Ghetto Blasting

A cop's doodle travels to Washington, D.C., and returns as a warm-and-fuzzy crackdown on S.F.'s projects

First came the paint crews and barbecue. Next comes a legal arsenal -- wiretaps and undercover buys, evictions, civil stay-away orders, and criminal injunctions. S.F.'s public housing, a largely decrepit and hostile home to 30,000 people, is about to come under an unprecedented law-enforcement blitz, backed by social service workers, educators, and teams of plumbers, painters, and electricians. "We are going to take every one of them back, one at a time," says Police Deputy Chief Rich Holder, referring to the most crime-plagued of the Housing Authority's 48 properties.

Made possible by an alignment of political planets from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., the initiative marks a forceful move by Mayor Willie Brown's administration to fulfill one of the most daunting of Brown's campaign promises -- to do something constructive about housing project crime, from the Western Addition to North Beach to Hunters Point. It also offers a window on the leadership style of Police Chief Fred Lau, a quiet consensus-builder, in contrast with his mercurial predecessor, Anthony Ribera.

Valencia Gardens, a 245-unit housing development in the lower Mission District, saw a narrow test run of the endeavor in July. As reported in the daily press, Housing Authority and city workers fanned out to give the old concrete structure a face lift, while S.F. police put on a goodwill barbecue.

But what is under way is no spruce-up, make-nice campaign, a point made evident by the parties now being courted by police -- District Attorney Terence Hallinan; City Attorney Louise Renne; U.S. Attorney Michael Yamaguchi; the FBI; the DEA; the IRS; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The so-called Housing Enforcement and Recovery Teams (HEART), aim to use every legal trick in the book -- from issuing citations for trespassing to tapping drug dealers' phones.

In conjunction with police, the Housing Authority and city Public Works Department officials plan to send crews through developments en masse. The official visitors will monitor and enforce a lengthy checklist: properly recording tenants on leases; cataloging maintenance needs; surveying residents on the need for security upgrades; repainting walls; replacing broken glass; and repairing failed wiring, bathroom fixtures, and appliances.

HEART funding is flowing from the feds. A Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant of $150,000 provided the seed money for the Valencia Gardens cleanup as well as for three earlier sweeps at other properties. Last month, HUD pledged an additional million dollars. "The problem is we have wanted to bring in professional employment counselors, public health and social workers, or just make sure residents can get a newspaper delivered, or cable [television] installed," says Holder. But, he adds, "none of that will work unless we take it back first."

As HEART gains notice it is sure to draw criticism. Any housing project-based crackdown risks racial and ethnic discrimination. But for now, some civil libertarians will take a wait-and-see position. "Obviously, we hear from tenants that they have problems, some of which can be addressed by greater police presence. But it requires sensitivity and tolerance," says Alan Schlosser, managing attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco.

Holder, who notes that the vast majority of people arrested in and around projects each year are nonresidents, brushes aside those concerns, arguing that most tenants are supportive of police. But some residents already are leery of the Housing Authority's announced intention to pursue a White House-inspired "one strike" policy that can result in eviction after a single arrest. A further clampdown makes them more wary.

Enola Maxwell, of the Potrero Neighborhood House, a longtime social services group, says a recent survey of Potrero Hill project inhabitants stirred controversy merely by polling residents about the desirability of installing security gates. "It would feel like a prison," Maxwell says, "gating them in like a jail or a reservation." She also frowns on distribution of tenant identification cards, which is a related security proposal, but which would hinder residents in helping relatives who fall on hard times. "Family members aren't going to see other family members homeless," says Maxwell.

Whatever its contours, however, the S.F. police undertaking is a juggernaut, revealing how a local policy notion actually can get pushed to the top of the bureaucratic heap -- when the Clintonites have an abiding interest in the locality, that is.

The whole thing began in January with a meeting among members of Brown's mayoral transition team, Chief Lau, Deputy Chief Holder, and Dan Pifer, HUD's regional inspector general. Lau recalls "doodling" a schematic of how the multidisciplinary effort might be organized, while Holder pitched the proposal. As Holder spoke, the chief also sketched the acronym, HEART, and leaned over to show it to Holder, his new deputy chief of field operations.

Thereafter, as federal officials were preparing the March takeover of management of the city Housing Authority's crime-plagued developments, Lau says Holder's notes and his doodle were passed on to Henry Cisneros, the HUD secretary, who raised the proposal with President Clinton himself. Yamaguchi, the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, says he received an April 18 directive from Attorney General Janet Reno ordering him and a handful of other U.S. attorneys around the country to meet with their local police to develop multidisciplinary approaches to housing project crime. It bore a remarkable resemblance to HEART.

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