Bedbugs and Asbestos: A San Francisco Public Housing Resident's Odyssey

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A window at Sunnydale public housing. (Photo: Joshua Johnson/KQED)

On Tuesday, the city's legislative analyst released a damning audit of San Francisco's Housing Authority. Federal regulators are working with the agency to better manage its money and properties, which house about 31,000 people. Many tenants live in housing plagued by crime and blight, and have long complained about how hard it is just to get simple repairs done.

The audit comes in the wake of turmoil involving Henry Alvarez, former SFHA head, who was fired in April three weeks after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development concluded a blistering assessment of the Housing Authority, which it funds.

KQED is having a series of conversations about reform efforts in San Francisco public housing, and our first encounter was with a tenant who has lived for seven years in Sunnydale, a complex in the city's Visitacion Valley neighborhood. Her name is Maria, and she didn't want her last name used. She gave me a tour of her home and explained her problems with the housing agency.

One problem, bedbugs, took two years to resolve, she said. "They were supposed to come and spray," Maria told me. "They never showed up. Then, when they did come and spray, they didn't follow up with the continual spraying. ... I had to get rid of all my new furniture."

Maria said she eventually bought a bug spray and took care of the problem herself.


Bedbugs, moldy windows, violent crime, neglectful management -- tenants' rights advocates hear complaints from San Francisco's public housing residents all over town. Sometimes the problems involve other residents, including one who Maria said kicks the wall adjoining their units, causing her picture frames to fall off the wall.

The Housing Authority says it handles emergencies within 24 hours -- things like lockouts, flooding or electrical breakdowns. Other complaints are prioritized based on staff availability and resources.

Complaints of asbestos

Maria took me upstairs, showing me something in her attic she had never expected to find.

"I climbed up there and pulled myself in, and I see the [door] has an asbestos company named on it. When I got the flashlight and looked around, there's, like, piles, and it's all over."

"Have you told the Housing Authority about this?" I asked.

"Every time I go for my yearly certification, I put it on the [form] reminding them that they need to come and clean it out. And I've sent emails to the property manager and ... nothing.

"I thought it was a storage space so I went up there with a flashlight and I noticed about four inches of insulation falling apart .... I freaked out. I’ve been sick a lot since I moved here."

The EPA says exposure to asbestos can increase the risk of lung disease and different types of cancer.

Maria showed us an email she sent to the Housing Authority in 2008 that mentioned the possibility of asbestos in her apartment. Authority spokeswoman Rose Marie Dennis said that she would have to check Maria’s case file to determine whether anyone had been sent out to address the claims.

But she said that if asbestos was reported, she’s "sure it has been looked at. "

“It’s no secret many of our buildings are decades old,” Dennis said. “Many of our buildings have asbestos, which is why we have specialists to address it.”

Maria, however, told us that even after our story aired on the radio, no one has come to check on her complaint.

Dennis said that Sunnydale has two property managers. When asked who holds those managers accountable for answering residents' repair needs, Dennis said that it is a "matrix of people" and with so many recent layoffs at the agency, “we are in the process of updating that flow chart.” She also stated that the Board of Commissioners is calling for performance evaluations because “they want a major focus on accountability.”

Maria said her complaints about the repairs and her neighbor have led to more hostility, both from her neighbors and, occasionally, from housing management. Dennis responded that Maria could not recall which property manager allegedly harassed her, so the agency could not take further action.

"Broken mentally"

Maria used to live in a Victorian on Oak Street. That was back when she was working as a paralegal. She said she recognized the name of the asbestos company on the door in her attic because the law office where she worked handled asbestos cases. Maria ended up in public housing after the office laid off half the staff.

Sitting in her small living room, she described what life is like for the tenants she knows at Sunnydale.

"Ninety-five percent of the residents here have been broken mentally to believe that they deserve to live this way. And so a lot of people think, 'Well, screw housing, I'll throw my garbage out the window!' Even I had a hard time being able to emotionally deal ... with what was going on without feeling like I'm going crazy."

I asked her what changed that attitude.

"You know, I've been praying a lot more," she said. "I've decided to have more vision for my life and stop feeling sorry for my situation and start working to get my situation better.

"I have to come to a conclusion, either I let myself just sink, or I have to fight and show my kids that there's other ways."

Trying to transfer apartments ... more problems

Last month Maria applied for a transfer to leave her Sunnydale unit, due to concerns about hostility from her neighbors. On May 9 the Housing Authority offered her a unit in the Plaza East Apartments, in the Western Addition. However, she said, the unit is a walk-up she is unable to live in because she is disabled. She said the Housing Authority should have known she has a disability because she has consistently written that she's disabled on her lease recertification applications, and also because a housing advocate she's been working with emailed the agency that she was disabled.

Maria is now trying to negotiate a different transfer. In the meantime, she is still living at Sunnydale.

We have also spoken with San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, who called for the Housing Authority audit due out Tuesday. And we have invited the agency to speak on its own behalf about its efforts to reform.

Julia McEvoy and Jon Brooks contributed to this report.

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