By Thomas K. Pendergast
With a unanimous vote the San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently approved a $14.3 million loan agreement to help replace the Police Credit Union building on Irving Street between 26th and 27th avenues, with 100 units of “affordable” housing reserved primarily for previously homeless and low-income families in a seven-story building.
“This is a historic moment to be considering funding for site acquisition for the Sunset’s first 100% affordable housing development for low and moderate-income families,” District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar told the Board at a meeting on July 27. “The need for affordable housing is so often overlooked and ignored in the Sunset and this development is one very important step to address the urgent needs of residents priced out of our neighborhood.”
Mar acknowledged that the project is contentious.
“Questions have been raised around project financing, including the high per-unit cost and questions about the appraisal and purchase price for this project,” Mar said. “I have looked into the financing issues closely…. The high per-unit cost, which is projected to be $960,000 per unit, based on the initial analysis, is extremely high and it does reflect one of the big challenges in our affordable housing strategy and that’s just the high construction costs.”
Others are concerned about the soil potentially contamination the toxic chemical Tetrachloroethylene (PCE), a synthetic chemical that is widely used for dry cleaning fabrics and for metal-degreasing operations. It is a nonflammable liquid at room temperature that evaporates easily into the air.
PCEs have been linked to several types of cancer and are considered a risk factor for Parkinson’s Disease.
“I do concur with residents’ concerns about contamination of PCE in the soil vapor onsite and offsite as well,” Mar said. “And I appreciate that (the developer) TNDC (Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation) has entered into a voluntary agreement with the State Department of Toxic Substances Control to provide oversight to their environmental analysis and their response plan.
“While PCE contamination is fairly common in these types of infill developments, due to a lack of clear, accessible communication and even some misinformation, neighbors are rightfully and naturally concerned for their own health and safety…. We cannot reduce residents’ valid concerns and fears about the health of their families to an overly-simplistic NIMBY tactic to oppose a seven-story affordable housing project.”
Paul Holzman is a local resident and member of the Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association (MSNA). He’s very concerned with the toxic soil. He said in the past there were two dry cleaners on this street, one on the north side and one on the south, so most likely the PCEs got into the ground because of that and then spread through the soil in every direction.
“There are serious problems with the (mitigation) plan,” Holzman said. “The main thing is that it only puts a plastic vapor barrier down during construction, so it likely will prevent the people living there from the harm of PCEs coming up as a vapor, however, it does nothing for the fact that PCEs are already in the neighborhood. They’ve spread to the north side. The south side hasn’t been investigated yet.
“It’s kind of like putting a band-aid on a cancer,” he said. “It really does nothing for it. The problem still stays there and so what we want is a fuller investigation of it to protect both the people who would be living there and also the people in the neighborhood who are worried about the health effects of PCEs.”
Another hot issue is simply the size and scope of the project. One hundred residential units reserved for families are likely to house a few hundred people on that block.
“Imagine a day in the life of a hundred families and what their needs are and what they do every day,” said local architect Thomas Soper. “(Affordable housing for families) is by far the most activity-generating type of affordable housing that you can ever build…. Over-concentration is the word that professionals should be applying here but politicians don’t understand that. They have a mandate.
“There are varying objectives and there’s a lot of misinformation on the part of the City on how to approach affordable housing in this particular district,” he said. “We need to have a comprehensive plan to build affordable housing in the Sunset in a way that this community can absorb and we can do that.”
“The scale of the building is way out of line from where it should be,” said Robert Ho, who owns a four-unit building in the area. “The City is making a mistake getting back into the large-scale, low-income housing type of development that they’d gotten away from or stopped doing…. I think it’s a mistake to build such a large building on Irving Street.”
Ho said he grew up in Chinatown public housing.
“Where a person grows up, especially a young person, influences their self-esteem,” he said. “Living in such a large-scale building, it’s something that a young person is aware of very early, that this is not where we want to live. We’re living in this out of necessity, not because we want to. It’s a constant reminder for young people that ‘our family is poor.’”
He acknowledged that some people overcome this background when they grow up and lead productive lives. However, he said there are other people who don’t handle that type of housing very well.
“When I was growing up there was a constant stench of urine in the stairways, in the elevator. There were people who took a lot of drugs. There was violence. I’ve known people who were murdered or committed suicide. There are some people who, it’s damaging to their self-esteem and it leads to a lot of social problems.”
Rumesha Ahmed is an MSNA member who has a background in banking so she is concerned with the financial aspects of the project, particularly the most recent appraisal that was done for it.
She said the property was appraised by someone who based their estimate on the assumption that there are no toxic contaminants at the site. This raises the possibility that the land was valued higher than would otherwise have been the case when the City purchased it.
“Now, whether those contaminants are at levels that are harmful to the health and wellness of the community at large is something that they’re still investigating but there is the risk of toxic contaminants at the site,” she said. “There are definitely red flags with this project.”
The MSNA’s Flo Kimmerling said the proposal doesn’t come with enough parking.
“It’s noble to think that we’ll all give up our cars and we’ll just use our bikes, or we’ll walk, or we’ll take the bus but you can’t say that,” she said. “It’s just totally unreasonable to ask families, to ask senior citizens to just give up their cars.”
Local resident John Barkan said the City won’t budge on the size because they need to qualify for money from the state under the terms of SB-35.
“The critical component with the scheme as planned is that they can score points for the funding from Sacramento; that they’re competing with other entities for this,” Barkan said. “The financing is questionable. The appraisal is questionable. The toxic situation is questionable.”