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of the city's most prominent shared myths — those historical events we tell and retell to unfold our worldview — are outdated in a way that has distorted our civic conversation.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.

City planners are scheduled to complete an overall development plan for Rincon Hill that would create a Vancouver-style neighborhood of high-rise apartment buildings. The Board of Supervisors last week approved four such towers, after striking a deal whereby up to 25 percent of the project's units would be subsidized by the developer, making them affordable to low-income tenants. Planners fear this standard, if applied to the rest of the proposed neighborhood, might endanger the financial viability of the Rincon Hill plan; if enough apartments are built, prices would presumably go down, reducing profit margins to a point where developers couldn't afford to subsidize that many units. Planners envision block-by-block battles over “affordability” that halt projects and make it impossible to build enough units to drive overall market prices down. [page]

S.F. supervisors will soon consider an ordinance that would prohibit the destruction of any building of more than 20 units unless it is condemned or being razed to make way for 100 percent subsidized low-income housing. The measure is aimed at halting the construction of 1,400 apartments on Market Street. The developer would subsidize 170 of the units for low-income tenants, which would replace a 377-unit, mostly rent-controlled building. Activists have protested the displacement of these tenants in the spirit of the anti-redevelopment movement. But the measure, proposed by Supervisor Chris Daly, could theoretically encourage landlords to allow buildings to deteriorate until they're unfit for human habitation so they could be legally destroyed.

During the past few months neighborhood homeowner associations have been protesting proposed housing guidelines that would be part of the city's general plan. The guidelines are required under California law in order for the city to be eligible for state housing subsidies, and would suggest more apartments built along public transit routes.

There's certainly room for discussion on how to draft general principles on the ways increased housing might be accommodated in San Francisco. But the battle over a slight change in guidelines on how the city should approach housing development, called the “Housing Element” of the city's general plan, has taken on the shrill tone of a street fight.

Perhaps representative is the recent exchange between Barbara Meskunas, president of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, a group whose anti-development rhetoric borrows heavily from '70s anti-redevelopment protests, and Inner Sunset resident Jason Dewees.

Dewees wrote Meskunas after she was quoted in the San Francisco Business Times criticizing the Housing Element's recommendations for greater housing density, and suggesting that Amit Ghosh, San Francisco's director of long-range planning, wished to turn the city into Calcutta.

“To use hyperbole is one thing, but to link the South Asian-named staffer to Calcutta, the symbol of urban squalor located in India, is objectionable,” Dewees wrote. “Never having visited Calcutta, what I can say is that I like Paris, and I like Paris in part for its density. I also like San Francisco in part for its density. I grew up here, in North Beach and Russian Hill, two of the densest and most lively sections of the city. Where do I live now? In the Inner Sunset, just off Irving Street. I love my neighborhood not so much for its quiet side streets lined with craftsman-style flats, as lovely as those are, but for the bustling shops and street life along Irving and Ninth, the frequent service of the N-Judah, the diversity of the mix of renters and owners and students and seniors and kids and gen-Xers. When a new, four-story apartment building went up on Irving and Seventh Streets recently, I was pleased, knowing that the vigor of our neighborhood is a function of its density.”

Meskunas responded by reviving the Calcutta theme.

“If Mr. Ghosh is actually from Calcutta or thereabouts, wouldn't it be curious to inquire of him why he is attempting to recreate a place from which he himself emigrated, destroying our beautiful city in the process?” was her non sequitur response. “San Francisco's neighborhoods are worth preserving, and we are opposing the Housing Element for that reason.”

In the months leading up to the supervisors' decision to create Zygmunt Arendt House, residents living near the 850 Broderick St. building apparently tried to evoke the spirit of the 1970s Western Addition anti-redevelopment struggle. Letters to supervisors protesting the facility, which nearby residents apparently feared would bring an unsavory element into their area, hinged on concepts such as neighborhood integrity and community involvement, then segued seamlessly into a disparagement of low-income outsiders that '70s activists might have found abhorrent.

“Please help the neighbors of 850 Broderick in their attempt to actively participate in this important decision, a decision that possibly could severely disrupt our neighborhood culture,” one neighbor wrote.

“I have been living in San Francisco for five years, and over a year in this neighborhood, and would be terribly disappointed to see this project come to fruition without some kind of guarantee that our livelihood and safety is not in jeopardy,” wrote another.

“Quite frankly, the Western Addition, because of its historical (and no longer accurate) reputation as a high crime area, is being used as a dumping ground by the city,” said one resident.

“The proposal offers opportunity to the weakest link, who will unfortunately not contribute back for the greater good,” wrote another protester. “This strand of weak links weaves through the city affecting hard working families.”

An aide to Supervisor Matt Gonzalez, whose district encompasses the Arendt House site, spent hours talking with angry neighbors. Dariush Kayhan, the city Department of Human Services official charged with creating the elderly supportive living facility, was likewise deluged with calls. Neighbors met with Gonzalez, and Kayhan introduced residents to some formerly homeless seniors to show they weren't so bad. Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, who sponsored the measure to fund Zygmunt Arendt House, says city officials assured neighbors that the facility would not be used to house just any homeless people; it would provide homes only to elderly, and presumably less objectionable, poor.

In the end the story of Zygmunt Arendt, the feeble, rumpled immigrant who spent his days fretting about San Francisco's needy, then left millions to the poor, was powerful enough to overcome neighbors' appeals. City officials will now set about converting 850 Broderick, once a home to pregnant teens, into a dwelling for homeless seniors drawn from the city's shelters.

“This building, it's the right scale, it's in a great neighborhood, with great amenities, and an excellent community space,” says Kayhan. “These things are critical for people who have experienced homelessness. You need to create community within supportive housing. This building was ideal for that.” [page]

That's a tale worth repeating until it becomes folklore.

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