A place called despair

In a Hunters Point housing project, pipes leak, mold sprouts, and raw sewage pours into an open lagoon.

By A.C. Thompson

JOANNE ABERNATHY, a painfully skinny African American woman with a soft voice and a wild eruption of black hair, stood in the kitchen of her small, creaky three-bedroom apartment, which is located in a notorious public housing complex in southeast San Francisco, a place the locals call Oakdale.

Abernathy pointed to the ceiling. Pipes connected to her toilet, which is on the second floor, had leaked "every day for a year," she said. Day in and day out, water from the toilet saturated the ceiling, spilling down into the kitchen. In desperation, she threw down three buckets to catch the liquid mess. Yellow mold sprouted from the kitchen cabinets like mushrooms in a rainforest.

Though Abernathy said she repeatedly phoned the San Francisco Housing Authority, which owns and maintains the property, she said city officials did nothing to plug the leak, ignoring her pleas for help. Predictably, the ceiling eventually gave way, and a two-foot chunk of soaked drywall fell on Abernathy's mom, who is blind. Now you could see a seam where the hole had – finally – been patched.

"We beg and beg and beg for them to fix things," Abernathy said, resignation tingeing her voice. "Sooner or later one of these buildings is going to collapse."

Actually, it would be a surprise if just one building gave up the ghost; the whole complex, a maze of boxlike two- and three-story structures coated in a thick layer of beige paint, is crumbling. Here in affluent, urbane San Francisco, Oakdale is a little slice of the third world, a place profoundly disconnected from the rest of the city, and the rest of the country for that matter.

While a lot of residents refer to the development as Oakdale – Oakdale Avenue being the main street running through the area – officially, the 130-odd units here are known as Hunters Point A West, a somewhat baffling bureaucratic moniker.

Abernathy took me upstairs to her daughter's bedroom, where the ceiling, which leaked, was bubbling with moisture. "It does it every rainy season," she said, adding that she'd had no success getting the Housing Authority to repair the damage.

We walked back downstairs, out Abernathy's back door, and into a courtyard of sorts, a rectangle of dusty concrete ringed by apartments, at least two of them abandoned. A pair of teenage boys worked out at a busted weight bench propped up by a rusty dumbbell.

Benny Gage, one of Abernathy's neighbors, looked out his open door and invited us over. Gage, an older guy with graying hair, was eager to show us his kitchen ceiling, which was disintegrating in the same place Abernathy's did. A swath of damp drywall about a foot square hung from the ceiling at an angle, revealing the guts of the apartment, including a black metal water pipe, perhaps the source of the leak. Gage said the ceiling dripped when his wife showered.

While the self-destructing ceiling bugged Gage, he was really exercised about the fecal problem. He led me onto his front porch and pointed to a PVC pipe, some eight inches across, jutting from the soil in front of his apartment. Until recently, Gage explained, the pipe had belched untreated sewage, sending a torrent of excrement cascading down a gentle dirt incline. "We had shit everywhere," he bellowed.

Gage gestured upward toward the roof, which was punctured by a number of holes. Pigeons had taken advantage of the openings and were living like squatters in the space, unleashing a steady bombardment of bird dung, much of which splattered outside his bedroom window. For a time the birds took to flapping around in the ventilation system, making a ruckus in the heating ducts by the couch in the family room.

As we talked, Gage pointed out a spiderweb of fractures in the cement slab the building sits on. "My bedroom is slanted," he said. "I can put a marble on the floor, and it'll roll toward one wall." Gage said that when he moved in seven years ago, the unit was level; the shifting had occurred in the past couple of years, fissuring the plaster inside the home and prompting him to wonder how much longer the place will be vertical.

Abernathy and I cut through the complex, tromping over an expanse of dirt and concrete toward the northeast end of the development, where a row of apartments looked down from a grassy hill. We paused next to a vacant, boarded-over unit to take in the scene: A stream of shit, piss, tampons, and toilet paper spewed from a dark hole in the sidewalk, poured down the hill, and formed a sort of shit lagoon next to the street. Weeds, about six inches tall, were growing in the little lagoon.

