February 21, 2001
|news | a+e | sf life | extra | sfbg.com
Not another bailout!
SFHA's double standard
Tax cut frenzy
The turf war over public housing
By Cassi Feldman
THERESA COLEMAN WASN'T expecting company. It was Nov. 28, some time after 5 p.m., and she had just fixed dinner for a house full of kids, when a government car pulled up outside. Four white people she'd never seen before came to her front door, introducing themselves as employees of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from Memphis. They began to ask questions about Ujamaa, a nonprofit Coleman founded in 1990 to rebuild her battered public housing neighborhood in Hunters Point.
Once inside, they asked to see Ujamaa's office. "You're standing in it," she informed them, pointing out the huge filing cabinets in her living room stuffed with contracts, plans, and records.
The timing of the visit was odd: Ujamaa, once a multimillion-dollar program with national recognition, had been defunded years ago.
Seemingly unaware of this, the HUD visitors asked her what had happened to $500,000 in federal money that the San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA) had allegedly paid out on Ujamaa's behalf over the past year. "I haven't seen a dime," she told them. They left quickly, returning the next evening with several checks that Coleman had supposedly written over the past year. They bore Ujamaa's name and address but came from an unfamiliar bank branch in Sacramento. Even more alarming was the signature: Theresa L. Coleman. A decent forgery, but she never used the "L."
Coleman was alarmed; someone was using her name and Ujamaa's. It was bad enough that the program had been cut off while owing thousands of dollars to frustrated consultants now she was being accused of spending money she'd never had.
She immediately called SFHA executive director Ronnie Davis. As they talked on speakerphone, Coleman could hear the staff in the background arguing about the situation. Davis told her he'd look into it and call her back. He never did.
The mystery of the missing checks is only the tip of an ugly iceberg: the SFHA has declared war on resident leaders who challenge the agency's near-total control over their communities. Funded by HUD, the SFHA was created in 1938 to "provide housing for residents otherwise not able to secure decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings." But although the SFHA has largely failed creating ghettos and mismanaging countless grants it won't give residents a shot at self-governance.
Ujamaa, an attempt to transform Hunters Point public housing into a self-sufficient urban collective, was a huge success. It employed more than 150 people and started a summer program for children. Crime was significantly lower then than it is now. Hundreds of pages of SFHA documents reflect residents' enthusiasm and pride. "When Ujamaa was around, you didn't hear about the crime up on the hill; you didn't hear about shootings," said Lynne Brown, one of Coleman's neighbors. "Everybody was working."
So why was it shut down? Davis would only say that Ujamaa had gone "too far with too little supervision." And he's right. Coleman's one mistake was thinking that public housing officials would let residents run their own community. Today Westbrook is safely back under the SFHA's command and everything Ujamaa started is gone.
Welcome to Westbrook
The Westbrook development where Coleman lives is made up of 305 squat, two-story homes painted in a rainbow of pastels. Built into the hill at the very top of Hunters Point, they have a view that would make a developer weep. But the view up close isn't so pretty.
Empty homes have windows boarded up with slabs of plywood; graffiti is scrawled on the doors. Abandoned cars with smashed windshields and missing tires are propped up in a row, rusting. Stray cats slink around overflowing dumpsters. Several city developments have received federal HOPE VI grants for rehabilitation, but Westbrook isn't one of them. Its only recent improvement, a bright new jungle gym, sits outside the office, but it's considered a danger spot for shootings, so most parents won't let their kids near it.
To a visitor, the isolation feels almost eerie. Three bus lines service the neighborhood, but the wait can be close to an hour. You can't get a cell phone signal to call a taxi, and even if you could, the cab would be unlikely to come. There are no supermarkets or local businesses within walking distance, except for a liquor store selling hot dogs and barbecue. There's a nearby gym and a computer lab (without Internet access) but no day care center or library. Last summer residents heard that the SFHA was funding a recording studio in Ujamaa's old office, at 1 Harbor Road, but it hasn't opened yet.
