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Youth housing project causes uproar

by Matthew S. Bajko

Bay Area Reporter

Thursday July 14, 2011

A bitter fight over a Cow Hollow housing project for youth at risk of homelessness and those aging out of the state's foster care system will play out before San Francisco's Planning Commission meeting Thursday afternoon (July 14).

Two service providers, Community Housing Partnership and Larkin Street Youth Services, plan to house up to 24 youth, aged 18 to 24, at the former 30-room Edward II Inn. The vacant boutique tourist hotel is located at 3155 Scott Street and Lombard.

It is estimated that up to one-third of the youth will be LGBT as studies have found they account for 10 percent of the young adults who "age out" of the foster care system. Queer youth also account for 40 percent of the homeless youth population.

The development is being vehemently opposed by some nearby neighbors and merchants, whose concerns range from seeing property values plummet to whether the site is an appropriate location for at-risk youth. They point to the fact that nearby is the Bridge Hotel, a magnet for criminal activity that the city attorney's office targeted last year for numerous code violations.

In a letter to city officials, Greenwich Street resident Peter Blumberg wrote that he does "not think that this is a suitable location for young adults with two bars next door and across the road. The Chestnut Street area is and has always been family friendly with little or no drunkenness or rowdiness and any changes to this would be most undesirable."

Backers of the project, however, contend it is vitally needed housing stock for a population in particular need. It would also be the first affordable housing project to be built in that area of the city.

They contend that some of the project's detractors are misinformed about the youth population that will be living there.

"I think that likely some of those concerns are based on not knowing or understanding the issues about youth in the foster care system or on the streets who are or were homeless. I think that is unfortunate," said Sherilyn Adams, Larkin Street's executive director. "We will continue to work with the neighbors and continue to educate them about the lives of the youth we are serving. These are young people we are all responsible for ensuring have opportunities as full members of society. This housing project is a part of our efforts toward that goal."

The partnership bought the property in 2010 for $3.45 million. The cost to remodel the building's interior is estimated at $9 million, $4.4 million of which will come from city funds.

In order to house the two-dozen youth, more than current zoning allows, the project needs a special use district. Planning department staff has recommended that the oversight body approve the project.

It will then need to be adopted by the Board of Supervisors. Five of the board's straight supervisors last month introduced an ordinance to allow for the project's zoning requirements. They are Supervisors John Avalos, David Chiu, Jane Kim, Eric Mar, and Ross Mirkarimi.

Neither of the board's two gay members, David Campos and Scott Wiener, has come out to publicly support the project. Both told the Bay Area Reporter this week that they are remaining neutral since an appeal of the planning commission's decision is expected to land before them.

"I believe that the Edward II project will be coming to the board as an appeal of a conditional use permit. A CU appeal is a due process appeal, meaning I'm not permitted to take a position on the specific project," explained Wiener in an emailed response.

Were they to comment, both said they would be barred from voting.

"What I can say is I think we need more housing for transitional age youth," said Campos.

Wiener added that, he too, is "very supportive of affordable housing for emancipated foster youth, and I'm looking forward to learning more about this project."

Supervisor Mark Farrell, whose district covers where the project will be built, has been one of the most vocal opponents. It is the second transitional youth housing development in recent months he has come out against.

While he is supportive of the overall need for such housing in his district, he told the B.A.R. he does not believe, in this instance, that the hotel site is the right location. He suggests selling the property and using the money to buy another parcel.

"They are putting this project in the Lombard Corridor where it is fraught with a lot of risk. To me, what I think is lost in a lot of advocacy around this, is what it is going to be like for the kids who live there," said Farrell, who has pledged to help find a new location for the housing.

He also criticized city officials for not gathering community input prior to teaming up with the service providers on the project. Not doing so, he said, has lead to much of the ill will and opposition surrounding the project.

"I don't care if we are talking about affordable housing, paid housing, or market-rate condos. In my opinion, it is so important to give adequate notice to and have neighborhood involvement to that project itself," he said. "There was no community input or thought process about what the neighbors might say or have you. To me, that is a mistake."

While it is expected that the project will ultimately be approved by the city, it is also highly likely it will face a legal challenge in court.

The Planning Commission meeting begins at 1 p.m. today (Thursday, July 14) at Room 400 in City Hall.

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