Q&A: Mission supervisor on housing deals and homelessness

Supervisor Hillary Ronen. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Four months ago, Mission District Supervisor Hillary Ronen took office with the promise of tackling some of the district’s most pressing issues, including housing and homelessness. Ronen sat down with Mission Local for the first in a series of conversations to discuss strategies and evaluate the progress on some of her key goals.

This interview has been edited and shortened for print.

ML: You’ve now brokered your third compromise between anti-gentrification activists and developers of major projects in the neighborhood that have yielded pretty major concessions from the developers. What has that process been like for you as the mediator?

Ronen: I think it’s a number of things. We have a great community and Calle 24 is very righteous in their demands that if you are going to develop within the Latino Cultural District, you have to bring unprecedented community benefits otherwise it will impact the future development of this district. That is one aspect of why we have been able to negotiate settlements with such strong benefits for the community.

Another is that under CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), there is a very strong argument that if there are not mitigations to projects they [can] impact this historic resource which is the cultural district. It’s not a frivolous argument under CEQA. And that’s part of the issue.

And then, I’ve come from a background of being in the community. So people know me and they know who I am and what I stand for and what I fight for so I think there is a higher level of trust that people know that I’m not trying to undermine the position of the Latino community and working class people in the Mission.

Even so it’s not easy. I’ve struggled and Calle 24 struggled tremendously with these decisions.

There’s no one format. I try to be a very fair broker. I think I have more trust in the community side than I do in the developer side because of who I am and my background and where I come from.

But with developers I’ve just been very straightforward and fair and honest about what’s going on, and consistent. Once I commit to something with a developer I’m not going to go backward on that. And I’ve shown that.

There’s been times during the negotiation where we settled on one aspect of the agreement and then new voices come in and want to change that, and I’ve been very clear – absolutely not.

It’s been four months on the job and we’ve had five appeals in my district. There’s not been a single other district that had a single other appeal.  So it’s really been trial by fire.

And I think we’ve gotten amazing settlements on both the Axis and the Lennar projects. But you know, it’s not easy. It’s a compromise for everyone.

ML: Speaking of Axis (the development at 2675 Folsom St.)– you negotiated 27 percent of affordable housing, is that correct?

Ronen: It is, depending on the method of calculation it’s anywhere from 25-27 percent. It’s about 20 percent on site and the rest off site. What I’ve been really appreciating in this process is the willingness to be really creative about how to find an agreement,especially with the Axis program – this idea of purchasing small sites and stabilizing working class folks in the Mission who are already in place and then transferring ownership to a nonprofit I think is a very good model that should be replicated.  

ML: Do you see this as becoming the framework for future developments?

Ronen: When I went into this and had interviews with Mission Local earlier I said I would love to settle on a framework so we wouldn’t have to have individual fight after individual fight. I’m becoming less and less optimistic about whether that’s possible. Watching and participating in what’s happening around inclusionary and Home SF it’s just…really challenging in the Mission. Every project is so different. The ability to play with the economics of a project and have it still pencil out with robust community benefits depends a lot on the neighborhood of the project, the size of the project.

Unfortunately it’s not ideal for the developer who wants certainty around the project and it’s not ideal for the community, just the amount of capacity it takes to struggle around each of these projects. It would be nice to have these monolithic standards that are kept across the board but I’m not sure that’s going to happen.

ML: Right now there is ongoing debate about how much developers can afford to provide in terms of inclusionary housing and other community benefits, and many argue that 25 percent affordability is too high. What’s your sense of what developers are able to provide after mediating these negotiations?

Ronen: I think we proved with the Axis and Lennar projects that 25 percent is absolutely possible. Both of those projects are 100 percent union labor. They are not huge projects, they are midsize projects. I know other projects in the city where Supervisor Jane Kim for example has been able to get higher levels of affordability, those were massive projects. But with these mid-size projects, we’ve proven that 25 percent is possible with 100 percent union labor and other community benefits. The proof is in the pudding.

ML: It’s early in your term, but how would you say you are doing on your pledge for getting 5,000 units of affordable housing built in D9 in the next 10 years?

Ronen: I’m watching it very carefully. We have about – between what we have put new into the pipeline through the Axis and Lennar projects and through the small sites program – 114 units, which is a little behind of where I’d love to be if we are going to do this 500 units a year.

I am going to continue with this goal – I need the ambitious goal to push me and keep going. But we had no idea of the conditions at the federal level. They are dire and they are impacting the ability to reach that goal.

We imagined that goal under a Clinton administration. The reason under the Trump administration it’s gotten so difficult is not just the cuts they are making to HUD and all that. It’s that the tax reform proposal that they are proposing has dried up the low-income tax credit market.

And so we have projects now in the pipeline like 1950 Mission St. that are being delayed because uncertainty about getting that federal subsidy.

