On SF’s Potrero Hill, everyone gets scammed – Mission Local

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On a Friday afternoon in late February, Greg Jones was blasting old-school hip-hop from his apartment on Connecticut Street as he swept his stoop. Inside, Tupac’s face looked down from a large tapestry on the wall. Outside, people stepped out of their apartments for a smoke or a chat with friends, as kids ran around. 

Jones looked like any other rent-paying tenant at Potrero Terrace-Annex, a public housing project on Potrero Hill. And so he was — even as an illegal squatter. For a few months, he has been squatting in one of the project’s approximately 200 vacant units. And, Jones and others said, the squats weren’t altogether free. 

To the list of complaints directed at the company that has been managing — or failing to manage — Potrero Terrace and Potrero Annex, add one more: A rogue middle manager who was allegedly collecting rent under the table and hiding it from his employer, the Eugene Burger Management Corporation, according to Jones, a second squatter, and two fellow employees. 

The residents and employees allege that former senior property manager Lance Whittenberg was asking several squatters for cash payments while working for Eugene Burger, a private company that began overseeing the housing project in early 2022. 

Two squatters Mission Local spoke with said they had paid Whittenberg between $200 and $500 per month within the last year. A third squatter said she paid another tenant, but was too afraid to provide a name. 

“A lot of the [squatters] that he was taking money from were Latinos, Hispanics,” said a current Eugene Burger employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Maybe he felt that they weren’t going to say anything, maybe he felt that they were easier to control, I don’t know.” 

The current employee said they personally spoke to at least seven squatters who had paid Whittenberg rent, and said at least 20 total had gone to the management company alleging they had paid Whittenberg. 

“They would start saying things like, ‘I pay money to Lance, I’m not going nowhere,’” the Eugene Burger employee said. “It all was different amounts, it would vary — I think the lowest was $200 all the way up to $700.” 

Mission Local began reporting on poor management of the Potrero Hill complex after a fire broke out in January 2023, killing 40-year-old Richard Gescat. A Mission Local reporter did not see any employees from the Eugene Burger Management Corporation, which oversees the site, on the day of the fire, though the company said it has staff on-site “daily.” Tenants complained then of tension with squatters, lousy maintenance and abandonment by the San Francisco Housing Authority. 

The three squatters Mission Local spoke with said they always paid cash, directly to Whittenberg or the second individual. It is unclear whether this individual had any connection to Whittenberg.  

Carol Cameron, a former Eugene Burger employee, spent December and January as a compliance manager for Eugene Burger. After Whittenberg was fired, she became a site manager at Potrero Hill. She previously worked at the Housing Authority for 15 years.  

Although she was only at Eugene Burger for two months, it was long enough for Cameron to do a walk-through with personnel from the management company and the Housing Authority. During the walk-through, she said, “I encountered at least six squatters saying they were paying Lance [Whittenberg].” 

An employee at the Housing Authority confirmed they too had heard the same allegations and had been taking “inventories” of the site as a result, but declined to comment further. 

A spokesperson for the San Francisco Housing Authority said the organization “cannot comment on potential or pending investigations.”

The current Eugene Burger employee said that an internal investigation eventually led to Whittenberg’s firing. 

Teresa Pegler, president of Eugene Burger’s Affordable Management Division, declined to comment on Whittenberg’s departure from the company. Multiple requests for comment to Eugene Burger’s management team, including its president, senior vice president, and executive vice president, received no response. 

Whittenberg, reached by phone, confirmed that he used to work for the company but then hung up. He later blocked this reporter. 

One woman, who wanted to be identified only as J, lives with her partner, a 53-year-old maintenance worker, and their two small children at the Potrero Annex. The maintenance worker, who also wished to remain anonymous, has been squatting at the housing complex for three years, and briefly paid Whittenberg $500 a month, he said.  

“He said we wasn’t gonna have no problems,” the worker said. Whittenberg, he said, only made it around to collect money twice before he disappeared after being fired in December. 

To J, the squat is home. “It’s not a trap [house],” J said, gesturing into her furnished apartment as if to show there was no illicit activity happening within. “It’s like TVs, mirrors, our kids’ pictures on the fridge. We have a dog up here. This is our home.” 

Gabriela, a recent immigrant who is squatting with her young daughter in a building of mostly vacant units, said she found out about the vacancies through a friend. The friend’s mother, a tenant, then charged Gabriela $200. Once she got her bearings, Gabriela refused to keep paying and has not yet faced any ramifications. Eugene Burger employees, she said, periodically come by and tell her she must vacate the unit, but have not forced the issue. 

The Potrero Terrace-Annex project was built in the 1940s and 50s and is the oldest remaining public housing complex in San Francisco. Its 61 buildings — beige and blue two-story barracks-like structures with sweeping views of the bay — are largely cut off from the surrounding area of $1 million-plus homes. A restoration project that broke ground in 2017 aims to rebuild the entire complex by 2034.

Amid the rebuild, residents are being urged to move out and take placements elsewhere in the city, vacating more than 200 of the 500-plus original units — and drawing squatters to the area. 

In January, shortly after Whittenberg’s firing, no-trespassing signs were posted on all “vacant” units, reading: “No rent will be accepted for this unit.” 

