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On a Mission
written by EMILY LANDES
District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen has made two thorny issues—developing affordable housing and addressing street homelessness—among her priorities for her first term in office.
District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen has only been on the job for about 18 months, but she hasn’t been afraid to get her hands dirty—literally. Every Wednesday morning for many months she and BART board member Bevan Dufty went down to the 16th Street BART station to help clean the notoriously unsanitary station. “I have been using that BART station for the past 15 years in the city. I used to use it daily and have always known that it’s kind of dirty, but like most transit riders, I think I kind of would walk by as fast as I could to try to get down and get on the train,” she said. “So being the person who went out each week to actually clean the plaza, I could not believe how filthy and unhealthy it truly is.”
After her experiences there, Ronen fought for and got maintenance workers in the plaza every day, not just on weekdays; extended power washings in the evenings; two full-time homeless outreach workers, for that station and the 24th Street station; and a team of Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion outreach workers to get low-level drug dealers and users into treatment programs, keeping them out of the plaza and also out of jail. “It’s a multipronged approach both on the cleanliness end and on the human social services end to improve conditions in the plaza,” Ronen explained.
Read on for more of the ways Ronen is tackling some of the biggest issues in her district, which includes the Mission, Bernal Heights and Portola. Our exclusive interview with the supervisor, edited for space and clarity, begins below.
SF Apartment Magazine: What housing issues are unique to District 9?
There’s a couple of housing-related issues that are unique in my district, or maybe not completely unique but that play a strong role. One is the fact that there’s been so much displacement in the Mission particularly, of a particular community. The Latino community made up the largest percentage of residents and businesses and culture in the district, and so in my attempt to stop the displacement of that community from the Mission, I sometimes see it as needing different types of interventions.
The other aspect is the homeless crisis and the tent encampment crisis in the Mission. The Tenderloin’s not great either. South of Market has its issues. Showplace Square has its issues. But in terms of a dense neighborhood with so many tents and right there in front of homes and businesses, I’m not sure there’s any place worse than the Mission, certainly not when I started this job. We’ve improved things quite substantially.
When I started, there were 260 individual tents in the Mission District and after I fought to open the Navigation Center in the district and pump resources into addressing the problem specifically, we got down to 30 tents. We’re back up right now to about 60 and it’s a constant struggle.
I went from crisis management to now trying to address root causes to finally address those 60 tents that we can’t seem to get inside. When we are
able to resolve an encampment in a particular area and get people inside in dignified spaces, new people move in, so that’s one issue. Because we have a shortage of shelter and navigation space citywide, until we meet that shortage we’re always going to be having that issue.
But in addition, there are reasons that people don’t go inside. People either have severe mental health issues, where a living situation in a shelter or navigation center doesn’t work for them, or severe substance abuse, where the substance abuse is not allowed in navigation centers. So that’s an impediment. Sometimes people are engaged in criminal activity that they can’t be engaged in in navigation centers and that has to be addressed separately.
And then finally some homeless people, because there’s currently around a 60-day stay in the navigation centers, they don’t feel like it’s worth it to go leave their communities, leave their safety net that they’ve created for themselves on the street for two months, only to be put back on the street. That’s something I’m looking at changing, to create a minimum stay of six months. When you’ve been living on the street for a while you can’t just, in two months, turn your life around or get a job that will sustain you or be reunited with relatives or get the treatment that you need that’s the underlying cause of the homelessness. Whatever it is, two months doesn’t do it.
Do you think that could resolve some of these issues, just the extra time?
It will help. It won’t completely resolve it. We can’t end homelessness until we have enough housing for people. We need more supportive housing. We need more beds for long-term residential treatment for substance abuse and mental health illness, and so I’m working on all of those things at the same time.
Do you think the navigation centers have been your biggest housing-related success so far?
I think it’s been one of them. I was able to get the original navigation center by negotiating with Lennar, who’s building a market rate site at 1515 South Van Ness. There’s a building there right now that they plan to demolish that I was able to get them to give to the city temporarily while they’re working on all their permits and plans to build their market rate site and use it as a navigation center, but it was always meant to be temporary.
So, after it opened I began looking for replacement sites and we are lucky now to have two replacement sites on each end of the Mission: there’s a site under construction at Division Street and another at 125 Bayshore. We are planning to close down 1515 South Van Ness and open Division Circle Navigation Center at the same time so nobody will be returned to the street.
