An Experiment in Low-Income Housing in Rapidly Gentrifying San Francisco

The Hope SF project aims to rehab old housing projects and provide social services for residents in a city where property values are skyrocketing.

Housing units in the completed portion of the Hope SF project in San Francisco, Calif.
National Journal
Sophie Novack
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Sophie Novack
Feb. 4, 2014, 5 a.m.

To make sure kids in her neigh­bor­hood go to school, Uzuri Pease-Greene walks them her­self. Out­fit­ted in bright yel­low vests, she and her daugh­ter be­gin their half-mile route at 7:30 each morn­ing, stop­ping to pick up nine to 17 kids along the way. Forty minutes later, they ar­rive at Daniel Web­ster Ele­ment­ary School in time for the school-provided break­fast.

“Once they get with me, it’s like, ‘You’re my child now,’” the no-non­sense 48-year-old grand­moth­er of 13 says, with a laugh. “I be­come a big moth­er.”

Pease-Greene is the “driver” of the walk­ing school bus, a Hope SF ini­ti­at­ive in the Po­trero Hill pub­lic-hous­ing de­vel­op­ment in San Fran­cisco, where she’s lived for 12 years. In a com­munity where 53 per­cent of kids are chron­ic­ally ab­sent from school, the simple pro­gram aims to im­prove edu­ca­tion­al out­comes, in­crease safety, and en­cour­age ex­er­cise.

Hope SF is a pro­ject ded­ic­ated to re­vital­iz­ing low-in­come areas by re­build­ing old hous­ing pro­jects and of­fer­ing a range of so­cial ser­vices to the mostly low-in­come res­id­ents. It is led by the May­or’s Of­fice of Hous­ing and the San Fran­cisco Hous­ing Au­thor­ity, in col­lab­or­a­tion with gov­ern­ment, phil­an­throp­ic, and com­munity part­ners. The goal is to trans­form a hand­ful of severely un­der­served and aging pub­lic-hous­ing sites, without for­cing out cur­rent res­id­ents. Po­ten­tially, it provides a mod­el to oth­er urb­an areas, which are look­ing to re­vamp pub­lic hous­ing while re­tain­ing cit­ies’ so­cioeco­nom­ic mix of res­id­ents.

Pub­lic-hous­ing re­form is not new, but Hope SF’s em­phas­is on res­id­ent-based pro­grams like the walk­ing school bus, in ad­di­tion to re­hab­bing old build­ings, could lead the ef­fort to suc­ceed in a way oth­er hous­ing pro­jects have not — par­tic­u­larly in a city like San Fran­cisco with its rap­idly rising hous­ing costs. The biggest chal­lenge now is con­vin­cing res­id­ents, who have been so neg­lected in the past, that this time is dif­fer­ent.

“There is no reas­on in hell for pub­lic-hous­ing res­id­ents to trust of­fi­cials that come in and say they’ll make their lives bet­ter,” says Pam Dav­id, former dir­ect­or of the May­or’s Of­fice of Com­munity De­vel­op­ment and mem­ber of the Steer­ing Com­mit­tee for the Cam­paign for Hope SF. “Our his­tory is with most things that have been tried, most were de­livered to them, not with them. And they have not worked and not been sus­tained.”

IN­SPIR­A­TION FOR HOPE SF

The San Fran­cisco pro­ject was in­spired by the Ne­wHolly pro­ject in Seattle, which also aimed to turn crum­bling pub­lic-hous­ing sites in­to di­verse, mixed-in­come neigh­bor­hoods with a fo­cus on com­munity pro­grams. The Seattle pro­ject has had sus­tained suc­cess since its first phase was com­pleted and res­id­ents began re­turn­ing to the site in 1999, with con­stant waitl­ists for the hous­ing units, ac­cord­ing to Lisa Dressler, Ne­wHolly’s seni­or prop­erty man­ager. The pro­ject was fully fin­ished in 2007.

Ne­wHolly was largely fun­ded by a Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment Hope VI grant, though Dressler says this wasn’t nearly enough,and fund­ing from oth­er sources was used as well. While cer­tain Hope SF sites were awar­ded HUD Choice Neigh­bor­hoods grants — the suc­cessor to Hope VI — the pro­ject as a whole is not fun­ded this way.

In­stead, it is fun­ded by a wide range of pub­lic and private in­vestors. Much of the fund­ing for HOPE SF com­munity pro­grams has been raised by the Cam­paign for Hope SF,a pub­lic-private part­ner­ship led by the city of San Fran­cisco, the San Fran­cisco Found­a­tion, and En­ter­prise Com­munity Part­ners. The cam­paign has a goal of rais­ing $25 mil­lion by 2016; they have reached $7 mil­lion so far. After the first five-year peri­od of fun­drais­ing and pro­gram­mat­ic work ends in 2017, a large-scale eval­u­ation will be con­duc­ted to in­form the next phase.

On the re­build­ing side, de­velopers will con­nect the sparsely pop­u­lated sites with sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods by re­pla­cing pub­lic hous­ing one-to-one, plus adding private homes. Once com­pleted, the pro­ject will boast af­ford­able rent­als, af­ford­able homeown­er­ship, and mar­ket-rate homeown­er­ship units. Hope SF hopes to make profits from the pro­ject’s private units, which will help to sub­sid­ize the cost of the pub­lic ones. The city ini­tially com­mit­ted $95 mil­lion to the pro­ject, the largest loc­al com­mit­ment to pub­lic hous­ing in re­cent his­tory. Gov­ern­ment fund­ing will go primar­ily to­ward phys­ic­al in­fra­struc­ture.

