It's a story that's playing out in various ways in many corners of the country: Because of severe cuts in federal housing funds that began under President Reagan three and a half decades ago, public housing complexes that sprung up around the nation in the post-war years between the 1940's and 1970's have, by and large, fallen into disrepair, and in some cases have required total demolition, rendering their residents homeless. In San Francisco, the city's Housing Authority built and has been managing thousands of units over the past 76 years, since 1940, with the help of those dwindling but once plentiful federal funds, but all of that has come to an end as of October. As the Chronicle reports, the city has just completed the sale of its last 14 buildings to non-profits and for-profit affordable housing developers, effectively moving what was once a public duty into private hands.
Many will argue that this is a good thing, including the tenants themselves. Strained resources and staff at the city's Housing Authority meant that decades passed with mismanagement, negligence, and buildings that housed seniors and disabled people dealing with regularly broken elevators, mold, and worse. In total, the city has offloaded 29 properties since 2014, maintaining oversight by the Housing Authority but handing over the duties of repairs, renovations, and rent collection to developers like Mercy Housing a Denver-based non-profit which recently began a total overhaul of 345 Arguello Boulevard, a 65-unit complex in the Inner Richmond.
Eight-year resident in the building Viola Ryan tells the Chronicle the place was roach-infested and filthy, with the heat and hot water sometimes getting shut off, and now Mercy Housing has come in and began systematically renovating all the units while providing temporary housing to residents in between. The process is expected to be complete by March, and Ryan's new unit now has new floors, windows, cabinets, appliances, you name it. "We got everything new," she saus. "It’s just a blessing."
Mercy was reportedly met with applause when they arrived at 345 Arguello, but that hasn't always been the case. Earlier this year SFist brought you the tale of Midtown Park Apartments, a formerly city-owned and operated affordable complex at Divisadero and Geary with 139 units that was sold to Mercy Housing in the last couple of years, leading to a rent strike by many of its tenants. At issue was the fact that original tenants of the 1964 complex, the only such building owned by the city that was not public housing, had a rent-to-own promise that was renegged upon, and by the 2010s the place had racked up a $38 million repair bill that Mercy decided to address through significant rent hikes in some cases as much as 300 percent for longtime residents.
The city still owns the land that many of these formerly public housing projects are built on, but we are likely many years away from seeing the properties get redeveloped with denser, taller housing where possible, to address the city's enormous need for affordable units. Instead, the near future is one in which private organizations will be the stewards of the existing, aging affordable housing stock, while other private and non-profit developers continue to build new all-affordable buildings like this one at 17th and Folsom and getting density bonuses from the city for doing so.
As Lydia Ely, senior project manager at the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, tells the Chronicle, projects of that scale came from another era in public funding. "These are projects we could not rebuild today. We would not be able to afford to."
Meanwhile, Mayor Ed Lee who once lead San Francisco's first organized rent-strike in Chinatown in 1978 could end up the nation's next Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. But in a gridlocked Congress, that may not amount to a whole lot more funding.