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Golden Gate Village Resident Council vs. Marin Housing Authority - An Untold Story - Part I

A multi-part series investigating the extraordinary story behind the case of Golden Gate Village Resident Council vs. Marin Housing Authority, and the challenge of housing those most in need in Marin County.

This series was originally published in 2015 and is being republished, now, because of recent events and because, essentially, nothing has changed.


Unlikely Heroes

On April 2, 2014, United States District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers dismissed the case of Golden Gate Village Election Committee, Hazel Goff, Gerald Taylor and Gladys Denis vs. Marin Housing Authority, Interim Executive Director Edward Griffin, in favor of the plaintiffs. Goff (72), Taylor (63) and Denis (69) had challenged the Marin Housing Authority for denying them the right to operate a resident’s council at Golden Gate Village in Marin City and to have that council officially recognized by the Marin Housing Authority (“MHA”).

Our local newspaper, the Marin Independent Journal, barely mentioned this event. But then they don’t really report much that goes on at Golden Gate Village except the occasional drive by shooting.

Golden Gate Village is the largest public housing project in Marin County. It is owned and operated by the Marin Housing Authority. Its 300 public housing units are home to almost 700 low income residents, housed in distinctive low-rise and mid-rise apartment buildings set into the hillside backing up to the GGNRA.

MHA had spent years and unaccountable staff time trying to deny the residents of Golden Gate Village their federally granted right to organize. But now, it was finally over.

The “Introductory Statement” in their Complaint stated:

Since January 2012, a group of residents of the primarily African-American Golden Gate Village (“GGV”) have been requesting assistance from the Marin Housing Authority (“MHA”) to form a resident council at this HUD-subsidized public housing property in Marin City. GGV represents 70% of MHA’s public housing residents, yet has only 10% of the representatives of the current, MHA agency-wide residents’ council for all of Marin County.

The purpose of these councils is to give the residents a forum to voice their concerns, and GGV residents seek to form a local independent resident council because of their lack of representation. Despite numerous requests by GGV residents for help, and even though the agency has committed to “affirmatively further fair housing” as required by federal laws and regulations, MHA refuses to cooperate or assist in any way with the formation of a local resident council at GGV.

Their case also alleged discrimination against African-American’s by the MHA, due to a lack of their equal representation on the Agency-Wide Resident Council (“AWRC”), when compared to the residents of other MHA properties.

The plaintiffs were represented by attorney David Levin of Bay Area Legal Aid, with some initial assistance from Fair Housing of Marin. Levin, who had been with Legal Aid for ten years and had handled hundreds of cases involving housing matters knew from the outset that unless the action was successful he was unlikely to be paid for his time or expenses.

The plaintiffs’ argument rested, primarily, on a simple and longstanding point of law contained the Code of Federal Regulations, which states that:

Residents have a right to organize and elect a resident council to represent their interests. As long as proper procedures are followed, the Housing Authority must recognize the duly-elected resident council to participate fully through a working relationship with the Housing Authority and residents to work together to determine the most appropriate ways to foster constructive relationships. (24 C.F.R. §964.11)

That this complaint had to be brought at all much less result in spending almost two years and significant public resources for court costs, the filing, and cross filing of dozens of documents and attorney’s fees, is somewhat unusual. Particularly, considering that the case could have been settled at any time with no conceivable downside for the Marin Housing Authority.

Though the case was settled and the Golden Gate Village Residents Council became officially recognized, little at Golden Gate Village has really changed. The aging and general deterioration of the project continues and the list of maintenance problems that the tenants endure is ongoing.

The case of GGVRC vs. MHA began with a formal Summons filed on August 10, 2012 after numerous good faith efforts on the part of the GGV residents to negotiate their grievances with the MHA had failed. But the challenges that brought these three elderly residents together and the circumstances leading up to the filing of their legal action began long before that.

What it means to start over

Gerald Taylor told me was born on December 11th in 1948, in Charity Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana and grew up as a “street kid” in a rough neighborhood. As he remembers it, he and his mother lived mostly in rooms over bars and taverns. His step-dad worked as a day laborer on a beer truck. In his words, “We were dirt poor.”