I am not revising my goal because I am working towards it and trying to get creative and I’m having tons of conversations with affordable housing developers to get even more creative about reaching that goal because I continue to believe that it’s what’s needed in the Mission in order to protect the diverse ethnic, racial and income level of the community but the difficulty level of it has gone through the roof.

Having said that, we are pretty good – for four months into my administration and we are at 114 units. In addition, we have $6 million for affordable housing that is specific to the Mission: that’s the $1 million from the Lennar Project and $5 million that I am about to introduce legislation on, accepting money from the NTC (Neighborhood Transit Center) that [former] Supervisor David Campos actually negotiated. That will be specifically for an affordable housing project in the Mission.

And then the 120-bed Navigation Center which isn’t housing. Its temporary shelter. But it’s addressing our housing crisis in the Mission. I’m not counting those 120 beds towards the 5,000 goal (500 per year goal) but it is good news for the Mission.

ML: What is the status of the 1950 Mission St. housing project and the temporary Navigation Center that is now there?

Ronen:  Right now the plan is to start construction at the beginning of 2018. But it’s dependent on the tax credit market. We are hoping that Mission Housing is working as hard as they can. They anticipate that once they break ground it’s going to take 18 months to get from construction to move in. The Navigation Center will continue operating. Its [closure is] dependent on when the project breaks ground.

ML: Regarding the new temporary Navigation Center at 1515 South Van Ness,  you responded to neighbors’ concerns about loitering outside of the center at 1950 Mission St. with the explanation that 16th Street is a different beast – that it is a transit hub surrounded by a number of SROs where tenants “don’t have space to hang out.”  

Do you plan on looking into the loitering complaints there to verify that the safety issues in that area have not been exacerbated by the presence of the Navigation Center?

Ronen: I really do not believe that Navigation Centers increase crime in neighborhoods. I think when you have homeless people that have a place where they are in constant contact with social workers and getting hooked up with public benefits and stabilized and transferred to a permanent path out of homelessness, that that’s going to cut down on crime. I think there is just so many factors in terms of that area specifically that contribute to – the conditions have been that way for decades. I don’t think that much has changed but I’m curious to look at data.

We are about to engage in an experiment. In that area [1515 South Van Ness] there are not the conditions of a transit hub surrounded by SROs with no indoor/outdoor hangout space. All the type of conditions that create a very specific situation near 16h St. Bart station. We are about to have a Navigation Center that we are going to run very tightly, that we are going to have some new data about what these centers bring and how they transform, or not, neighborhoods. This one and the one in Dogpatch are really the first time that we are going to have another data set to look at.

I believe that it’s going to improve conditions and I very much hope that after nine months that my belief will be proven.

ML: Have you identified a permanent site for another Navigation Center in the Mission?

Ronen: I haven’t. We are looking. It’s not easy to find these sites. There’s just not that much land/sites available period.

ML: What’s the process?

Ronen: To me what’s important is having enough outdoor space in addition to indoor space. People need a place to hangout. If they don’t have a place to hang out then there is going to be much more loitering and the conditions that are frowned upon in neighborhoods dealing with homelessness.

You need a place that people would rather be, that’s safer and more comfortable for people than the streets. And that’s what you need to create. And if it’s going to be permanent, we need the neighbor’s buy in. I think for a temporary situation like 1515 South Van Ness Ave., where we are using it to deal with a current public health crisis and its very specific and very temporary and only for the encampments in the Mission – while I wanted neighborhood input we had to do it.  

We have to deal with a dangerous situation currently, where as for a permanent situation you need a different type of robust community process where you are not only getting neighbor input to make sure the center is run better, but you need input about location.

ML: What have you learned from the community meetings about 1515 South Van Ness Ave. moving forward?

Ronen: I learned that you are never going to get 100 percent buy-in. What’s been really heartening about this process is that the overwhelming majority is in favor of this solution.

I also learned that there is a lot of distrust about local government’s ability to address this crisis, which I completely understand. Things have only gotten worse, not better. And I agree that we are not doing a good enough job as a city dealing with this homeless crisis.

Having said that, this is not just a crisis that is happening in San Francisco, it’s happening throughout the state and country. I’m not sure there is anybody doing a better job than San Francisco. This is one of the toughest problems that we have that is related to failed policy at the federal level around investment in housing in low-income communities and the shutdown of mental health services.

These are major issues that when we try to fix them at the local level they are imperfect fixes. It’s complicated. I do believe we are trying hard and will continue to make progress.

What I’m hoping to do with this Navigation Center is gain some trust back from the community about the city’s ability to run these centers well and prove that they improve neighborhoods and not harm them. And then hopefully if I can prove that that will help the effort of implementing Navigation Centers.

This is a critical project. If we don’t prove that we can greatly improve conditions in the Mission by opening this Navigation Center then we have failed. And then I dont have the moral authority to say we need a permanent one. So in a way I could not be more engaged and invested in proving that this is a positive not a negative to neighborhood.