Westbrook shares a border with another development, Hunters Point A East. Of the 53 developments managed by the SFHA citywide, this area, known as Harbor Road, has one of the highest crime rates. Last year police reported 835 crimes in the area, mostly robbery, drugs, and assault. The community is literally tearing itself apart: the rival gangs Big Block and West Mob hail from two halves of the same development. Posted notices from the SFHA offer a $2,000 reward for neighbors willing to rat one another out.
Coleman, who grew up in Hunters Point in the 1960s and '70s, remembers a public housing world that was completely different.
Born in 1961, she lived on South Ridge Road with her siblings, their mother, a nurse, and their grandmother, a retired janitor. Though they were poor, Coleman recalled feeling like part of a thriving community. She went to Bessie Carmichael Elementary and then to an after-school program for ballet and basketball. All of the kids hung out on Third Street, she said, but by 9 p.m. the corners were empty. At 13, Coleman already had a paying job as a nurse's assistant. "If you came from a good family and you were the least bit inquisitive, you could make it here," she said.
As an adult she left San Francisco and bought a home in Oakland. When her marriage failed in 1985, she moved with her three young children to Jamaica, where they lived easily off of the rental income from the Oakland house. The good times didn't last long. In 1989 she traveled back to the Bay Area for a family funeral, and one day later the Loma Prieta earthquake struck, destroying her home and stealing her only source of income. So when the SFHA called and told her she was eligible for public housing, Coleman had no choice. She signed the lease without hesitation and moved into her current home at Westbrook, secretly bringing along her former tenants three other displaced, women-headed households for a grand total of 21 people in four bedrooms.
Coleman enjoyed the communal living and shared chores but was shocked by how dramatically Hunters Point had changed. "I had never seen a black community like this," she said. "The store was gone; the school was gone. It was dead. One morning we were putting clothes on the line, and we heard gunfire. It scared me, but I didn't jump out of my skin because I didn't even know what it was." When she found out, she confronted the gang of young men congregated on the road outside. "Did someone get shot?" she asked.
"No, ma'am. We were just testing out our equipment," they said. She warned them to keep away from her house, but the violence continued. "Harbor Road was a dead end: you go in, but you don't come out," she recalled. "How dare that be a reality?"
She asked the neighbors where she could turn for help, but they had no idea. Apparently the woman who had lived in Coleman's house before her had been the development's unofficial spokesperson. Coleman considered it fate and took over the job. Gathering together the elderly women who had run Westbrook's former tenant association, she started a new group to tackle violence and drugs by building community independence. She called it Ujamaa after the Kwanzaa principal of cooperative economics.
Her timing was perfect. The Bush administration's HUD secretary, Jack Kemp, was promoting resident empowerment and tenant ownership within his broader agenda of eliminating public housing. Newly created "resident management corporations" (RMCs) were being given control of developments across the nation. Coleman realized that if she could access HUD funding through the SFHA, she could fundamentally change Westbrook. But there was one problem: she could barely read. With help from an old family friend, she taught herself how to read, learning to decipher even the most complicated legalese. She would need it.
A city within a city
In its early years Ujamaa was a small operation staffed by volunteers. Determined to widen its impact, Coleman held a town hall meeting that, she estimates, drew as many as 300 residents of Westbrook and Hunters Point A East. What she heard, again and again, was that they wanted to be able to buy groceries without driving to Third Street; they wanted day care so that they could take college classes; they wanted to start businesses; and they wanted to own their homes.
To help them, she turned to HUD, memorizing regulations and using them to her advantage. In 1994 the group, now an official RMC, signed a 10-year memorandum of understanding with the SFHA to "work toward housing improvement, home ownership, economic development, and resident employment and training opportunities."
Coleman even convinced SFHA executive director Felipe Floresca to let Ujamaa manage Westbrook's share of HUD's yearly modernization grant to fix run-down developments. It wasn't as hard as she'd expected. The SFHA was in a state of disarray, she said, and Floresca seemed glad to relinquish some responsibility.
