SFMTA’s Grinch Strategy
RV Residents Brace for Christmas Evictions
Life on Winston Drive was never easy, it will soon get much worse.
• • • • • • • • • • November 27, 2023 • • • • • • • • • •
To 120 families who have been living in RVs parked along Lake Merced Blvd., Winston Dr. and Buckingham Way, the dreaded December 19 date — just a few days before Christmas — is less than a month away. The new four-hour parking restrictions approved, but not yet imposed, by SF Metropolitan Transportation Agency (SFMTA) will certainly upend their lives and dampen their holiday spirits. That’s when parking tickets will begin piling up on their windshields. It’s when the Christmas evictions will start to tear families away from the community of poor, mostly immigrant Latino households who call Lake Merced home. It’s a community that’s been there for almost four years. According to SFMTA, this removal plan is necessary to complete its Quick-Build Plan for Lake Merced. This plan would provide bike lanes and other pedestrian safety projects approved two years ago. Quick-Build was scheduled to begin construction in early 2022.
SFMTA heard Supervisor Myrna Melgar’s presentation of the problem of RV residents (Item #7/10.1) at their September 19 meeting. She urged the imposition of a four-hour parking restriction along Winston Drive to move the communities to a safe parking area that had been identified and for which funding had already been allocated in last year’s budget through the add-back process. She pointed to the lack of running water, sewer, electricity and garbage services. She cited the frequent use of generators and the dangers associated with gasolene aggravated by ddry grass. “Are we really helping these residents by allowing this to continue? She asked. But the details had not yet been worked out and the “identified” safe parking site has not been disclosed.
It was not Supervisor Melgar’s first public articulation of the plan to move the RV residents. Margaret Gannon, a retired lawyer living in District 7, wrote to Supervisor Melgar, objecting.
“I attended the district town hall meeting at St. Brendan’s recently. That is where I first heard of your plan for removing families living in trailers from the Stonestown area…
“The excuse that a bike safety lane is needed for pedestrian safety is ridiculous. It is a mere pretense to tear up the lives of the Latino and other families with children, so that the more middle-class people nearby don’t have to see them.
“The people who live in those trailers are just as much your constituents as I am. We all live in District 7 and deserve equal respect. You are treating these people as interlopers to be sent on their way somewhere else. This is shameful mistreatment of people of color.”
Rachel Clyde, Westside Community Organizer with the SF Bicycle Coalition, calling in remotely to the SFMTA on November 21, objected to removing RV residents. “In January of this year, the Lake Merced Blvd. Quick-Build was approved. During the approval, we urged the SFMTA to delay the project until Supervisor Melgar and HSH (Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing) found suitable locations for the residents. We are very supportive of the Quick-Build project as it will provide vital safety and access improvements and expand the bike network. However, almost a year later, there are still no safe parking sites and the SFMTA has moved forward with construction on Lake Merced Boulevard and several RVs have already been towed as a result.
“Additionally, in mid-September, the Board of Directors approved parking restrictions on two adjacent streets, Winston and Buckingham, that will displace even more families living in RVs. As the SF Bicycle Coalition it is our mission to transform San Francisco streets and neighborhoods into safe, just and livable spaces that will promote the bicycle as an everyday mode of transportation. Creating a new bike lane by displacing dozens of families does not create a just community. We are part of the End Poverty Tows Coalition and support the work they have been doing to support the families, students and seniors living in their vehicles.
“We are disappointed with the Board’s decision to approve and move forward with the Quick-Build and the parking changes without adequately supporting the housing and the people that live there. Transportation safety and secure housing are two of the largest problems facing our City, and we will not fix them by pitting them against each other … we ask the SFMTA to delay the restrictions until a safe-parking site or permanent housing can be found for the people who will be displaced.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
According to the agreement (Item #7/10.1) reached between Emily Cohen, Deputy Director of HSH, and the Board of Directors of SFMTA, it was going to be a painless transition. Ms. Cohen reassured the directors that many households would be transitioned to real housing by December 19. SFMTA stipulated that the folks who want to live that way and those who had not found housing would be able to move to a safe parking area that HSH was working on for the remaining residents — even if the infrastructure had not been fully built out. After all, they were currently living without infrastructure (water, gas, sewer). It seemed that was all worked out at the September 19th SFMTA meeting.
To be clear, the item was “to establish four-hour parking, 8 am to 6 pm, Monday through Friday, on Winston Drive, both sides from Lake Merced Boulevard to Buckingham Way, Buckingham Way, both sides, Unit 100-300 Blocks.”
Director Steve Heminger cut to the chase, “…we’ve been informed about a relevant case — a conclusion of the Court of Appeal?” he asked the City Attorney. In that case, the Court prohibited the removal of homeless encampments. “You are correct,” she replied, “In the Coalition on Homelessness case — but that does not impact your ability or restrict your ability to move forward with the proposed action that is on the agenda for today.”
