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Flip That Housing Authority 

Local officials are resisting a federal takeover of the Housing Authority. They should stop.

Wednesday, May 2 2007
Late afternoon last Thursday at San Francisco's Soweto, a housing project known as Hunters View, wouldn't ordinarily be described as "troubled," in the sense of being worse than any other evening of any other month or year.

Sure, dozens and dozens of young men at these cement apartment buildings near Candlestick Park stood still and expressionless on doorsteps, on the weed and dirt stretches between buildings, and on the skid-mark-filigreed street. But their impassiveness suggests this evening is nothing out of the ordinary.

It may be true that three-quarters of the apartments in the West Point Road building inhabited by Eunice Holmes, a 57-year-old great-grandmother who lives on public assistance, have had their windows covered in graying plywood. But the boarding up of public housing units has been going on for years now. And Hunters View residents seemed pretty much accustomed to living in mostly abandoned buildings.

Holmes' roof sags with a gaping hole from water damage, caused when thieves broke into the apartment above and stole a sink, which ruptured a pipe. Gushing water caved in her ceiling while ruining furniture and clothes. But that was four years ago. Holmes has been complaining to San Francisco Housing Authority maintenance workers ever since. They've done several repairs. Still, her ceiling continues to leak and sag.

"I'd like them to fix my house to the way it was before the roof fell in," Holmes says, in a matter-of-fact tone.

While the miserable conditions at Hunters View and other city-run public housing projects may be old hat for residents, federal inspectors are apparently appalled.

San Francisco's Housing Authority, which oversees 6,400 apartments that house 35,000 residents, is now officially "troubled," according to a just-released report by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The "troubled" moniker does more than merely describe the reality of the Housing Authority's insolvent finances, ramshackle buildings, deadly exposed wiring, and other safety violations. This designation carries with it bureaucratic force: It could jeopardize the local agency's ability to collect millions of dollars in subsidies from the federal government. And if the deficiencies cited in HUD inspections triggering the "troubled" designation persist, rules say that the federal government may take the local agency over.

And this may be a very good thing.

A federal takeover has the potential to require HUD to spend millions of additional dollars improving the local agency's finances, and repairing the appalling physical condition of San Francisco low-income apartments.

Housing Authority executive director Gregg Fortner, however, has been doing everything within his power to avoid a federal takeover. And Mayor Gavin Newsom has apparently been backing Fortner in this questionable campaign.

That's because for all the benefits such a federal takeover might convey on residents, it would amount to an admission of failure by the Housing Authority, and by the Housing Authority Commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor.

Apparently, our city fathers lack the courage to admit failure during an election year, even if the result might be to improve the lives of people like Eunice Holmes.

Momentum has been building for several years toward a possible federal takeover of San Francisco's locally controlled system of subsidized housing. But during the past few weeks it has snowballed.

In addition to the HUD report dubbing S.F. public housing as "troubled," additional inspectors' reports obtained by SF Weekly portray conditions evoking apartheid-era images of Soweto, the township near Johannesburg.

Many of the city's housing projects are deathtraps, these newly released inspectors reports say.

According to a yearly HUD report from the period ending in October 2005, Hunters View was among 32 out of 40 inspected projects operated by the Housing Authority that suffered "life threatening health and safety deficiencies." Most of the projects had units that lacked smoke detectors.

The agency's newfound "troubled" status, meanwhile, refers not only to the aforementioned physical problems, and but to the well-publicized issue of the Housing Authority's ongoing insolvency.

As it happens, the agency's financial problems have roots in an apartment just upstairs from Holmes.

On Dec. 12, 1997, an early-morning fire in the now-abandoned apartment above Holmes' killed five children and their grandmother. A jury awarded family members a $12 million verdict for the Housing Authority's failure to install smoke detectors.

Yet, according to the federal inspectors' report, Hunters View is among 29 S.F. housing projects where some units still lacked smoke detectors.

That jury award, along with another $3 million in two separate verdicts in sexual harassment cases against the Housing Authority, have added financial peril to the agency's woes.

The agency's been unable to fully pay the $15 million in outstanding lawsuit judgments. HUD, which finances the Housing Authority, has so far not allowed the agency to use federal money to pay the judgments.

A court recently appointed former S.F. Mayor, and former regional HUD representative, Art Agnos, to act as a receiver for the local agency, as a way to force the Housing Authority to pay its legal bills.

(In 1996, Willie Brown requested that HUD briefly take over the Housing Authority. It was handed back to city control a year later.)