Then we’re opening a second site at 125 Bayshore, which I believe is a really good area because of “the hairball”—the mix of freeways and off ramps right at Cesar Chavez and Potrero. It is a mess in every way, shape and form. It’s already a pedestrian and bike nightmare as far as I’m concerned; it’s not safe and I put a lot of resources that I’ve had at my disposal to fixing that area and to making it safer. But, when you have homeless encampments in the area it compounds it and nobody’s safe. The homeless folks aren’t safe, the bikers aren’t safe, the pedestrians aren’t safe.
So having a navigation center right by there is going to make it so much easier for us to move people to a safe and dignified space with bathrooms, with services, with food and with beds. So, I’m very excited about that navigator center as well. That’s set to come online a little bit later, probably a couple months after Division Circle comes up.
But in addition to the navigation centers, I think I’ve been able to successfully mediate all appeals of market rate projects so that those projects are moving forward with robust community benefits. That feels like a pretty strong success. Those are going to add many housing units at market-rate level but also with around anywhere from 25 to 27 percent affordable as well. I feel like that’s quite a major accomplishment, especially for such a controversial area of the city.
And then we have been able to work with some of our nonprofit housing developers including Meta and Mission Housing Development Corporation to obtain many small sites, so we’ve kept 100 units affordable and stopped displacement of those units in those areas.
Speaking of controversy, let’s talk about the 16th and Mission development. Why do you think this particular development has been such a flash point, pretty much from the get go?
Well, for many reasons. One, you only get one opportunity to build on top of a BART station and it doesn’t get more exciting or more transit rich than 16th and Mission. You have several bus lines that converge right there, you have the BART station—and we only have a few precious BART stations in the city.
This was always going to be an area where it was going to be hard to build a project without unprecedented community benefits. That’s the way it should be—that we should have the most exciting project that we can think of because we have one chance to build at this site. So, I think that’s one reason it’s been very controversial.
Another reason is that the developer, and I said this to the developer myself, really started out using sort of inflammatory techniques that just really insulted and created distress with the community. I think that they are trying to undo some of that damage and really now trying to work more with the community, but not much has been done.
Do you think it’s harder to create trust now?
It’s very hard, and then it’s a traumatized community. It’s a community that has undergone several waves of gentrification and certain parts of the Mission are unrecognizable from a decade ago. So, what many members of the Mission community want to see is only 100 percent affordable housing in the neighborhood. They’re saying, “We don’t oppose market rate in the rest of the city but in this neighborhood what we need is affordable housing. We don’t need any more market-rate housing.” That’s some of the perspective of many members of the community.
There’s also a school right there and the project’s going to cast a shadow on their only playground and that’s a big deal. That’s something that matters very much, the little playtime that kids get during their school day. So, there’s all of these issues that are converging and making this project very controversial.
Ideally, if you could wave a magic wand and create a perfect project there, what would you want to see?
he absolute perfect project would be using all of the newest green building and techniques with neighborhood-serving commercial and organizations on the ground floor. Of course, if money was no object, it would be 100 percent affordable for everything, for low-income folks to teachers to bus drivers to nonprofit workers, and it would have outdoor space around family housing. No parking because it’s the most transit-rich area, but bike parking.
I mean, it would be one of those dream projects that would be the envy of the world.
Now, back to reality, what do you think is likely to happen there?
I really don’t know. I have to stay neutral on the project because it’s so likely that there will be an appeal coming before me. I am trying to push the parties to continue talking to each other. I pushed the developer to not try these tricks. It’s been everything from an advertising campaign that’s been unprecedented to starting organizations. It just hasn’t felt like a real genuine effort on the part of the developer to respect and listen to the community and engage in dialogue. I’ve asked them to do that more, and they’ve been very open to listening to that, which I’m grateful for.
On the community end, I’ve asked them—because they pretty much at one point closed the door to talking to developers—to open the door to conversation again. So, the Plaza 16 Coalition, which is sort of the main body opposing the project, did just send a letter to the developer inviting them to participate in an open forum that they’re asking the Planning Department to sponsor in the Mission. So we’ll see how that goes.
You’ve lived in the city for a long time, and later became a parent here. How has that changed how you see the city and does it give you any insight into how we might keep families from leaving?
