Neighbors Ask Judge to Halt Construction of San Francisco Homeless Shelter

A homeless man who goes by the name Saint Louis sits outside one of San Francisco’s shelters, called navigation centers, at 12th and Market. (Nicholas Iovino/CNS)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A neighborhood group asked a state judge on Thursday to halt the ongoing construction of a 200-bed shelter in San Francisco, arguing the city failed to get required approval from a state commission that oversees public lands.

Representing the group Safe Embarcadero For All, which believes the project will bring more crime, drug use and unclean streets to a bayside neighborhood, attorney Peter Prows argued that only the California Lands Commission can approve such a project on a designated seawall lot.

“Only the commissioners can make that decision. We’d like that chance to convince them,” Prows said.

The San Francisco Port Commission approved the project in April. The proposed 200-bed navigation center would be the largest in San Francisco and a critical step for Mayor London Breed in keeping her promise to build 1,000 new shelter beds by the end of 2020.

Unlike traditional shelters, navigation centers allow guests to bring their partners, pets and belongings. They also provide a panoply of services including housing assistance, mental health counseling, drug use treatment and other programs aimed at getting people stable.

Construction on the property, just south of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, is underway and expected to be completed this winter.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman denied Safe Embarcadero’s motion for a preliminary injunction in September, but also found the group was likely to prevail on the merits for its claim that the project required approval by the state Lands Commission.

At a hearing Thursday, Schulman spent 2-and-a-half hours hearing arguments on the interpretations of myriad state laws that lay out requirements for leasing designated seawall lots in San Francisco.

Prows argued that laws passed in 2007 and 2016 sought to restrict the city’s authority to lease land without state approval.

“The public wants the state Lands Commission to actively oversee the use of these specially granted lands,” Prows said.

Shulman asked if the city would also need the state’s permission to add something as simple as newspaper racks to those plots of land.

“I know it’s a little bit odd, but that’s what the Legislature would say,” Prows replied.

Challenging Prow’s interpretation, San Francisco Deputy City Attorney Brian Crossman insisted the laws were intended to expand the city’s authority over those plots of land, not restrict it.

He argued that Senate Bill 815, passed in 2007, authorizes longer 75-year leases for seawall lots and specifically states that nothing in the statute “shall be construed as limiting the port’s existing authority” under a prior state law.

Representing the state of California, deputy attorney general Matthew Struhar said the state agrees that the law empowers the city to enter into short-term leases not exceeding 66 years for non-public trust uses of seawall lots.

Judge Schulman grilled each lawyer on whether it would be appropriate for him to stop the project.

Noting that the city relied on “substantial evidence” to support its finding that a $400,000 annual lease for the property was fair, Schulman questioned why the state Lands Commission would reach a different conclusion.

“Where’s the compelling reason under those circumstances to do what your client wants me to do, stop this project in its tracks, so a duplicative finding that only affects dollars can be made,” Schullman asked.

Prows replied that the state commission not only assesses whether the lease amount is fair market value. It must also determine if the project is in the best interest of the state.

Turning to the city, the judge asked if he finds the lease required state approval, how can he let an “unlawful project” continue until that problem is resolved.

“There wouldn’t be anything served other than continuing to delay the project,” Crossman told the judge.

Schulman took the arguments under submission.

Judy Lin, a member of Safe Embarcadero For All who attended the hearing Thursday, said she and other neighbors are primarily concerned about the size of the facility.

“I think we all would have been all in favor of some sort of smaller facility that provided housing for people that actually reside in our neighborhood,” Lin said.

In August, a woman who lives in a residential building next to the future site of the shelter was attacked by a homeless man with mental health problems, who said he was trying to save her from “robots,” as she tried to enter her building. The incident was caught by a security camera and aired on local television, renewing calls to halt or scale down the project.

Mayor Breed said the city plans to increase police patrols in the area and launch a community advisory committee to evaluate any concerns about the navigation center once it opens.

“Our City is in the midst of a homelessness crisis, and we can’t keep delaying projects like this one that will help fix the problem,” Breed said in June.

The city has more than 8,000 homeless residents, a 17% increase from two years ago, according to a survey conducted earlier this year. In 2018, voters approved a new tax on big businesses that would add up to $300 million for homeless services to the city’s budget. The new tax money is currently being held in escrow while legal challenges against it are pending.

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