“How San Francisco Saved Its Public Housing By Getting Rid of It”
or 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.
Roaches and rats had long since colonized the building, which was built in 1973, when the city was in the throes of its “Dirty Harry” era of drugs, crime and rock and roll. Leaks sprung from the ceiling. The water would often be shut off, seemingly at random. Only one of the property’s two elevators was functional, a serious problem in a building populated by seniors and disabled people, many of whom can’t walk without assistance. And the people who lived there were all but neglected by the city of San Francisco, whose management of the property can only be described as absentee.
Today, things are quite a bit different at 345 Arguello. The decrepit apartments have been gutted, and the residents now have new kitchens, new floors, new windows and beautiful balconies. The infestations are over. No longer ignored, the residents now have access to services like backrubs and field trips. The building, freshly painted, looks fabulous from the outside as well. Indeed, the average passerby would have no idea that 345 Arguello even is public housing: Only a small placard next to the front door indicates that this is housing for the indigent, and not just another pricy Inner Richmond condo building.
The 69-unit complex, like more than two-dozen others in the city, is emblematic of a new paradigm for managing public housing—one that may have profound consequences nationwide. Over the past few years, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the city of San Francisco has turned over all of its heretofore publicly owned housing—345 Arguello was one such building—to private property management companies and developers.
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 Francisco—a city that has always felt a polar tug between its wealth and its leftwing politics—have 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.”