A flood of calls to City Hall prompts a special meeting on security and conditions in San Francisco's public housing tracts
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Don Barsuglia worried security was deteriorating at the SoMa public housing complex where he's lived for about eight years after he watched a body drop past his ninth-floor balcony window late one evening.
A would-be thief had climbed over the 10th-floor balcony during an escape attempt after stealing a few thousand dollars from another resident in Clementina Towers, located close to Sixth Street between Howard and Folsom. The man misjudged his footing and dropped to his death below before police could arrive.
"He probably thought my balcony was open," Barsuglia told the Guardian. "However, I have a bird net on my balcony. So when he went to go down, he hit my net, and good-bye, Mr. Spider-Man. Splat. That's it, man."
That was enough for Barsuglia, who joined dozens of angry public housing residents last week at City Hall for a special hearing on safety and living conditions, which was organized by Sup. Chris Daly, whose District 6 includes Clementina's neighborhood.
The 74-year-old Barsuglia recounts with verve the building's recent run-ins with dope dealers, prostitutes, and knife-wielding teenage stickup artists. Several years ago his building and a neighboring tower had two 24-hour security guards, he said, but they're now down to one. And just a few weeks ago, when daytime watches were trimmed back to save money, Barsuglia and other residents say they noticed a marked difference.
"It's neglect by management and administration," he said of the San Francisco Housing Authority. "They pay no attention to us ... totally ignored. They don't even return calls."
Daly's office has been inundated with grievances from people frightened by an uptick in crime at public housing, including the Ping Yuen complex on Pacific Avenue in Chinatown and Sala Burton on Turk Street in the Tenderloin.
Clementina, built in the early '70s, houses low-income elderly and disabled residents in 275 studios and one-bedroom apartments. The building is supervised by the trouble-plagued Housing Authority, which faced a litany of questions at the meeting about a diminished security presence at several of its 52 developments across the city.
In November 2006 housing officials sent an abrupt memo to residents notifying them that the authority would have to "explore other methods" for policing its senior and disabled housing sites due to cash shortages.
Progressives on the Board of Supervisors have set their sights on the authority's seven-member commission, composed of mayoral appointees, demanding at the hearing that Mayor Gavin Newsom consider a shake-up of its membership. No one from the Housing Authority Commission attended the meeting.
"Where are they?" Sup. Tom Ammiano asked after hearing a steady stream of emotional public comments. "I find it criminal, and I challenge the mayor to look at his appointments. Are they the right people for the commission?"
A 51-year-old heart patient who's lived at Clementina for nine years told the Guardian she positions her motorized wheelchair against the door each night for additional safety. The headboard of her bed seals off one of the windows. Full-time security returned to the building recently, but the woman, who asked not to be named, fearing an assault, said that when the single guard checks each of the 26 floors, nonresidents manage to sneak in. She said that just last week a duo armed with a hammer and a knife robbed an older man living in the building.
"It used to be nice and quiet," she said. "Our front doors we could leave open with just the chain on.... [Now] I'm not sleeping in my bedroom. I'm sleeping on my couch facing the door."
The authority's embattled executive director, Gregg Fortner, blames it on the White House and congressional cuts to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the bureaucracy that controls his bank account. The money available for armed and unarmed patrols at public housing in San Francisco has dropped by half in the last six years, according to figures Fortner furnished at our request.
A contingent of San Francisco Police Department officers is hired for $83,000 a month to patrol the "Big Four" public housing projects Sunnydale, Alice Griffith, Hunters View, and Potrero where many of the city's headline-grabbing violent crimes occur. That approach was recently expanded to the Western Addition.
Fortner was already struggling to stay out of the papers without the most recent security headaches. In a series of stories published in 2005, the Guardian exposed dangerous and unhealthy conditions at the city's public housing projects, sparking promises by city officials to fix the problems. And Fortner has also been threatened with jail time by a judge for refusing to pay out millions of dollars the agency owes on verdicts in civil lawsuits.
In addition, last week the Guardian obtained more than 100 forms filled out by public housing residents detailing chronically deplorable living conditions that apparently continue unabated citywide. Compiled by local organizers of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (known nationally as ACORN), the reports of maintenance failure betray stubborn structural decay that persists despite frequent promises of reform from City Hall.
"Bathroom tub leaks through ceiling," one of them reads, closely echoing many of the other complaints. "Stove is broken. Roaches. Holes in my walls; some as big as a square foot."
"My kitchen window has been broken for eight months (due to burglary) and it keeps my house cold," another reads. Most of the maintenance failures have persisted for months, even years. Other complaints depict half-assed repairs that did little or nothing to fix the problem.
In response, Fortner told us tenants are charged for repairs if the authority determines they're at fault, which leads some to avoid lodging complaints. He maintains that emergency work orders are handled within 24 hours and all others before 30 to 45 days are up.
"We did 63,000 work orders from Oct. 1, 2005, to Sept. 30, 2006," Fortner said. "That's like 10 work orders per unit, per year. I don't know where you live, but do you have a repairman in your unit once a month to fix something? We have an old stock that's falling apart."
But beyond the indignant outcry and public hearings, no one at City Hall except the mayor is in a position to do anything about public housing unless San Francisco decides to take over the authority completely, which some supervisors have discussed informally. The authority answers mostly to the feds.
Fortner warned that when local governments attempt to babysit their housing authorities, they inevitably get into trouble with HUD. In fact, the Berkeley City Council fired itself last week as the charge of its housing authority because of pressure from HUD.
And the burglar who fell to his death at Clementina Towers? SFPD spokesperson Sgt. Neville Gittens told us he was 19 years old and had been working as a caretaker for his victim. The two quarreled over the money, and a neighbor eventually made a noise complaint to the guard downstairs. When the guard arrived, he managed to block the alleged perp from leaving through the front door but couldn't keep him from making a gruesome exit out the back.
Other residents told the committee shady figures scaled the exteriors of the towers all the time and were doing so with more frequency. Fortner told the committee it was the first he'd heard of the problem. Maybe his promise of a new tip line for residents will prevent ignorance as an excuse in the future. Or maybe not. *