This was unprecedented: no other tenant groups had this much financial control. But Floresca and the agency's next director, Shirley Thornton, were impressed with Coleman's vision. "They had a lot of bright ideas for the development," Thornton said. "It was just great. They were much further along than most tenant groups." Coleman and her staff flew around the country to attend trainings on resident management and met with Kemp, Rep. Maxine Waters, then-senator Al Gore, and others. In 1996 Ujamaa was authorized to manage $4.2 million.
Suddenly flush, Coleman assembled a small staff and several paid consultants and crafted an elaborate 10-year plan to transform Westbrook into a "city within a city," complete with its own 24-hour child care, boarding school, arts studio, post office, medical center, laundromat, and general store. Because it was based on residents' needs, Ujamaa had no trouble enrolling more than 100 adults in its job-training programs. Some learned environmental clean-up or computer-assisted drafting; others worked toward college degrees. Vassel Tillery was an unemployed father in his mid 30s when the program began. Ujamaa trained him in landscaping and helped him write a business plan to start his own firm. "We had it all mapped out," he said. "Everyone was looking forward to working."
According to Tillery and other residents, the mood in the community was slowly shifting. There were more concerned parents and fewer shootings on Harbor Road, fewer teen girls getting pregnant. Coleman hired 50 residents to serve as village captains for different parts of the development. If you had a crisis in the middle of the night, you could call your village captain, who would solve the problem or bring it straight to Coleman. She admits that at times the power went to her head. "I felt like Queen Nefertiti," she said. But she also worked like a dog: her days ran from 7 a.m. till sometime after 9 p.m.
Architect John Johansen was one of the consultants who worked alongside Coleman, helping to train residents and draw plans for the new community. "It was very worthwhile for me," he said. "I got enthused, infected with the whole idea that the residents could do something to actually change their lives."
Samantha Simon, a Westbrook resident since 1987, considers Ujamaa the best thing that ever happened to her family. "We took a lot of the dope dealers that were on the corner and trained them and put them on jobs landscaping, doing construction," she said. Simon, a 37-year-old mother of two, took classes in construction while working part-time for Ujamaa's after-school program teaching children art, computers, and cooking. "We were teaching them how to be independent," she said. Some of those children had been neglected, but now they had new school clothes, summer jobs, and yearly field trips to Great America and Fort Bragg.
The children even had their own project, Westbrook Farm, which made use of an abandoned garden plot behind the development. They started pulling weeds and planning crops. Without a water source nearby, they carried buckets from Ujamaa's kitchen to wet the soil. But Ujamaa's funding dried up before the seeds were even planted.
Davis takes control
During the years in which Ujamaa was flourishing, the SFHA was a shambles. In August 1995, HUD special assistant Mindy Turbov headed a team of federal inspectors sent to San Francisco to evaluate the SFHA. "Property management is abysmal," she wrote in an internal memo quoted at length in the daily papers. "The only possible hope for any of these developments is to get them out of SFHA's control."
HUD responded by sending in a recovery team led by assistant secretary Kevin Marchman to clean up the SFHA's act by taking over the agency. Marchman didn't touch Ujamaa or its funding. But he did install team member Davis who would become Ujamaa's worst enemy as the agency's new executive director.
Davis had his work cut out for him. Not only was he expected to keep the long-troubled agency on the straight and narrow, but he also had several dilapidated developments to repair. Meanwhile, the political tide that once favored resident management had shifted firmly back toward government control. According to a 1996 Housing Policy Debate article by Chicago State University professor William Peterman, it was liberals who feared that residents couldn't handle the burden of managing their own developments.
Davis seemed to share that fear. Soon after he started, he came to check on Westbrook. According to Coleman, he praised Ujamaa's work in person but called for a meeting just a few weeks later. Suddenly critical, he chastised the organization for spending too much money on administrative costs rather than physical improvements. Coleman explained that since she was operating on a 10-year time frame, she had focused almost entirely on preparing the workforce and refining project plans. Davis was unmoved. In August he requested an audit of Ujamaa's most recent contract, a one-year million-dollar grant.
Unfazed by the scrutiny, Coleman continued business as usual. Then, in October, the SFHA told her that she couldn't spend any more money until the audit was completed. She was stunned. She was already struggling to pay her consultants and keep up resident morale; a funding freeze could kill the whole program. Bypassing Davis, she went straight to HUD, charging that the SFHA did not negotiate in good faith. She said she hadn't heard any complaints about the program in the weekly meetings she had with SFHA staff. "I never did anything that they didn't instruct me to do," she insisted.
The audit, released in January 1997 by the firm of Mah and Louie, found some accounting problems: bill-payment errors, too much staff time off, and expenditures outside the scope of Ujamaa's contract. The most serious allegations dealt with an unauthorized $5,000 loan for a resident-owned business and with two missing computers worth a total of $2,550.
Nonetheless, the report is filled with favorable conclusions like this one: "Nothing came to our attention that caused us to believe that the organization had not complied, in all material respects, with those requirements."
But Davis had his mind made up. He sent a letter to Ujamaa's board on March 31, 1997, suspending its funds indefinitely. "I have reviewed the Mah & Louie audit," he wrote. "I was particularly struck by both the seriousness of many of the auditors' findings against Ujamaa and by Ujamaa's failure to acknowledge or accept responsibility for its operations."
Sululagi Palega, who was on the SFHA Commission throughout Ujamaa's rise and fall, defends Davis's move, arguing that the group had failed to show accountability for its project. But in our interview he admitted that he'd never seen Ujamaa's audit and didn't even realize the SFHA had a copy.
Ujamaa's landscaping consultant, Cathy Merrill, said that the program's only real problem was the SFHA. Scheduled meetings were routinely delayed for an hour or more; invoices submitted for her work "went into the black hole" for six months. Meanwhile, she said, the SFHA refused to help guide the program. "Every move [Ujamaa] made, they were slapped down without any help to really resolve or figure out constructive solutions," she said. "They were only given enough rope to hang themselves, not enough rope to perform."
The SFHA way
On the surface the SFHA's treatment of Ujamaa is baffling. But to some extent Davis was simply following HUD's lead. Rather than address the roots of problems in public housing, Clinton's HUD began simply to weed out residents who didn't conform to strict, often punitive new rules. HUD implemented a "one strike, you're out" policy that evicts an entire family if any member is found with illegal drugs, guns, or dogs. But where do those families go once they leave public housing? HUD doesn't care to track them.
To score points with its federal parent, the SFHA is quick to eject undesirables (79 one-strike evictions were initiated last year alone) rather than give them alternatives to crime. In 1999 just 3,000 of the 12,617 men and women living in San Francisco public housing had jobs a staggering unemployment rate of 76 percent (compared with 6.3 percent citywide). Many of those residents are eager to work, but the SFHA has only one full-time staffer, Waymond Nichols, to help them find employment. In a recent report Nichols told the SFHA Commission's personnel committee, "We're doing very good. That shop's well taken care of." Since August 1999 his program, which serves only residents or former residents of developments with HOPE VI grants, has placed 131 people. Although the SFHA reports that it has placed a total of 2,715 residents in jobs or training programs over the past three years, more than half of those placements were through CalWorks, a type of government assistance not available to all residents.
The SFHA claims that resident empowerment is a major goal. To prove that, it has a Family Self Sufficiency Program, which sets aside money for residents as their incomes increase and they are able to pay more rent. It's the type of program Davis seems to love: it encourages residents to work, while keeping them on a tight leash. They can only access the money for approved expenditures and must carefully document every withdrawal. Regardless, the program is only available to residents with Section 8 housing vouchers, another form of public housing assistance. For those who live in developments like Westbrook, there is no such thing.
Ujamaa participant Tillery knows that all too well. He never got the start-up grant he was promised for his landscaping firm. "Once we got all the work done, HUD and the Housing Authority backed out," he said. "It was like a slap in the face. I was pissed, excuse my language, but I had put in five years of hard work." Now Tillery and his son live in Valencia Gardens public housing, and he does ground maintenance part-time; he still can't get a loan to start his business.
