan, a grandmother and volunteer with the tenant-led group, Mothers Against Crime and Mothers Committee for Environmental Justice. “I’m not signing nothing. Those rules are not humane,” she says. Logan has contested several eviction notices in her nine years at Hunters View, and considers herself a victim of harassment by the Housing Authority.

“There are house rules that are adaptapted for each development,” says Margaret Campbell, project manager for John Stewart Co. “But there are certain rules we feel strongly about.” The rules haven’t been discussed with tenants yet. The company says tenants will have an opportunity to make recommendations. 

The Housing Authority sent the final Draft Relocation Plan for Hunters View to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development for approval on January 8, 2009. The process is supposed to take three months. The Draft Relocation Plan could be approved any day now, quickly propelling Hunters View to a very different future.

In February 26, 2009, the San Francisco Housing Authority Board of Commissioners adopted a city-wide resolution as a result of the demands of Hunters View residents and advocates around the relocation plan. “Based on the policies developed for the Authority’s first HOPE SF site, Hunters View, the following policy regarding right to return is recommended for all other HOPE SF sites: All residents that are determined to be eligible for relocation benefits at HOPE SF sites will have the right to move into the revitalized units provided that they have not been evicted or served by the Authority with a summons and complaint of eviction,” reads the resolution.

Next in line for HOPE SF redevelopment are Sunnydale/Velasco in Visitation Valley, Potrero Terrace and Annex on Potrero Hill, and Westside Courts in the Western Addition.

“We’re hoping that the developer does exactly what we’ve asked them,” Titus says. “We’re hoping they keep their word.”

Deia de Brito is a freelance writer. She teaches elementary school students in a garden program in West Oakland.

1.        Tracy, James. “Hope VI Mixed-Income Housing Projects Displace Poor People,” Race Poverty and the Environment, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 2008.
2.         Howard, Amy. More than Shelter: Community and Activism in San Francisco Public Housing, 1938-2000, Richmond University. A forthcoming book based on her Ph.D. dissertation.
3.          Close, Carl. “How ‘Urban Renewal’ Destroyed San Francisco’s Fillmore District,”

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