Aireez Taylor, a 15-year-old Mission High School student and a resident of the Alice Griffith public housing project in Bayview, was shot seven times on Dec. 29.
It happened around 6:30 p.m. She was with several friends at a house just a few blocks from her home in Alice Griffith, also known as Double Rock. They were standing on the porch talking, her mother, Marissa, told the Guardian. Then two men armed with guns hopped out of a parked car. One of Aireez’s friends, a 17-year-old boy who lived at the house with his family, saw them coming. He ran for the door and was shot once in the foot. Aireez, fleeing after him, was shot seven times.
Residents of Alice Griffith interviewed by the Guardian described an intensification in the violent crime at and around their community in recent months. Several attributed the violence to a conflict between African American and Samoan gang members. Whatever the cause, the shooting of a 15-year-old girl stands as evidence of the ongoing danger in San Francisco’s public housing developments. Aireez’s father, Roger Blalark, said that his daughter wasn’t the intended target of the shooting. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, he said.
But for Aireez, who survived the attack, the wrong place at the wrong time is her home in Alice Griffith. Her parents have applied for emergency relocation with the San Francisco Housing Authority, but after two months—and amid the recent scandal surrounding Director Henry Alvarez and federal reports that have rated the agency as one of the worst in California—they are still waiting for the agency to locate and repair a unit in a new housing development. In the meantime, Roger and Marissa continue to fear for their daughter’s life. “What if they find the guy and ask her to testify?” asked Roger.
Aireez made a steady recovery from the gunshot wounds inflicted upon her in the December attack. But the trauma of the event has not been as easily healed. She spent three weeks at San Francisco General Hospital. During that time, an unknown intruder tried to snap a photo of her as she lay in her hospital bed, Roger said. Later, a man claiming to be her father came to inquire about her, while Roger himself was at her bedside.
A police officer met with Roger and Marissa on the Monday following the attack. Aireez reportedly had not seen the shooters. An investigation is underway, though no arrests have been made and the police have no suspects, according to SFPD spokesperson Gordon Shyy.
The journey home from the hospital was a return to the place where she had nearly been killed, a community where the shooters presumably were still at large. “She gets shakes, every time she comes home,” said Roger. “She has to come by the corner where she got shot.”
SFPD Bayview District Captain Robert O’Sullivan said that relocation is an important part of protecting the victims of violent crimes. Ultimately, the choice to relocate a tenant rests with the Housing Authority. “There needs to be an assessment done when something like a shooting occurs in public housing,” said O’Sullivan. Alice Griffith, he pointed out, has a significant number of people in a relatively small space.
“It’s always something that is in the front of people’s mind, anyone that has a stake in this, in investigating or assisting—is this going to be a risk for this person or their family in continuing to stay here?” O’Sullivan said.
Marissa and Roger applied for an emergency transfer on Jan. 2. There was paperwork to fill out, then the Housing Authority had to search for a vacant unit that could accommodate a family of their size. Housing Authority spokesperson Rose Marie Dennis said that she could not give out confidential information regarding specific tenants, but confirmed that the majority of the Housing Authority’s holdings are studios, one-, or two-bedroom apartments.
Roger and Marissa needed something bigger. A unit that could accommodate their family was finally located in another housing development by the third week of January. Marissa was initially told that the unit would be ready in two weeks. But two weeks turned into five, and now six, and Marissa still doesn’t know the status of the unit or when it will be ready for move in.
Dennis told us the Housing Authority tries to accommodate all requests for relocation, and prioritizes tenants with emergencies. Victims of a violent crime that request a transfer are moved as soon as possible, she said. But the process of relocating a victim is often hindered by a variety of factors, including Housing Authority’s ability to allocate resources toward fixing up vacant units. The length of the wait is a matter of resources and cooperation between all the parties involved in preparing the new unit. Once a suitable place has been found, teams of custodians and craftsmen and women must work to clear, clean, and repair the unit. Preparing a unit for move in costs on average $12,000, she said.
The problem is not that there aren’t empty units. According to Dennis, vacant housing stock is in a constant state of flux, with the current occupancy rate estimated to be 96.3 percent. Since the Housing Authority manages a total of 6,476 units over 45 development projects, that would indicate that as many as 240 units now lie empty. Dennis said that some units are kept vacant by the Housing Authority for a variety of reasons, while many others are only made available as the agency finishes the repairs and renovations necessary to make the units livable by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) strict standards.
Roger and Marissa’s experiences would appear to dovetail with recent media scrutiny that suggests the Housing Authority has reached a critical state of dysfunction. The agency made the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s list of troubled agencies after it received a 54 out of 100 on their latest evaluation. Scandal has dogged the agency’s leadership—three lawsuits alleging discrimination and retaliation were recently filed against Alvarez, who was also accused in a lawsuit of steering contracts to political allies. And it’s long-term capital outlook is looking increasingly bleak, as buildings accumulate decades of wear and tear and infrastructure becomes obsolescent. Stuck with a federal budget that remains constant, the Housing Authority is put in the position of maintaining outdated infrastructure that would, in the long run, be more cost effective to replace, said Dennis.
But Dennis nevertheless assured the Guardian that the agency addresses emergencies as quickly as possible—irrespective of larger, structural financial deficits. “We get bogged down in anecdotes that aren’t reflective of what’s ahead of us,” said Dennis. “We don’t have time for politics, that really doesn’t add up to positive change.”
So what is positive change for the residents of San Francisco’s public housing? With Alvarez on leave, Mayor Ed Lee has stated his intention to revamp the agency’s leadership and has appointed five new commissioners to oversee the city’s public housing. “Being on a constant treadmill of troubled lists and repair backlogs that are structurally underfunded is not working for our residents or our City,” Lee said in a press release.
Lee spoke of a “better model” through HOPE SF, a massive redevelopment plan that began under former Mayor Gavin Newsom and which hinges on public-private partnerships. Alice Griffith is one among several sites that is being rebuilt as part of HOPE SF, with construction scheduled to begin in 2014. The plan is to create mixed-income neighborhoods where 256 new affordable rental units are interspersed in a larger community of market-rate homes.
But in the meantime, the day-to-day reality of the violence and dysfunction faced by tenants continues. “It’s not about tearing down the projects, you got to revitalize what’s already here,” said Roger.
Roger knows that a relocation won’t necessarily solve their problems. He worries about the persisting presence of gang members at the new housing development, about the fact that he will be trying to protect his family in a community that he is much less familiar with. At Alice Griffith, Roger has connections within the community. He helps direct the Run, Ball & Learn Program, which provides basketball and tutoring programs for community youth. So they wait.
“They’re gonna have their own process,” says Marissa. “In the meantime we’re still sitting here.”