Since 1997 Coleman has sent several letters to HUD officials in the hopes that someone would step in and refund Ujamaa, but that hasn't happened. "You don't raise millions of dollars and lift people out of poverty and then have someone come and take it all away," she said. She blames a lot of people, including Mayor Willie Brown. "We went to Willie Brown as a group, but he was so through with me," she said. "He said, 'Goddamn it, Theresa Coleman, leave that public housing alone.' But I said, 'You don't have to live there.' "
Coleman's fight didn't end with Ujamaa. Since the program's downfall, the SFHA has repeatedly tried to evict her on different charges. She beat them each time, but they've beaten her, too. She says she was a lithe 115 pounds in Ujamaa's prime but that now her 39-year-old body seems weighed down and tired. Her eyes switch from angry to jaded in a matter of seconds. "I'd heard so much about this lady, and when I met her I was so surprised," said Bayview activist Maurice Campbell, who met Coleman in 1998. "She had been broken."
Playing around with public money
Barrie Cowan, Ujamaa's longtime attorney, describes Coleman as an honest woman who got caught up in a political mess. "The Housing Authority perceives themselves as very interested in managing the assets they have under their control," Cowan said. "They purport to be seeking to keep that money from being misspent, but it seems to be a question of who gets to misspend it."
Indeed, over the past three years, the SFHA staff has been implicated in at least 10 high-profile scandals, including a major Section 8 voucher scam and a sexual harassment suit pending against Davis.
In 1998 Davis awarded a no-bid contract worth more than $400,000 to a Chicago consultant named Zirl Smith for an assortment of vague and unnecessary tasks (see "Living High off Public Housing," 9/15/99). That same year he proposed a $789,000 increase in administrative salaries for the agency's staff, including his own. In March 2000 Davis was accused of improperly handling more than $11 million while employed as chief operating officer of Cleveland's Housing Authority. In an audit of the SFHA released the same week, HUD found that the agency had misspent nearly $800,000 of federal funds, and it recommended that "administrative action be taken against ... the current executive officer of the San Francisco Housing Authority."
Davis hotly contested nearly every finding in the 100-page audit, and although 24 SFHA underlings were later indicted, their boss remains untouched. Last year the SFHA Commission renewed Davis's contract for two more years at a salary of $188,000, plus as much as $27,000 in bonuses a year. When I called Larry Bush, spokesperson for HUD's local office, he said that the audit was "still pending."
It's a disturbing contrast: SFHA staff, from Davis on down, operate with impunity while they punish residents' every mistake. Over and over, the staff emphasized accountability but only for residents.
Looking for clues to Ujamaa's demise, I visited the SFHA's satellite office on Egbert Avenue to review all of its documents regarding the program. Thousands of pages fail to clarify exactly what Ujamaa did wrong. There's the critical audit, but there's also evidence that Ujamaa's staff didn't make a move without approval from the SFHA and Juan Monsanto, the SFHA project manager who worked with them. There are minutes from countless meetings, along with meticulously documented budgets, architectural plans, and status reports, all seemingly positive.
SFHA spokesperson Michael Roetzer instructed me not to ask Monsanto any questions in person but to fax them to Roetzer instead. I was particularly curious about when Monsanto knew that Ujamaa had shortcomings and whether he ever discussed them with the group. The response, faxed back more than a month later, said little: "I do not directly work with resident run programs," he wrote. Coleman had attended training programs and had HUD handbooks and consultants to guide her. As for the question on shortcomings, he referred me back to the audit.
Determined to meet Davis in person, I invited myself to a conference of the National Association of African Americans in Housing hosted by the SFHA at Hotel Nikko. Initially I was told that the $200 registration fee would be waived for press, but on the morning of the conference Davis himself stopped me at the door. Somewhat agitated, he said I'd have to pay or leave. I pulled out my checkbook.
The next day and a half provided an intimate look at the agency and its director. Interestingly, the SFHA seems to want exactly the same freedom from HUD that Coleman wanted from the SFHA. In his introductory speech Mayor Brown railed against last year's critical audit, defending the SFHA. "Block grants should be free of all those regulations that come from small-minded bureaucrats," he said. "There was accountability. It just wasn't on an hour-by-hour basis or a line-by-line basis."
