Newsom Public Housing Plan Deserves Support

by Randy Shaw on September 25, 2006


San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom told reporters Friday that “all of his political capital” would go toward passage of a $100 million bond to renovate eight public housing sites. Board President Aaron Peskin was skeptical, describing the bond as Newsom’s “issue de jour,” and questioned why the mayor was turning to public housing before addressing pothole repairs and street resurfacing. Such skepticism may be warranted. Newsom spoke about replicating Chicago’s Millennial Park while visiting that city, promoted sleek highrises after visiting Vancouver, and, after visiting New York City’s Central Park, he called for a crackdown on homelessness in Golden Gate Park. But the Mayor’s willingness to take responsibility for saving public housing is enormously important. The federal government is not going to rescue America’s largest stock of low-cost family housing. A successful bond in San Francisco could help push local politicians across America to address the problem.

Gavin Newsom thought he was making a bold statement when he approved gay marriages. But that move is not as bold as his proposal to become one of America’s few politicians willing to spend political capital and actual dollars for the cause of public housing.

While the Bush Administration is doing everything in its power to eliminate public housing in America, such housing has been dying a death of a thousand cuts since the Nixon Administration. For many Americans, “public housing” translated into “low-income African-American housing,” and white communities told their Congress members and Senators that they did not want public housing in their neighborhoods.

(In the early 1960’s, Mayor Yorty of Los Angeles returned his city’s allocation of public housing construction funds because said housing could not be segregated. This was Los Angeles, not Jackson, Mississippi or Birmingham, Alabama)

When the Clinton Administration addressed the public housing problem, it promoted a program—Hope V1—whose best-case scenario was a 50% reduction in the nation’s public housing stock.

You read that right. The price of winning Congressional support for the rebuilding of rundown public housing projects was a 50% reduction in the number of families housed—and this was the best- case scenario. The actual rebuild figure is likely to end up less than 33%.

In other words, in order to save America’s biggest supply of low-cost family housing, the Clinton Administration and Congress permanently eliminated over 66% of the units.

And we wonder why so many families are homeless in America.

San Francisco has done the best job of any major city in trying to rebuild all public housing demolished pursuant to HOPE V1 on a one-to-one basis. Mayoral candidate Willie Brown pledged this during his 1995 campaign, and his Administration kept his promise. And the rebuilt Valencia Gardens is even bigger than before.

Supervisor Peskin is understandably miffed about what may appear a sudden change in mayoral priorities. But when it comes to keeping families with children in San Francisco,
street resurfacing can wait.

Peskin also expressed concern that local funding for public housing would send “the wrong message to HUD,” leading it to assume San Francisco does not need more federal dollars.

That would be the least of our problems. The fact is that HUD is not interested in funding public housing, and even if the Democratic Party controlled the White House and Congress in 2009, the chance of a meaningful increase in the public housing budget is remote.

If America does elect a pro-housing President and Congress, they will boost HUD funding in other areas before boosting public housing problem. Low-income families certainly cannot afford any more “victories” like Hope VI.

To those who argue that a public housing bond would suffer the same fate as the previously two defeated local bonds, here is what I wrote in these pages on May 19, 2004:

“There is a consensus that the city must do more to address the housing needs of those who cannot afford decent and safe housing. That’s who the bond should exclusively target, and that’s a bond that the necessary 67% of the voters will support.”

I wrote several articles arguing that a housing bond targeting the poor would win, while predicting that a bond including subsidies for homeowners would lose. While Mayor Newsom originally wanted a bond just for the homeless, he allowed the realtors to convince him to include homeownership—and Prop A’s defeat followed.

Will a public housing bond win in November 2008? Absolutely. Will it win with the lower more conservative voter turnout in November 2007? That could be dicey, and the Mayor will surely do some heavy polling before moving forward next year.

The best way to keep the Mayor’s eye on the public housing prize is to publicly support his initiative. The Mayor has floated the idea—now groups and individuals who care about the future of public housing need to tell him that they will join him in this fight.

San Francisco likes to think of itself as a national leader on progressive issues. The city’s financial support for public housing would show that an increasingly wealthy city still goes the extra mile for its low-income families.

If San Francisco takes the lead, activists in other cities will have a model that can be used to pressure their political leaders to act likewise. It’s well-past time to stop making believe that the federal government will solve the public housing problem. Waiting for HUD to adequately fund public housing is like waiting for George W. Bush to admit he was wrong to invade Iraq.

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