On Jan. 25, a fire broke out in a Potrero Hill Public Housing unit, killing 40-year-old Richard Gescat and displacing five residents. The building, along with others in the Potrero Terrace-Annex, is part of the HOPE SF revitalization project. For now, however, there is little hope to be found where Missouri Street dead-ends at Turner Terrace.
“These were officially uninhabited structures,” Battalion Chief Kevin McKeon said to the one reporter who arrived at the scene of the fire. “Most likely, the people that were involved were in there squatting.”
Indeed, the building where the fire occurred and the others along Turner Terrace appear uninhabitable. Many units have broken windows, and abandoned household appliances lay discarded out front. There are a goodly number of squatters in this and the neighboring structures.
But, as it turns out, Ericka Dean and her son, Caylen, were legally renting a unit in the building that caught fire, an elderly couple lives next door in 15 Turner Terrace, and legal residents occupy three units — 17, 21, and 27 Turner Terrace — in the next building over.
This makes for a total of five legally occupied units among the approximately 25 units in the three buildings closest to the fire. Across the Annex, only 96 of 133 units in 21 buildings are officially occupied, according to numbers from the mayor’s office from March, 2022.
The tenants who remain live in a public housing netherworld where no one appears to take responsibility for their safety or the upkeep of their units. The San Francisco Housing Authority owns the buildings and contracts out their management to the Eugene Burger Management Corporation, a private company. The Annex is slated for demolition in 2025, after which the affordable housing that replaces it will be managed by BRIDGE Housing, the developer of the project.
In the meantime, area residents watch as squatters move in and out of units deemed vacant and create an environment that often frightens legal tenants and squatters alike. “I got a stepson out here,” said Lonnie Green, Dean’s partner and Caylen’s stepfather, “and we’d have to go past all these dogs: Dogs running up on us, barking on us.”
“I knew this was going to happen,” he said of the fire: Residents’ safety concerns, Green says, were continually unheeded by the management.
Nor was the fire a surprise to Rhoda, who has lived two buildings over, at 17 Turner Terrace, for the past five years. The fire site had “people in and out all night long; banging, digging, tweaking,” she said.
“It’s not safe up here, between the squatters and all the dogs running around,” she said. She pays $614 per month for her two-bedroom apartment, though she stays with her daughter in Oakland as often as she can. “I don’t feel comfortable up here. I’m really, really trying to get out of here.”
Rhoda said that an elderly couple who has lived next door for 40 years had holes drilled through their floor in the middle of the night, by a squatter living below.
The elderly tenants were not at home when Mission Local knocked on their door. The story, however, was confirmed by another squatter, Chloe, who said that the squatter in question “goes into psychosis every once in a while from no sleep and the use of drugs.”
“It’s just a state of paranoia, really,” she explained. “But it’s a real shame.”
Stella Scott, a 75-year-old who has lived in her unit at 27 Turner Terrace for 13 years, has no trouble identifying the problem: “Eugene Burger, your tenants who pay the rent are being harassed,” said Scott who was “conceived and born” in San Francisco public housing.
“I complained to the Housing Authority when they were here, on a daily basis,” said Scott. “When Eugene came here, I started complaining with them.”
The response? “Let’s put it like this: I could be standing here and getting shot and they’d turn around and tell me, ‘Well, you deserve it.’”
“You ever seen a 1932 movie where they just bang their head against the wall because they couldn’t get nothing?” she asks. “Well, that’s what we’re going through.”
The management company, the housing authority and the mayor’s office
When Mission Local called Burger’s San Francisco office, Tom Connell, the regional manager, said he knew nothing about the Potrero properties and directed us to the Sacramento office.
Teresa Pegler, president of Eugene Burger’s Affordable Management Division, based in Sacramento, said that Burger employees are present at the Annex “daily.” This comes as news to the six tenants and squatters Mission Local interviewed. None reported seeing any Burger employees.
