A Tale Worth Retelling

When an elderly man left the city millions to build apartments for homeless old folks, neighbors tried to block the project. Fortunately, they failed.

During the mid-1990s there was a former Weimar-era German soldier named Zygmunt Arendt who would occasionally stroll through San Francisco City Hall, stopping to chat with a mayoral aide he had befriended.

"From his appearance he could have been a street person himself. He was tall, thin, undernourished-looking almost, and extremely humble," says Virginia Sunday, a former assistant to Frank Jordan who now represents the Mayor's Office of Protocol at the airport. "He just wanted the mayor of San Francisco to pay attention to the important issue of the poor."

A couple of times Sunday passed along calls from Arendt to her boss.

"He was asking how he could contribute to helping the city's poor," recalled Jordan when I spoke with him last week. "I had no idea at the time that he had any money."

When Arendt died in 1998 at age 92, former S.F. Public Administrator Ricardo Hernandez remembers finding nothing but saltine crackers in Arendt's Mission District home's cupboards, a few ratty clothes in the closets, and a pair of sneakers squashed into slippers on the floor. But there was something else: dozens of carefully preserved notebooks, bearing accounts of stock purchases written with extra-thick, grade-school-style pencils.

"He was a patient, fortunate investor," Hernandez concluded.

Arendt had invested and reinvested his pension checks, amassing a fortune now worth some $6 million, which he left five years ago in a handwritten will to San Francisco's poor and elderly. Last month, after years of probate court battles between the city and Arendt's German relatives, and many months of meetings to assuage neighborhood activists, the Board of Supervisors decided to spend $3.8 million of Arendt's fortune to create a supportive housing residence in the Western Addition for 40 poor elderly men and women. Above the front entrance will hang a plaque saying "Zygmunt Arendt House."


I'd like to posit the story of Zygmunt Arendt House, which will be built despite intense, sustained protest from neighbors near the Western Addition site, as a new element of San Francisco folklore. That's because some of the city's most prominent shared myths -- those historical events we tell and retell to unfold our worldview -- are outdated in a way that has distorted our civic conversation.

During the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, the city Redevelopment Agency razed the Western Addition, one of America's great black neighborhoods, and the Yerba Buena area South of Market, home to thousands of low-income people. Residents organized, rebelled, filed lawsuits, and launched protests. They spawned resistance groups that became community organizations, helping to create political careers that flourished amid a new citywide anti-establishment sensibility. San Francisco became over time a bastion of left-wing grass-roots activism.

The remnants are mostly good. We're a city of questioners with a reflexive sympathy for the downtrodden and an enthusiasm for grass-roots democratic participation. But decades-old redevelopment-resistance legend has ennobled less savory sentiments as well. It seems every protest against neighborhood change -- whether it be condo towers planned for downtown parking lots, apartment buildings slated for abandoned industrial sites, or a facility for the elderly poor in an empty Western Addition building -- rings in many San Francisco ears with the heroism of activists fighting bulldozers in the Fillmore. This folklore has sustained an ideological alliance between conservative homeowners in the city's western areas and left-wing activists in the Mission, called the "progressive coalition."

Thus reinforced through narrative, this anti-development activism has created a housing shortage so severe that the median S.F. home now costs $580,000. Incipient families recruit roommates. Street dwelling abounds as fleabag hotel rooms hover at $500 a month. Apart from the homeless, many people who aren't affluent choose not to live here. The retelling of the story of a 1970s movement protesting displacement of the poor has created an unfortunate 2000s ripple effect, in which astronomical housing prices displace the poor.


This year San Franciscans face an unusually large number of important decisions on how to do a better job housing people, both poor and middle income. These measures will be controversial, and indeed there are reasonable criticisms to be made of some of the proposals. But if this year's housing battles are anything like previous ones, the rhetoric will draw inaccurate parallels with the 1960s and '70s redevelopment battles, equating neighborhood change with the oppression of an underprivileged group.

The mayor plans to float a low-income housing bond, which, if successful, will result in the construction of subsidized apartment buildings built near other people's homes, and thus incite neighborhood protest.

San Franciscans will vote in March on a ballot initiative designed to streamline construction of 10,000 apartments in the old port industrial area east of Potrero Hill and the Rincon Hill area downtown. The measure would allow developers to erect higher buildings as long as they promise to create apartments for lower-income occupants and set aside additional apartments affordable to people making between $88,000 and $110,000. There's an argument to be made against this sort of urban design by ballot box: City planners say that by forcing them to give up their ability to extract other concessions from builders, San Francisco will potentially forgo developer-funded parks, walkways, well-designed buildings, and well-designed new neighborhoods. But so far citywide discussion of the measure has taken on the community-activists-versus-downtown-business-types character drawn from previous development battles. Former mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez and other "progressive" leaders have pledged opposition to the measure on just these grounds.

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