Raw shit, obviously, is not cool. Beyond the fact that it smells and looks nasty, fecal matter provides a haven for dangerous bacteria, most notably E. coli, a virulent pathogen that can sicken and even kill humans, especially infants. In the so-called developing world, according to the World Health Organization, water tainted by feces is a major killer, a prime cause of severe diarrhea, which takes the lives of an estimated 1.8 million people annually.

Everyone I met wanted to talk about the sewage stream. Forced to live in their own excrement, the shit proved to folks in Oakdale – who are mostly African American and Samoan – that nobody gave a damn about them.

"They don't care," said Mary White, a great-grandmother who's lived in the area since 1968. "They really don't – otherwise they'd do something." I took "they" to mean the Housing Authority – but she could've meant the greater city government, the mayor, the governor, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and everyone else who allows slum conditions to persist in Oakdale.

In August the Housing Authority had further offended Oakdale residents by barring them from washing their autos. "The lease you signed to live in public housing states that residents are allowed reasonable plumbing and water use," agency officials wrote in a letter sent to every tenant on bright orange paper. "Washing cars on Housing Authority property exceeds reasonable water use."

To Abernathy this was absurd: People throughout the complex were dealing with seeping showers and toilets and sinks; outside, raw sewage was gushing from a busted pipe in the ground. Clearly, the entire plumbing system was in dire need of maintenance. And yet the Housing Authority had the nerve to tell people they couldn't use a few gallons of water to scrub their cars.

Hell, the Housing Authority couldn't even guarantee mail service around here, since a large number of the mailboxes in the development were busted and wouldn't lock.

After Abernathy introduced me to some of her neighbors, we headed back toward her apartment, walking along Palou Avenue, where a thick-necked pit bull locked in a battered van lunged at us, snarling. Abernathy turned to her right, gazing at a head-high chain-link fence stretched between two apartment blocs; a sizable opening had been cut in the fence. It didn't look noteworthy to me. Most of the fences in Oakdale are in some stage of disrepair, as are most of the porches and outdoor stairways.

But Abernathy wanted me to understand the significance of this particular spot. "Niggas made their own hole in there, 'cause they'll come out and shoot and then run back," she explained.

I asked her how often she heard gunshots. About 300 days a year, she replied. Her friend Lashawnda Collins, whose apartment is pierced by bullet holes, thought the number was closer to 360. Everyone, though, could agree about the cops. They came every day.

As if on cue, when we returned to Abernathy's apartment, the San Francisco Police Department was raiding the place two doors down. About 10 cops, all sporting flak jackets, none wearing uniforms, had converged on the unit. Some, clad in camo, hung on the back porch smoking and talking on cell phones while others swept the house.

None of the locals paid much attention to the cops. Eventually they led a lean Samoan teenager – a boy, really – out of the house in handcuffs. Officer Len Broberg, head of the gang task force, a muscular guy with a radio bud in his ear, jawed with the kid. I couldn't hear the conversation.

II.

The Housing Authority, on its Web site, says its central mission is to "provide safe, sanitary, affordable, and decent housing" to the poor, the disabled, the aged. Clearly, in places like Oakdale, the agency is failing to fulfill that mission – and part of the blame likely likes lies 3,000 miles away, in Washington, DC.

Operating on a budget of about $204 million annually, the Housing Authority gets most of its money from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. For years now HUD has been cutting back the amount of money it kicks down to local housing authorities. In fiscal year 2004, for example, that meant a decrease of $2 million bucks for San Francisco.

These days the Housing Authority is headed by Gregg Fortner, a funny, personable character who took over in 2001 after his predecessor was indicted for embezzlement. Fortner and company spend about $20 million each year maintaining about 6,400 units, according to a recent audit.