“On the question of folks who have five or more unpaid parking tickets — and whether or not we can tow them without getting a warrant,” he asked Director of Streets Division, Tom McGuire. McGuire responded, “Vehicle owners who receive five parking tickets are no longer being towed strictly because they have five parking tickets.” “So if we put in place this four-hour parking, and someone is cited, then cited again and cited again, could this just go on until we reach the 72 hours and could you explain the 72-hour threshold?” “That is a ticketable and also a towable offense,” McGuire said. “We could tow at 72 hours,” he said, but he assured the Board, “our approach is not to tow vehicles with inhabitants inside. Our approach is to try to connect those individuals to services.”
“What’s the practical effect, then, of putting these four-hour limitations in place?” Heminger asked. “Most people obey the rules,” McGuire replied. “We reserve the legal right to tow.”
Okay, but what about the safe parking site?
Emily Cohen from HSH indicated that the agency has looked at dozens of sites over multiple years, but it has been “…incredibly difficult.” But there are “… two sites that we are currently pursuing.” HSH notes that it will take several months to get a site up and running once it is chosen; instead, their focus is to move RV dwellers into housing.
SFMTA heard from lots of concerned citizens at the hearing, none seemed to support the four-hour limitation, most were very strongly opposed. The Westside Observer has filed a records request with SFMTA for communications regarding this proposed restrictions, we are still waiting for those documents.
So, how’s the housing plan going?
As of November 10 – with less than 30 days before the restrictions go into place — HSH reported to Supervisor Melgar that they have made “significant progress” linking RV dwellers to housing.
“24 households out of their vehicles and into housing. 15 households into the private market with time-limited rental assistance (Rapid Rehousing). Four households were moved into housing in the private market with ongoing rental subsidies (Flexible Housing Subsidy). Five households have moved into project-based supportive housing (not time-limited). 30 households are in the housing placement process. These households have been matched with a subsidy and are working with a housing search provider to move into housing: 10 households will be moving into housing in the private market with ongoing rental subsidies (Flexible Housing Subsidy). 16 households will move into housing in the private market with ongoing federally funded rental subsidies (Emergency Housing Vouchers). Four households will be moving into housing in the private market with time-limited rental assistance (Rapid Rehousing). There are three households pending a referral to one of the housing search providers who will help them identify housing. These households have already been matched with subsidy programs. There are 18 households still in the process of being matched to a subsidy and provider. There are a handful of other households who have opted not to continue to engage with us on housing solutions. We will continue to outreach to them.”
Not so much …What frustrates me is that these two agencies that we have to work with — we have to work with HSH or they won’t get housing and we have to work with SFMTA or the restrictions won’t be delayed and that will mean these people will be homeless. Like the work we’ve been doing with them for two years toward a safe-parking site, a site with water, sewer and garbage. That’s all we ask. ‘They had no problem finding those basics when they wanted to build a clubhouse for the golf club, but when the community needs something, the answer is ’it can’t be done.
Javier Bremond, a Human Rights Organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness, was dubious. “We are concerned that many households have not been moved into housing,” he told the Westside Observer, “or are even on the pathway to housing. I’d say that we are about a fifth of the way there, but we are less than a month away from the SFMTA’s deadline. We have been trying to get the SFMTA to delay the restrictions and are pushing them to hear the item at the meeting on December 5. But we have not heard from them. It seems like they are playing chicken with people’s lives. The vitriol against homeless folks has been turned up. I’ve been working with the residents there, and these are folks who — even the most conservative people in the area — could not consider a threat. We go out there every week, and these folks living on Winston work during the day to provide for their families. Those four-hour parking restrictions will make it impossible for them to take off during their lunch break, drive miles to move their homes, and then drive back to work. This is every weekday — so they will be displaced.
Asked about how the lawsuit the Coalition on Homelessness recently won at the Court of Appeals against the City regarding moving homeless encampments would apply to SFMTA’s Christmas towing program, Bremond was perplexed, “It’s all up in the air. I would assume that SFMTA would adhere to the ruling of the Appeals Court, but they have been less than straightforward about it. So, if someone got, say, five tickets, they might need to worry about getting towed, but the Board can only commit to ‘we’re working on it.’ That’s a non-answer, and that means we have to keep working harder to find housing for folks — without the resources and capabilities that HSH or SFMTA have.
“What frustrates me is that these two agencies that we have to work with — we have to work with HSH or they won’t get housing, and we have to work with SFMTA or the restrictions won’t be delayed and that will mean these people will be homeless. We can’t call them our out — I’m sorry, but — for the bureaucratic cowardice on display right now, then we lose the chance for anything to get done. The work we’ve been doing with them for two years toward a safe parking site — a site with water, sewer and garbage is all we ask. They had no problem finding those basics when they wanted to build a clubhouse for the golf club, but when the community needs something, the answer is ‘it can’t be done.’”
Doug Comstock serves as Editor for the Westside Observer
November 27, 2023