Like Hazel Goff and Gladys Denis, who had lived in other parts of the country, Gerald grew up in the era of Jim Crow. And in the South that meant the harshest forms of segregation. He recalls, with some emotion, having to go to the “Colored” window to be served at a restaurant that he wasn’t allowed to eat in and having to sit behind the “Whites Only” placards on the seats on the bus.

He demonstrated an amazing lack of anger or resentment in recalling it all, even when I tried to prod him about it. Still, it was a perilous time. He told me about how once, when he knocked the hat off a white man on a trolley in Lincoln Beach, he was chased by a gang of white boys who beat him within an inch of his life.

The Tremé district is in the 6th Ward of New Orleans, just northwest of the French Quarter. Congo Square in Tremé was once a place where slaves gathered on Sundays to dance and where the “Creoles of Color" brass and symphonic bands gave concerts in the 1900’s, providing the foundation for a more improvisational style that would come to be known as “Jazz.”

Musicians from Tremé have included Alphonse Picou, Trombone Shorty and the “King of Tremé,” Shannon Powell. While predominantly an African-American community, jazz musicians of European ancestry such as Henry Ragas and Louis Prima have also lived in Tremé.[1]

Fittingly, today, Tremé is home of the New Orleans African-American Museum.

Gerald Taylor was living in Tremé, with his lady friend, her grandmother, mother, daughter, daughter’s daughter and other members of her extended family, eleven in all plus a couple of pet dogs, in rooms above a bar, and was working as a construction laborer when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August of 2005.

Everyone in Gerald’s house gathered on the second floor, watching the waters rise, cutting them off from any escape routes. Having no alternative, Gerald jumped in and swam through surging, alligator infested waters, past dead bodies and floating wreckage until he found a telephone pole. Then he used it as a raft to ferry everyone and even their two dogs, one by one, to safety on higher ground, where rescue boats could take them to the New Orleans Super Dome.

He describes the scene in the Super Dome as complete chaos and lawlessness. Drug use, stealing, fighting, rape and even murder seemed to be everywhere. The National Guard was brought in with a standing order to shoot to kill, dispatching anyone who did anything remotely suspicious, leaving the bodies where they fell, sometimes for days.

Somewhat miraculously, three days later Gerald’s extended family was on buses to the Astrodome in Texas. By chance, soon after they arrived, they met members of the Rotary Club, who were offering plane tickets to California, to anyone who had relatives there, which Gerald did. When they landed in the Bay Area, they were connected to the Marin Housing Authority, which under Executive Order was offering housing to a select few Katrina survivors.

Even though some resented “outsiders” getting preference over local families in need of housing, he was one of the lucky ones. He moved into a small unit at Golden Gate Village in the fall of 2005. He is genuinely grateful to all those who helped him and to one resident, Royce McLemore, in particular, for making him feel welcomed in the community.

That this man, who had lived through such tragedy and loss, would end up taking on a Goliath like the Marin Housing Authority for the resident’s right to organize, astounds me. Most people would have just been glad to be alive and kept their heads down. To add to that at 63 years old (when the lawsuit was filed), he was not in the best of health, and is even less so today.

Today, at 66, Gerald suffers from metabolic syndrome, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and Type II Diabetes. In recent years, he’s successfully battled prostate cancer, but now also needs a hip replacement, a condition that makes it very difficult for him to walk without pain.

During all our conversations, he never complained about any of this.

I asked him why, after all he’d been through and all his personal challenges, he chose to take on the additional burden of fighting for the rights of a community that was not even his own, until recently. After all, there was absolutely no personal gain to be had from the many weeks and months of sifting through legal documents and affidavits, and the tiresome court appearances, which his failing health made that much more difficult.

His answer was matter of fact. “I was so grateful that God had placed me here. I wanted to show gratitude for what I felt had been provided for me. I felt compelled to give back.” Hearing him say that, I think about so many people I meet, who have so much, who can’t hold a candle to this man’s efforts.

Gerald’s story is certainly extraordinary, but not as unusual as one might think.

Though public housing projects have their share of bad actors and sordid histories that have given them a bad reputation - something that even current Golden Gate Village residents are not shy about pointing out - many people and families who turn to public housing for assistance have endured their own versions of hardship that are equally compelling.

Women of Conscience

Hazel Goff’s and Gladys Denis’s reasons for being party to the lawsuit against the Marin Housing Authority were similar to Gerald’s. Hazel is a straight forward woman of 75. But she is also an unlikely hero in the GGV story. She grew up in Yuma, Arizona. Though Arizona was not the Deep South, it was nevertheless a segregated state when she was growing up there.

