by Carol Harvey
What three islanders think of their San Francisco neighborhood and the people who run it
Recently, San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney reviled as “disgusting” and “blatantly discriminatory” UberEats’ refusal to deliver food during the pandemic to Treasure Island, the tiny, isolated, “low-income community of color” in San Francisco Bay and a neighborhood in his District 6.
A San Francisco Examiner article headlined “Treasure Island hungry for food delivery options” reported that when islander Barklee Sanders emailed a second delivery company asking, “Why don’t you guys support Treasure Island?” a representative from the Shef Team emailed back, “I don’t think we ever considered that people lived there, to be completely honest.”
Due to a calculated, decades-long news blockade orchestrated to keep the public unaware of the island’s high toxicity from radiation and chemicals the Navy deposited there, Superfund Site Treasure Island remains unrecognized as a bona fide City neighborhood.
In fact, the Treasure Island neighborhood’s history spans back 81 years. In 1939, San Francisco built this 404-acre artificial landform for the Golden Gate International Exhibition. In 1941, the Navy took it for a military base, and in 1999-2000, when it was decommissioned, San Franciscans – mostly people of color at risk for homelessness – moved in.
I asked some Treasure Islanders to talk anonymously about their home.
Contributors to this article prove definitively that there is, indeed, intelligent life on Treasure Island, and that, if they did not risk immediate retaliation, they would sound the alarm that the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) has for years relied on their rents to cover 90 percent of its budget to redevelop Treasure Island into a high end “eco-village,” which they cannot afford. They know the ultimate goal has been to boot them off the island to make way for wealthy renters and condo owners, and that the Navy, TIDA and property manager John Stewart have simultaneously exposed them to radiation and chemicals the Navy deposited in the soil, groundwater and air.
For 20 years, since 2000, TIDA has actively encouraged a tight-knit community while planning as its opportunistic end-game the forceable displacement of these neighbors who care about each other. From 3,200 souls in 2010 (U.S. Census), TIDA has, through evictions and transfers, progressively reduced Treasure Island’s population to 2,600 in 2013 (American Community Survey), to 1,800 in 2018-2019, and in 2020, down to an estimated 1,300.
The DDA – the full 9 inches
This 40-year-old resident of 10 years, a refugee from the South, wrote, “We could get used to all of this attention, and need it sorely. I run into people all the time who don’t even know there’s people living on TI, much less do they know we are being displaced in a few years.
“Not many people know about the pre/post-DDA (Disposition and Development Agreement) distinction, which is what enables them to displace residents.”
In fact, in 2006, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors directed the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) to “provide existing households” with the opportunity to remain on Treasure Island in connection with the development of the Project, provided that their lease is active and in good standing on the date the Board of Supervisors approves the DDA.” The “effective date of the DDA,” July 14, 2011, was established as the arbitrary cut-off date.
“Pre-DDA” households who signed leases before this effective date could remain. “Post-DDA” households who signed their lease after the effective DDA date are NOT allowed to stay on the redeveloped island and must leave without compensation.
My correspondent continued ruefully, “This DDA assessment” “is the mechanism that makes it possible to add a thousand or two homeless people to the 9,000 San Francisco already has.
“The veterans (in Swords to Plowshares housing) will get a break, as will people here on the island via some government assistance programs (through former Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative (TIHDI), now called One Treasure Island), but (not) the people who just live here on their own (as market rate renters) because it’s San Francisco’s last affordable neighborhood.
“I learned that they tried to make all residents sign away their right to compensation. But the residents pushed back and saved themselves from getting the full 9 inches like the rest of us.
“Not a damn person should be displaced without compensation.
“The DDA distinction’s purpose, I believe, is to make sure that when a development deal is announced, people don’t hurry up and move there just to get paid out.
“However, our situation (the situation of market rate renters) is different because there was a superfund clean-up to do by the US Navy. So whereas ordinarily the line of demarcation would be drawn maybe a year or two before the construction is complete, in this case they drew the line as usual, when they announced the redevelopment (July 14, 2011).
“But the redevelopment didn’t even begin until six or seven years later, as they were waiting for the Navy to finish their cleanup. That means that many of the ‘short term’ post DDA residents will have lived here for over a decade but will be unceremoniously booted off the island without compensation.