Mission Local did not come across any Burger employees on two visits to the properties, including on the afternoon of the lethal fire in a building the company manages.
Although the San Francisco Housing Authority’s explicit mission is to “is to deliver safe and decent housing for low-income” residents, it did not respond to questions about Burger and the tenants in the Annex.
The Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development is ostensibly a line of defense for tenants, but that appears not to be the case here.
“MOHCD’s formal monitoring is generally limited to projects for which we have provided loans,” said Anne Stanley, from the mayor’s office, and that “MOHCD has not provided any grants or loans” with regards to this property.
Stanley added, however, that “if and when residents report complaints or concerns to MOHCD, mediation or other interventions may be implemented.”
That has not happened for the remaining tenants.
Edward Hatter, who grew up in Potrero and has been the executive director of a local community youth center for 19 years, says residents are not filing formal complaints, as they don’t understand the process. But he also acknowledged their frustrations. “A lot of tenants feel they’re at the mercy of the landlord,” he said. “They can’t afford to go anywhere else, so why complain?”
He says the number of squatters has increased since January, 2021, when the Bayshore Navigation Center, a homeless shelter, opened within walking distance of the Annex.
“When the shelter is filled, they come searching for shelter,” he said.
Bayshore Navigation Center
Map by Will Jarrett. Basemap from Mapbox.
As the number of squatters has increased, Hatter says, many Annex residents have taken the opportunity they’ve been given to move to affordable housing in other neighborhoods, what the mayor’s office calls “to voluntarily move permanently offsite.” To remain in Potrero once the renovations are done, tenants must remain in their units until they are asked to vacate for demolition.
While tenants feel harassed by some of the squatters, the squatters Mission Local interviewed said they have no other place to go.
Gerald Portley is one of the squatters who has been in and out of Turner Terrace for the past few months. “This place saved me, ’cause I didn’t have no place to live,” said Portley, who finds homeless shelters too crowded: “I can’t do a bunch of people.”
Chloe, who lived in the building that caught fire for a little less than six months, added: “When you don’t have anything and you have nowhere to go, it’s like, what can you do other than squat?”
“It was a place to live,” she said. “After not having a place to live for so long, it was really nice.”
Richard Gescat, the 40-year-old who died in the Jan. 25 fire, told Chloe about the vacant units. She met Gescat, who called himself “Wolf,” when he was living next to a dog park on 23rd Street. Last Wednesday, she had the grim job of identifying Wolf’s “half-recognizable” body, she said.
Though the buildings still have power and water, and even a washer and dryer, the squatters also live with serious health concerns. “All the walls in that apartment are black from soot, because it has gotten lit on fire too,” Chloe said of another squatter’s unit.
A previous fire left her ex-boyfriend’s unit without a roof. “He had to go out there in the middle of the night, back when it was raining,” she said, “to cover it with plastic, so it wouldn’t go into his place.”
Another squatting couple lives in an apartment with black mold. “Even though [the resident] says he scrubbed the place up and down with bleach, it still doesn’t kill mold like that,” she said.
Chloe moved out two or three months ago: “I got my housing, because I’m a youth,” she said. “I’m only 23, so I got my housing a lot faster than a lot of people do.”
Since moving out, she has returned to the building regularly, to pick up her ex-boyfriend for work, as he continued living there until the fire. She said that she’s never seen any Burger employees. “Nobody’s ever come down here and tried to talk to anybody,” she said.
Dayton Andrews is a San Francisco Unified elementary school teacher and organizer with the Bay Area branch of the United Front Against Displacement, which fights the privatization of public housing. He believes that Eugene Burger, BRIDGE, the Housing Authority, and the mayor’s office “know how many squatters are there, and that they live in active conflict with the tenants.”
With residents leaving because of squatters, Andrews continues, the powers-that-be are spared the hassle of ignoring residents’ phone calls, finger pointing at one another, and, ultimately, of vacating the units.
“They want people to squat,” he says, “because it creates social tension and makes people want to leave.”