Not in our neighborhood

Pub date May 31, 2011

San Francisco faces an enormous shortage of affordable housing for young people at risk of homelessness, but a pair of projects intended to address the issue are under fire from neighborhood activists in supervisorial District 2, home to the city’s wealthiest residents.

The proposed conversion of the defunct Edward II Hotel and the major overhaul at the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center (BTWCSC) could create a combined 74 units of affordable housing for vulnerable youth, complete with services and support systems to help young people coming from foster or homeless families.

“We are building houses for young people who are getting their start in life,” said Julian Davis, president of the board of BTWCSC. “There was a great need for foster youth housing that has been studied ad nauseam … Our center wanted to contribute.”

But both projects have run into strong neighborhood opposition that appears to have turned D2 Sup. Mark Farrell against the projects as proposed, despite initial support for the BTWCSC project by both Farrell and his predecessor, Michela Alioto-Pier. Farrell’s approach has frustrated project opponents and caused the representative of a neighboring district, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, to sponsor the project.

“The project emanated from Michela Alioto-Pier and she supported the original project, which is why I joined her in support and it initially appeared that Sup. Farrell was joining that support,” Mirkarimi told us, noting that he is continuing to champion the project because it borders his district and because “the Booker T center has a long reach and serves clients from throughout city.”

After hearing from constituents concerned about parking, the size of the five-story building that is proposed, and other issues, Farrell dropped his sponsorship of the project and submitted alternative legislation that cut the building to four stories, presenting it to project proponents without their input as a take-it-or-leave-it proposal.

“The thing I find most puzzling about this is the lack of communication with me personally,” BTWCSC Executive Director Pat Scott said of Farrell, noting how helpful Alioto-Pier and Farrell’s staff had been before opponents convinced him to drop his support for the project. “I was a little taken aback, quite frankly. I would just assume that he’d talk to me.

But Farrell said he was simply trying to heed neighborhood concerns and craft a compromise that would get neighbors to drop their lawsuit threats and appeal of the Planning Commission’s 6-1 vote to approve the project. “I can’t control what happened in the past, I’m only here to make sure everyone is happy now,” Farrell told us. “I absolutely support the project, I think the community center is great … We’re arguing over a story.”

Yet Scott noted that project proponents already had compromised on a project that was initially proposed for eight stories, and she said that even at five stories, it isn’t coming anywhere near what the city actually needs. So while Farrell casts it as a fight over one story, Scott said, “10 units is a big thing in a city that has nothing for these kids.”

That need was outlined in a 2007 report by the Mayor’s Transitional Youth Task Force. The group of city officials and nonprofit providers, convened by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, studied issues affecting at-risk youth between the ages 16 and 24 and one of the major needs identified was housing.

A follow-up study found that 4,500 to 6,800 young people are “homeless or marginally housed each year.” The citywide affordable housing stock for this population sat at meager 314 units at the time.

“We are not doing a good enough job as a city and as a state [to help at-risk youth],” Davis said. “Once they leave the foster care system, there is very little support for them.”

The report called for 400 new affordable housing units for this population to be completed or under construction by 2012. Edward II and BTWCSC are located in the Marina and the Western Addition, respectively, in proximity to affluent neighborhoods in a district with a dearth of affordable housing.

“With supportive housing [going] into neighborhoods that never had affordable housing, there is a certain unknown and it makes people uncomfortable,” said Gail Gilman, Executive Director of Community Housing Partnership, which owns and manages the Edward II project.

Patricia Vaughey, a resident of the Marina-Cow Hollow area since 1976, is perhaps the most vocal critic of the project. She has used the neighborhood associations and every other city forum she can find as platforms to lambaste the plans. “It just kills my soul to see this project,” she told us, voicing a variety of concerns about how the project would be managed. “I am so worried about the kids … We are asking for the best program in the country and we are not getting it.”

Yet Gilman said that considerable energy and many resources have been invested in designing Edward II and that she trusts Larkin Street Youth Service, a respected nonprofit agency, to do the programming. “We chose to partner with Larkin Street because they are the experts in this area,” she said.

Vaughey characterized the stretch of Lombard Street between Divisadero and Van Ness streets, where Edward II will be located, as marred by crime and prostitution and unsuitable for this project. “We have a little Tenderloin down here,” she said.

Gilman disputed that characterization and said the building was chosen after an extensive search and that it met the criteria of having the right sized building in a safe neighborhood with good access to public transit and open space.

But many residents have expressed concern over the pending change to zoning for the building. And if the BTWCSC project couldn’t win Farrell’s support, the Edward II project faces an even more uphill battle because Farrell told us, “There’s an even stronger level of neighborhood concern over that project…. It’s going to be a tough hill to climb.”

The contentious issue under review by the Planning Department is an application to expand the density limit from 16 units to 24.

John Miller, president of the Marina Community Association, said that “from a neighborhood dynamic perspective,” a change to density is problematic. He said changing the density for one building is a slippery slope that could hurt the entire neighborhood. “Higher density is inconsistent with the neighborhood. It could work beautifully at lower density.”

Miller said potential renters in the vicinity would be concerned with “loitering that could occur when people are coming and going … With so many people there is no sense of community”

Yet as with BTWCSC, proponents say simply slashing the project to a smaller size would kill it because then it wouldn’t pencil out financially. Making an issue of density is therefore obstruction of the project because compromise cannot be reached on the issue.

Farrell, a venture capitalist, said he ran the numbers on BTWCSC and believes it would still be a viable project at four stories if the Mayor’s Office of Housing is able to offer some unspecified assistance, as he said the officials there have pledged to him they would. “I know we need more affordable housing,” Farrell said, rejecting suggestions that D2 residents tend to oppose all affordable housing projects. “I don’t think that should be a part of this conversation.”

Farrell criticized the outreach done by Edward II proponents, telling us, “I don’t think it was done in a tactful way.” But Miller said a recent meeting with Gilman and others was positive. “It was an effort on their part to respond to the neighborhood concerns as best they can,” Miller said.

“We are confident we can partner with the community in a proactive way to address the concerns that are addressable,” Gilman said. “If we diligently work with the community, we can have positive project.”

Edward II is on track to come before the Planning Commission in mid-July, while the appeal of the BTWCSC project is scheduled to be heard by the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee on June 6 at 1 p.m. Neither Mirkarimi nor Farrell offered predictions, but both said the issue of whether the project should be four or five stories will likely be a key part of the discussion.

“Coming through the process has made me super supportive of all plans for transition age housing. I was already a supporter but this made me a fervent supporter,” Scott said. “The amount of opposition by people who don’t care what happens to our children — it makes you want to fight.”