Perhaps that's simply not enough money. Or perhaps that money isn't being well spent.

The audit indicates the agency suffers from "material weaknesses" in its bookkeeping – auditor-speak meaning the Housing Authority is flouting standard accounting practices and could be making itself vulnerable to fraud or theft – and is failing to follow federal rules. Because of slackness at the Housing Authority, some money is apparently being misspent: Auditors, who just looked at a small chunk of the agency's payroll, found security guards were paid for 188 hours they may not have worked.

Whatever the case, the security guard matter is minor compared to the $3.8 million that got away. In the 1990s the Housing Authority embarked on an ambitious reconstruction program, hiring a number of private developers to rebuild a half-dozen decrepit housing projects. It made multimillion-dollar loans to these developers, which were supposed to be repaid with interest.

Now, the audit shows, the Housing Authority is writing off millions of dollars in interest on the loans as "uncollectable." In fiscal 2004 – the most recent year for which records are available – that amounted to $3,803,609, funds that could've gone to repairing Oakdale and other derelict properties.

In an interview, Housing Authority spokesperson Michael Roetzer declined to comment on the $3.8 million and said the accounting issues had been cleared up.

Asked about the maintenance at Oakdale, Roetzer told me, "If residents call us with an emergency, we get somebody out there immediately to fix it," adding that plumbers had recently mended the broken sewage pipe.

Routine maintenance calls, he said, "go into a queue.... We may not always respond as quickly as our residents would like us to, but we do respond."

The funding cuts at HUD, Roetzer continued, have left the Housing Authority stretched thin – the agency currently needs to make $200 million worth of capital improvements to its properties, and there are few federal dollars to do so. He noted that many of the Housing Authority's developments are even older than Oakdale, dating back to World War II. "We're trying to maintain buildings that are 60 years old. In fact, some of them are 65 years old; they're old enough to collect Social Security," Roetzer said. "Maintaining them in a time of shrinking resources is a challenge."

III.

Not far from Oakdale stands a counterpoint, the Bayview Commons apartment hive, on Third Street at LaSalle. Erected by a nonprofit company in 2002, Bayview Commons is a complex of low-income renters, 70 percent of them African American. Home to about 90 people, it's a beautiful, clean, well-designed, four-story building in the heart of a tough neighborhood. It's proof that housing for poor folks can be dignified.

On a recent morning I spoke to Dan Vojir, a resident, in the community room, where he leads a weekly story hour for the building's children. "We use this room for birthdays, christenings, baby showers," he said. "We're going to have a baptism celebration for one of the little girls here." On the wall were flyers announcing classes in dance and karate, and photos of kids from the building with former mayor Willie Brown, who'd helped secure financing for the development.

Vojir led me onto the building's sunny back patio, which is equipped with potted trees and a small jungle gym, where two Chinese toddlers played as their mom looked on. When he ran into a neighbor, Francesa Araya, his mood darkened and the talk turned grim. Though folks at Bayview Commons are blessed with gleaming, brand-new homes, they share some of the same complaints as people up the road in the Oakdale projects.

A few weeks earlier, on Aug. 14, somebody on Third Street had unloaded on the building, firing 10 to 12 rounds into four apartments, puncturing six walls and breaking three windows.

"Ever since I moved in here, they've been saying the neighborhood is getting better, but it seems like it's getting worse before it gets better," Araya said. "Somebody was talking about the terrorists the other day, and I said, 'I've got terrorists in my neighborhood.' "

For Vojir, the most galling aspect of the attack, which occurred at about 7:30 p.m., wasn't the bullets – it was the city's response, or, more accurately, nonresponse. After the lead flew, several Bayview Commons residents contacted the office of Mayor Gavin Newsom, only to get the brush-off, according to Vojir. The incident didn't make the daily papers or TV news.

