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San Francisco Families Fight for Their Homes

San Francisco Bay View, News Report, D. Butler with Nancy Anderman Posted: Jun 15, 2008

Do the pretty promises of HopeSF and Communities of Opportunity mask displacement and dismembering of a once powerful community?

Hunters Point, San Francisco Last month was a hard one for Westpoint. Another boyfriend, father, friend, brother, grandson and loved one was buried. Martel Peters was only 21 years old when he was brutally slain. With the latest round of funeral services over and loved ones left to pick up the pieces, life goes on up on the Hill.

Life that includes more boarded up units, more evictions and fewer folks left standing for the new era in West Point, aka Hunters View, the old public housing complex with billion dollar panoramic views of San Francisco and the Bay. With nearly half the 267 apartments empty now after a rash of evictions, residents futures are threatened by imminent demolition and redevelopment. Who from Westpoint will be left standing for the new day to enjoy the spectacular views and vistas and hilltop parks promised by the developer?

Hope and Opportunity arrive

In 2004-2005, the most recent in a near decade-long string of proposed plans to remake Westpoints future took sharper form when Hunters View Community Partners, a joint venture composed of The John Stewart Co., Ridgepoint Nonprofit Housing Corp. and the real estate finance firm Devine and Gong, got the SFHA contract to tear it down and rebuild it. If all goes according to schedule, in a few short years the Westpoint of years past will be bulldozed to the ground and replaced with new streets, new hilltop parks and new people to fill hundreds more homes than exist now. Some of the homes will be for sale or rent to the highest bidder with few charging 30 percent of a familys income for rent, as is the rule for all the apartments now. This September, the first phase of moving remaining families, demolition and reconstruction is scheduled to begin.

On March 6, 2008, Communities of Opportunity, an employment and social services collaborative operating at Westpoint and three other large San Francisco Housing Authority developments, held a HopeSF kick-off event and grand opening at its new office on the Hill. HopeSF is San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsoms version of Hope VI, HUDs disastrous and now almost completely defunded program to demolish public housing and replace the old projects with shiny new mixed income neighborhoods to which few if any of the previous residents are allowed to return.

The idea is spatial deconcentration, a theory underlying HUDs ethnic cleansing and scattering of inner-city public housing communities of color and the powerful voting blocks theyre known to create to be repeopled with wealthier whites returning from the suburbs. The governments abandonment and banishing of the poor of New Orleans after Katrina and this years demolition of 4,500 of their homes in public housing in hopes theyll never return is a dramatic example.

Since the kickoff, Westpoint has been host to longtime Housing Authority management staff, new legal and housing advocates, development and other consultants, as well as some high profile guest appearances by Mayor Newsom, discrete visits with a few residents by Mirian Saez, interim director of the San Francisco Housing Authority, and the frequent presence of the SFHAs hardest working de facto employee, Dwayne Jones, COO director, Housing Authority commissioner, HopeSF outreach specialist, neighborhood COO hiring manager and transportation scheduler extraordinaire.

At this stage in the game, its a full court press, as the SFHA, developers and City agencies focus on Westpoint as the first development to be flipped in the ambitious HopeSF redevelopment wave. The Housing Authoritys Office of Fair Housing set up shop for a time upstairs in the Property Management Office at 112 Middlepoint Road. There is also the freshly remodeled, Ikea furnished COO/HopeSF home-turned-office suite at 245 Westpoint Road, where a helpful Westpoint resident and COO employee sits at the door and others from the HopeSF operation float in and out, ready to help. This unit turned office is by far the nicest, perhaps anywhere in SFHA territory but certainly in Westpoint, with its fine hardwood floors, cheery brightly painted walls, computers and abundant amenities.

Westpoint families are awash in offers of help. Between the phone calls, mailings, fliers and door knocks from all the players, it is hard to keep up with whos on first. Add the empty promises of cash turned gift cards, suspect lotteries, bus rides that never materialize, phantom jobs and other opportunities, and its no wonder folks on the Hill dont want to be bothered. Times and dates for informational meetings change on short or no notice and are often difficult to confirm or discern.

The once well organized but now disconnected majority of residents remain uninformed of the process, as hope for a kinder and gentler variety of revitalization evaporates. The only constant is the palpable undercurrent of mistrust and misinformation. And offers of help from outsiders, leaders and the City have come and gone before.

They will be here for a minute, but youve known us [SFHA] for years and will have to deal with us when theyre gone: This thinly veiled threat rings true if we look at Housing Authority employees who seem never to be held accountable, rather shuffled around or promoted. Many of these actors are well known to the residents.

As for the legal and housing advocates who sincerely want to help, they arrived a decade late, an army short and handicapped by funding constraints, understaffing and a lack of cultural competency and community connectedness. People and programs here to help ebb and flow with City funds, politics, pressures and trends. Poverty pimping is pervasive and the best players stay in the game. The real help will be, as it always has been, among family, friends and neighbors pulling together into a powerful united block with real community backing. Yes we can.

