A step forward and step back for SF's homeless families

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Mayor Ed Lee appeared as yesterday's Board of Supervisors meeting.
Steven T. Jones

As San Francisco grapples with a record-high number of homeless families seeking shelter space during the holiday season, a pair of homeless policy discussions at yesterday's Board of Supervisors meeting highlighted shortcomings and missed opportunities in the city's approach to the issue.

Mayor Ed Lee announced that he is opening up more shelter space and public housing units for homeless families, finally relenting to weeks of pressure to address the pressing problem. Yet the board also narrowly approved turning surplus city property over to neighborhood residents rather than using proceeds from selling it to benefit homeless families, as city policies call for.

The property in question, 341 Corbett Avenue, is a vegetated hillside near Upper Market that the city declared a surplus property in 2004, transferring it to the Mayor's Office of Housing to either develop as housing for poor families or to put the proceeds from its sale toward that purpose. Providing housing for the homeless is what city policy calls for surplus property to be used for, according to 2002's Surplus City Property Ordinance. The property was assessed at $2.2 million, but it wasn't developed because of costs associated with the steep hillside, nor was it listed for sale.

Neighbors of the property have sought to use the property for open space and a community garden, so the district's Sup. Scott Wiener authored legislation to facilitate a community garden by transferring it to the Department of Public Works. The transfer would involve no money, leaving homeless advocates concerned about depriving homeless families of any revenues from the property.

“There are a lot of public assets we could sell if we wanted to fund this need or that,” Wiener told his colleagues, noting that neighbors would rather see a community garden on the site and that Upper Market lacks adequate open space.

But Sups. Jane Kim and Eric Mar led the opposition to the move, saying they didn't object to that kind of community use of this property, but that city policies need to be followed, particularly considering the dire need for more resources to address the needs of homeless families. “I do have concerns about the precedent we set and also being consistent,” she said, arguing for a delay in the action until city officials find a way to compensate MOH for at least some of the property's value.

“Overriding the surplus property ordinance is not something I want to do right now,” Sup. John Avalos said.

But the board voted 6-5 to approve the transfer, with progressive Sups. Kim, Avalos, Mar, David Campos, and Ross Mirkarimi in dissent. Housing advocates upset by the action directly their ire at the swing vote, one-time progressive Sup. David Chiu, with activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca sending out an e-mail blast saying, “david chiu betrayed us again -- he wouldn't support continuing the 341 Corbett item so that affordable housing advocates could try and work out a better deal with the Mayor's Office on Housing and others.”

Meanwhile, the skyrocketing number of homeless families has become a big issue in town since the Guardian broke the story on Oct. 13, with repeated stories in the Chronicle, Examiner, and other media outlets, and homeless advocates staging rallies outside City Hall and unsuccessfully pushing for a meeting with Mayor Lee on the issue.

During yesterday's monthly mayoral question time, Kim asked Lee what he was doing to address the “alarming rate” of homeless families in the city – with 267 families now on a wait list for emergency shelter space, a 356 percent increase since 2007 – specifically challenging him to expand the city's Rental Subsidy Program by 50 families and open new emergency winter shelters. She also noted three recent suicides in the city by individuals facing homelessness.

“I share your concern about family homelessness in San Francisco. My staff has been hard at work for a long time now trying to proactively respond to this very serious challenge and I'm proud to offer some very constructive, tangible solutions,” Lee said. He announced that his administration had just this week starting expediting the placement of homeless families into vacant public housing units, with 18 families now being processed and a goal of placing about 30 of the 79 families now in shelters into public housing units.

Lee also said that SalesForce.com CEO Marc Benioff is donating $1.5 million to the Home for the Holidays program the city is creating to provide rent subsidies and case management to 160 families, a donation that the city will match. “Their generosity is inspiring,” Lee said.

He also pledged to open up an unspecified number of new family shelter spots and, somewhat bizarrely, tried to wrap this issue into his relentless focus on promoting private sector job creation, mostly through tax breaks that actually cut into the city's ability to provide direct assistance to homeless families. As Lee said, “The long-term goal is to increase these families' incomes and to place them into permanent unsubsidized housing.”