Why this activist thinks public housing policy is hollowing out San Francisco's soul

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On Wednesday, the senior citizens at the Bayview Hunters Point Multipurpose Senior Services received some bad news: the federal government's Housing and Urban Development agency rejected a local proposition to grant preference for affordable housing to people living in the neighborhood.


According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the plan would have "set aside 40 percent of all new subsidized units for qualified people already living in the supervisorial district in which the development is being built or within a half mile of the project."

HUD's ruling significantly decreased the odds that the seniors at the Bayview Hunters Point Multipurpose Senior Services would secure housing at the soon-to-open Willie B. Kennedy affordable senior housing project, something they'd been dreading for months.

San Francisco's affordable housing crisis is an issue that disproportionally affects people of color: 28% of the Eviction Defense Collaborative's clients in eviction cases were African-American; African-Americans comprise just 6% of the city. And as the Chronicle wrote back in November, "less than 1 percent of subsidized units built by private developers and sold to low-income residents between 2008 and 2014 went to African Americans."

Fusion spoke with Bayview Hunters Point Multipurpose Senior Services executive director Cathy Davis on HUD's ruling, and what it feels like to learn you can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood you grew up in.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

What's your take on this news?

Well, it's very disappointing. I work with a lot of seniors who want to remain in their neighborhood, became homeless in their neighborhood, and feel connected to the people and services around them. And I just think it's really short-sighted on their part to apply a generalized rule to everything and not really look at the ramification of gentrification in places like San Francisco.


Honestly, we're losing a lot of people from SF—all races, not just African-Americans—because they can't afford to live here. And here, we build affordable housing, we create a new environment for people, we use their past history of discrimination and abuse that they've been through, we fix the neighborhood up, and then we tell them they have no preference to live in that neighborhood.

Do you work with anyone that's been directly impacted? Was there anyone looking forward to the Willie Kennedy development?


Yes. We run two senior centers, and the seniors are coming to us every day, asking when it's going to open up. They sat there and watched it get built. They're excited about having something like that in their neighborhood. It's one of the last projects that's going to be affordable for them. We have people who are literally homeless walking by there, looking at that building, thinking maybe there's a possibility of them to live there.

We have people who aren't street homeless, but couch-surfing, or living in someone else's apartment. They had to move away, or live with a relative. And they see that, when they go to church or come by, and they think there's some hope. And then to find that you can apply from anywhere, all over the city, all over the country, and to be able to get into that building—even if you grew up there, you don't get any priority whatsoever.


And we didn't ask for 100% priority—we asked for 40%. We want to make sure there's diversity, but also want the new building to reflect people from the community. It's a way of doing both.

Your criticism, then, is that HUD's approach is too generalized to apply to San Francisco's particular situation?


In bigger, neighborhood-oriented cities, they're not taking the same approach. But we are losing people in all those diversities in their neighborhoods. People who have been here 40, 50, 60 years, and they're being gentrified right and left.

Have you spoken with the seniors?

I will be, and they're used to being disappointed. I'm sorry to say, but it's nothing new. Having the government not stand up for them? That's not new to them. They're used to it. They see it all the time.


If this isn't the solution, what is?

Not sure yet, we really have to regroup. We have to look at this mass exodus of people, and look at how we can bring them back into the fabric of San Francisco. We have way too many people leaving this city, and we're losing the low-income people we're supposedly building this housing for. If you say you're building it for them, then let them live in it.


Why do you use the phrase "travesty of justice"?

People in low-income areas have already been through a lot with the redevelopment. When you say you're opening it up to everybody, what you're telling people in the neighborhood is that they have no priority. It's just a piece of land in the city, and we happen to be putting it here.


They use the neighborhood when they want to build it. They get the neighborhood to go fight for it, they get the neighborhood to rally around it being there, and they go around and say, oh, anybody's allowed in it.

Michael Rosen is a reporter for Fusion based out of Oakland.