S.F. housing motto: hurry up and wait

By all accounts, the replacement project for a once-notorious public housing development in San Francisco's North Beach area is a gem. It has a cheery, handsome facade, grass-covered courtyards and shiny new retail space that features the latest outlet of the ridiculously popular Trader Joe's grocery chain.

Residents in the area have heaped praise on the project. It has been written up in the press and singled out by the mayor as a model for bringing low-income housing to a city that desperately needs it.

So there's only one frequent complaint about the complex called North Beach Place. Hardly anyone lives there.

Although the 341-unit building opened to much fanfare last month, the bureaucratic red tape involved in meeting federal and local requirements for getting into the building is such that as of last week, only 51 units have been leased so far in North Beach Place.

City Housing Authority officials are predicting that the new housing project will be so popular that by the first quarter of next year, they say the waiting list to get into it will run into the thousands.

But right now, they're just waiting.

"It's been really frustrating,'' said Denise McCarthy, the longtime executive director of the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, which provides a number of programs and services to residents in the area. "You can see how long it takes for people to get through the bureaucratic paperwork.''

Recently the Tel-Hi Center had a "welcoming'' party for the new residents of North Beach Place. But there were so few people living there at the time, the center decided to hold another event for them next year when -- it is hoped -- there will be more of a critical mass.

You might think that a project that turned out many local political luminaries at its ribbon-cutting ceremony would have a streamlined process to place renters and buyers, especially in a city with such a tight housing market.

You'd be wrong.

Officials say the problems stem from the requirements to land a unit in the new building, which are so strict and narrow that it's uniquely hard to qualify. Yet the real stumbling block is that because the project was so large and expensive -- it cost $106 million -- that it required several developers to partner together. As a result, the project involves three separate entrance pipelines -- public housing units, Section 8 units and tax- credit affordable housing -- each of which have different eligibility requirements.

For example, the subsidized Section 8 housing units must go to people on the city's Housing Authority waiting list. Speed is not a possibility there --

there are 27,000 people on the waiting list, according to Gregg Fortner, director of the Housng Authority. Adding to the snail's pace is the requirement that housing officials give first crack to the residents who were relocated from the old housing project on the site, which was demolished to make way for the new structure.

"The process is very involved,'' said Jack Gardner, president and chief executive officer of the John Stewart Co., one of the developers and the leasing agent for the project. "We'd all love to fill it up overnight, but you have to do it in a timely manner, and there's a lot of paperwork involved.

"Since there were so many agencies involved, you couldn't have one agency handling the marketing, advertising, move-in and leasing process, so there was no way to simplify it.''

Gardner says the goal is to try to lease up to nine units a week from now until the building is completely filled -- an admirable pursuit, even if, at this point, it seems a bit of a reach.

Still, even a largely empty edifice is an improvement over a populous public hazard, which the the former housing project was by unanimous decree. The crumbling 1950s-era boxes that were torn down had become a bane of the North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf neighborhoods. It was not uncommon for tourists at the crowded Taylor Street cable car turnaround to be mugged -- hardly the kind of word-of-mouth campaign for a city that relies on the kindness and spending of strangers.

There is at least one other upside from the experience with North Beach Place. It should benefit housing officials when they open a similar development replacing the once-fearful Valencia Gardens project in the Mission District in a few years.

It seems bureaucracies can also require a learning curve.

  • Subsidized Housing Programs