ML: You have involved the local police with the promise of increased police units assigned to the temporary center. What is your expectation in terms of policing and police responding to the homeless crisis in your district?

Ronen: I don’t think that tent encampments should be acceptable, especially in residential neighborhoods. But I can’t stomach moving encampments if we don’t have a place for people to go.

Once there is space, people living in encampments need to utilize that space. There is a role for the police to play in helping us with that. However, it’s not a primary role, it’s a secondary role. The primary role is with the Homeless Outreach Team who are very skilled at this. I will be out there with the Homeless Outreach Team explaining to people that this is not safe and that we’ve created an alternative and we want them to utilize this alternative.

The police are there as a back up but not as playing a primary role. The police don’t want to play a primary role, it’s not their job.  They know that the root cause of homeless is lack of housing, it’s not something they have control over. So working with Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Public Health, social workers, these are the right agencies to be getting people off the streets and into services.

This is a very unique setup that is specifically for the Mission.  But that’s not how the Navigation enter system works, it’s a citywide system.

ML: How will you respond if the American Health Care Act is passed in the Senate?

Ronen: We need a total redesign of our system and probably go back to look more like what Healthy San Francisco used to look like (prior to Affordable Health Care Act) when it was a much more robust system. If, hopefully not, this repeal happens at the senate and signed into law, which will be a disaster, we need to look at everything. The amount of money we will lose at the state level and the implications for the local level…we are going to have to look at a redesign not only our healthcare system but of all of our services.

You don’t plan for that disaster unless it’s going to happen. It’s the funding issue that we will have to look at on a systemwide level and at the state level.

ML: You recently held a hearing about fraudulent evictions and tenants testified about their experiences. Many tenant advocates want to know how criminal charges can be pursued against fraudulent landlords who harass and illegally evict their tenants.

Anne Kihagi was recently fined several million dollars and in LA, was sentenced to brief jail time, but faces no criminal charges. What have you learned so far about what it takes to criminally charge abusive or fraudulent landlords?

Ronen: There is legislation on the table for Owner Move-In evictions that Supervisor Peskin/Kim sponsored and I co-sponsored that would allow criminal charges if there is fraudulent owner move-ins, which we are worried is happening all over the city. That would provide very explicit authority to the District Attorney to bring those charges if there is fraudulent use of that law.

ML: The Mission has some historically hard-to-staff schools, and San Francisco is experiencing a teacher shortage. Meanwhile educators are rallying for better pay, and for teacher housing that has been in planning stages for decades. What are some strategies you are working on to keep educators in Mission schools?

Ronen: I am working hard on that. I don’t have the silver bullet yet. It’s a priority for my office. I was really excited that there is funding and site designed to starting the first brick and mortar  project – a site and $44 million identified to build some 140 units of teacher and educator housing.
It’s a great first step, but teachers will not be able to move in for four years. We need an interim solution and be building at a different scale – 140 units is not solving this problem. In our school system we have over 5,000 employees. Even if you assume half of those have stable housing, rent controlled apartments or are owners, you have another part of the workforce that is insecurely housed.

We also have record vacancies each year and we need to recruit more teachers into the city and into this professions and we need to think about the housing issues. It’s a major challenge and part of this overall problem we have around funding, affordable housing in the city for everyone – from formerly homeless to middle classes, to teachers nurses and firefighters.

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  1. Mike

    Why is the new housing always so ugly? Shouldn’t an attempt be made to match the style with the existing SF style (bay windows, etc.)

    • Juan Howard

      SF has no single style. That is one of the things that I love about this city is there are so many styles.

      The reason so much of the new architecture is so ugly is
      1) Extreme cost cutting during design. Because the city has made building so expensive the designs are totally based on cheapness. Building a Victorian today would be a pipe dream
      2) Building by committee. When a home builder does come up with something interesting everyone and their neighbor gets a vote. Hence why homes with big windows are considered a ‘statement of class and privilege’ and sent back to the drawing board.


  2. wom bat

    I actually support the navigation center model for helping the homeless, but it is crap to say that they have no impact on the neighborhood. The problem is the underground economy that accompany the homeless – bicycle thefts and chop shops, drug and alcohol sales, thefts and broken car windows, etc. If you really want to stabilize and help the people using the services at the Navigation Center, admit that there are problems and address them. Continued denial just undercuts the viability of a model that could work.

  3. Booradley

    I respect Ronen’s ability to bring together developers and activists and get stuff moving. Light years beyond her former boss. She has some Trumpian delusions, however, around ‘overwhelming’ support for the SVN shelter and her ‘tents are unacceptable but can’t be moved’ logic trap. Applying the same principled steel and eyes-wide-open approach she uses negotiating developments would benefit us all wrt shelters.

  4. Juan Howard

    I had a question about how much Calle 24 has donated to Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s election campaign, specifically in light of her negotiation with the developers of Supervisor Hillary Ronen to donate $1 to Calle 24.

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