In 1953, Arizona became a leader in the civil rights movement when Maricopa Superior Court Judge Frederick C. Struckmeyer, Jr. handed down a decision in Phillips vs. Phoenix Union High School District. Struckmeyer declared that “half a century of intolerance is enough,” and ruled the Arizona law permitting school boards to segregate was unconstitutional. Filing the case were prominent Phoenix attorneys Herbert B. Finn and Hayzel B. Daniels, the first African-American to pass the Arizona Bar. Stuckmeyer’s ruling anticipated by a year the groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.[2]

Hazel moved to Richmond, California, with her husband in 1968, and reared their children there until the area became so bad that they had to relocate to Novato. She eventually moved to Golden Gate Village in 1982.

She says she ended up staying at Golden Gate Village longer than she’d planned to but like the rest of us, she loves living in Marin and has always been involved in the community. Hazel served as a Marin Housing Authority Commissioner some years ago. But by her own admission, she’s not normally one to say much or express forceful opinions at public meetings. She was more inclined to listen and try to understand all sides of an issue. But she feels that the MHA is no longer listening to the voices of her community and laments that GGV has been allowed to get so run down.

Hazel also credits Gladys Denis with providing her with the motivation to become a plaintiff in the MHA suit. Both Gerald and Hazel speak of Gladys with affection and admiration. Unfortunately, Gladys, who had resided in Golden Gate Village since 1970, did not live to see the final outcome of the legal action she was instrumental in bringing about.

Hazel recalls Gladys as a woman of quiet determination, “a fighter for people’s rights. She would stand up to anyone if it was the right thing to do. She stood up for the rights of the people of Golden Gate Village to have a decent place to live.”

Gerald respectfully recalls her simply as “a great lady.”

Marin City – Circa World War II and Beyond

Prior to World War II, the area that would eventually become known as Marin City was home to dairy farms and a handful of families. Soon after war was declared, on December 8, 1941, 20,000 workers migrated to the Marin City area from all over the United States, attracted by the jobs at the Marinship Shipyards, the waterfront ship building yards owned by the Bechtel Corporation.

In 1942, Marin City was constructed almost overnight to house 6,000 of these workers. In the following three years, Marinship workers built and launched 93 Liberty Ships and tankers, a vital contribution to the country’s “Arsenal of Democracy.”[3]

At its peak, Marin City had a population of 6,500 people, including over 1,000 school-aged children (population today is 2,666 according to the 2010 Census). As one of the country’s first racially integrated federally funded projects, Marin City was home to Midwestern Whites (85%), Southern Blacks (10%), and Chinese immigrants (5%).

Although the majority of workers left Marin City after the end of World War II and again after the end of the Korean War, many African-American shipyard laborers, who had migrated from the Deep South, remained, not wishing to return to the harsh racist treatment they’d receive back home and because Marin’s racially discriminatory laws at that time limited their housing opportunities here. In contrast to war times, African-Americans soon became the majority of the community.

By the late 1950’s, the population of Marin City had dropped below 2,000. With White and Chinese residents now virtually gone, the community was then 90% African-American. But the makeshift housing that had served its purposes during war time was grossly inadequate for long term habitation.

Old time residents, who grew up in Marin City, have told me about how the wind and rain came right through the uninsulated, cardboard walls of the remaining worker shacks and the flood waters filled the Valley during winter storms.

The future for these remaining residents looked bleak.

An Architecture for Democracy

Vera Schultz was elected to the Mill Valley City Council, in 1946, and in 1952 she became the first woman Supervisor in Marin County history. She served on the Board of Supervisors until 1960 and earned the title of "Marin's First Lady" for her work to end "cracker barrel politics" and professionalize Marin County government.

As one of her last acts, she served as a member of the Civic Center Committee entrusted with finding an architect for a new government center and is credited, together with Mary Summers, with securing Frank Lloyd Wright for the job.[4]

However, she was also a passionate advocate for the less fortunate and for racial equality in Marin. Prior to the Civic Center project, she was instrumental in lobbying Washington D.C. to secure federal funding to build a new integrated public housing project called Golden Gate Village. Construction commenced in 1960.

Golden Gate Village is a 300 unit project set on 31.4 magnificent acres just west of Highway 101, overlooking Richardson Bay. GGV consists of 20 low-rise structures and 8 mid-rise “towers,” whose earth-toned stucco exteriors were the predecessor to the Marin County Civic Center. Golden Gate Village was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé, Aaron Green, who also oversaw the construction of the Marin Civic Center.

In Green’s 1990 book, An Architecture for Democracy, he writes of the significance of the project and Wright’s influence.

This project was an early recognition of the Civil Rights Movement and another social milestone in Marin County for a higher standard of architecture: ‘architecture for democracy’ via Frank Lloyd Wright,” Green wrote. “Without my training by Frank Lloyd Wright for organic relationships of buildings to sites, I could not have developed these accomplishments. Therefore, the Marin City Federal Housing Project may be considered another contribution to Marin County by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Noted San Francisco landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and John Carl Warnecke, FAIA, who worked on President John Kennedy’s “Eternal Flame” grave site, were also involved with the planning of Golden Gate Village.

Today, GGV is home to approximately 700 residents.

What is clear when visiting the project is that it was developed not only as a showcase of Wright’s ingenious design sensibilities, but also as an example of best practices in affordable housing at that time. In many ways, it remains a superior architectural solution to what we see built today.

Apartment units have exterior entrances and open air balconies. Units are generous in size and have cross ventilation. Many have sweeping views of Richardson Bay. The five story structures are sensitively sited into the hillsides in a way that allows most units to be accessible by ramps and sloped walkways. The spacing between buildings leaves ample room for outdoor gardens, parking and gathering places.

“The Place Was Pristine”

When I asked Gerald Taylor what it was like in Golden Gate Village, when he arrived, he offered a one word description, “Pristine.” He said it was part of his motivation for taking action against MHA. “I wanted to preserve the condition that I found the place.”

In fact, everyone I interviewed seemed to agree that in 2005, Golden Gate Village was in fairly good condition. Units were being maintained, the landscaping was kept up and groomed, and buildings and grounds were clean.

However, that perception may just be in comparison to how bad it’s gotten. Past property inspection reports by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) show the problems at GGV have been going on for a long time.

By any standards, the conditions at Golden Gate Village today are unacceptable, and I would guess that the Marin Housing Authority would agree with that. The project in general is getting very old and in need of major renovation. In some instances, conditions are at a point where they are endangering the basic health, safety, and welfare of the residents.

According to HUD, on average, over the past decade, GGV has had one of the lowest HUD compliance ratings of any public housing project in the State of California. Roofs leak, storms blow drafts and moisture through poorly caulked windows, cabinets are old, heating barely works in some units, hot water heaters leak, electrical fixtures and plumbing are prone to constant problems, and repairs take way too long. The grounds haven’t been properly cared for in years. Walkways are uneven, paving needs repair, lawns have died long before the drought cutbacks in watering, plants grow wild, trees are unpruned. Trash accumulates and portions of the property have become chronically infested with rats and roaches.

One resident told me the story of how she had complained to the MHA for years that the floor in her second story bathroom was making strange sounds and didn’t “feel solid.” When they finally agreed to come and inspect it, they discovered that the entire floor structure under the bathtub was completely rotted out and close to collapse.

The bedroom beneath that bathroom was where her grandchildren slept.

The neighborhood has changed too. Some residents claim that the Marin Housing Authority's tenant screening process has become less stringent and there’s a higher turnover rate today than in the past, which creates greater apathy and leads to more crime. At the same time, many no longer feel like the police care about Golden Gate Village.

“They don’t know you, anymore, and they don’t want to,” one longtime resident told me, referring to the police. “They won’t even get out of their cars.”

Transforming Neighborhoods through Innovation

In March of 2008, MHA hired Dan Nackerman as its new Executive Director. A self-confident, stocky man, he’d worked at other housing authorities in Richmond and San Bernardino before coming to MHA. But Nackerman also had a strong background in real estate development and had held senior positions in the past, at major development firms.

He was very proud of the fact that during his career he’d won the Bureaucracy Buster award from a housing industry trade association. He fashioned himself a “can do” kind of guy, with a reputation for “transforming neighborhoods through innovation.”[5]

Nackerman was, characteristically, welcomed with open arms at MHA and praised by the Marin County Board of Supervisors, who hold the majority votes on the Marin Housing Authority Board of Commissioners. Supervisors also take turns serving as its chair. It was the Marin BOS that effectively hired Dan Nackerman.

