San Francisco Chronicle, February 3, 2008: Life at the bottom

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Leslie Fulbright, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, February 3, 2008

On a typical day in San Francisco’s largest housing project, teens ditch school to take the bus to a funeral. A woman wanders into the liquor store to buy Cheetos for her young grandson and a 20-ounce beer for herself. Two 3-year-old boys ride their tricycles down a steep hill patched with trash and broken glass.

Such is life in Sunnydale, quite possibly the most dangerous, depressed and decrepit area of the city. The dilapidated barracks that make up the development are lined up on a hillside in the shadow of the Cow Palace, opposite McLaren Park in Visitacion Valley.

An estimated 1,633 people live in the square mile of concrete housing that was originally built for soldiers in World War II. Once considered a nice place for a family to live, the development is now home to those who can’t afford anything else.

Sunnydale, also called “The Dale” or “The Swamp,” is littered with bottles and trash. There is no landscaping, just overgrown grass and clumps of weeds. There are dirty diapers in trees. Cockroaches and mice run around inside. Some sinks are so moldy, they are black. Walls are crumbling. Stairs have collapsed.

Most San Franciscans never see Sunnydale, unless they play at the nearby Gleneagles golf course or get lost trying to avoid traffic on Highway 101. Afraid to come in after dusk, the cable guy makes only morning appointments, and Muni drivers often refuse to enter after dark. Garbage isn’t picked up regularly.

Though the housing is designed to be temporary, residents stay for decades. A combination of factors – geographic isolation, extreme poverty and a lack of access to social services – make it virtually impossible to leave Sunnydale. There are no stepping-stones to something better, no road map for how to get out.

“We don’t have role models. We don’t go to Harvard. We barely have police. We have to take care of ourselves,” said 55-year-old Keith “Kilo” Perry, who runs a barbershop in the development. “This is like a concentration camp. There is no way out unless you die.”

Though the primary mission of the federally run San Francisco Housing Authority is to provide safe, sanitary, affordable and decent housing for very low-income families, senior citizens and persons with disabilities, officials admit the housing is unacceptable.

“It may not look good, but it’s all we have,” said Gregg Fortner, the former director of the San Francisco Housing Authority. “It would cost a fortune to fix all of our units, a fortune we do not have.”

The Housing Authority was created in 1938 to help poor families build better lives by creating temporary subsidized housing. Over the years, the once well-kept projects turned into havens for crime, and the services that families need to get out and move on – such as child care, job training, legal help and counseling – evaporated with cutbacks.

The authority is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and overseen by a seven-member Housing Authority Commission appointed by the mayor. Over the past decade, the federal money has decreased, and HUD has asked authorities to go to their local governments and apply for grants to help with the costs of running the sites.

Most recently, the Housing Authority director, Fortner, resigned. City Administrator Ed Lee is now heading a transition team to look for a replacement and attempt to make some changes in the meantime.

“We hope that one day, the people of San Francisco will look at the Housing Authority like the school district, and use participation and partnerships to make it part of the city,” Lee said. “The residents of Sunnydale are also residents of San Francisco and should have services at their disposal just like any other citizen.”

Mayor Gavin Newsom has long said he feels the city should be partly responsible for cleaning up the sites, because “there is a lack of leadership in the federal government.”

“Things don’t look to improve on their own, so we are going to take responsibility and accountability for these federally funded, federally owned properties,” the mayor said in an interview. “These are the areas where there is a tremendous concentration of poverty, there is a density of challenges that exist there. We think that we can have an impact beyond just physical changes and create some real opportunities in terms of social changes.”

Newsom said the residents of San Francisco should be concerned about the poor conditions that fellow residents live in.

“They should care about the people that are suffering the consequences of our neglect. They should care about the health care costs,” Newsom said. “They should care about the crime and violence associated with the neglect and the issues of poverty; they should care because they are human beings and they’re San Franciscans.”

The mayor’s Hope SF plan has secured $5 million in city money to rebuild the city’s eight worst housing projects, including Sunnydale, and he started Communities of Opportunity in 2004, to better link residents of those developments with services, like after-school tutoring, job placement, addiction treatment and health care. To date, the program has provided computer labs, job fairs and outreach services in some of the city’s worst housing projects.

But his 3-year-old promise to rebuild the Housing Authority’s eight worst apartment complexes hasn’t gotten very far. Meanwhile, at Sunnydale, there are dozens of boarded-up units, while the waiting lists for public housing swell. Residents say their situation has not improved much.

“Ain’t nothing changed in four years,” says longtime Sunnydale resident Kenneth Johnson. “We’ve been lied to for so long out here. The mayor tells us to sign up for this and wait a little while for that. But we are always disappointed. We’ve been set up for failure.”

In Sunnydale, where the average annual income is $12,000, many residents subsist on government handouts or the change they make from underground businesses, like stores run out of their apartments that offer junk food and cigarettes, haircuts and pirated DVDs.

People who don’t have a job say there is no point in getting one because they will just have to pay more rent. And some of those who do have jobs don’t want promotions or better jobs, because that, too, would make their rent go up. It’s best to have side jobs with tax-free revenue.

