Habitat for Inanity

Charity unwittingly sucked into fight over housing low-income elderly

When Habitat for Humanity International was founded 23 years ago, it was based on the idea that uniting Christians to build houses for the poor might help erase disagreements between people of differing religious faiths.

But last month, Habitat for Humanity's San Francisco branch found itself in a far-from-conciliatory role. Thanks to an aspiring neighborhood politician and his NIMBY neighbors, Habitat for Humanity was unwittingly placed in the position of spoiler for a city-sponsored housing project for the elderly poor.

The charity found itself enmeshed in the teensy, topsy-turvy world of San Francisco outer-borough politics; a place where people will do nearly anything to avert a perceived threat to the skyrocketing value of their homes -- even possibly deceive a charitable organization, and sabotage an effort to build housing for poor elderly residents.

"It became apparent that this was not as uncomplicated as it had originally seemed," says Mara Feeney, vice president of the board of directors of Habitat for Humanity San Francisco. "It was really a dog and a cat fight. The tension was palpable."

The trouble started this March, when city housing officials recruited two San Francisco developers to draw up plans for a 48-unit, subsidized apartment building for the elderly poor. The 14,000-square-foot lot at 5199 Mission St. had been in limbo for more than a year as its owner, the Housing Conservation and Development Corp., dithered over what to build. The Mayor's Office of Housing had provided funds for the property's purchase in 1996, so that it could be developed into housing for low-income people.

In March, the Mayor's Office learned that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development planned to dole out $435 million for apartments designed to serve the "very low income" elderly. To meet a late-May application deadline, the city asked the nonprofit developers Mission Housing Development Corp. and Bernal Heights Development Corp. to draw up a set of plans that might qualify the city for around $1 million in federal housing money. The plan was met with lukewarm enthusiasm by Outer Mission neighbors, who grumbled about increased "density," and about having poor people live in their middle-class-homeowner neighborhood.

Enter Steven Currier, president of the Outer Mission Residents Association, aspiring candidate to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and deft political maneuverer. Currier called Habitat for Humanity, and suggested that it draft a competing plan to build houses for around 18 first-time home buyers on the same land. Currier, according to Habitat for Humanity, incorrectly told the group that no plans existed to develop the lot, and that Mayor Willie Brown was actively soliciting input about possible projects there.

"He basically told us that there was this lot on Mission Street that had been proposed for senior housing development, that that had been withdrawn, and his group was interested in Habitat building for first-time home buyers," says Feeney. "It sounded great."

The elder-housing proposal hadn't actually been withdrawn. But with Habitat for Humanity in the picture, Currier was able to turn his -- and his neighbors' -- objection to the elderly poor apartments into an act of advocacy for the young families of San Francisco.

"The city's greatest need right now is for family housing. That was in an article in the Independent dated May 11, 1999," Currier explains. "We feel there's a greater need for family housing than senior housing. There is an incredible need for family housing."

Thus defined, the battle came to a head at a community meeting May 26 held by the Mayor's Office. Housing activists from around the city, and dozens and dozens and dozens of neighbors of the Mission Street property, packed into the Crocker-Amazon Clubhouse to discuss the elder-housing plan. Attendees say the meeting was one of the nastier, more raucous such occasions they'd ever seen. Old folks who had shown up to support the possibility of elder housing were shouted down.

"It was a really gnarly scene, and they were dead set on blocking senior housing," says Jim Hewitt, of the Senior Housing Action Collaborative, an S.F. charity.

Neighbors held a straw poll -- in which identification was required as proof of neighborhood residence -- that soundly denounced plans to build housing for the low-income elderly on the site by a margin of 140 to 25.

The next day, Feeney sent a letter to Currier suggesting that Currier had misled her organization into entering the fray, and announcing that the group would immediately drop plans to help develop the site.

"When we began discussions with you last month about the possibility of undertaking a Habitat for Humanity project at 5199 Mission Street, it was our understanding that the senior housing project planned for that location had been withdrawn by the developer, and that the Mayor's Office of Housing would be looking for another affordable housing project of some kind at that location," Feeney wrote. "For these reasons, as I said last night, [Habitat for Humanity] will not pursue a project at 5199 Mission Street."

For his part, Currier says the misunderstanding was more a question of timing than ill intent. He says he called Habitat for Humanity shortly before the elder-housing project had been proposed.

"There was no project when I contacted them. The project that came later came after that," Currier says. But "when we had the meeting on the 26th, they were well aware that there was a competing project."

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