By 2011, Nackerman had managed to have MHA’s Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program recognized as the “Most Improved” by HUD, and the MHA itself awarded HUD’s “High Performer” certification. The only fly in the ointment was that Golden Gate Village was public housing, not Section 8, and the overall performance and financial “health” of MHA did not reflect the conditions at GGV.

HUD’s Annual Inspection Reports continued to show that Golden Gate Village was not participating in this “improvement.”

HUD Compliance Ratings

The Department of Housing and Urban Development performs regular inspections and rates the condition of housing projects in the Country. In February of 2005, GGV’s common area’s rating was 42.48 (out of 100) and its dwelling unit rating was 71.95, for an average of 57.22. By June of 2006 the commons’ rating was 52.14, but the units rating was down to 49.06, for an average of 50.60. This was at a time when the average ratings for all the other MHA properties were in the mid 90’s, for exteriors and interiors.[6]

According to my research, at that time there was no other project in the State of California of comparable size that was close to being as poorly rated. With all of Nackerman’s hoopla about improving conditions, by January of 2009, the overall rating still sat at 58, and it was 61 the following year.

In 2009, amidst growing tenant protest at Golden Gate Village, Nackerman told the press "We are working to repair the heat and boilers. We're also putting in security cameras,” and that the agency also “planned to work on lowering kitchen counters, fixing irrigation systems and sidewalks, adding new stoves and refrigerators and upgrading smoke detectors.”

Most of that work never got done. The major capital improvements he promised never happened, either. And from what I could find what did get done was not always as it appeared to be.

Former maintenance workers, who’ve asked to remain unnamed for fear of reprisals, told me that the work done was rushed and slipshod because they were told to just do it quick and dirty and inexpensively. Cheap kitchen cabinets began to fall apart soon after being installed. MHA retrofitted bathrooms with what residents referred to as “miniature bathtubs” that could barely fit an adult.

An elderly gentleman, who worked as an MHA maintenance man for many years, told me that he was told to install three-prong grounded electrical outlets in every unit as an upgrade. But there was no ground wire in the upper floors of the mid-rise “tower” buildings, to connect to the third prong of the outlet. When he brought this to the attention of his supervisor, he was told to just do it, even though this created an even more dangerous situation than before. Without a ground wire, a tenant is more likely to cause a fire or get an electrical shock if the circuit is overloaded.

A former grounds keeper confided that when MHA knew HUD was coming for an inspection, he was told the exact route the HUD inspectors would take on their “tour” and to be sure those places were cleared of trash and in tip top shape, leaving the rest of the complex unattended. He was also warned by staff not to talk to anyone from HUD under any circumstances or he’d be fired or worse, he might be kicked out of his MHA low income unit.

I have no way to confirm these and other allegations I’ve heard, since none of the people making the claims will allow their identities to be revealed. But ask yourself, if these people were just out to make MHA look bad, why would they go to all the trouble to invent such elaborate accounts about cleaning trash and electrical wiring?

The Marin Board of Supervisor always praised Nackerman at every opportunity. But when you look under the hood, it brings into question Nackerman’s miraculous achievements at MHA.

But by 2009, residents felt they had bigger things to worry about than property maintenance.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tremé

[2] Racial Segregation in Phoenix, Arizona: A snapshot history by Kenneth LaFave, Oct. 2013.

[3] History noted in the Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief: GGV Elec. Comm. V. MHA, et al.

[4] Anne T. Kent California Room; Marin County Free Library; Interviewed by Sally Hauser September 25, 1987

[5] Marin Housing Landlord News, Fall 2011

[6] HUD.gov


Read PART II - The Handwriting On the Wall

Read PART III - The Straw That Broke the Camel's Back

Read PART IV - The Big Squeeze

Read PART V - It Takes More Than A Village


Bob Silvestri is an architect, former Section 8 housing developer, a Marin resident for over 22 years, and founder and president of Community Venture Partners, Inc.

This series was made possible by the generosity of our donors. Please consider donating to CVP to allow us to continue to assist under-served voices in Marin.

Tags

Marin City, Golden Gate Village, Marin Housing Authority