The back rent boogieman

The bottom line is that, according to proclamations from the Mayors Office of Housing and SFHA, not one Hunters View family who now calls Westpoint home should be put out because of alleged back rent due. The supposed cure-all is the HopeSF Rental Assistance Plan (RAP), which only applies in Hunters View and claims that no matter what SFHA claims the back rent is, a standard payment plan is the option to get in good standing. The one-time rent payments available from Catholic Charities, RADCO and other citywide rental assistance programs have been cut off for West Point families.

In sum, the standard HopeSF RAP plan adds a minimum of 7 percent on top of rent each month and after two years of on-time payments, the rest of the debt is wiped away. While not justice, the plan keeps families at risk housed. Like any other legally binding document, it is best to be signed only after a complete review of SFHAs accounting of rent due and paid and with an agreement that preserves the tenants due process rights to file a grievance, to be heard in court etc. in case some dispute or problem pops up down the road.

Laying the tracks

In 2006, with real estate prices soaring, UCSF development marching up Third Street from Mission Bay, and Muni laying tracks for the T-train, Saara Nafici published The People or the Place for her masters thesis in city planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, documenting this gentrification in Westpoint and Double Rock, another large public housing complex on the other side of the Hill. Many of the players she interviewed then remain, if in different roles. One thing remains clear, that while plans were unfolding for the area, best practices have not been reflected in the numbers of families displaced, the lack of local economic development and the failure to tap homegrown talent.

The Housing Authoritys true policies and practices have become apparent in recent years as residents got pushed out while plans for the new residents emerged. A SFHA Unit Analysis Report reveals that the vast majority all but eight of the 267 homes in Westpoint show a move out and subsequent board up between 2004 and the present. These are the very years that SFHA, the City and private developers were refining how the new Hunters View and surrounding area would be built and marketed.

Real opportunity or really opportunistic?

At a time when SFHA was crying broke, it did not do what most landlords would immediately patch up and rent out the homes as they became vacant. Instead, they were boarded up and left empty, full of debris from the last family. With stories of families put out by evictions of all types and other shady dealings hard to confirm, the evidence of life past remains to this day. These homes are still filled with clothes, toys, furniture and even rotting food, bearing witness to life past.

Yet, we are informed that Communities of Opportunity has arrived with Dwayne Jones personally overseeing the select group, including a few Hunters View residents, in the functional equivalent of day labor jobs for our marginalized neighbors. Theyve been seen wearing special T-Shirts at a photo-op mayoral event, planting seeds in dirt that will be bulldozed and cleaning up rat infested vacant units. Got work?

Debt collection

SFHA documents confirm what a minute on the Hill screams out: the alarming rate of displacement that has already happened. Today, every building in Hunters View has boarded up units. The Westpoint families that havent already been pushed out to Oakland, Antioch, Vallejo, Sacramento and beyond live in deplorable conditions, their buildings crumbling, filled with mold, broken windows unreplaced despite countless complaints. Even homes well kept inside are poorly maintained by the SFHA.

Inoperable doors, plumbing and appliances go unrepaired for months, sewage runs in the gutters, storage rooms are piled with infested debris, grounds are garbage strewn and overgrown. The newest SFHA clerk to be moved in to staff the Hunters View office recently advised that until mere weeks ago, no system was in place on site to log or track tenant complaints and requests for maintenance.

Meanwhile, displacement has not ceased. According to SFHA documents provided to the Bay View newspaper, during all of 2007, only a couple dozen Westpoint families were in good standing at any given time. This means the vast majority of the already diminished population was at risk of being pushed out of Westpoint, due in large part to decades of systemic dysfunction within SFHA.

As of May 2008, only 156 out of the total 267 homes still have families living in them and only about only half of those are presently completely current in their rent. Other families are at serious risk of being sent to the SFHA Legal Department for action, which triggers eviction proceedings, sending the family into immediate crisis mode, with as little as five days to respond in court.

This also automatically hits the struggling family with SFHAs legal bill of at least $400. According to SFHA documents, since March 2008, four more families were displaced, evicted or otherwise removed. And one can only expect more to come. Two to five families have been flagged this month for legal action and dozens more are scheduled to get new 14-day eviction notices soon.

Not a month has gone by that a Westpoint family hasnt been battling in Superior Court against all odds, clinging to their home in these final days. Great-grandmother Darlene Fleming, a powerful force despite serious health problems, was quoted in the Chronicle on the day of the HopeSF kickoff March 6. Every week, one or two families is being put out, Fleming said. Theyre trying to get rid of us. Thats what everybody thinks.

She is still fighting SFHA in court to save her home but, as the battle comes up on a year, her health has suffered; the stress and uncertainty has taken a toll. Who will turn out for her trial?

Out of site, out of mind

Despite the environmental risks and the nightmare of living alongside a demolition site, even official SFHA and developer documents reveal that Westpoint families want to stay in Westpoint during the redevelopment, if it goes forward. Early and often, families and elders have expressed the desire not to be removed and scattered throughout the diaspora of SFHA projects or the four winds during the HopeSF process.