“I moved here in 2012, for example, and by the time I’m displaced I will have lived here for a decade, or about a quarter of my life now, at 40 years old. There’s no other situation I can think of where 10 years is considered short-term. But what really matters – the bottom line – is that I can no better afford to be displaced than someone who moved here a year or two before I did.
“Obviously, I didn’t move here to cash out (but) because in a decade’s time, rent in the city more or less tripled, and I found myself unable to afford to live in the city I’ve lived in since 2005. Take it from me, displacement is not cool, and moreover, it sucks.
“There are things other than your apartment that you lose when you are displaced. You lose your job, most likely. There’s the expense of moving and the hardship of searching for a new place in a new city and maybe a new state.
“If you’ve ever moved to another state, you know it ain’t easy to get yourself set up and, like, established in a new city where you don’t know your way around. You don’t know what area would be best to live in because you don’t know what the locals know, and maybe you don’t even know where you will be working.
“Depending on where you move, this information that you don’t have could be the difference in life or death, or in being content and being miserable.
“And then there’s your social network. If I had to move suddenly within San Francisco I’d just stay on my buddy’s sofa for a week or something as I searched for a new place. But (he) doesn’t live wherever the hell I’m moving to after this.
“That’s an illustration of the importance of a social network. It enables your survival in tough times. And it is priceless and not easy to replace.
“When the city uses a loophole to displace people without compensation, those are the tangible and intangible expenses. And, the people they have shafted, those who get the full 9 inches, they are no less deprived of these things than anyone else.
“The city comes up with a reason it’s legal and that makes them sleep better at night. Apparently, some people get to sleep easier than I do, because I know I wouldn’t feel better. I’d realize I was doing no less than making people homeless.
“Oh, yeah, and last of all, they will tell you when you complain, ‘You signed the contract, buddy.’ But the leases we signed with all the dubiously worded amendments that guarantee you will receive nothing, they were signed under duress. We had been priced out of the city, and we had the choice of losing all that stuff above, or move to the island and sign that lease we knew we shouldn’t have signed.
“In 10 years’ time the demographic of this city changed drastically, and the new city had no middle class. The board of supervisors, supposedly advocates for their districts, sold us out to the likes of Salesforce and Uber.
“You ever wonder why there’s only a handful of McDonald’s in a city with almost a million people? The city I was born in has 32 McDonald’s and about 300,000 people. It’s because SF is, like, 70 percent privately owned. And that doesn’t happen naturally, on its own. It happens because there is a directive.
“Presumably the board of supervisors defends the aesthetic of the neighborhoods. If they can do that, why couldn’t they have likewise preserved the demographics of the city?
“Aren’t the people a part of what comprises the aesthetic? If there were no African Americans in New Orleans there’d be no jazz, and, similarly, if you take the middle class out of SF, the city changes.
“I remember when this was a city with artists, musicians, students and hippies. These were the people who made SF what it was. It breaks my heart to walk around at night and see nothing but strangers – none of the youth subculture that was here before the software engineers with their $300,000 salaries moved in.
“That’s why the rent skyrocketed, and that’s why many of us ended up on a manmade island under the bridge. And, now they plan to make us homeless.”
Hot spots for the school kids, please!
Another savvy long-time resident with an eye to helping island students wrote:
“I asked Comcast to reach out to Mayor London Breed, our D6 Supervisor Matt Haney, and the San Francisco Department of Technology – which provides free wifi in some public parks in the City – and offer to partner with them to help provide free wifi to low income households in this underserved neighborhood.
“SF public school buildings are closed for the rest of the school year due to the pandemic, and SFUSD is now resorting to distance learning to carry on education of students. The distance learning program requires reliable internet access, which is best provided by free wifi hot spots. But this kind of internet access is sadly lacking for many low-income households on TI.
“Free public SF wifi is no longer working on Treasure Island. We had free SF wifi briefly in the past. Then somebody stole the rack of Cisco base station equipment, back in 2015, I think.
“This is typical of how the Treasure Island Development Authority, which runs the island, neglects us, and the City mostly ignores us. They rarely seem to do anything to solve our problems.
“Willie Brown created TIDA so he would have complete control of Yerba Buena and Treasure Islands. The TIDA Board is all appointed, not elected, and most staff came from the Housing Authority, which is totally corrupt and has been on HUD ‘probation’ for years.
“Willie hired the Housing Authority director while he was under FBI investigation – later indicted. Under this guy, while Brown was mayor, the daughter of one of Brown’s political cronies from the Bayview was selling Section 8 vouchers from her Housing Authority office, and she had no job description. Nothing came of it.