“People are scared to get a raise, to do the right thing,” said Johnson.

Because of Sunnydale’s isolation, the underground stores are popular. There is no post office or coin-operated laundry, no grocery stores or even fast-food restaurants. Unlike most of San Francisco, in Sunnydale, you can’t really walk to anything.

Many residents shop at the Little Village Market, a convenience store located near the entrance to the development that is stocked with harsh cigarettes and cheap booze. Others are afraid to go into the store because there is always a large group of men loitering outside.

The store has a bulletproof entryway and 30 surveillance cameras. Max Chua, the owner, said it is busiest at the beginning of the month when assistance checks come. He likes to help out residents, assist them in paying bills online or lend some change to pay for groceries. Those niceties and little favors ensure customers return.

Chua may not know all their names, but he remembers what they smoke and what they drink. He says residents want anything that will give them a quick buzz.

“They don’t want healthy food,” he says one Friday evening, the store full of customers. “These people, they want junk food. They spend all their money because they don’t know how to manage it. They run out by the 8th.

“I try to help them as much as I can.”

In an independent report released in May on the condition of the San Francisco Housing Authority, a consulting firm said the agency is facing a fiscal crisis that is compounded by the disrepair and deterioration of its housing sites.

The report gave estimates on fixing the developments, and said it would cost $55,960 per unit – more than $42 million – to make Sunnydale livable. The report also concluded that the Housing Authority doesn’t “produce an environment conducive to self-sufficiency and success” and that the developments are in areas with the most crime, poverty, unemployment, school dropouts, family crisis and children in the foster care system.

“It is a privilege to live in San Francisco, and this is what happens to you if you can’t afford it,” says Sharen Hewitt, a community activist and head of the Community Leadership Academy Emergency Response, a support team for victims of violence. “This city claims to be so compassionate and progressive, but Sunnydale proves a contradiction. We need services out here.

“Sunnydale is San Francisco’s Lower Ninth Ward,” she also said, referring to the impoverished neighborhood in New Orleans that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Hewitt said the few who do make it out of Sunnydale often go to another housing project. The Bayview, also infamous for violence and poor public housing, is considered a step up.

“People here have been downtrodden for so long that they are just kind of immune,” Hewitt said. “They are happy to get out but then they go get trapped somewhere else.”

Anthony Hodges, a 27-year-old who recently moved to public housing in Bernal Heights, says anything is a step up from Sunnydale.

“It’s still public housing, but the other day, I accidentally left my door unlocked and came down in the morning, and there was nothing missing and no one dead,” Hodges said. “The air is fresh with jasmine and people are jogging. No one is scared to call 911.”

Christina Bryant, who works as a nursing assistant in the Western Addition and pays $160 a month for her Sunnydale apartment, is one of many residents who feel trapped.

The 22-year-old said she travels on BART every weekend to spend Friday night through Monday morning at her parents’ house in Pittsburg. She sleeps in her Sunnydale unit during the week but doesn’t like it, and neither does her young son.

“He is always saying, ‘Mommy, I don’t like your house,’ ” she said. “I agree with him.”

But she says there is virtually no way she can go from paying $160 a month with utilities included to $800 for a cheap San Francisco studio.

There is no middle ground between the housing projects and San Francisco living unless you get some kind of help. Even if you save everything you make, Bryant says, a parking ticket can set you back for months.

Parents want to encourage their children to go to school, where they could get an education and a better job, but they get robbed at the bus stop.

“People hide and catch you off guard. The kids hang out in front of the bus stop and usually are up to no good,” said Frank Holman, who lives on Brookdale Avenue. “Then at night, the place isn’t even lit up.”

Resident Natalie Gulley refuses to let her son take the bus home from school for fear he will get hurt before she gets home. She has him stay with relatives until she can pick him up.

The community center is not such a welcoming place. On a typical day in the Willie Brown teen center, a relaxation tape blares over the sound system. Teens gamble with dice. There are no books. There is a sign on the door announcing anyone who enters can be searched for weapons and a plaque that says: “Blacks must not hurt blacks.”

It doesn’t help. Shootings are a weekly occurrence. Burglary is so rampant that people who can’t afford security bars for their windows fear leaving their homes.

“If you can’t buy bars, you have to stay inside and watch your stuff,” said Johnson, who takes complaints from residents for the city. “My house has been broken into so many times. I’ve had video games, jewelry and CDs stolen.

“These people will take anything and everything from anyone and everyone.”

Johnson says little things could improve the place, like lighting on the main strip, shorter waits to make improvements to the properties, and jobs.

“They should put these teens to work cutting grass,” he said. “We should create a trade school and train kids to be carpenters and plumbers so they can do maintenance. Then we could make a plan to get everyone out of here. We should go door to door and find out what kind of services people need.

“Instead, they just throw some paint on during election year and then ignore us.”

San Francisco’s toughest project | First of a two-part series

Coming Monday

A tale of two Sunnydale residents, one trapped, and one who is determined to get out.

Online: “Lord knows it was time to hurry up and get a place somewhere else,” says Arlene Harris. Hear Harris and Sandy Knox talk about their lives in an audio slideshow at slideshows.

E-mail Leslie Fulbright at

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