This Is Your City: Housing Authority Bans San Franciscans from Public Housing

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Design by Andrew J. Nilsen

You can first tell Johnny Jackson is around by the shopping carts. A path of them leads into Westside Courts, the public housing project in the Western Addition in disrepair and set for eventual demolition. One is overturned beside the fenced-in basketball court. Another, with two brooms sticking from its top, rests on the driveway leading to a central parking lot ringed by the three-story complex. The place has the air of a dreary 1950s motel.

In 2009, the former property manager told Jackson to get his carts off the property. Jackson refused, and that's where his troubles began.

Jackson, 62, calls himself "the Mayor of Westside," yet a better title would be all-purpose handyman for the derelict building and its worn-down inhabitants, a few of whom have lived there for nearly five decades. A chorus of "Johnn-y!" erupts from people coming outside and needing work done. "Johnny can do anything," one boy sums up. Jackson finds gas leaks. He washes cars and cleans mold off walls. He drives grannies to get groceries. In the middle of the night, he once shimmied his small, sinewy frame down the garbage chute, Santa-style, to get into the locked garbage room to turn the power back on. No task is too dirty — he'll clean the sewage that backs up in the community room — or too dangerous. When a grandma caught on fire from her stove and ran out of her unit screaming a couple of months back, "he put me out," she says. Jackson will accept a tip if you're offering, but he doesn't pressure.

Jackson first showed up at Westside Courts after his sister moved there in the 1960s, though he's never been on a lease. He'll crash at various residents' units about three times a week or sleep on the streets with his wife, Angela.

One other thing: He has a crack problem. "I won't lie, I do," he says. He's been arrested once with a pipe, at least once for possession, and once for sales (he claims he's no dealer, and a former property manager who has a pretty good handle on who was doing what also says he's no drug runner).

One day in August 2009, Jackson was served with a court summons: The San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA) was trying to get an injunction to keep him off not just Westside Courts, but all 53 public housing properties in the city. "It says I'm a menace to the neighborhood," he says, sounding offended. "I help. I don't hurt nobody."

The Housing Authority's actual phrasing was "public nuisance." The summons cited his crack arrests, one trespassing arrest, and another time he allegedly broke a window. (Jackson says that may have happened in an argument with another squatter who stole a bag of his clothes and pepper-sprayed him.)

Another type of ban, gang injunctions, has become notorious in San Francisco. The city attorney started filing them in 2007, garnering intense media and public scrutiny for barring alleged gang members from associating with each other or loitering in specific zones.

Yet during the same time, the SFHA — an independent agency funded mostly with federal money — started a wide-ranging ban of its own with hardly anyone noticing. Starting in 2007, the agency began quietly serving dozens of public nuisance injunctions on nontenants who hung out on its properties. These "nuisances" were barred from coming within 150 feet of any Housing Authority property, under the threat of a one-year jail sentence for violating a court order. Housing rights activists say this is among the strictest bans they've seen in the entire country.

Granted, Jackson is on the upstanding end of the people pinned with injunctions — others are accused of robberies, drug sales, gun possessions, and even shootings. Even so, this May, after a fight from the public defender's office and civil rights advocates, a San Francisco judge declared the injunctions against seven people — Jackson included — unconstitutionally broad. The bans still sit on the books for nearly 80 other people, and police say they don't know whether the bans are still being enforced on the others.

The first Jackson heard about the judge's decision was when a police officer drove up to him nearly a month afterward: "He said I beat my case," he recalls. "But he said they're going to refile on me."

In the battle for who has rights to be on its property, the Housing Authority hasn't surrendered yet.


Jackson's injunction was likely set in motion by a decision then-Westside property manager Cerealraye Barker now regrets. In 2009, she came in with a mission to fix up the blighted complex. With the SFHA maintenance crews focused on larger properties, Jackson became her go-to guy for timely repairs. "Johnny's like MacGyver," she says. He'd kill roaches, and measure and replace missing gutters. She had him clean up the place for the federal inspectors after the complex had twice failed its review. (Jackson cleaned; the building passed.)

Still, Barker didn't like Jackson's carts. Along with telling residents they could no longer store bikes on the roof or throw diapers out the window, she demanded that he roll those "doggone carts" off the property. "I done cursed Johnny out," she says, laughing about it. "He drove me bats with that." After he refused to move them (he says he won't take government assistance, and recycling is a reliable meal ticket), she told the Housing Authority she wanted to ban him.

