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News + PoliticsHousingFederal official tells SF to fix ongoing problems at 'uninhabitable' Plaza East...

Federal official tells SF to fix ongoing problems at ‘uninhabitable’ Plaza East public housing

But despite successful organizing campaign, repairs haven't started.

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After years of organizing alongside their neighbors and demanding the city make the necessary repairs to their homes, Plaza East Apartments residents could finally have a reason to feel optimistic.

Last month, after contacting his office, they were able to convince Richard Monocchio, principal deputy assistant secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, to personally visit the 193-unit public housing complex in the Fillmore district, one of San Francisco’s last remaining historically Black communities.

When he visited on March 11, Monocchio saw for himself the state of Plaza East, which District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston, whose district includes the complex, has called “uninhabitable living conditions.”

A garbage dumpster right outside a door at Plaza East

“He was disappointed. He was disgusted,” recalled Kelvin Soodeen of Monocchio’s visit.

Soodeen has lived in Plaza East, on Buchanan and Eddy, since 2009 and says the conditions have been “pretty bad” since he first arrived. “There are dumpsters right outside my door, so there are times there’s garbage all over the place in front of my door and smells come into my house. There’s mold. There’s rats. I had to get three cats because of the rat problem.”

The residents showed Monocchio and his team all that disrepair—the pests, the broken plumbing, the clogged gutters, the vacant units. In response, Monocchio reassured the residents that his team at HUD would compel the San Francisco Housing Authority, which is responsible for the occupancy and upkeep of public housing in the city, to do its job. 

After years of being ignored and misled by the property managers, it feels like a win. With a federal executive’s say-so, the residents are cautiously hopeful that repairs are on the way.

“Oh my god, I feel ecstatic about Rich Monocchio coming down and getting on these people and making them do what they are supposed to do,” said Martha Hollins, president of the Plaza East resident council. “They were supposed to do this years ago. Years ago! Year after year we’ve been begging, asking, having meetings, and these people just would not do what they were supposed to do.”

But now, more than a month after Monocchio’s visit, the residents have still not received any written communication from either SFHA or HUD acknowledging any promises, and no serious repairs have begun.

On April 1, Soodeen, Hollins, and other resident leaders sent a letter to SFHA CEO Tonia Lediju asking for a memorandum of understanding that Monocchio and his team had ordered the SFHA to meet a list of several demands. 

The demands include immediate funding to make Plaza East comfortably habitable and beneficial for the community: The letter says Monocchio agreed to $7 million in capital improvement repairs and $400,000 per year for at least three years to be put toward resident services and community programs.

Also at the top of the list is the removal of McCormack Baron Salazar, a St. Louis-based, for-profit public housing developer that co-owns the project and handled property management until June 2021, when the company was replaced as property manager after what the letter cites as “extensive and ongoing complaints about conditions and management.” The property is now managed by John Stewart Company, which MBS hired.

Since SFHA’s oversight, no matter how unsatisfactory, is here to stay, many residents feel that removing MBS from all Plaza East business would make way for a more careful, ideally local development partner.

In 2001, MBS constructed Plaza East, where Mayor London Breed lived with her grandmother, but since has “grossly ignored” the residents’ “rights and need for safe, habitable, and healthy living conditions.” The letter speculates that this neglect was perhaps intentional, in order to “drive Plaza East to the point of obsolescence, which might justify its demolition with HUD.”

In January 2021, with express approval from SFHA and the mayor’s office, MBS did send a demolition application to HUD. The plan at the time was to raze and rebuild the site as a mixed-income site with 450 to 550 units, which, with market-rate units up for rent, would “generate more revenue for the developer,” according to a report from the San Francisco Public Press.

This request was ultimately denied by HUD in March 2021, much to the relief of many residents who remember when in 2001 MBS demolished the high-rise towers that originally occupied the site in order to build Plaza East as it stands today. The reconstruction reduced the number of units by 30 percent, from 276 to 193, and displaced 83 households.

Still, the residents know that the extensive repairs necessary to remedy the dysfunction at Plaza East would require some broken ground. According to their letter to SFHA, the tenants actually want SFHA to restart its demolition and rebuilding application to HUD, but specifically with “full transparency and meaningful resident consultation and participation.”