Officials all around have repeatedly made assurances to residents and the public that an onsite phased approach would be forthcoming to address this need. Basically, they promise that families would temporarily move into a patched up unit on one side of the Hill, while the other is torn down and rebuilt.

While this sounds responsive enough, certain practices call into question the good faith behind these assurances. Namely, according to SFHAs own count today, only 18 Hunters View units are vacant and ready for a move-in. Renovation of others is reportedly still in progress. Yet for now, 156 families and elders remain. If demolition begins as announced in September 2008 and residents must move into vacant apartments, the pace of renovation of boarded up units will have to increase exponentially, even if only some of the families remain steadfast in their desire to stick it out.

A closer look raises some red flags and confirms the suspicion of many elders old enough to recall San Francisco redevelopment horrors of the past. A tiny note on some Hunters View families routine computer generated recertification notices appearing around January 2008, saying, You are eligible to remain in occupancy but must move to a smaller unit; contact your property manager; the farcical flagging of several Westpoint buildings by SFHA as more decrepit than others, ostensibly necessitating vacating them for safety reasons; and the repeated failure of various SFHA officials to confirm that the remaining 156 Hunters View families will not be moved via administrative transfer are of great concern.

Under this type of transfer, SFHA can demand that a family move out of their home for reasons that appear benign or even benevolent: The ruse may come in the guise of rightsizing an elder who is deemed to have too many or too few people in the home or the determination that one Westpoint building is now too unsafe and unsanitary for SFHAs standards. These claims could force a family or elder out of Westpoint on the eve of the new revitalized Hunters View, despite assurances long made.

Under this scenario a longtime SFHA staff member will call and offer a Westpoint grandmother a place in Sunnydale, a large Housing Authority complex in neighboring Visitacion Valley, in a SFHA senior housing highrise or some other development across town. A promise of first place on the list in the rebuilt Hunters View may be tossed in. Under this type of SFHA-initiated transfer, residents who do not move where they are told may in accordance with SFHAs operating policy be evicted under a lease violation.

Elders can be displaced this way from their homes of decades, even if they have been the model tenants and pillars of the community for their entire tenancy. It is common knowledge that from our own North Beach to North Carolina, once public housing residents are moved out for redevelopment, promises notwithstanding, a small fraction, if any, ever make it back into the new housing.

Will SFHA officially confirm that at this late hour these transfers will not be used to further displace Westpoint families? Could this be a crafty backdoor method to continue to displace longtime families at this late stage in the game? to renege or circumvent repeated verbal and carefully crafted written promises to keep families on the Hill?

Tonight our children, our families, our grandmothers, our elderly and our sick who have long been valued members of this self-contained community on the Hill are at serious risk. Many were leaders a mere 15 years ago in transforming Westpoint into a thriving, self-governing community under resident management and the expectation of cooperative ownership. Retaliation for that leadership has beaten them into vulnerability, standing in the perfect storm of police abuse, gun violence, gang injunctions, cancer, addiction, and environmental and economic injustice, as they cling to shelter, continuing to fight displacement.

What can we do?

Stand alongside our Westpoint neighbors. Witness events as if this were a human rights campaign, no invitation needed. Demand that our elected representatives REPRESENT from the top down. Talk to your faith leaders. And encourage Westpoint families under siege to use all the free, confidential legal help they need, both for information and legal representation.

Residents faced with eviction who are served with court papers labeled Summons and Complaint may have only FIVE DAYS to respond, including weekends. Take all your papers immediately to the Eviction Defense Collaborative at 995 Market St., Suite 1200, during the hours of 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. or 1-3 p.m. for help preparing a response that will protect you from eviction while you look for a free lawyer.

For FREE lawyers who specialize in public housing or SFHA problems, call the Housing Message Line Assistance for Evictions or Notices at (415) 354-6353 or the San Francisco Bar Associations Volunteer Legal Services Program at (415) 989-1616.

For free legal advice on other issues, meet with a volunteer lawyer at the next San Francisco Bar Association VLSP monthly Free Legal Advice and Referral Clinic on Saturday, June 28, at 1601 Lane at Mendell by the Joe Lee Gym. Sign up between 12 noon and 1:30 p.m.

Ongoing free legal advice, referrals and workshops are offered in Bayview Hunters Point by the San Francisco Bar Associations Volunteer Legal Services Program, (415) 989-1616 or 782-9000. Other resources are Bay Area Legal Aid, (415) 354-6360 or 982-1300, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area, (415) 543-9444.

The Clean Slate program of the Public Defender can help to expunge criminal records, sealing and destroying an arrest record, ending probation early, reducing a felony to a misdemeanor. A certificate of rehabilitation can also be obtained. Call (415) 553-9337 for details.

Email D. Butler and Nancy Anderman at nranderman@ aol.com.

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