Davis made the same point repeatedly, complaining about bad press and arguing that the SFHA should have "maximum flexibility" in deciding how to spend HUD funds. But Davis didn't even give his own speakers that flexibility. During all seven panel presentations he toted a wireless microphone, interjecting comments at will.
At one point I cornered him in the hallway and asked about resident participation: "Do you know Theresa Coleman? What happened to Ujamaa?"
"I believe residents should have every opportunity," he explained. "But we have a responsibility to assure that they were properly trained." He said that Coleman had assumed too much power without proper oversight, and he dismissed her efforts as "soft stuff."
Back to the missing checks
That interview turned out to be my only chance to ask Davis about the mysterious $500,000, which he denied existed. "There's no money," he said. "I don't know what [Coleman's] talking about." Later, in a faxed statement, Roetzer wrote, "SFHA has no information on this matter." It's a vague response, especially considering the Bay View newspaper clipping we found in SFHA files: "S.F. Housing Authority Suspected of Diverting Ujamaa's Funds," Marie Harrison reported Dec. 12. One would think that the agency would respond to such an allegation, but so far it hasn't said a word.
Neither the SFHA nor HUD would comment on whether they are investigating the matter. In early January I wrote to HUD's Freedom of Information Act office and requested all checks to or from Ujamaa. Somehow my request got lost in the shuffle. When last I checked, the office was still working on it. Catherine Lamberg of the HUD Troubled Agency Recovery Center (TARC) in Memphis, which oversees the SFHA, confirmed that her team was recently in San Francisco, but when I tried to ask more questions, she quickly referred me to HUD's spokesperson Donna White.
In a faxed statement, White wrote that members of the Tennessee team did come to Westbrook, but she said that the group had "no recollection" of visiting Coleman's home. "The unit at 1 Harbor Road was reviewed and it was determined it was under renovation. The members of the Memphis TARC did not visit the unit again nor did they ask any party to review old checks," she wrote.
The story doesn't add up. Why would there be any money in a Ujamaa account years after the program had been defunded? How would Coleman know so much about the HUD team's visit if she'd never met them? Coleman has her own theory about what's going on: "Somebody's out there fraudulently creating documents and using this government money. I don't know if the Housing Authority is involved, but it's coming from somewhere, and I don't want to pick up the debt. It should be on them, not me."
Suppressing the rebellion
Coleman isn't the only public housing leader who has come to distrust the SFHA. Several other activist residents have similar stories. One explained, "Davis has got some tenant associations going, the ones who flunky for him. But the ones who don't flunky for him, they bust everything up." Like many residents I spoke with, she believes that the SFHA hires a few people in each development to give the illusion of resident input.
"If a tenants' association is abreast on the rules and regulations, that's a threat to the Housing Authority. That's the reason Theresa Coleman became such a threat," explained Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther with graying dreadlocks and a habit of ending his sentences with "ya dig?" Over coffee in the Tenderloin, Rahim recounted his bitter run-in with the SFHA. Though he was originally hired as a paid resident organizer for the Bernal Dwellings HOPE VI site, he made the mistake of openly criticizing the agency's one-dimensional approach.
In an ambitious plan called "A New Vision for the Bernal Community," Rahim wrote, "We are proposing that the funds through HOPE VI be used not merely to develop a product [housing] where people will live with no more job skills, no more educational or economic opportunity than previously existed, but to develop a PROCESS of education, of job training, of economic opportunity which will be ongoing."
To further his goal, Rahim started a resident-run moving company, a painting cooperative, on-site drug treatment, and an ex-offender support group but he was quickly targeted by the SFHA. In 1995 he was accused of drug dealing. Though he was never convicted of a crime, his reputation drove him out of public housing for years. Like Theresa, he has filing cabinets full of dreams.
So does Alma Lark, a 65-year-old resident of North Beach public housing, who seems pleased to be known as a thorn in the SFHA's side. She watched as Hayes Valley residents were displaced in 1997, and when she learned that HOPE VI was coming her way next, she started making noise. Working with her fellow residents and housing advocates, she drafted an "exit contract" that promised no reduction in units.