If and when that process begins, the 30 vacant units could be repaired first, which could then temporarily house tenants while they wait for their apartments to be repaired, said Njoki Moore, Black displacement lead at the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. 

Moore and her partner at HRCSF, Isaac Santiago, have been working closely with the two resident organizations at Plaza East, the tenant-elected resident council and the Development Advisory Committee, whose members were originally selected by MBS. A week after Monocchio’s visit to San Francisco, Moore and Santiago, along with Soodeen who acted as a resident representative, met with him again in Washington, where the National Low Income Housing Coalition was hosting its annual policy convention.

In a meeting at Plaza East on Monday with the DAC, Lediju and SFHA commissioner Joaquin Torres told residents that that $7 million would indeed be coming.

As much as residents need the repairs completed, some have mixed feelings on the sudden switch-up from SFHA.

“Seriously, for years residents have been coming to [Lediju] saying we have rats, we have bed bugs, we need new appliances, and we’re just told to get mouse traps. But then one time someone from HUD has a meeting with them, $7 million pops up?” said Dennis Williams, Jr., a local business owner and DAC member signed on the April 1 letter. “It’s like they got in trouble by their bosses. That hurts the Black community. They’re supposed to be doing their jobs without us telling them to.”

Things were never pristine, but Hollins said the deterioration of the apartments became absolutely unacceptable around 2017. It still took years, until April 2022, for the city to approve a $2.7 million loan to MBS to address the poor living conditions, including electrical fires.

Judging from Plaza East’s current state, sufficient repairs were not completed, which raises questions about how that loan was spent.

However the money was spent, it wasn’t enough. Six months after the release of the $2.7 million, the repairs were behind schedule and residents reported remaining damage, including mold, pests, leaks, and other health hazards, even after repairs were made.

Now that the resident council and the DAC have HRCSF’s resources behind them, things will be different this time around.

“I think [the HRCSF organizers] were terrific, I think they helped us immensely,” said Hollins of HRCSF.

HRCSF was able to hire Black displacement lead Moore and HUD organizer Santiago, after receiving $200,000 allocated from Preston’s District 5 budget for housing rights organizers in 2022. Once they were hired, they were able to help the tenants at Plaza East organize more efficiently, equip themselves with legal information, and ultimately coordinate Monocchio’s crucial visit in March.

Maria Zamudio, the interim executive director of HRCSF, said that funding is also helping them hire a third organizer for that department, which specifically works on HUD efforts.

But there’s a catch: That funding will run out in July, and less funding for HRCSF could mean less support for the residents at Plaza East. 

In February, the mayor’s office instructed all city departments to include 10 percent cuts in their annual budget plans. But HRCSF is no stranger to fighting across-the-board cuts like that, and Zamudio is optimistic. She said that last year HRCSF was able to beat a 25 percent budget cut.

“We really wish across-the-board cuts was not the orientation of the mayor’s office. We think they’re really regressive and oppressive for vulnerable communities,” said Zamudio. “But we’re very hopeful we can keep those roles filled. We’re not planning on laying anyone off in July.”

Williams, the resident leader on the DAC and the owner of the contracting firm DC Williams Development Company, said he hopes that HRCSF will be able to stick around to help secure Section 3 employment in the community. The Section 3 program requires recipients of HUD funding to provide training, employment, contracting, and other economic opportunities to low-income individuals and businesses. 

In the case of Plaza East, Williams said that could mean SFHA could hire local Black-owned construction businesses when the repairs begin in earnest. Williams said some of the local microbusinesses in the area include One Original Construction, Sterling Framers, and CIWS Plumbing, all of which he said hold meetings at the Southeast Community Center on Evans Avenue in Bayview.

The April 1 letter includes several notes about honoring requirements to employ Black businesses and individuals. The letter also includes additional requests from the DAC and resident council they’d like SFHA to commit to, including providing each current household with a “written, legally enforceable guarantee of right to return without rescreening,” to avoid more displacement of the already marginalized community.

While the residents wait for repairs and a written commitment from SFHA, resident leaders like Williams, Hollins, and Soodeen are trying to keep spirits up. But after so long, that can be difficult.

“There are feelings of hopelessness and desperation, and mental health is waning,” said Williams. “I’m optimistic, because I understand the significance of a Washington, DC official coming down here, but the residents are tired.”

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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