“Which is why TIDA tends to neglect us and why corruption is still so entrenched in City government.
“How can they say ‘no’ to providing free SF wifi now, when there is such a clear and pressing need? Just do it for the school kids, OK?”
We’re worth $14.4 million dollars annually
A former East Bay escapee wrote:
“I’ve been here for six years now, the longest I’ve maintained an address in my adult life. My (former) home is the spoils of a long brutal rent strike. This place saved my life and helped me get my green card. Ironically, it’s full of radiation that might kill me a lot sooner than necessary.
“It is by far the safest and most peaceful place I’ve ever lived in my life – even as it’s filled with people that should make it dangerous, people the world calls junkies, veterans, juvenile delinquents, children of God and enemies of the State. I call them neighbors and roommates. Somehow, we all get along.
“It’s close to downtown, which means I’ve seldom wanted for a sustainable job. However, it also has inconsistent bus service. The power and water shut off at random. Cell phone and wifi signals can be hard to get. There are roaches in my kitchen that I don’t dare complain about out of fear of (losing) the house, and nowhere to live.
“Recently, there have been issues about delivery companies that won’t send food to the island. In one way I don’t blame them. It may only be 10 minutes from downtown, but it’s also 10 minutes away from the nearest restaurant. That means it takes at least 20 minutes (for the driver) to make $5-$10 with all the expenses coming out of (the delivery person’s) own pocket.
“It’s also something that most residents have long accepted. You get cheap rent in exchange for not being able to get Chipotle sent to your doorstep.
“To me it has less to do with UberEats’ pissy decision to cut off an island they weren’t delivering to in the first place.
“The real question is why are there so few restaurants? The reason people make deliveries to the Marina and not Treasure Island is because of the robust restaurant scene on Chestnut and Lombard. Yes, Treasure Island has two restaurants, but it’s not nearly enough.
“Why are there only two retail businesses (grocery stores) on the entire Island specifically geared toward residents? Somehow I doubt that it’s because nobody can figure out how to make money off a captive audience of 1,200 residents.
“There are towns with a similar population to Treasure Island all over California. Practically all of them have main streets with essential services, businesses that are able to stay open by serving the members of the community. So why don’t we?
“As for the developers, you have to ask yourself why are we still here? It’s very clear that the city council (board of supervisors) doesn’t give a shit. The rest of the City doesn’t even know we exist. We could get forced out tomorrow and the mainstream press would barely even notice.
“Let’s face it: Our removal would make the construction project go a lot faster. Not only could they bulldoze the entire Island at once but the construction crews wouldn’t have to worry nearly as much about noise or public safety.
“The only reason that we are allowed to breathe air on this island is that there are at least 600 units which are paying at least $2,000 a month each. That means we’re worth at least $14.4 million worth of income every year – income that can’t be replaced until the new condos are finally built and sold.
“I’m not exactly sure where all of that money goes, but I have a feeling that at least some of it is being used to prop up a development which is hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and years behind in finishing. I also suspect that John Stewart only agreed to manage these new condos on the condition that they could still keep collecting our rent in the meantime.
“In the time of a pandemic, the biggest question is what happens next? Three months ago, everyone was worried about being pushed out to make room for rich condo owners. But what does that mean when the real estate market tanks? What does it mean when public transit has been slashed to the bare bones and Treasure Island residents are some of the few essential workers that can get to work?
“Once again it’s up to us to protect the city’s investment with our presence (and) stop developers from going belly up with our rent.
“Once the city awakens, we will inevitably overhear the usual crosstalk about how we haven’t pulled our bootstraps hard enough to deserve the radioactive trash dump we live on. And as usual, we will be cooking and delivering their lunch while they discuss our removal, securing the parking lot to protect their earth movers and serving their drinks as they unwind from a long day of plundering.
“Maybe we should live up to our island’s namesake and take this place by force like a gaggle of crazed pirates. Block off the exit. Climb trees and shoot out tires of any who comes to bulldoze the land. Turn this into a self-sustaining marooned colony.
“After all, the lockdown has taught us how to do for ourselves. Get creative with limited supplies. Live without power, water, without even the bland comfort of Chipotle at our doorsteps.”
Carol Harvey is a San Francisco political journalist specializing in human rights and civil rights. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.