Online Extra: Political Notes: Youth speak out for Marina housing project
by Matthew S. Bajko
Living in Sacramento Thomas Stark Weather found himself in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend. After he tested positive for HIV, Weather left for San Francisco at the urging of a friend, who said the city by the bay would offer him help and hope.
Weather found both through Larkin Street Youth Services, which provides counseling and housing to at-risk youth between the ages of 18 and 24.
Weather, now 24, is currently living at Acceptance Place, a residential drug and substance abuse treatment program run by Baker Places. But he expects to soon move back to Larkin's assisted care facility for HIV-positive homeless youth.
The programs and other housing projects for youth living on the streets are an important investment, argued Weather, that benefit not only the young people but also society at large.
"It's important because if we invest now positively in our youth it will only pay off in the future," Weather told the Bay Area Reporter in an interview at City Hall last week. "Our youth are our future. If we don't do something now, we won't have a bright tomorrow."
Weather was one of a dozen young adults who turned out for a Planning Commission hearing Thursday, July 14 to urge adoption of a new residential project in the Marina that would house two-dozen transitional age youth 18 to 24 who are either aging out of the state's foster care system or at risk of being homeless.
The program, run co-jointly by Larkin Street and Community Housing Partnership, would be housed in the former Edward II Inn tourist hotel located at 3155 Scott Street and Lombard. It is estimated that up to one-third of the youth will be LGBT.
After hearing nearly four hours of testimony, the commissioners approved the controversial housing project on a 5-1 vote, with Commissioner Michael J. Antonini the lone no vote. It now moves on to the Board of Supervisors where it is expected to pass.
Five supervisors introduced the required zoning changes, and it is believed the sixth vote needed for passage on the 11-member board will be secured. A lawsuit to try to stop the project is also likely.
Some nearby neighbors and merchants vehemently oppose the housing. Their concerns range from seeing property values plummet to an increase in crime. Others complain the site is not an appropriate location for the building and argue against seeing special zoning adopted for one parcel.
Art Institute of San Francisco student Ukoma Pitts , 20, currently lives in G House, Larkin Street's housing facility on Geary Street. He is preparing to leave the residence December 31 and is actively looking for a shared-room rental.
Hearing himself and his fellow residents referred to as criminals and delinquents by detractors of the Edward II project has been personally hard, Pitts told the B.A.R. in an interview outside the hearing room last week.
"It annoyed me how they expect the worst of us. They look at it as if we are criminals," said Pitts, who is straight. "They think we don't have dreams and ambition, that we are mindless."
After his mother died when he was 12, Pitts found himself living in the Tenderloin with his grandmother, a drug user with mental health issues. As soon as he turned 18, she kicked Pitts out to fend for himself.
His church offered him shelter for a time. But when that came to an end, Pitts turned to Larkin Street for help.
"I was determined to do something with myself," said Pitts, who works as a party promoter. "When I went to Larkin Street the first day, I told them I had nowhere to go. They gave me housing and food and clothes. I felt for the first time I had a home."
He spoke out in favor of the project, said Pitts, because youth like himself deserve an opportunity "to change our lives."
A neighborhood divided
The public testimony painted a neighborhood divided for and against the project.
One developer who built a condo project across the street from the youth housing site told the commission he cannot sell his units because buyers walk away when told their neighbors would include at-risk youth. A woman who spoke for the project countered that had he not built such an ugly building maybe he would be able to sell the condos.
Other speakers described the youth housing as similar to single-room occupancy hotels and said reducing the number of residents to 16, which is the amount the current zoning allows, would provide larger living spaces for the youth.
A lawyer representing Cow Hollow residents questioned the adequacy of the room sizes and noted residents would have to share a kitchen he described as too small.
"They do not object to this project. They do have concerns about the number of units," said attorney Steven L. Hammond . "We want to make sure we don't end up with a site that is not good for the kids and for the community."
In response to some of the more heated rhetoric opponents have used against the project, Cow Hollow Association President Lori Brooke addressed the youth at the hearing and told them the neighborhood "welcomes you."
"We said from the start there is a need for these services. Larkin Street has done a good job," said Brooke. "We would love for you to be in our neighborhood. All we are asking is not to change the zoning laws. You could bring in 16 youth and start it tomorrow."
Other Marina and Cow Hollow residents expressed regret to hear their neighbors' comments against the project and spoke out in full support of the housing.
"They will have a dismal if not catastrophic future if these kids don't get help," said Karen Jones-Mason , who lives in Cow Hollow and is an attorney focused on youth issues.
Gail Gilman, the executive director of Community Housing Partnerships, said the agencies bought the property specifically because it was located outside the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods. Lowering the number of tenants would make the project cost prohibitive, she said.
"This is the most cost-effective intervention for homelessness," said Gilman. "This is state-of-the-art, dedicated affordable housing."
Residents will have to sign a lease and will be screened to ensure they are actively pursuing education and career goals so they can move into their own apartments, said Gilman.
"This is not a free ride. They will pay rent," she said.
Commissioners express strong support
While Antonini summed up his opposition as "good concept, wrong site," his fellow commissioners strongly disagreed. And a few went so far as to chastise those who spoke against the project.
Commission Vice President Ron Miguel was the harshest in his rebuke of opponents to the housing.
"I hope the people in the Marina and Cow Hollow will have the highest expectations for the youth who will inhabit the Edward II," said Miguel. "I did read all the emails and letters. A large number I can only describe as blatant, elitist, NIMBYs [not in my backyard]. It only discourages me about my fellow San Franciscans."
Commissioner Kathrin Moore stated that the tenants should not be viewed as "youth at risk" but as "youth given a chance."
"I can't think of a better use of this building," she added. "I do not believe a new building is needed. This is best accomplished with a re-use."
She also dismissed complaints about small room sizes, noting that when she was in her early 20s she lived in a room not much bigger and "made do with what I had."
Commissioner Hisashi Sugaya echoed that sentiment, saying he and his wife currently reside in a 330 square foot apartment.
"We have to trust the project proponents know what they need," he said.
Commission President Christina Olague , who is bisexual and the commission's sole openly LGBT member, called the project "great" and said she was inspired by some of the comments made by supporters. She, too, had some harsh words for project opponents.
"Sometimes people who have privilege aren't grateful for what they have experienced and aren't respectful of others who don't have the same privilege," she said.
Political Notes will be taking a one-week hiatus. The column will return Monday, August 1.
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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.