The Housing Authority mess

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Photo by Rose Dennis, SFHA

Mayor Ed Lee seems to think that the controversy over Housing Authority Director Henry Alvarez is just going to blow over, but he's wrong. There's too much here. And it's not just about the lawsuits employees have filed or the sizable list of unhappy workers.

But before we get into any of that, I have to say: You can't beat Willie Brown for putting it all in perspective. The former mayor announced in his Chron column Dec. 9 that the Housing Authority (including during his mayoral administration) has always been fundamentally screwed up:

What no one says publicly is that the tenants in public housing are never happy and that the Housing Authority workers usually aren't all that interested in working. But as long as everyone gets something out of the deal, be it a public-housing unit for a relative or an absence of on-the-job oversight, everyone stays quiet.

So it's basically structural corruption, all the time. Oh, and what a lovely thing to say about a large group of city employees who have the unenviable job of trying to keep substandard housing units in an underfunded agency somewhat habitable. Guess the problems aren't at the top; it's all lazy workers and uppity tenants.

The back story here has been well reported by Larry Bush as Citireport, who over the past year has outlined in detail how Alvarez tried to use his political clout to defund the Housing Rights Commitee, a nonprofit that helps public housing tenants. Turns out the HRC has been a bit of a pain for Alvarez because its staff is agressive about demanding that repairs are made on time and basic maintenance is done.

Alvarez went so far as to contact (presumably on city time) the Tides Foundation, which acts as HRC's fiscal sponsor, demanding documents that aren't public record (but that Tides provided anyway). In emails to the mayor's housing advisor, Doug Shoemaker, Alvarez made clear that he wanted the city to cut of the $90,000 that HRC gets for code-enforcement work.

On April 7, Alvarez sent a rapid-fire series of questions and requests to Shoemaker at the Mayor’s Office of Housing, all apparently intended to uncover problems with the nonprofit and provide grounds for ending city funding. Shoemaker complied with the document requests while trying to cajole Alvarez away from a confrontation with HRC. “I realize that you don’t think I’m doing enough to keep HRC out of your hair,” Shoemaker wrote to Alvarez on April 7, “so I spent part of my evening last night getting the records request (from HRC) rescinded.”

So: The Housing Authority director thinks a widely-respected tenant rights group is "in his hair" and wants to cut off the group's money because it's doing its job of helping tenants deal with the HA bureacracy.

Oh, and it's not as if HRC is making up the problems. Willie Brown can complain all he wants that the tenants are just annoying malcontents, but the record shows there are serious problems with the Housing Authority:

Hundreds of San Francisco families continue to live in tax-payer subsidized housing that fails minimum standards for health, safety, and sanitary conditions, according to recent inspections by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). San Francisco’s response is to defer compliance with housing codes “until replacement housing can be found.”

You want an idea of how serious? Check this out.

I'm glad Sup David Campos as asked for a compliance audit on the agency, because in the end, this is really about the tenants.

Oh, and just in case anyone has forgotten, this was the guy Willie Brown had running the Housing Authority.