Yes. There’s the positive parts about living here, like the libraries, parks and the schools—and I think our schools get such a bad rap. My daughter is in public school and loves it. And the culture is also rich in the city and I feel really proud to be raising my daughter here. I know I hear a lot about schools, but I think that parents aren’t giving our public schools a chance because they’re assuming the worst instead of giving it a try. We’ve had just an excellent experience in the public schools.
But then the big issue is affordability and I feel really lucky that I’m able to afford to live here. My husband and I make good incomes and we’re able to make it work, but if you don’t, I don’t know how we would be able to stay, either. Especially to see a future for yourself in terms of having savings and retirements and a legacy to give your children.
That’s why I think it’s so important that we build more affordable housing and that we give opportunities for families in these market-rate projects to buy below-market-rate units and have stability in the city.
I’ve only recently become a homeowner and it was truly a miracle. We’re in a TIC with another family and we tried to buy a house for three years and we were about to give up before this happened. It was like the typical story of putting in dozens and dozens of offers and we were outbid every single time.
So, being a supervisor doesn’t give you any extra pull with sellers?
None whatsoever. I never said I was a supervisor, but they had my name, and my heartfelt letter saying, “I’m the first in my family to own our own home. My parents are still in their rent-controlled unit.” It didn’t work.
I think the only reason we got the house was it was sold off the market and the owners had a small child and I don’t think they wanted to stage it and go through the hassle. They put it on this closed circuit and my realtor happened to be in the circuit and we got it.
So, if you don’t have that miracle, which every family I know who’s gotten a house in San Francisco, it’s been through some miracle like that, except for people who’ve gotten BMRs. I just think we need more of them and that’s one way that we keep families here.
What is your favorite thing about your district and what is your favorite thing about San Francisco? Also, what drives you crazy about the city?
One of my favorite places in the district is Bernal Hill. If you walk up there and look at the views of the city and swing on the swing—taking a hike and being out in nature. So that’s one of my favorite places.
But my favorite thing about my district is the richness of the neighborhoods. So, if you go to the Portola, it’s the garden district, and if you go to San Bruno to eat you get some of the best Chinese food outside of Chinatown, the best dim sum. If you go to the Mission you’ve got Latino cuisine everywhere, whether it’s pupusas from El Salvador, Mexican food at taquerias, or Caribbean food. I mean you really are able to just immerse yourself in Latino art and culture and cuisine. And then Bernal just has this village feel still; you’re not in a huge city, but you’re in a small town where people know each other.
There are such unique distinct neighborhoods, and they all have such character and personality and life to them. I mean, I find myself not leaving my district for a month, you know? And sometimes I need to go explore other parts of the city because we have other amazing things. We used to purposefully have swim lessons in Crissy Field for my daughter because going to Crissy Field every weekend and looking at the Golden Gate Bridge and walking in those mountains in the Presidio, it’s just one of the most amazing things you could do anywhere in the world.
What drives me nuts about this city are the prices. It is so expensive and it’s getting more and more expensive every day. Not just housing, everything. Transportation, food, everything. We now rival Manhattan or Maui for the most expensive places in the country.
You’ve been a supervisor for a relatively short period. Has it been what you expected so far?
Because I was a legislative aide for so long before being a supervisor, it was not what I expected. I expected it to be more like being a legislative aide and it is not at all. It was a real rude awakening in the beginning.
As a legislative aide, you’re able to sort of go deep into policy and craft whatever legislation you’re working on slowly and fix all the kinks and get all the different players together and have those long conversations. As a supervisor, you’re constantly running around like a chicken with your head cut off—just being in committees and going to events and taking meetings with people and doing press interviews—so you don’t have that same time to go deep into policy.
That was hard for me, having to be a quick study and take in so much information in such a short period of time and make constant decisions all day every day, and also make people angry no matter what you do. Maybe sometimes only 25 percent of the people, but usually 50 percent of the people, are angry with you. I’m just getting used to that, just doing what you think is right, what you think is best for the district and best for your constituents, knowing that you’re never going to please everyone.
I feel like I’m finally kind of hitting my stride and feeling much more comfortable in the role, but it’s such a steep learning curve and process that I’m looking forward to getting better and better because it is an art form, this job.
Emily Landes is a freelance writer and the former editor of SF Apartment Magazine.