Laura Morris(Section 2; Reaction Paper 2): Public Housing Renovations in San Francisco

Laura Morris

Reaction Paper 2


As you stroll through the hustle and bustle of busy streets in the great city of San Francisco you look to your left and see the Golden Gate Bridge off in the distance. You look to your right and see a cable car wiz past carrying tourists anxious to see the sights. You look behind you and see downtown and all its glory. Okay, your perceptual field probably isn’t that large, but really, you can’t go near downtown in San Francisco without noticing some of its distinct characteristics. One of those main qualities, quite possibly the most well-known in any city, is the eye-sore of public housing developments scattered between run-down businesses and construction. Downtown areas leave a bad taste in the mouth of the elites who barely acknowledge the existence of those parts of the city long enough to remember they are still, in fact, a part of the city. However, San Francisco said, “Enough is enough!” and finally developed a plan to update public housing once and for all.

But how bad can public housing really be? Is it really in such dire need of renovation or destruction as some tend to make it seem? Those living in the public housing system in San Francisco would argue that it might even be worse than you can see strolling by on the sidewalk. From faulty lights to pest infestations, the reality is that public housing in San Francisco isn’t taken care of, nor is it valued by anyone who doesn’t live there. In fact, many residents might even say that it’s time to tell the city what they need and not stop until their voices are heard. Well, on October 14, 2015 the city must have finally decided to listen. On this day, Mayor Edwin M. Lee, U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Democratic leader of the House Nancy Pelosi, and the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco came together to celebrate a plan that was finally enacted to renovate public housing San Francisco once and for all (City of San Francisco 2015). This plan not only helps the tenants but takes into consideration their points of view and what they truly want and need.

The plan was designed to help those who are living in low-income households, well below the poverty line, and in distressed conditions by renovating their homes within public housing. According to the Mayor an important part of this project is that it can be done “without displacing existing tenants” (City of San Francisco 2015). How’s that for an idea? Let’s help people fix their homes without taking them away from them or destroying them completely. We have seen too many times the negative repercussions of empty promises from housing developers who claim they want to help residents, but truly want to help themselves by making money at the expense of thousands of people. Situations of this nature can be seen time and time again in places like St. Thomas, a public housing development in New Orleans, which was destroyed to make room for new developments leaving current residents stranded or crowded into other public housing developments (Arena 2012). Those developments then become the next ‘project’ to be taken on by the next developer. We’ve even seen it on the other side of the country in Brooklyn where Atlantic Yards, a new development, was planned and enacted despite the thousands of residents currently living in housing that stood in the place where the new development was set to take root (Hill 2007). However, with this current plan, San Francisco finally got it right.

The inclusion of a Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) makes this plan different from others who have failed in the past. Rental Assistance Demonstrations, administered under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), requires that residents are entered into a long-term contract that ensures the housing units will remain affordable to those who are currently living in low-income residences. By law, this contract must be renewed (Castro 2015). It even has a policy that protects the homes of tenants who may temporarily have to move during rehabilitation of their units and guarantees they will move back in to their homes following renovation (Castro 2015). In addition, clear rules are set regarding ownership, rights, and payments and are agreed upon by all parties involved. The RAD program also helps HUD and the city because it allows for leverage of many different funds towards one project (City of San Francisco 2015). The current project is estimated to cost 1.692 billion dollars by the end and funds for the project are coming from investors, city funding, and debt financing. This leveraging makes it possible to reinvest public and private equity into revamping public housing and stocks. The initial revamping is said to include pest extermination, improved security, general maintenance of elevators and other technologies, and more. However, in addition to those general improvements, RAD included a list of 18 housing facilities in extreme need of renovation and the plan seeks to assist those developments first giving the residents some much needed relief (City of San Francisco 2015).

The idea of a private-public partnership has proven worrisome in the past when it comes to revamping public housing; however, with RAD on the side of the residents in San Francisco it seems like their cries will finally be answered and answered effectively. While it is still necessary to err on the side of caution, I would argue that as long as promises and contracts don’t lose their value the residents just might get what they have been deserving of for so long. Maybe if the developers in Brooklyn and New Orleans would have enacted plans with more emphasis on respecting the residents instead of feeding their wallets they might not have faced so much push-back from the community. Maybe they should have included a safeguard for residents or provided them with options and allowed them to make their own decisions regarding their homes instead of telling them what was best for them. We will never know what might have happened; however, the moral of the story is that the people that matter are the people that care. The residents care about their homes. The developers, elites, and city officials care about their money and their plans. When these two groups care about each other, things truly start to fall into place.

County of San Francisco,. 2015. Mayor Lee Celebrates Milestone In U.S. Department Of Housing & Urban Development Partnership To Re-Envision, Revitalize & Rebuild City’S Public Housing. Retrieved October 15, 2015 (

Arena, John. 2012. Driven From New Orleans: How Non-profits Betray Public Housing and Promote Privatization. University of Minnesota Press. 

Hill, Isabel. 2002. Brooklyn Matters. DVD. New York: Isabel Hill.

Castro, Julian. 2015. “U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development”. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Retrieved October 15, 2015.

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