Jewish activists seek mayors help on Presidio housing

Twelve activists for affordable-housing, including Rabbi Alan Lew, will meet with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown Thursday to discuss their expectations and concerns for housing in the Presidio.

"We know what we want to say to the mayor," said Lew, the spiritual leader of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom. "He's been sincere, but part of the joy of working with Mayor Brown is you never know what he's going to say."

Although San Franciscans passed Proposition L in June, the Presidio Trust — the board governing federal land on the former Army base — is not bound by the ballot measure. Nor is it required to change its plans regarding housing at the Presidio, which is now part of the National Park Service.

The ballot measure was worded as a mandate for the city government to put pressure on the trust to not destroy the unoccupied 466-unit Wherry Housing complex, which could be used for lower-income tenants, as well as to increase the open space in the park.

"On a real level it wasn't very powerful," said Lew. "On a deeper political level it was powerful."

As a result of the mandate, he said, local officials can threaten to withhold city services — for example, Muni — from the Presidio in order to push for housing and open space.

At the Prop. L victory party held at the Unity Church two days after the June 2 election, Ilana Schatz, director of the American Jewish Congress's Poverty Action Alliance, had one main comment about saving the 466 units from demolition: "Dayenu."

"Two ministers started singing `Dayenu,' and I started laughing," Schatz recalled.

That triumph may end up as a futile grassroots effort.

The Prop. L campaign, led by the Religious Witness for Homeless People, San Franciscans for Preserving Presidio Housing and other organizations, may have won public and local government support. But the Presidio Trust is going ahead with its own financial management program, which calls for the upgrade of Wherry as well as the 518-unit MacArthur complex.

The trust's plan is to provide housing for people of all income levels who work for the Presidio. There are currently 1,119 units on site and the proposal calls for 1,598 in the future.

"The goal is to have enough housing for about half of the expected workforce of about 4,800 people, from administrative assistants to executives," said Amy Meyer, one of seven trust board members. "The public is way down at the bottom because we don't want anyone to develop a vested interest in housing at the Presidio."

According to the trust's plan, on-site employees get first priority on rental units. Next in line are federal employees, followed by local university students and visiting professors needing short-term housing. If units are still available, they will be open to San Francisco residents.

Meyer, a San Francisco resident who since 1971 has served as co-chair of the People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area, said she is sympathetic to the city's housing and homeless problems. But "the trust has a responsibility to run a park for the American public, not to solve a local housing crunch. It has to be solved by the city of San Francisco."

She added: "On the other hand, we will be housing so many employees that will take pressure off the city. We're not adding to the city's housing shortage."

Trust representatives insist that the organization is not turning away from the city's homeless problem. Negotiations are in the final stages with the nonprofit Swords into Plowshares to develop transitional housing at the Presidio for 100 troubled veterans.

The federally sponsored project is primarily designed to help homeless veterans re-enter the mainstream by providing legal and social services, as well as counseling and vocational training.

The Wherry and MacArthur complexes, now undergoing renovation, are not yet available for housing. Plans to remove the buildings from the Presidio will not take effect for 10 years.

The trust had originally slated the buildings for demolition, but during the Prop. L campaign, it announced that the units would be moved out of the Presidio, rather than destroyed.

"At least they're going to use it for housing," said Lew. "It may turn out to be a good compromise for the politicians. There will still be 10,000 people on the streets, but at least we won't have gone backwards."

However, Lew doesn't have much hope that the Wherry and MacArthur buildings will be welcomed somewhere else.

"They offered it to Hunter's Point, which is the usual way of handling poor people. Get them out of sight," he said. "Then they wanted to ship it to Native Americans in Yreka. They said, `No thank you.' It was a very bad moment for people [the trust] who behave much better. They don't realize how demeaning those suggestions were."

Lew and other Jews involved in the battle for affordable housing in San Francisco are not yet giving up. "This is a Jewish issue. Jews cannot stand by and watch this happen," he said.