Recycling city buildings

Recycling city buildings

By Amanda Witherell

High-rise homeless housing or high-priced condos? That was the choice when the fate of 150 Otis was debated at a June 16 hearing of the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee.

“I am totally convinced that if the final decision about 150 Otis is left in the hands of the Mayor’s Office of Housing, there will never be housing for our homeless sisters and brothers at that location,” said Sister Bernie Galvin, a longtime advocate for homeless people and a member of the city panel responsible for finding ways to use surplus property to house the homeless.

Galvin was joined by nearly two dozen tenant advocates, homeless citizens, and seniors demanding that the 90-year-old former juvenile hall not be sold off to private developers, as the mayor’s office has proposed.

The city has already disposed of 39 properties that could have been used for homeless housing. San Francisco’s Surplus Property Ordinance, established in 2002, requires that city officials turn underused city property into homeless housing. But so far, that’s been mostly an empty promise. Some have been sold, others converted to open space. The remainder, the city says, are unfit for habitation or too costly to renovate.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi called the hearing to ask the Mayor’s Office of Housing to explain the fate of 150 Otis. MOH representatives Doug Shoemaker and Joe Lipski said the mayor’s office wants to sell the property at the 2005-estimated value of $2.2 million. According to Lipski, MOH prefers to put the money back into the General Fund and build from scratch rather than spend an estimated $10 million on converting the nine-story building into 66 studio units.

Critics claim MOH is underestimating the number of potential units and has closed the door on creative solutions. “I would be interested in developing this building for the homeless in the city,” said Sam Patel, a hotel developer who already leases 600 single-room occupancy units to the city. He thinks there’s room for as many as 125 SROs in the 100,000 square foot building.

Mirkarimi said he’d like to explore turning the property over to the city’s Human Services Agency. “We would do something like MOH and look at the most cost-effective use of the building,” HSA rep Scott Walton said. “It’s not a question of will or won’t we do housing, but what’s the most effective use of dollars.”

The HSA hasn’t yet assessed the building, which is located right next to its office. Mirkarimi said the next step is a potential compromise between MOH, homeless advocate leaders, and the HSA to renovate the building, which is currently used as a temporary emergency homeless shelter and as a storage facility for homeless people’s possessions.

“What’s the best use of the property? We don’t want to lose sight of that question,” Mirkarimi told the Guardian after the meeting. He and Sup. Sophie Maxwell, the committee chair, expressed fears that the sale of the property will result in more high-priced SoMa condos.

Originally published June 20, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian