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SF's Earliest Public Housing Projects

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Welcome to Curbed's ongoing series titled Hidden History, where Curbed highlights a Bay Area location with a secret past. Maybe it's no longer there, maybe it's been converted into something else, but each spot holds a place in Bay Area history - even if not many people know it. Have a suggestion or know a place with a secret history? The tipline's always open or you can leave a comment after the jump.

Construction of Potrero Housing Project, 1940 [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

The city has a long and sometimes twisted history with public housing projects. Some still exist and some are getting a major overhaul, but all of the earliest public housing projects in San Francisco stem from a 75-year-old Federal housing law.

The 1937 U.S. Housing Act provided for subsidies from the U.S. government to local public housing agencies for housing for low-income families. San Francisco established its own municipal housing authority in 1938, and immediately got nationally renowned architects to develop plans for for five housing designs for various parts of the city. The city's had a less-than-stellar record with maintaining and managing many of the public housing projects, but some are on their way towards major upgrades and rebuilding plans.


The first public housing project in SF was Holly Courts, designed by Arthur Brown Jr (of City Hall and Coit Tower fame) for a site behind Bernal Heights between Holly Park and Mission Street. The project called for 118 units fronting the street and surrounding an interior of landscaped courts and play spaces. Holly Courts is still a public housing development today.

Construction of Potrero Terrace housing project, 1941 [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

Potrero Terrace on the south side of Potrero Hill was started at the same time. The thirty-three acre site, bounded roughly by Cesar Chavez and Pennsylvania Avenues, was designed with winding roads that broke the traditional city grid to hug the hillsides. Instead, the curvy and diagonal grids isolate their residents from the greater neighborhood. The site is now under redesign plans to turn the existing 606 units of the public housing into a community that has 1,600 units of public, workforce and market-rate housing.

Courtyard at Valencia Gardens housing project, 1942 [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

Valencia Gardens in the Mission was another early project, designed by William Wurster and Harry Thomsen with landscape design by Thomas Church. The 248 units were built in 1943, but in more recent years attracted drug deals. In 2006 Van Meter Williams Pollack redesigned the site with 260 apartments designed like individual homes with a front door on the street and a private backyard or back deck.


Sunnydale Housing Project was designed by Roller and Stringham in 1941 to house war workers. The huge 50 acre site that winds around the area south of McLaren Park is San Francisco's largest housing project. A few years ago there were redevelopment plans to rebuild 1,000 affordable rental units and 700 affordable and market-rate for-sale units. The project just secured $300,000 from HUD to work on the plans, with construction expected around 2015.

Westside Courts in Western Addition, present day [Photo: Bing Maps]

Western Addition's Westside Courts at Sutter between Broderick and Baker Streets was opened in 1943. When all five projects were completed, only Westside Courts had black tenants. 136 units in six buildings cover a full city block. There are plans to replace current residential units one to one, and potentially add BMR and for sale units, but things seem to have stalled.

· Public Housing Comes Full Circle [Found SF]
· WWII In-migration & Rising Bigotry [Found SF]