Alice Griffith Public Housing Development, aka Double Rock, from behind its wrought-iron gates. Photo by: Joshua Johnson/KQED

What do you do with a housing project of 256 dilapidated units, tucked into a little-seen corner of town?

Tear it down — but not before you build it back better.

That’s the plan for San Francisco’s Alice Griffith Public Housing Development, bolstered by a first-of-its-kind federal grant worth $30.5 million. City leaders announced the funding Wednesday at Alice Griffith, aka Double Rock, near the old Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. The money, from the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, serves as a vote of confidence for what is hoped to be a more effective way to improve living conditions for the nation’s needy.

“It’s been a long, complicated road to get to where we are,” said Mayor Ed Lee during a ceremony at the complex. “And years of people making promises, year after year, decade after decade to try to get here.

“There a delivery of hope that’s reflected in this decision that HUD’s made with us,” Lee said.

The dilapidated housing units inside Alice Griffith. Photo by: Joshua Johnson/KQED

Alice Griffith’s run-down, tan-and-green housing units sprawl behind wrought-iron gates not far from Candlestick Park. Rebuilding these homes would be easier than renovating them. That’s often the beginning of a major fight between city officials and soon-to-be-displaced residents. Some federally supported reconstructions, like Miami’s Scott-Carver homes, left longtime residents scattered once the buildings came down.

San Francisco’s plan will put 1,200 new housing units on an unused parcel at Alice Griffith, letting residents move into their new homes before the old ones are demolished. Officials credited that provision for helping win much-needed support from tenants.

“This is not one of those things where a new, shiny building is built, and the folks who lived through years of disinvestment and neglect will not get a chance to reap the benefits,” said a visibly emotional Fred Blackwell, executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. “And we can say that with 100 percent confidence.”

The funding comes from a new grant initiative called Choice Neighborhoods, designed to turn around the nation’s most blighted areas. The idea is to bring partners together from various sectors and provide an array of services to improve every aspect of life in rough neighborhoods.

Transforming Alice Griffith was also a promise made to the community as part of a massive deal to redevelop Hunters Point into a mixed-use complex. The new Hunters Point Community, built by Miami-based developer Lennar, will include business space, R&D space as well as more than 10,000 low- and mid-rise housing units. San Francisco’s deal with Lennar also requires its contractors to aim certain percentages of the construction jobs to city residents. Bayview-Hunters Point residents have priority in certain cases.

And it’s not the only project of its kind: Washington, D.C., is doing the same with one of its old Navy yards.

San Francisco won this “implementation grant” among 42 competitors. Boston, New Orleans, Seattle and Chicago also won. The Alice Griffith plan is worth about $275 million total, according to HUD, but this grant should help leverage the rest of the funds.

Several officials at the ceremony grew up in housing projects, including the head of the city’s Housing Authority, the superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, and the development executive overseeing this initiative. So it’s no surprise that they were practically bubbling over with excitement, even tearing up a bit, as they thanked residents for their support.

“I couldn’t stand still!” said Housing Authority Executive Director Henry Alvarez, doing a brief happy-dance before a delighted audience. “I was so excited! Other than my children being born, this is the best day of my life.”

Supervisor Malia Cohen, whose district includes Alice Griffith and three more of the city’s toughest projects, said she exuberantly posted the good news on Faceboolk — perhaps a bit too soon.

“Somebody’s watching my page,” she said, “because I got a message 20 minutes later to pull it off, that it wasn’t public information yet!”

San Francisco has big aspirations for Alice Griffith, aspirations of the type some Bayview residents say have become empty promises in the past. The city has focused redevelopment efforts in the Bayview before, but those areas remain besieged by gang activity and few jobs. This grant application won partly because it gained residents’ support by not displacing them to build the new housing units.

But that doesn’t mean all is forgiven in Bayview-Hunters Point. The Rev. Dr. Amos Brown, president of San Francisco’s NAACP chapter, plans to keep agitating until the city’s promises are kept in full.

“Too many nice words have been uttered!” Brown said in a stentorian tone worthy of a longtime preacher. “And when it was over, we got absolutely nothing! I’m sick and tired of promises being made to folks that look like me, and after the day is over, we get the short end of the stick. I’m going to stir it up!”

Vibrant artwork inside Alice Griffith: residents collaborated to paint a utility station in the middle of the complex. Photo by: Joshua Johnson/KQED
Feds Award $30 Million to Remake S.F. Housing Project 1 September,2011Joshua Johnson


Joshua Johnson

Joshua Johnson is the creator and host of Truth Be Told, a special series on race from KQED and PRI. Prior to creating the show, he served as the station’s morning news anchor for five-and-half years.

Prior to joining KQED, Joshua spent six years as an anchor/reporter for WLRN Miami Herald News. He’s a native of South Florida, with degrees from the University of Miami. His reporting and newscasting have won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association and from the National Association of Black Journalists. Joshua is also active in his union, SAG-AFTRA. He lives in San Francisco.

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