THE CITY’S HOUS­ING CRISIS

The in­vest­ment in af­ford­able hous­ing is crit­ic­al in San Fran­cisco, which is among the most rap­idly gentri­fy­ing cit­ies in the coun­try. The West Bay counties of San Fran­cisco, Mar­in, and San Mateo ad­ded 24,500 jobs between Novem­ber 2012 and Novem­ber 2013, a 2.4 per­cent in­crease, ac­cord­ing to the Cali­for­nia Em­ploy­ment De­vel­op­ment De­part­ment. The tech sec­tor it­self has cre­ated thou­sands in the last few years, a sig­ni­fic­ant in­crease in a city of just over 800,000 res­id­ents.

The boom has boos­ted the city’s over­all eco­nomy, but it has also cre­ated prob­lems for af­ford­able hous­ing. The in­flux of tech­ies has put pres­sure on the city’s lim­ited hous­ing, send­ing prices skyrock­et­ing. Rent in San Fran­cisco in­creased over 5 per­cent from a year ago, com­pared with a 3.2 per­cent in­crease na­tion­wide, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port re­leased by Re­is, a real-es­tate re­search firm.

HOPE SF is hop­ing to com­bat the dearth of af­ford­able hous­ing, though so far ground has been broken at only one of the sites: Hunters View. It began with 267 units across 22 acres, and only 148 fam­il­ies oc­cupy­ing them.

Phase one was re­cently com­pleted, with 107 new units built, 80 of which are pub­lic-hous­ing re­place­ments, ac­cord­ing to The John Stew­art Com­pany, a lead de­veloper on the site. In ad­di­tion to the 267 pub­lic hous­ing re­place­ments, up to 533 af­ford­able and mar­ket-rate units will be built. The re­main­ing sites are in de­vel­op­ment or plan­ning stages. However, since res­id­ents are not dis­placed in the mean­time, com­munity-based pro­grams are able to move ahead.

An out­side eval­u­ation com­pany, Learn­ing for Ac­tion, is help­ing to de­term­ine the types of pro­grams that would be best suited for a giv­en site. Po­trero’s high tru­ancy rate in­spired the walk­ing school bus. Un­em­ploy­ment at Alice Grif­fith, an­oth­er Hope SF site,led to a job and train­ing pro­gram. Mini on-site clin­ics ad­dress health con­cerns, and gar­dens and parks are cre­ated to en­cour­age healthy eat­ing and ex­er­cise.

Pease-Greene says much of the ini­tial skep­ti­cism and dis­trust from her neigh­bors has lif­ted since the pro­grams star­ted, and she be­lieves that will be evid­ent even more so once the hous­ing is built.

HOPE SF AS A MOD­EL FOR OTH­ER CIT­IES

This com­munity in­volve­ment is cru­cial to Hope SF’s suc­cess, and of­fers a mod­el for oth­er cit­ies to fol­low.

“In the past, pub­lic hous­ing was par­tic­u­larly con­cen­trated in high-poverty neigh­bor­hoods — [res­id­ents] found hous­ing but were not con­nec­ted to jobs. There were not strong schools. There was noth­ing to help them con­nect to the over­all eco­nomy,” says Ju­dith Bell, pres­id­ent of Policy Link, a na­tion­al re­search and ac­tion or­gan­iz­a­tion ded­ic­ated to pro­mot­ing so­cial and eco­nom­ic equity.

“Hope SF and oth­er [sim­il­ar] ef­forts re­cog­nize the need to take a more in­nov­at­ive and com­pre­hens­ive ap­proach. Res­id­ents are en­gaged in en­vi­sion­ing and im­ple­ment­ing and plan­ning in a way that prob­lems can be solved be­fore they be­come a crisis,” she ad­ded.

Dav­id, one of Hope SF’s fun­draisers, says this is the most com­plic­ated pro­ject she has ever worked on, and ex­pects the im­ple­ment­a­tion to con­tin­ue slowly for 15 to 20 years. With com­mit­ment like San Fran­cisco’s though, sim­il­ar slow but steady pro­jects are pos­sible else­where.

“San Fran­cisco likes to think it’s really spe­cial, but I would bet oth­er cit­ies share the value that there needs to be a place for every­one,” Dav­id says. “We are unique in our will­ing­ness to put dol­lars be­hind it.”

The con­cern re­mains that the tech-boom gentri­fic­a­tion could reach Hope SF neigh­bor­hoods, as they be­come more de­veloped and ap­peal­ing. “In the past, pub­lic hous­ing has been seen as an eye­sore and source of in­stabil­ity,” Bell says. “Now with pub­lic hous­ing trans­formed, and the neigh­bor­hood around also more at­tract­ive, there are new pres­sures on the sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hood in terms of rent.”

“The city needs to make sure it doesn’t ac­cel­er­ate the dis­place­ment dy­nam­ic that’s already in play, so oth­er low-in­come in­di­vidu­als are not pushed out,” Bell adds.

For Pease-Greene though, Hope SF has already been life-chan­ging. “The com­munity saw me on my us­ing side, now they see me on sober side,” she says. In ad­di­tion to work­ing as Ju­ni­or Com­munity Build­er in Po­trero, Pease-Greene is in her last year of col­lege, and plans to start her own non­profit help­ing res­id­ents get their GEDs, and then get her mas­ters in so­cial work.

“Everything’s not hunky dory, there’s still a lot of things to get done,” she says. “But it’s a far cry from where we used to be.”

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