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20 comments
sofia32
sofia32

I have walked around these public housing estates, and have been dismayed on how the plan has somehow failed. A white paper or research should be done to make public housing worthwhile by giving it to the homeless rather than supporting those who are living in it and they have not even done anything to re-integrate themselves into society or help better themselves. I was walking around and glad that I did in my comfortable shoes as I had to dodge my way from one point to another, and even have to run for safety from brawls in some parts of it.

starchild
starchild

This is a real shame, and typical of the unintended consequences of official paternalism.

If Amos Brown thinks violating people's rights and breaking up families with injunctions is such a great thing, perhaps he should be fired as president of the San Francisco Housing Authority commission and receive an injunction to stay away from government employment!

In the bigger picture, government-run housing absolutely has been a failure. All of those units should be deeded to the tenants who live in them, and the Housing Authority abolished.

Truth
Truth

Mr Jackson was not truthful with the information he provided in this article!

Guest
Guest

The public housing projects are a major economic and social failure and should be phased out. Existing housing should be used for the homeless to transition back into housing not multi-generational dependence. Those currently in public housing need to be reintegrated back into the socio-economic mainstream.

Unfortunately this cynical and racist social policy of isolating people onto a reservation continues. San Francisco intends to rebuild housing at a cost of approximately $500,000 per unit. Despite the high per unit cost these projects are typically poorly constructed, expensive to operate and deteriorate due to the poor over sight and corruption with your tax payer funded projects. How many people actually want to live in or around these projects? With the exception of the corner liquor stores, where are the adjacent thriving commercial corridors? Yes, decent single family homes can be bought in many parts of the country for about $100,000. It would make more sense for the government to use your tax money and money they borrow from China to buy up distressed housing rather than continuing the same mistake over and over again.

WhySF?
WhySF?

Affordable housing should be transitional, not generational. When will the taxpaying citizenry of San Francisco unite and fight against such a rabid waste of our tax dollars?

Adam Finch
Adam Finch

The idea of hugely subsidized housing for the poor, concentrated and racially segregated, does not make sense or provide any benefit to the residents or neighbors. In fact, it provides a huge disservice. These folks SHOULD leave SF to cheaper areas and then come back when they can afford it - or not and be happy elsewhere. MANY many ethnic groups have done that without the injection of the cancerous public housing curse....

Public housing has been a failure, and many children and adults lives laid to waste. Visit the public housing in SF and it is clear how big of a failure. It is really unimaginable how this exists. Does the SFHA have a white paper on residents and their statistical success in education, finance, and professional growth? Of course not...and for obvious reasons, the white paper would illustrate a human tragedy unfolding, largely for African American families destroyed. Multi-generational destruction...

Maria_lvngstn
Maria_lvngstn

How dare you ignorant self-centered, selfish, narcissistic, arrogant full of shit think your better than the poor loser. Do you really think you have an intellectual opinion on tne matter. You sound like a true snob. God help you if you ever find yourself in the poor house. Who do you think you are stating that people should leave Ann come back when they can afford it. I pity idiots like you, but one thing is guaranteed in life eventually you will get pushed off your high horse. You will have your day when you are humbled and lose everything. Everybody needs to fall at one point in their life but you, your fall will be long and hard beacause you are selfrighteous n that even worst. I feel sorry for you.

KWillets
KWillets

I've seen the horrors of off-lease tenants at the $42 million HUD Hayes Valley HOPE VI Housing Development, managed by McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc. Most of them are dead or in Federal prison now.

If these guys are real boy scouts they should have some kind of supervised housing where they can prove it, not an unmanaged free-for-all like SF's public housing.

guest
guest

Public housing wasn't created for people to squat for decades.

neiman1
neiman1

Poor crack addict. I thought that was what public housing was built to accomodate.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Can I get an injunction against loud drunken hipsters in the mission?

starchild
starchild

Sure, get in line behind those who want an injunction against busybody NIMBYs in the Mission.

Maria
Maria

What a bizarre edge case story about one bizarre edge case person.

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neutral_corner
neutral_corner

Cry me a river. It's public housing. Get your act together and get off the dole. The citizens who pay for the housing (and the food stamps and the welfare checks), the vast majority of whom live paycheck-to-paycheck without any assistance from the federal government, deserve better from the beneficiaries of their largess than this.

 
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