Pegler, in a recent presentation before the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, said that after a recent “staff changeover” she ordered an audit of the entire site and began posting those signs on all the verified vacant units. 

“We were hearing some discrepancies in numbers, what was happening and wasn’t happening,” Pegler said. “It caused me to doubt … reports from the site.” 

Mission Local’s earlier reporting in the wake of the lethal fire unearthed a city report from January and February 2023. In it, the Housing Authority found the Eugene Burger Management Company out of compliance with its contract serving Potrero Terrace-Annex and Sunnydale public housing complexes. The report noted failed inspections and ongoing safety and habitability issues. 

That story triggered hearings and, in July 2023, Eugene Burger told the Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight committee that it was conducting daily site inspections. When Mission Local returned after the hearings, tenants had mixed reports, some saying improvements had been made, others complaining that management was still passing the buck. 

Once again, however, life at the complex where tenants and squatters share space has deteriorated — or, depending on whom you ask, never really changed. The alleged under-the-table rent-taking from squatters is just the latest issue. 

In its most recent scorecard from the Housing Authority for December 2023, obtained by Mission Local, Eugene Burger “did not comply” with four of its six performance metrics: Not all of the emergency work orders were handled within 24 hours, required monthly performance reports were not filed, and housing quality standards were not met. However, its rent collection of 70 percent was the highest reported rate in all of 2023. 

Management from Eugene Burger did not respond to a request for comment about this scorecard.

Whittenberg’s past 

Whittenberg, 32, had a complicated career history even before he arrived at Eugene Burger in 2022. 

In 2020, he worked briefly for the Chinatown Community Development Center, a nonprofit that runs other San Francisco affordable housing complexes, but a spokesperson for the organization said he left within four months. 

Malcolm Yeung, the head of Chinatown Community Development Center, said that the organization could only confirm that it employed Whittenberg but could not share the circumstances under which he left. 

Whittenberg describes himself on his Instagram account as an independent entrepreneur who works in real estate and invests in cryptocurrency. In 2021, the U.S. government’s Paycheck Protection Program records show a man of the same name, also from Fresno, was approved for a $17,083 pandemic business loan for a company with various industries listed, from travel agency to administrative support to waste management. The loan was forgiven. 

And Whittenberg had his defenders in the complex. Some residents — both tenants and squatters — say that he was the first person working for Eugene Burger to actually help them. Multiple residents said they were shocked to learn that he was allegedly accepting money under the table from squatters. But had they been given an opportunity to pay rent and legitimize their residency, they said, they would have taken it.

One squatter of three years, Leon Speed, said Whittenberg never asked him for money. He saw Whittenberg working around the site and remembered him as “extremely fair” — he seemed to get things done and was considerate of residents. 

“I don’t understand how the fuck he was charging somebody,” Speed said. 

Another squatter, Evie, said Whittenberg even gave her work, and she helped clean out a vacant unit. 

Not everyone agreed, however. “I thought he was pretty cool at first,” said a resident of 15 years who lives on Connecticut Street with her young children, and wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the management company — she said she was evicted for complaining about issues at her prior apartment elsewhere. But she said Whittenberg made empty promises to help relocate her family because of an ongoing cockroach infestation — one that had been spurred by workers removing her dishwasher and leaving a hole in her wall for a year. 

Uzuri Pease-Green, who runs CARE, a community nonprofit that operates from within the housing project, worked closely with Whittenberg. She, too, was surprised to learn of the allegations against him. Pease-Green and Whittenberg had been working to connect squatters with more stable housing arrangements, she said. 

“The understanding was that instead of booting people out … people who were already here in the vacant units, they could stay for a short period of time and they had to be looking for housing,” Pease-Green said. 

Even with a lease, tenants feel neglected

Although many tenants are fed up with conditions on Potrero Hill, they are unwilling to leave, having seen past iterations of “redevelopment” pushing low-income people of color out of their homes and communities. 

There are also ongoing tensions between squatters and renters. Valerie Peterson, a pink-haired 30-something with a lease on Dakota Street, said her neighbor, a squatter, smashed her windows back in September. Nearly six months later, Peterson’s windows are still boarded up with wood. The replacement windows, she’s been told, are on backorder. 

“I’m trying to be patient,” Peterson said. Inside her apartment, no light can enter. Outside, the area is decorated with plants, and she has painted colorful designs and her name on the boarded windows to let others know “that I’m healing and I actually live here.” 

Others are less patient. 

Kathleen Todd Gilbert said she refuses to pay rent anymore until things get fixed — she makes frequent requests of management, but little gets done. She said she stopped paying the day feces started coming up in her sink. 

Gilbert said she cannot use her oven because workers installed it improperly. 

“I was washing dishes and some water got behind the stove, and it actually caused a spark and a large flame to come out,” she said. “And I got scared.” 

Gilbert said she called the fire department, which advised her to leave the stove unplugged. She still can’t cook because she has no oven. 

“These people don’t give a fuck about nothing or nobody,” said Gilbert about Eugene Burger. “Their purpose here is to tear down. They don’t care about the actual residents that still live here.” 

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