In fact, the new North Beach development is slated to include more housing than the original, but Lark never lets down her guard. "The Housing Authority has never wanted empowerment of residents. We developed a proposal to tear down and rebuild this one ourselves. They voted in and out what they wanted." She said Ronnie Davis recently offered her a job, but she politely declined. "That's their strategy: divide and conquer," she said.
Former SFHA commissioner Barbara Meskunas tried to help residents organize at the Hunter's View development. "The term 'empowerment' is a joke," she said. "It's not empowerment. It's permission by the local authorities for residents to assume the responsibilities they have a right to. I'm a firm believer that the residents could run the developments better than the Housing Authority." Meskunas, who served from 1993 to 1996, was a big supporter of Theresa Coleman. "People think that public housing houses terrible people, but that's not true; they're just managed by terrible landlords."
The cooperative answer
Switching landlords was Ujamaa's ultimate goal. In January 1996 the group sent a letter to HUD explaining that the best way to run Westbrook was to turn it into a resident-owned cooperative. As on-site businesses grew, profits would be reinvested in the community. Ujamaa's plan was never realized, but others are following its lead.
A new group of residents and advocates called Housing Is a Human Right got a warm reception from members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Jan. 31. Along with a moratorium on public housing evictions and a monitoring committee to oversee the SFHA, one of its main goals is homeownership for every public housing tenant. To achieve this, the group proposes a limited-equity cooperative model, in which residents buy shares in their developments but can't sell them at a profit.
They're not alone. "I think it's shortsighted for people in San Francisco to make low-income rental property a priority," said Meskunas, who now works for a conservative think tank. "No one can afford to rent here anymore. If you join a co-op, you get to control who lives in your community, everybody knows each other, you can't be displaced."
On the other end of the political spectrum is James Tracy, a housing activist with the Coalition on Homelessness. Like Meskunas, he sees co-ops as the wave of the future. In a recent report called "The End of Speculation and the Strengthening of Community," his group writes that co-ops won't work for every development but are "the most viable option for affordable housing."
Some worry that resident ownership will be used as a pretext for eliminating public housing. Rahim bristles at this idea. "Residents over the last 30 years have suffered the hell of living in pubic housing," he said loudly. "They should be given the opportunity to purchase the development they've earned it." Rahim himself lives in a co-op, a cozy development called Northridge Apartments. He makes an important point: if HUD funds were being spent wisely, we wouldn't have to choose between one generation and the next.
Raymond Brown, a retired postal manager, is president of the board of Freedom West, a 382-unit co-op in the Western Addition started in 1973. "Public housing has a negative connotation," he said. "Anybody who has any self-esteem wants to get away from that. I came from a poor family, and I've lived here for 45 years. I can't dislike the poor people because I'm poor myself. But the people in power can do a lot better than what they're doing now."
To prove his point, he gave me a tour of Freedom West. Other than by the cookie-cutter architecture, you wouldn't know it was low-income housing. The office is professional, staffed by a private management company chosen by an elected board of resident shareholders. The grounds are meticulously kept, and everywhere you look, something is being mended or improved. Unlike Westbrook, there are no teenagers hanging out in the middle of the day; the community center has 10 computers (with Internet access). The monthly "carrying charge" is far below market-rate rent: around $400 for a one-bedroom apartment and $500 for a two-bedroom. Although Freedom West and most co-ops charge a high deposit up front, HUD could help residents subsidize the payment, or the co-ops themselves could offer low-interest loans. Converting public housing to co-ops is catching on nationally; several developments are already in transition.
If successful, this trend could eventually lead to the dissolution of the SFHA, a fairly radical goal. But that would be all right with Coleman, who hopes that Westbrook and all developments will one day be as independent as Freedom West. Could Ujamaa ever be resurrected? It's a question she has spent four years trying to answer. "I don't have the strength to do it again," she said. "But I would help put them on the path. Everything that I produced came from the needs of the people, from the long midnight conversations, the crying together over a dead body or two. Ujamaa's just an extraction of people: it's poured off into them; they can take it and run with it. They know what to do."