Tenants chat in front of Mission Dolores Senior Apartments on 15th Street.

Public housing in the city as we know it is coming to an end — that is, it will become largely nonprofit owned and operated within the next two years as part of a national rehabilitation effort. Tenants at the Mission Dolores Senior Apartments are tentatively optimistic about the change.

“Anybody would be better than the housing authority,” said Walker Dukes, a resident of the 15th Street apartment building for more than two decades.

“They still own the land,” another tenant said, referring to the housing authority’s strategy to retain oversight, to ensure the housing remains affordable.

“But it’s not going to be their building,” said Dukes. “Thank God.”

Dukes and other tenants at the Mission Dolores Senior Apartments on 15th Street said that for years their complaints of pests, mold, and security issues received little or delayed attention from the housing authority.

The question is whether nonprofits will serve them better.

This change of ownership, announced on February 19, is spurred by a three-year-old HUD program called RAD. Short for Rental Assistance Demonstration, the program allows former public housing sites to engage both public funding and private equity, while benefiting from resources such as low-income housing tax credits. With bigger budgets from private investment, the properties’ upkeep can be improved.

With its budget limitations, the city asserts that the housing authority would take more than 50 years to accomplish the renovations RAD will be able to complete within three years city-wide. Only eight of the housing authority’s 42 locations (counting adjacent properties as one) will remain solely in its care.

The local nonprofit developers will work in partnership with the housing authority, the city and HUD to rehabilitate the housing sites, Mayor Lee announced with HUD secretary Julián Castro.

At Dukes’ senior apartments, the new developers are the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) and the BRIDGE Housing Corporation. The pair will also be in charge of four other apartment buildings, one more in the Mission on 18th near Sanchez, two nearby in the Duboce Triangle and one in Midtown Terrace.

Two public housing buildings in, and two near the Mission will be owned and operated by MEDA and BRIDGE Housing, or 331 affordable housing units. The developers will also take ownership of Woodside Gardens, another 110 housing units.
Two public housing buildings in, and two near the Mission will be owned and operated by MEDA and BRIDGE Housing, or 331 affordable housing units. The developers will also take ownership of Woodside Gardens, another 110 housing units.

Collectively, the buildings are suffering from around $20 million worth of deferred maintenance, according to the Mayor’s Office of Housing. More than $50 million from the city will be available to help developers complete renovations, and each site would also have a $100,000 to $600,000 improvement in annual income to tend to the properties.

All of the units house seniors or people with disabilities.

“Our goal in approaching all this is making sure the quality of life of the residents is improved, and the buildings are financially sustainable,” said Karoleen Feng, MEDA’s director of community real estate. Part of that is “not just taking residents where they are today, but to plan ahead and help seniors live healthily for the rest of their lives.”

MEDA’s community real estate team is busy making an independent assessment of the housing’s needs, collaborating with other developers in working groups. The pool of funding initially available to buildings is allocated based on need, requiring developers to go through several rounds of negotiation with the city.

“We have a wish list,“ said Elaine Yee, senior project manager of MEDA’s real estate team, listing potential unit upgrades like kitchen cabinets and flooring. “We take it to the city, and they say, ‘We absolutely cannot afford to do this.’”

“If it were up to us, we’d like everything new,” said Yee. “There will be things we will have to let go.”

Among MEDA’s must-haves, “seismic is number one,” she said, along with upgrading the fire sprinklers and elevators, the latter she’s “heard a lot of stories” about.

One tenant told her, to cope with their elevator being out of service, they would call

Tenants enter Mission Dolores Senior Apartments at 1855 15th St., near Valencia Gardens.
Tenants enter Mission Dolores Senior Apartments at 1855 15th St., near Valencia Gardens.

the fire department to ask, “Can you get me out of my unit?”

Increasing security is another top concern from tenants. At Mission Dolores Senior Apartments on 15th Street, tenants worried about strangers sneaking past its gate. “That’s something we need to go back (over) in our design,“ said Yee.

Because of its height — 10 stories — the Mission Dolores apartments may be one of the more expensive properties to renovate, she said.

MEDA said that tenants’ rent will stay the same.

In an effort to avoid displacement during renovations, the bane of revitalization projects past, tenants will be moved to vacant units within their building when possible. If tenants must temporarily leave their buildings, they have a right to return to the building they lived in, although their unit may be different.

MEDA hopes to begin hosting monthly coffee hours at the Mission District properties in the next few months, to allow tenants to ask questions about the ownership transition — coming next year — and renovations in an informal setting.

On a more holistic level, MEDA said it is looking at ways to develop not only the properties but the communities inside them. With Northern California Presbyterian Home Services as a community service provider, it plans to have activities and workshops available to residents, like exercise and jewelry making, with the goal of “getting people out of their units instead of being isolated.“

“Public housing residents have not had these opportunities,” said Feng.

The change could be a new lease of life for the neglected the 44-year-old 18th Street housing near Mission High School and the 48-year-old Mission Dolores Senior Apartments, presently operated by the housing authority. Longtime tenants at Mission Dolores said they were unhappy with the current maintenance, management, and the selection of new tenants they claimed brought pests and crime into their once peaceful building.

“It’s unlivable,” said Walker Dukes, checking on his apartment after an eleventh bed bug attack in five years forced him to stay elsewhere.

He said he never had a problem with bugs in the prior 17 years he lived at Mission Dolores. “I have Rid-X Pro plugged in, diatomaceous earth, bed bug barriers — it doesn’t work. It kills some of them, but others get through.”

He said his rent, at $300 a month, would be a good deal if the units were pest-free. “But what if you can’t live there?”

The backyard of Mission Dolores Senior Apartments, one of its best features, a tenant shared.
The backyard of Mission Dolores Senior Apartments, one of its best features, a tenant shared.

Another tenant for more than a decade, eagerly following news of the RAD conversion, said he’s been discouraged and angst-ridden over the housing authority’s decision-making in the past. But what he’s read about the incoming developers, MEDA and BRIDGE, has him feeling hopeful.

Mission Dolores Senior Apartments suffered from police activity earlier this year, he said, rumored to be a drug bust — one of a number of unsettling events that have not been conducive to fostering a healthy senior-disabled community.

The housing authority’s reaction to complaints has disappointed the tenant, who asked that his name not be published. “They keep track of goings on, but never respond in a way that is meaningful, that resolves anything,” he said. “For years now I’ve listened to the yearly plan and it just never happens.”

Still, he emphasized how special the diverse community and building, that puts him a 22 second elevator ride away from its park-like backyard, could be with proactive management. He described the 92 unit high rise as a vertical city block.

“You learn a lot of things, and a lot of sympathy for people as they grow old,” he said. “You’re on their list of people to call if they fall … to stay there until an ambulance comes if they’re injured. You’re there when family isn’t.”

That makes it important to have proactive management and community building, he said, describing the current environment as “alienating.”

In contrast, he finds the changes proposed under RAD validating. “All the words are there,“ he said. “You find you’re not entirely wrong here, the feds agree, (San Francisco’s public housing) is the second worst in California.”

Now, he said, “it might get better, at least before I die.”

The National Housing Law Project and the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco wrote a guide to RAD for tenants — see the toolkit at the bottom of this page.

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J.J. Barrow began reporting for Mission Local in 2010. She once rode the 49 Van Ness-Mission for six hours straight while the rest of the city tuned in to the World Series — until revelry ended the route. She misses hiding in Guerrero's quiet Cafe Petra (now defunct) to write.

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