New Plan for Potrero Projects Has Residents Worried About the Future

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San Francisco is changing.

As the bubble inflates and the housing market continues to surge, marquee developments and luxury complexes get most of the headlines. But the other end of the market is also undergoing a radical transformation. Faced with market-driven realities, San Francisco is changing its approach to public housing.

After decades of planning, construction began in January on a project that will completely transform the Potrero Hill housing projects, some of the oldest public housing in the city. Faced with an uncertain future, current residents are skeptical about their place in the new plans.

“It’s frustrating because I don’t know what they’re going to do with me, and we don’t have a choice. We don’t," said Antoinette Cowden, a Potrero Hill resident, about the new development.

Built in the 1940s, the Potrero projects are home to roughly 1,200 people divided into two sections, Potrero Terrace and Potrero Annex. Residents are isolated, and the buildings are run-down and neglected. It is the essence of the old public housing model.

A rendering of the new, mixed-income Hope SF Potrero Hill development. (Courtesy of Bridge Housing)

The ambitious Potrero Hill development, the third project in the citywide Hope SF initiative, will completely replace all 600 public housing units, as part of a denser, integrated mixed-income community that will also include market-rate housing and retail space. The other three Hope SF developments are in Hunters View, Alice Griffith and Sunnydale. Construction on both Hunters View and Alice Griffith is underway, and phase one of Sunnydale is expected to break ground soon.


The plan to integrate public, affordable and market-rate housing is a main tenet of Hope SF and a national trend in public housing redevelopment. The Potrero plan calls for the sale of land to private developers who will build 817 market-rate units -- both rentals and condos -- and roughly 200 low-income or below-market units, in addition to replacing and maintaining the 600 public housing units.

Integrating market-rate and public housing is a way to “solve the chronic underfunding of public housing by bringing in new resources,” according to Dan Adams, director of Bridge Potrero, the master developer in charge of the project. “Market-rate housing is essentially subsidizing public housing.”

One downside of this approach: Similar projects throughout the country have seen a net decrease in the amount of public housing units, according to Adams, as developers obviously prefer the highly profitable market-rate housing.

“They say they’re going to mix us up with teachers, doctors and all that. I doubt it,” Cowden said. “We’re losing everything, because this condominium will go to the rich people.”

The skepticism of current residents is rooted in San Francisco’s long history of displacing black communities.

“This has been done over the centuries. This ain’t nothing new,” said John W. Smith Jr., president of the Potrero Hill Tenants Association.

After World War II, the city undertook an extensive redevelopment of the Fillmore district that resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of African-Americans residents. More recently, Bayview-Hunters Point has seen a spate of new construction that has driven a large chunk of the African-American population out of the historically black neighborhood.

“Hunters Point had a lot of black community, same with the Fillmore. A lot of people were displaced, gone or not able to move back. So, the whole texture of the community changed. They don’t give a damn because it’s all about the profit,” Smith said.

John W. Smith Jr. doesn't know what the new Potrero Hill development means for him in the future. (Margaret Katcher/KQED)

“I understand where the skepticism comes from. People have showed up over time and said things that are not true,” Adams said. “These communities have been neglected by the public sector for a long time. When programs or projects come about and say, 'Hey, we’re going to make your life better,' there’s an inherit skepticism on the part of residents."

Another difference in the new Hope SF public housing approach: Residents are being told that they won’t have to move out of the neighborhood while they wait for construction to be completed. The plan calls for parts of the development to be completed in phases, allowing for residents to move into new housing before the next phase is torn down.

Construction on phase one began in January on a vacant parcel of land and is expected to be finished by fall 2018. At that point, residents currently living in phase two will move out of their current units and into the new units of phase one.

The logistics make sense on paper, but in practice the math isn't quite one-to-one. For example, some residents, about 25 percent of phase one residences or just under 20 families, will have to either move into current vacant units elsewhere in the Potrero projects or volunteer to move to comparable housing elsewhere in the city, before being able to then move back into a new unit after additional phases have been completed.

The complexities of the process are difficult to communicate, resulting in confusion and yet more skepticism.

Despite the positive ethos of these new approaches to integrate public housing and decrease displacement, the uncertainty for many residents is real.

“There is anxiety that comes with change,” Adams said. “The process is challenging, but I believe over time the skepticism will start to diminish.”

The entire Potrero Hill redevelopment isn't estimated to be fully complete until 2026. For now, all residents can do is wait.

Margaret Katcher and Rachel Cassandra contributed to the reporting of this story and co-produced the above video.