Has Surplus Property Ordinance Become Another Empty Promise?

by Casey Mills on June 13, 2006

The Board of Supervisors will hold a hearing this Friday regarding 150 Otis Street, a piece of surplus property owned by the city that has quickly become an indicator of San Francisco’s level of commitment to enacting the Surplus Property Ordinance. Passed in May of 2004, the ordinance stated that the city’s surplus property would be converted to housing for the homeless. Yet recently, the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH) rejected an attempt to turn 150 Otis in to such housing, despite it representing the exact type of site the ordinance addressed. Called by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, this week’s hearing will help reveal whether the Surplus Property Ordinance represents a real strategy for solving homelessness or just another empty promise.

When the Surplus Property Ordinance passed the Board of Supervisors, homeless and low-income advocates celebrated a victory they thought would have immediate results, and quickly began figuring out the best way enact the ordinance.

150 Otis, an 18,769 square foot building used for years by the city for storage, quickly became a priority for these advocates. The site could provide up to 120 units of supportive housing for formerly homeless people, representing a significant contribution to solving homelessness in San Francisco.

However, these advocates soon discovered they faced a major roadblock to converting the site – the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH). Despite public support from Human Services director Trent Roher for turning the building into supportive housing, MOH argued that the city should sell the building instead.

The issue came before the Surplus Property Ordinance’s Community Advisory Council (CAC) last October. Created to allow city residents to play a role in the ordinance’s implementation, the CAC consists of a variety of stakeholders and city government representatives.

The CAC voted unanimously to convert 150 Otis into housing for the homeless, a vote that many thought would end the issue. MOH, however, chose to ignore the vote, claiming that the CAC merely represented an advisory body and could not overrule MOH’s original decision.

This Friday, the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee will hold a hearing on 150 Otis in an attempt to get to the bottom of the dispute. There’s a lot at stake.

For starters, the issue provides a telling example of how advisory committees are sometimes treated by city officials. People join these committees and volunteer their time because they believe they will at least have some effect on the issue they’re committed to. When the CAC vote unanimously to convert 150 Otis to housing, the city should have listened, and this hearing gives them another chance to do just that.

More importantly, the hearing will reveal whether the Surplus Property Ordinance will become just another empty law on the books that, while well-intentioned, does nothing to address the problem it set out to solve.

150 Otis represents a perfect example of the type of surplus building that could be used to house the homeless instead of simply being used as storage. If the city doesn’t seize this opportunity, it seems unlikely that it will allow any surplus property to be converted to supporting housing, Surplus Property Ordinance or not.

The Ordinance was passed because San Francisco faced a crisis regarding its homeless population, and public officials agreed that every opportunity to work towards solving that crisis should be pursued. It remains to be seen if their agreement was a real commitment or simply empty rhetoric.

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