Shelter Skelter (Part II)

In 1984, four women living in city housing projects said they wanted to get out. Only one made it.

"It's fear," says Barbara Meskunas, a San Francisco Housing Authority commissioner. "Some people stay in public housing because no matter how terrible it might be, they're accustomed to it."

Meskunas is theorizing about the things that keep people stuck -- lack of money, lack of opportunity, lack of education, lack of power, lack of leadership -- and talking about the importance of tenant management: a new movement in public housing, in which tenants form nonprofit corporations and take control over their projects. Meskunas is a total devotee of the concept.

"When you live in public housing for a long time, you become some kind of adversarial fatalist," Meskunas says. "You're a fatal-ist because you know you're screwed, and you're adversarial because you want to get back at whoever did it to you."

Meskunas is somewhat adversarial herself. An appointee of Mayor Jordan, as are all the current members of the Housing Commission, she has been a vocal minority of late in criticizing Jordan's most recent pick for executive director. Shirley Thornton is a veteran educator, a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, a former deputy state schools superintendent, and a woman with no previous housing experience.

"The place needs reform from top to bottom," growls Meskunas, "and Thornton lacks the judgment to bring a bureaucracy of this size into the 21st century."

Even with the most seasoned director at the helm, the task of rehabilitating the Housing Authority would be mind-boggling. A scathing audit by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) three years ago found that the agency flunked almost every test. It did not adequately repair its properties, train its employees, collect rents on time, evict problem tenants, or keep tabs on the money it spent, the audit said. It did not provide safe, decent, and sanitary shelter -- the basic mandate of public housing.

Eighty-seven percent of the units inspected by auditors failed to meet HUD quality standards. An estimated 80 percent of units still boasted lead-based paint, which when consumed in even small amounts can cause lead poisoning, mental retardation, and even death, particularly in young children. Inspectors also found that the Housing Authority had canceled more than 17,000 work orders without making sure the repairs had been made. In one unit, they discovered a 10-foot section of living room ceiling ready to collapse, something the tenant had complained about for two years.

Among the Housing Authority's questionable expenditures was the fact that the agency tossed $2,200 at a "We're Off the List!" party, celebrating the fact in 1992 that the agency had finally been relieved of its 12-year tenure on HUD's "troubled" list.

Most disturbing, however, are more recent events, in which the housing mandated to be "safe, decent, and sanitary" has become a staging ground for brutal gang rapes. In October, a 13-year-old girl was kidnapped and raped by a group of teen-age boys in a vacant apartment at the Potrero Hill housing project -- the fourth such attack since June, police said. And in September, at Yerba Buena Plaza East, 12 men trapped a 37-year-old secretary in a stairwell, raped her, burned her hand with a cigarette, and beat her so viciously she will need facial reconstructive surgery.

Housing Authority officials today say they are dealing with the problems, and things will get better -- Plaza East, they note, is slated to be demolished and rebuilt. As for the bureaucratic woes, a newly hired internal auditor is chipping away at the failings outlined by HUD. But critics believe the challenges remain overwhelming, particularly in light of the Republican-led Congress, with its designs on eviscerating funding for federal housing and programs for the poor.

"Almost everything wrong requires money to fix, and there isn't any more money," says attorney Paul Wartelle, a longtime specialist in tenants' rights. "Poverty has become another nation, and the projects are where poverty lives," Wartelle says. "In any housing authority you have a large percentage of underclass, disadvantaged people in one central location where you could provide all the social services that could help them get their lives back in order. But there is absolutely none of that going on."

Even if money were available, it wouldn't fix what Wartelle calls the Housing Authority's "institutionalized culture of contempt." The office at 440 Turk is a fortress with a fortress mentality, he says. "Even on the most elementary sort of level, the management is totally ineffective."

It doesn't help matters that, since Mayor Jordan has been in office, the agency has flitted through five directors. And that Thornton, No. 5, appears to be ruling with unnecessary vigor. When I call her office simply to ask the names of the authority's executive directors since 1984, a secretary tells me she has to make sure she has permission before she can give me the information (a response almost as nutty as if someone at the White House refused to disclose the names of the last 10 presidents). The next morning, the secretary says she's compiled the list, but still can't provide it until she speaks to Thornton. By noon, Thornton gives the OK.

Thornton, meanwhile, refuses to call her job complicated, or even tough. Her mission, she says, is to provide decent housing, and perhaps shine a light along the way. People can get out of public housing, if they're given some support. She tells me about the days when she was principal at Balboa High School, and young teens needed help plotting their futures.

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