A few weeks later, on Sept. 19, an afternoon gun battle half a block from Bayview Commons sent one man to the grave and three others to the hospital.

IV.

The little girl, probably 10, toting a pink backpack, was clad in a plaid school uniform. She wanted to know why I was standing behind Abernathy's home, scribbling in a notebook. I told her I was writing a story about life in Oakdale.

"Life in Oakdale?" she asked, pondering the question for just a second. "Life in Oakdale is bad." She trudged away, passing an abandoned apartment, its windows shattered, its doors flung open.

The next time I saw Officer Broberg, he offered a similar sentiment. "It sucks," he said, and asked me if I'd noticed the mold permeating the complex.

In truth, you couldn't miss it. Mold, like the shit stream, was a major topic in Oakdale – the stuff seemed to be everywhere. Tanisha Batson, a young mother with two girls, had foul black fungus growing all over her window frames. No matter how much she scrubbed, the crap kept coming back. Batson wondered if the mold was the reason her older daughter had developed strange white spots on her skin; the doctors couldn't figure it out. "I've called maintenance a thousand times," Batson said, adding that her bathroom sink didn't work and the heater had been busted for five years. "My sink in the kitchen was broken for two months, so we had to do dishes in the bathtub." The mold, though, was "the main thing."

Another lady had gray mold clinging to her ceiling. "It's 'cause my tub is leaking," said the woman, who asked me not to use her name. Abernathy had it in her place, and it appeared to be aggravating her daughter's asthma, an affliction that occurs in near-epidemic proportions in the Bayview-Hunters Point area – by one tally, 15 percent of the children in the district suffer from the disease.

In recent years scientists have caught on to the fact that mold, in some of its incarnations, can play havoc with the body. Besides triggering childhood asthma, mold can irritate the sinuses, and researchers are currently exploring whether certain mold strains, known as toxic mold, are responsible for more extreme health problems, including memory loss and internal hemorrhaging.

The city, to its credit, has gone after landlords who allow mold to proliferate in their rental properties. Three years ago City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued AIMCO, a for-profit company based in Colorado that owns a good chunk of San Francisco's subsidized housing, including a group of run-down apartments right next to Oakdale. In court papers Herrera shredded AIMCO for allegedly flouting numerous state and local housing codes over a span of years; many of the purported violations involved mold. The case settled late last year, with AIMCO shelling out a million bucks and admitting to no wrongdoing.

But when it came to Oakdale, the city had nobody to sue but itself.

Mele Lakalaka didn't have a mold problem, but she did have, perhaps, the most dangerous shower in all of Oakdale. The tiles in her shower had fallen out around the soap rack, exposing rotten wood. Water from the shower, which was upstairs, would get into the hole and into the innards of the house, including the electrical system. Lately the water had been dripping into a light fixture hanging from the ceiling on the ground floor. The water was pooling beneath the light, and the potential for disaster was obvious.

Lakalaka, who shared the six-bedroom apartment with nine family members, said she'd been down to the Housing Authority's headquarters, in the Tenderloin, three times in hopes of getting the problem fixed. So far, though, she'd had no luck.

Some folks, like Batson, wanted to go, to move out of Oakdale and into somewhere cleaner, safer, saner. Others wanted to move in but couldn't. One woman – we'll call her Sharon – had been trying unsuccessfully to get an apartment since May. She said the Housing Authority wouldn't give her a unit because she owed about $150 in fines stemming from an DUI conviction. With nowhere to go, Sharon was crashing with a friend not far from Batson, one of 10 people crammed into a two-bedroom apartment.

And then there was Abernathy, who was quietly preparing to confront the Housing Authority. She'd started to talking with POWER, an activist group, about how to improve things around Oakdale and had helped organize a tenants' meeting to strategize. Despite all the ugliness she'd seen, Abernathy was hopeful. She figured, "It's just a matter of time before these people around here step up."

E-mail A.C. Thompson at acthompson@hushmail.com.