Agnos told me last week that his first order of business would be to push for HUD to take over the agency, so that federal deep pockets would be required to pay the judgments, and also improve conditions at Housing Authority apartments.

"These are citizens of our city living in these projects. And if the Housing Authority were a private landlord, they would have been put in jail," Agnos says.

A federal takeover of the agency might be an embarrassment for city government. Agnos, who has been recruited as a possible candidate for mayor by kingmakers such as real estate tycoon Clint Reilly, recognizes this possibility.

"No mayor wants to have a takeover of any kind of an agency, or department, which he is responsible for," Agnos says. "Even if Gandhi was put in as court receiver, the mayor, in an election year, would be trying to stop it with everything at his command."

Gregg Fortner, who serves at the pleasure of a Housing Authority Commission appointed by the mayor, has been doing exactly that.

"We are appealing this," Fortner said, referring to the federal "troubled" designation.

Fortner said he doesn't believe a federal takeover would compel the federal government to pay the lawsuit judgments, nor improve conditions in any other way. Apartment buildings run by the S.F. Housing Authority are in fine condition he believes, despite what federal reports may say.

"Those scores last year were, we feel, an anomaly," Fortner said, referring to the life-threatening conditions federal inspectors found at four-fifths of the city's public housing projects. "The fact is there's no operationally troubled agency."

Fortner has also instructed private attorneys retained by the Authority to appeal Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy's order to have Agnos take over the agency as receiver.

"It's too much authority for one person. It takes away from the powers vested in the local branch of government," Fortner said.

Fortner has apparently been steadily resisting a federal takeover of the Housing Authority since 2000, when the local agency first found it was unable to pay legal judgments stemming from the Hunters View fire, and from the sexual harassment cases. HUD has so far refused to help pay off the judgments.

For several years, Fortner tells me, he has refused to sign proposed agreements between HUD and S.F. officials on how the Housing Authority would improve the agency's condition. These agreements are required whenever a local housing agency is in financial or physical disarray. Under HUD rules, failure to sign and comply with these agreements can lead to federal takeover of a local housing agency. By apparently bending its own rules, and allowing Fortner to leave these recovery agreements unsigned, HUD may be saving money for President George Bush's Department of Housing and Urban Development by avoiding an expensive effort to take over and repair the beleaguered San Francisco housing agency.

"According to some interpretations we've been financially troubled since 2000," Fortner said. "We don't have a gentleman's agreement or anything like that. When they presented the [memorandum of agreement] to us, we simply said we couldn't do it."

For all the apparent fear our city fathers have of allowing federal officials to take over management of San Francisco public housing, an example of how a step might actually improve matters happens to be working right under the mayor's nose.

Mirian Saez, Mayor Gavin Newsom's handpicked czar of the Treasure Island Development Authority, previously gained national attention as federal receiver for the Chester, Penn., Housing Authority, overseeing that once-dysfunctional agency's demolition, rehabilitation, and construction of dozens of buildings, assisting residents with job prospects, and improving staffing. Newsom is surely aware of this legacy. In case you believe the mayor might have managed to overlook this fact, it's worth mentioning that Saez is domestic partner to the mayor's deputy chief of staff, Julian Potter.

Saez did not return a call requesting comment by this article's deadline nor did Matt Franklin, head of the mayor's office on housing.

Here's another reason to reject Fortner's protests against letting feds seize his agency. His contention that the Housing Authority is functioning just fine, apart from its legal debts, is doubtful.

Even if one imagines that federal inspectors were suffering some sort of mental lack of control when they described the vast majority of San Francisco public housing projects as death traps, it's hard to ignore the Apocalypse-Now-like feel of Holmes' neighborhood, building, and apartment.

And the just released federal inspection reports contain an appalling detail suggesting Fortner's overseeing an agency with a crippling inattention to detail.

Nearly 10 years after Delores Evans and her five grandchildren died in a fire at 132 West Point Rd., in an apartment that had no smoke alarm, federal inspectors report that some units at Hunters View housing project still lack smoke detectors.

Could this be the result of an inspection "anomaly?"

It's worth noting that the Housing Authority Commission was until recently the sinecure of FBI campaign-money-laundering suspect Julie Lee. Years before that, Jim Jones presided over the commission. Yes, him. I find it hard to believe that inspector-highlighted failure by this age-old political-appointee dumping ground is anomalous.

If there's anything that Newsom, a skilled politician, and Fortner, a bureaucratic survivor, know, it's when to quit.

For the good of Eunice Holmes, her neighbors, and the thousands of other San Francisco public housing residents, these two should step aside to let the federal government take charge of the S.F. Housing Authority.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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