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How San Francisco Saved Its Public Housing By Getting Rid of It

August 1, 2017

The wealthy city couldn’t afford to make its public housing livable, so it turned it over to private owners. No one’s happier than the residents.

For years, one of San Francisco’s worst public housing complexes sat just a stone’s throw from the home of one own of its most prominent citizens: Nancy Pelosi. Nestled in tony Inner Richmond, not far from the Presidio and Golden Gate Park, the low-slung building at 345 Arguello Street was a poster child for poorly maintained public housing…

This shift from public oversight to private management is one of the most dramatic and consequential reform efforts in the tortured, seven-decade history of public housing in the United States. The U.S. federal government got into the housing business after the Great Depression, when tent-city “Hoovervilles” teeming with homeless and destitute families sprang up all over the country. Now, public housing is in crisis nationwide, as the general disrepair of decades-old buildings accelerates faster than government can fix it. The estimated maintenance backlog now tops $26 billion; the annual budget for public housing repairs, meanwhile, does not even reach $2 billion. The urgency to solve this funding problem has only grown as the Trump administration pushes forward on billions of dollars of cuts to public housing programs. But turning over this housing to private entities has not come without controversy, with some housing advocates fearful that residents will be displaced once they’re left at the mercy of rapacious landlords…

Officials in San Franciscoa city that has always felt a polar tug between its wealth and its leftwing politicshave crafted an innovative approach that overcomes a one-size-fits-all federal program called Rental Assistance Demonstration, and in so doing have made the city a potential model for others. For one, the famously progressive city put in place strong protections against displacement. And San Francisco also ensured that non-profits, rather than for-profit real estate companies, took a lead role in the project, as well.

“We are going to make RAD succeed in San Francisco,” says Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, a coalition of affordable housing groups that is powerful in setting local housing policy. If the city is going to use this federal program, he says, “We’re going to do it the San Francisco way: nonprofits have to be part of it.”… (more)

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