Golden Gates Slammed Shut

Bonded Debt and Privatized Displacement during San Francisco’s HOPE VI Redevelopment, 1956-2001


  • Henry Lear Harvard University


housing, urban history, public housing, African-American history, San Francisco, economic history


In the 1950s, as the federal government bulldozed cities to build highways and poured millions into the suburbs, public housing authorities were forced to sell bonds to private investors to build and maintain low-income housing. In San Francisco, a decade of bond sales to private investors trapped the San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA) in a perpetual state of indebtedness, forced to direct tenant rents and federal funds not to upkeep or maintenance, but to paying back bondholders like the Bank of America. As the SFHA’s problems were magnified under 1970s federal austerity, and its capacity to provide decent housing was diminished, new private companies formed focused on public housing redevelopment and management. By the 1990s, President Clinton’s HOPE VI program directed billions toward housing authorities in disrepair. Private companies were put in charge of demolition, rebuilding, and management, subsequently implementing harsh, punitive rules designed to maximize their real estate profits and control over tenants. This federally-subsidized, extractive relationship can be traced directly to bond sales, federal policy toward favor of privatization, and carceral practices like policing and ‘One Strike’ evictions. This paper pushes against the traditional 'rise and fall' narrative of public housing, suggesting that the connections between postwar extractivist financial schemes and neoliberal privatization are closer than existing scholarship has acknowledged.