Not in our neighborhood

District 2 residents and supervisor oppose housing projects for at-risk young people

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The Booker T. Washington Community Service Center would be expanded to include housing for at-risk young people
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY BEN HOPFER

news@sfbg.com

San Francisco faces an enormous shortage of affordable housing for young people at risk of homelessness, but a pair of projects intended to address the issue are under fire from neighborhood activists in supervisorial District 2, home to the city's wealthiest residents.

The proposed conversion of the defunct Edward II Hotel and the major overhaul at the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center (BTWCSC) could create a combined 74 units of affordable housing for vulnerable youth, complete with services and support systems to help young people coming from foster or homeless families.

"We are building houses for young people who are getting their start in life," said Julian Davis, president of the board of BTWCSC. "There was a great need for foster youth housing that has been studied ad nauseam ... Our center wanted to contribute."

But both projects have run into strong neighborhood opposition that appears to have turned D2 Sup. Mark Farrell against the projects as proposed, despite initial support for the BTWCSC project by both Farrell and his predecessor, Michela Alioto-Pier. Farrell's approach has frustrated project opponents and caused the representative of a neighboring district, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, to sponsor the project.

"The project emanated from Michela Alioto-Pier and she supported the original project, which is why I joined her in support and it initially appeared that Sup. Farrell was joining that support," Mirkarimi told us, noting that he is continuing to champion the project because it borders his district and because "the Booker T center has a long reach and serves clients from throughout city."

After hearing from constituents concerned about parking, the size of the five-story building that is proposed, and other issues, Farrell dropped his sponsorship of the project and submitted alternative legislation that cut the building to four stories, presenting it to project proponents without their input as a take-it-or-leave-it proposal.

"The thing I find most puzzling about this is the lack of communication with me personally," BTWCSC Executive Director Pat Scott said of Farrell, noting how helpful Alioto-Pier and Farrell's staff had been before opponents convinced him to drop his support for the project. "I was a little taken aback, quite frankly. I would just assume that he'd talk to me."

But Farrell said he was simply trying to heed neighborhood concerns and craft a compromise that would get neighbors to drop their lawsuit threats and appeal of the Planning Commission's 6-1 vote to approve the project. "I can't control what happened in the past, I'm only here to make sure everyone is happy now," Farrell told us. "I absolutely support the project, I think the community center is great ... We're arguing over a story."

Yet Scott noted that project proponents already had compromised on a project that was initially proposed for eight stories, and she said that even at five stories, it isn't coming anywhere near what the city actually needs. So while Farrell casts it as a fight over one story, Scott said, "10 units is a big thing in a city that has nothing for these kids."

That need was outlined in a 2007 report by the Mayor's Transitional Youth Task Force. The group of city officials and nonprofit providers, convened by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, studied issues affecting at-risk youth between the ages 16 and 24 and one of the major needs identified was housing.

A follow-up study found that 4,500 to 6,800 young people are "homeless or marginally housed each year." The citywide affordable housing stock for this population sat at meager 314 units at the time.

"We are not doing a good enough job as a city and as a state [to help at-risk youth]," Davis said. "Once they leave the foster care system, there is very little support for them."