Housing poor people one press release at a time

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By G.W. Schulz

The mayor has threatened a few times now to do something about the city’s aging public housing stock, mostly via press release. He’s at it again, via press release, of course.

We wrote two weeks ago that due to federal funding cuts, public housing residents are already experiencing increased security risks like robbery and assault at some of the developments around town. At this point, much has been said about the otherwise deplorable living conditions public housing residents already face here, from mildew to perpetually broken appliances, without having to worry about robbers armed with hammers and knives.

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Plaza East development before 2001 reconstruction

The idea of selling bonds to fix it all has been kicked around, as has a proposed takeover by the city of the San Francisco Housing Authority, which could very well cause more problems than it fixes. (Berkeley fired itself as the overseer of its public housing not long ago.)

But for now, the SFHA is struggling just to make good on a series of legal settlements totaling about $15 million, two for sexual harassment claims and one for when a grandmother and five children were burned to death at a development that tragically caught fire. The mayor has suggested floating bonds just to cover the settlements, and a new press release reminds us that the SFHA itself had already identified a backlog of immediate needs costing $195 million. If nothing’s done, an estimated $26.6 million in additional deterioration will occur at the distressed public housing structures each year.

There’s your pitch, Gavin. Tell voters it will cost more if we wait until later and then throw it on a ballot for us to decide. Expend some political capital, crank up the charm and convince the city to relieve itself of the needed money, so public housing residents in the nation’s most liberal city can live with something approaching dignity. The legal bailouts could also include the city buying $5 million worth of authority land near Candlestick Stadium.

Last week, a growing storm finally struck when a Superior Court judge put former mayor Art Agnos in receivership of the authority to get the settlements paid out. Embattled authority executive director Gregg Fortner has complained repeatedly that he can’t cover the settlements with his budget money; it’s all coming from HUD and he says the feds won't let him use it for those purposes. But the judge is expecting Agnos to basically write the check anyway while Fortner resists. And now, Fortner's even suggesting he'll take some sort of legal action to stop Agnos from peeing on his tree.

Gavin's newest press release, by the way, focuses on the task force he and Sup. Sophie Maxwell formed in the fall of 2006 to figure out how San Francisco's public housing could be revitalized. But the task force can only make recommendations. Not until the end of the press release is there a suggestion Newsom will approach the board about beginning some sort of search for the necessary money. In the meantime, he’s proclaiming that we can’t wait on Washington to give it to us. From the statement:

“For the last two decades, funding for public housing has been in steady decline. Over the last six years severe cuts have caused both intense physical distress to housing conditions and serious social and economic consequences for residents.”

The problem? We are waiting on Washington. These same statements have been made by the board and the mayor many, many times over the last two or so years, and they were made again by the board at a recent special hearing. The press release, for its part, merely discusses what the SFHA figured out all the way back in 2002 following an independent assessment of needed repairs. And what did they figure out? Public housing is fucked up, and the shit isn’t going to be cheap to fix. It's also not going to fix itself. And after months of task force meetings, they've basically told us we need to hurry up and fix it.

No shit.

Incidentally, there are no photos on the authority's site of structures that still desperately need help. Just the complexes that Willie Brown fixed up with Hope IV money.

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