In year seven of what is projected to be a 15-year rebuild of Potrero Hill’s public housing, only 314 of the 507 remaining original units are officially occupied. And — officially — that number keeps decreasing.
“All units are going to be demolished. Therefore, we will not be bringing on any new residents at this time,” Tonia Lediju, the chief operating officer of the San Francisco Housing Authority, told Mission Local.
The Housing Authority may not be filling vacancies, but in a city with thousands of unsheltered residents, the vacancies have no problem filling themselves. And that cascades into problems for the “official” tenants.
Vacancies always attract squatters, even more so in Potrero public housing, where the managers do little to dissuade them. Though not all squatters cause trouble, tenants have found themselves living with a stream of unpredictable residents, who sometimes create unsafe living conditions.
The dangers of unsupervised and chaotic squatting became all too clear on Jan. 25, when a fire broke out at the Potrero Annex, killing one squatter, displacing three more and burning out the building’s sole rent-paying family. It was not the first fire, neighbors said, though it was more destructive than those that came before.
More on Potrero public housing
Problems have been brewing since June 2019, when the San Francisco Housing Authority moved tenants out of eight buildings in the Terrace in advance of the complex’s slated demolition by BRIDGE Housing. The buildings were fully vacated by July.
“There were squatters in the buildings within a week,” said Edward Hatter, who grew up in Potrero and is the executive director of the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House. The only event that got them out: The demolitions that occurred between November 2019 and June 2020.
The grand plan is to rebuild the original 619 public housing units, along with 200 additional affordable-housing units and 800 market-rate units. The five-phase project is expected to continue through 2033.
Until that time, vacancies are currently spread over 54 different buildings in two adjacent locations. The Annex spans Missouri Street, Watchman Way, and Turner Terrace. It has 23 buildings with 133 units, including the building that burned in January. There are presently 57 vacant units there.
Annex residents had been told that their buildings would be razed by the end of 2023. But plans to demolish them have since been delayed until 2026, BRIDGE representatives told residents at a community meeting in February.
The other 31 buildings are known as the Terrace, and are mostly located on Dakota and Connecticut streets, just west of where Missouri Street becomes 23rd Street. There are more than 300 units here, and the structures are slated to be demolished in two phases. Two of the buildings, with 45 units between them, will be torn down in 2028. The remaining 29 buildings, with 329 units in total, will be demolished in 2031, according to BRIDGE’s website.
A fire broke
out on Jan. 25,
A fire broke
out on Jan. 25,
Map by Will Jarrett. Basemap from Mapbox.
Some 136 of the Terrace’s 374 units are officially vacant, making it 36 percent empty. The Annex has 57 vacancies of 133 total units, putting its vacancy rate at 43 percent.
In the meantime, the glut of vacancies has led to an influx of squatters and safety concerns, for both tenants and squatters. And, each month, more tenants move, leaving those behind even more vulnerable.
|No. of buildings||No. of units||Vacant||Occupied (March 2023)||Occupancy rate (March 2023)||Occupied (March 2022)||Change over past year||Projected year of demolition|
|Annex (Phase 3)||23||133||57||76||57%||96||-20.8%||2026|
|Terrace (Phase 4 & 5)||31||374||136||238||64%||301||-20.9%||2028 (45 units)|
2031 (329 units)
One 63-year-old Annex tenant showed Mission Local the holes in her apartment floor where squatters below drilled long screws through her floor. Other tenants said emergency responders are sometimes unable to get through doors that residents have reinforced out of fear of break-ins.
In fact, the Eugene Burger Management Corporation, the property manager, is no longer using steel doors and window boardings, at the request of public safety teams, according to the Housing Authority. The doors, they were told, prevented emergency responders from seeing or getting inside, posing a risk for both squatters and responders.
For their part, squatters told Mission Local of getting stuck in units that were boarded up while they were inside. They also showed our reporters units they live in with black mold or fire damage.
At February’s meeting, community members complained about the squatters, but Kendra Crawford, speaking on behalf of the Housing Authority, had few answers for them.
“People are really talented; if they want to get in, they’re gonna get in,” Crawford told tenants at the meeting.
The Housing Authority has said it is deterring squatters by removing power, stoves, refrigerators, and toilets from vacant units. But on a recent visit to the Potrero Annex, Mission Local reporters entered a unit that had all of its appliances, not to mention a front door that wasn’t even on its hinges.
Tenants want out
The pervasive break-ins have left Potrero residents asking for another solution: an expedited demolition of the Annex, recently pushed back to 2026. That would mean moving tenants out of the 76 units.
“There’s no better way to secure the buildings than tearing the buildings down,” Hatter said at the Feb. 21 meeting.
Ultimately, demolition is not in the hands of the Housing Authority, but of BRIDGE Housing. In response to inquiries about expedited demolition, Lyn Hikida, a spokesperson for BRIDGE, said that the developer is currently working on Phase 2 and has not yet requested funding for future demolition.
It cost BRIDGE some $100,000 to tear down each of the eight buildings demolished in 2019 and 2020 as part of Phase 2. Prior to the demolition, the occupants of the 91 existing units were moved out, with 53 lottery winners moving into 1101 Connecticut St., the brand new building BRIDGE had installed next door. The remaining residents were relocated to other parts of the Terrace or Annex.
There are no brand-new units available to Terrace-Annex residents in Potrero Hill, though the conversation at last month’s meeting assumed that any remaining residents in the Annex have been offered, and refused, relocation to new developments elsewhere in San Francisco. “Some people choose to stay close to work and school,” Crawford explained.
Though the Housing Authority suggested that residents declined the opportunity to move offsite, residents told Mission Local that the option was not presented to them, and that they would be thrilled to move elsewhere if that were possible.
Elaine Portillo, who has lived in the Annex for over 10 years, is already packing.
“I want to move. I’m trying to get Section 8 so I can move,” she said, referencing housing vouchers. She said that she has not been offered relocation, but that if she was, she would take it.
Rhoda, who has lived in the Annex for five years, says she can’t remember staying being a choice and, if given the opportunity to get out of Potrero, she would leave.
Pamela, the 63-year-old who has lived in the Annex for 28 years and woke up on Christmas morning to six screws that had been drilled through her floor overnight, also wants out.
“I’ve been reaching out to different people, trying to get some new place to move up out of here. I don’t want to move nowhere around here. I want to go away from here.”
Pamela and her partner are the only remaining tenants in their five-unit building. Squatters live in two other units, and in the boiler room underneath her unit.
On the Monday following the Christmas incident in which screws were drilled into Pamela’s floor, the management company, Eugene Burger, sent somebody to her unit. Burger’s contract with the Housing Authority pays the company $792 a year per occupied apartment.
Pamela wasn’t impressed with the level of work put into repairing her unit. “They just knocked the screws back down through the floor,” she said, pointing to the floor where the six holes remained.
The police have visited the boiler room in response to her complaints, but “they claim they can’t do nothing because the squatters have legal rights. How can you have legal rights in a place that’s not even an apartment?”
She says that the only relocation she has been offered is in the Terrace, which is also beset with squatters. The Terrace may have a higher occupancy rate — 64 percent, compared to the Annex’s 56 percent. But it also has almost three times more units overall, which means more squatters, with 136 vacancies to the Annex’s 57.
“I’m not going to Dakota [Street],” Pamela said, regarding the Terrace. “That’s a shoot-me zone.”
Savannah Boston, who has lived in the Annex for more than 10 years, said her willingness to relocate would depend on the type of building she was offered. She said that there have been squatters for a while, but in the past year the squatters have become “too much.”
Removing the squatters
Four days after Mission Local’s article documenting the uptick in squatters, Eugene Burger posted notices to leave the premises on vacant units. The documents posted on Feb. 7 warned that residents without official leases had five days to vacate, or face eviction in court. A month later, squatters say they have yet to receive any further paperwork.
Bob, who is squatting in Pamela’s building, said that the week after the notices to quit were posted, a contractor came to measure the door and began boarding up the unit. The police also arrived.
“I know that a sheriff has to serve a notice,” Bob said. “The police said, ‘We spoke to the management company, but we’re not going to deal with this right now.’” Then they left.
Todd Rothbard, whose Santa Clara law firm signed the notices as representatives of the Housing Authority, echoed Bob’s statements: Removing a squatter requires a “drawn-out and expensive eviction process, even when people break in and have no right to be there.” Rothbard’s firm charges clients $150 to file an eviction case. That is the next step if the occupant ignores a notice to quit.
Rothbard says that the process can take months, from filing the case to appearing in court to having the sheriff perform the eviction. There was just one eviction proceeding pursued by the Housing Authority in 2022. The squatter lived at 68 Dakota St., in the Terrace. The case was filed May 18, and the sheriff’s notice was ready July 18. The squatter was successfully evicted, at least on paper.
Residents of Potrero said they could not recall seeing other notices, nor could LaLisha Norton, who works at SHANTI, one of the service providers working with Potrero residents, and squatters, on relocation.
“I won’t say it hasn’t happened, but my time hasn’t been very long, just a year,” she said.
At the meeting and in conversations with Mission Local, Housing Authority representatives maintained that removing unlawful residents is simply a matter of law enforcement.
“If someone refuses to leave, we bring in SFPD,” Crawford told attendees of the meeting. But this is not how evictions work. The final eviction is handled by the Sheriff’s Department.
In the meantime, interrelations between squatters and renters continues. While some squatters bother the tenants, others are just looking for a place to live.
Ashley, who has been living on Dakota Street without a lease for a little over a year, says it beats living in her van, which she did for two years before finding the empty apartment. She holds a full-time job at a storage facility.
“Even with the job, with what I get paid, I wouldn’t be able to afford rent in the city at all,” she said. “These buildings are kind of messed up, run-down. It’s not the best, but it’s a place to live.”
Since moving in, Ashley has taken care of her unit. “I cleaned it up, cleaned it out, painted it, made it more livable,” she said.
“I feel like I’ve left this place better than I found it. I wasn’t hurting anyone by being here.”
LaLisha Norton, a SHANTI employee, described the squatters as “a very diverse landscape of unleased individuals.”
“There’s everything from families, to single folks, to people who have been in these units for many years, to newer transplants into these units,” she said.
In response to sympathy expressed for squatters at the community meeting, the Housing Authority’s Kendra Crawford conceded that “yes, there are some families, but the majority of people are going in to do drugs. The people I come across are not here to enhance the community.”
“I don’t think there’s any immediate resolve around this,” Norton said of the situation as a whole. Indeed, BRIDGE doesn’t have the money to tear down the buildings, and the Housing Authority doesn’t have funding to renovate vacant units to make them habitable for new occupants. And, Burger’s contract does not seem to maintain the units of existing tenants in any meaningful way.
One thing, however, is certain, Norton said: “As long as the vacant units are left vacant, someone will inhabit those units.”