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South of Market residents push back against homeless housing plan

Long-simmering frustrations with the city’s response to homelessness spilled over in a community meeting this week as SOMA residents pushed back on a plan to acquire a South of Market apartment building for supportive housing.

The Panoramic, a micro-apartment complex at 1321 Mission Street originally intended for students, is one of four sites the city is angling to buy as part of a push to reduce street homelessness. But the proposal was a tough sell for some South of Market residents who complained that the neighborhood unfairly bears the brunt of the city’s lack of success in resolving homelessness. They also raised concerns about safety and blight in the neighborhood. 

At the second of two community meetings hosted by the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), which is steering the acquisition process, officials set forth a timeline for buying the Panoramic by the end of this year. The property has 160 total units, most of which are small studio apartments, and could house about 200 people.

Several participants spoke in support of the plan, saying that an influx of state funding marks a rare opportunity to get unhoused residents—particularly families who could occupy 40 larger units at the Panoramic—off the street. 

“Blocking the purchase isn’t going to turn it back to student housing, and blocking the purchase is not going to make anyone safer,” said Chad Dyer, board chair at Compass Family Services, a nonprofit specializing in shelter and services for homeless families. 

Funding for the deal will come from Project Homekey, a state fund to acquire underused hotels and apartments for low-barrier housing, and the city’s own coffers through Proposition C, a tax approved in 2018 to fund homeless services. The city has issued a pricing inquiry to the owner of the Panoramic, but hasn’t yet publicized a price.

Currently there are about 10,000 people in San Francisco living in “permanent supportive housing,” which amounts to permanently affordable units with on-site staff that can direct people to mental health and other services. HSH touts a high success rate with such facilities, saying that as few as 2% are evicted. 

“This building checks a lot of the boxes when it comes to the amenities that make a building ideal for permanent housing,” said Emily Cohen, HSH’s director of external affairs.

During a comment period that stretched nearly two hours, residents of the neighborhood objected to what they said was a rushed process that did little to reassure neighbors of the plan’s viability. 

“The problem with the transaction is that the city doesn’t have a positive track record,” said Divyesh Patel. “They house people, but don’t offer adequate services; they don’t offer adequate supervision; they make promises and talk a great game and don’t deliver.”

Others pointed to pockets of crime and open-air drug dealing nearby, along with violence and property crime, as evidence that the site isn’t appropriate either for vulnerable families or individuals who may be struggling with addiction or mental health concerns.

“You’re planning to house homeless families in an area that is already riddled with street dealing, violence and crime,” said Martin Olive. “It seems that West SOMA has become the central location to basically dump all the city’s issues and their failure to handle the homeless epidemic in recent years. Perhaps this program would have a better outcome in Mission Bay, or the Marina, or another neighborhood that is already safe, clean and free of drug violence.” 

Apart from the Panoramic, the city is looking to buy three other sites in the Japantown, Mission and Outer Mission neighborhoods to convert to permanent supportive housing. Using Project Homekey funds, the city acquired two distressed hotels last year for the same use.

The Japantown site also drew sharp pushback from residents who said that converting the Kimpton Hotel, the city’s acquisition target, into supportive housing would further undermine tourism in the neighborhood. Owing to the pushback, the Mayor’s Office said last week that it will slow down the process to allow for more community outreach.