Brenda Kittrell (1955-2020): Advocate for public housing community, #BlackLivesMatter and scrutinizing property ownership in San Francisco

Brenda Kittrell with her husband, Eddie, and granddaughter, Talia

by Anna Hennessey

On Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, longtime Potrero Terrace and Annex resident Brenda Kittrell, passed away at age 65. She leaves behind her husband, Eddie Kittrell, seven children, 12 grandchildren, and many other family members and friends. 

Brenda was well-known in Potrero Hill for her advocacy on local, state and national levels, as well as for her commitment to safety and community in her San Francisco neighborhood, particularly within the African American community. Brenda grew up in Mississippi before moving to California. After a period of hardship, travel and homelessness, she rebuilt her life, moving into San Francisco’s Terrace-Annex Public Housing Development in the mid-1990s with her husband Eddie. Terrace-Annex became a place where Brenda flourished as a person, learning to serve her community and becoming a strong advocate for residents, family and friends.

Brenda’s service to the Terrace-Annex community included her work with the Healthy Generations Project, a nonprofit in Potrero Hill devoted to helping families who have experienced trauma and adversity build up their resiliency. Through the project, Brenda and her husband offered family nights and other events out of their own home, and they also walked children to two local schools – Starr King Elementary and Daniel Webster Elementary – through Healthy Generations’ Walking School Bus program. Brenda also served as a sergeant at arms for 12 years with the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI). Brenda was a devoted Christian and brought the spiritual into her every day.

For years, Brenda and her husband Eddie have been familiar figures in Potrero Hill. Like his wife, Eddie also found a way of life in serving his local community, becoming a vocal advocate for the residents of public housing and serving as president of the Potrero Hill Terrace-Annex Tenants Association for 16 years. He has received several awards for his community involvement and devotion to tenants’ rights, including one from the National Organization of African Americans in Housing.

Brenda and Eddie also took their advocacy one step further and engaged local politicians in San Francisco to understand the rights of tenants at Terrace-Annex, as well as to understand the possibility of property ownership for low-income African Americans living in San Francisco. In 2006, Eddie became part of the original redevelopment task force created under the lead of then Mayor Gavin Newsom to work on the “rehabilitation of public housing” in San Francisco. 

If Black Lives really Matter, then rules regulating property ownership and the allocation of housing for low-income African Americans, as well as city plans to “revitalize” housing for low-income minorities, should be scrutinized.

During early meetings of that group, Eddie was told that longtime Terrace-Annex tenants, as well as tenants of other public housing developments in San Francisco, would have the opportunity to purchase their homes with loans and money saved. At the time, Eddie and Brenda believed that HOPE SF, a public program in the city modeled after the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) HOPE VI funding program, and of which Brenda was a founding member, would strive for inclusion, as well as for safer and healthier standards in its construction of new apartments to replace the historically dilapidated, dangerous and often rodent infested units of Terrace-Annex.

However, for many Terrace-Annex residents, the large majority of whom were African American when Brenda and Eddie moved in more than a quarter century ago, inclusion and a bettering of life were not to be had with the redevelopment project. Over the years, the couple watched as an exodus took place and their Black community fractured, dislocated from San Francisco as the city gentrified and wealthy homeowners and developers staked out new property, territory and land. 

The city’s “rehabilitation” and “revitalization” of public housing at Terrace-Annex (language maintained on the Housing Data Hub website, HOPE SF’s Design Standards and Guidelines from November 2016, and elsewhere) has resulted in a move towards mass gentrification of Potrero Hill, with eventual plans to bulldoze Brenda and Eddie’s home and make way for market rate housing.

As the SF Bay View reported in 2009, San Francisco Housing Authority’s (SFHA) plans of demolishing existing public housing units and “rehabilitating” these sites through massive construction projects given to project management companies like Bridge Housing Corp., have been a key part in the gentrification of San Francisco. 

As #BlackLivesMatter trends in numerous contexts across our city, our nation and our globe, including within the context of affluent and non-marginalized voices speaking up for the need to become anti-racist in the United States and abroad, the African American population in San Francisco continues to dwindle, with longtime residents pushed out of the city and from Potrero Hill. If Black Lives really Matter, then rules regulating property ownership and the allocation of housing for low-income African Americans, as well as city plans to “revitalize” housing for low-income minorities, should be scrutinized.

After all of the time, energy and love Brenda had invested in her community, her husband Eddie had hoped she would have had a home to call her own. Up until the end of her life, however, Brenda lived with an unknown shared by many within the low-income African American communities of our cities – the possibility that she and her family could be relocated and lose the land and city they had known for years. Eddie still lives with that reality.

We will remember Brenda for her kindness, energy and devotion to bettering this world. She was born less fortunate than many and yet made the world a more beautiful place for all. We hope that her spirit of advocacy lives on. 

Anna Hennessey is a San Francisco writer and scholar. She is an advocate for the residents of Potrero Terrace-Annex, as well as for San Francisco’s low-income communities and other marginalized populations abroad. Hennessey is the author of “Starr King Elementary, segregation, and wealth: The politics of liberal San Francisco’s ‘separate but equal’” (SF Bay View, September 2019) and is also a book author. She may be reached at amhennessey@mac.com.