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The Mayor Yells Fire 

The mayor keeps talking about the terrible condition of public housing, but won't take action

Wednesday, May 23 2007
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On Friday, May 11, Mayor Gavin Newsom released a blue-ribbon commission report saying San Francisco public housing is so decrepit it would take $267 million to make apartments habitable.

"This is a crisis of monumental proportion," the mayor was quoted as saying. "We've got to do something about it."

A few weeks before that, the mayor convened a different panel, which issued a separate report, saying the city must rescue its decayed public housing.

"There is no choice," the mayor was quoted as saying. "This is not a city that's going to abandon thousands and thousands of individuals."

Strangely, the more emphatic our mayor's bimonthly statements have become about fixing public housing, the further he seems to distance himself from actually following through on his words.

In Sept. 2006 Newsom was quoted saying fixing public housing "is where all my political capital will go."

In March 2005 Newsom was quoted emphasizing his dedication to fixing up public housing, saying "the worst thing we can do is maintain the status quo."

Not long after he was elected mayor, Newsom told journalists he would lift San Francisco's public housing out of disrepair and despair.

"What we're trying to do is give people alternatives, give them hope, give them something else to believe in, give them a moment to reflect and pause and say, 'Maybe things are changing, maybe there is something new that's happening,'" Newsom was quoted as saying, in June 2004.

Reality check: Three years later, conditions are getting worse.

According to Newsom's new blue-ribbon commission report, the entire time the mayor was making these pathos-imbued statements, public housing projects deteriorated and crime worsened due to inadequate maintenance, bad financial oversight, and poor security.

And these problems can be traced to management failures during Newsom's time in office.

When it comes to public housing, in other words, our mayor has spent three years running around screaming his hair's on fire, without bothering to extinguish the flames.

For example, the report encourages the Housing Authority — which oversees 6,400 apartments housing 35,000 residents and which is run by a commission appointed by the mayor — to do what it can to obtain federal grants to replace decrepit apartments.

Newsom, however, is the only mayor in a generation not to have signed applications for federal grants aimed at fixing substandard public housing under a program called Hope Six. This failure could have cost the city as much as $60 million in federal grants during the past three years.

Those funds are desperately needed. Apartments at public housing projects citywide are decaying at an ever-worsening rate, due in part to a disastrously run maintenance operation, which the mayor should have changed but didn't.

Also according to the report, plumbers and other maintenance workers performing repairs on San Francisco public housing enjoy featherbedding work rules that would do Hollywood Teamsters proud, resulting in extraordinary delays and extra costs to fix the simplest clogged sink. Instead of calling a handyman to unclog it, building management must call in a union plumber, and then call a different, specialized worker to repair the floor that was soaked by the sink overflow.

The results are cracks, leaks, mold, stoppages, water damage, and other ruin that can take weeks to repair, costing the government a fortune in the process, hastening the overall decay of apartments and the buildings they're in.

"It not only causes the costs for maintenance to skyrocket," the report said, "it causes a backlog of work issues and effects the timely completion of work orders."

Thanks to featherbedding, a typical vacated apartment takes 128 days to prepare for re-rental — despite the fact that the maintenance department is overstaffed, the report says. This means the Housing Authority unnecessarily loses hundreds of dollars in rent money every time an apartment becomes vacant.

These egregious work rules have been in place throughout Newsom's mayoralty. Somehow, however, he hasn't announced he's "spending political capital" to confront unions and insist that the Housing Authority Commission renegotiate these labor contracts.

When the Housing Authority's management of its work force has come under more detailed scrutiny, the results have been ugly.

A 2000 federal inspector general's audit determined that between 1997 and 1999, at the Clementina, Sunnydale, and Potrero Annex projects alone, the Housing Authority may have given staff workers more than $18 million in excessive pay.

In response, the Housing Authority essentially flipped federal auditors the bird, saying the investigators' conclusions were "unfounded," but that the agency would nonetheless be a good sport and "continue to monitor its processes to make them as responsive and user-friendly as possible."

During his cyclical public expressions of concern about public housing, Newsom has not addressed this apparent system of money squandering. (Newsom's press office did not return calls requesting comment, nor did the director of the Mayor's Office on Housing.)


Our mayor's public expressions of concern about public housing often follow outbreaks of shootings. This makes sense, given that, depending on the year, 30 to 40 percent of the city's gun violence happens at or near public housing.

What doesn't make sense, however, is our city's approach to policing the projects. The Housing Authority pays into the general city budget $1 million every year for police services, getting in return four teams of four police officers.

Housing Authority personnel interviewed by Newsom's Blue Ribbon Commission said the city cops spend most of their time at their special ghetto police stations, instead of actually patrolling the projects.

In a detail that would be hilarious if it were, well, actually not very funny, the 16 cops' special contract to police ghetto projects has them knocking off at 11 p.m. Yes, at 11 p.m., it's time to leave duty and go home, presumably so that they can catch the late news to see if anyone got shot.

Also in the Blue Ribbon report: The city spends another $500,000 per year on private security guards. A detail that didn't make the report is that the security guards don't appear to do much, according to Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who's made a habit of rushing to every shooting in the city, talking to police, and reviewing police reports.

"At every gun violence incident that's occurred, when they're on or contiguous to public housing, the first thing I ask is, "Where's the security?' I've pulled police reports to determine if there are any witness statements from Housing Authority security guards. They're never there," Mirkarimi said. "The first action I would propose is, get rid of Housing Authority contracted security."

Also not in the report is the fact that one simple key to reducing violent crime and other repeat criminal activity in dangerous, often gang-infested housing projects, is routine visits by probation officers. The city's probation departments are sorely understaffed, however. Last year the mayor recommended paring the department even more with a reported $1.52 million in proposed probation department budget cuts.

A central thrust of Newsom's Blue Ribbon Commission report is that San Francisco should press ahead with a program called Hope SF, under which private developers would be recruited to rebuild decrepit ghetto housing into mixed-income, mixed-use apartment villages. This program was also the subject of Newsom's earlier May public-housing-related panel report, the one that led Newsom to say we're not "going to abandon thousands and thousands of individuals."

The problem with this talk about integrating our city's invisible slums through mixed-use development — which conceptually is a fantastic idea — is that precisely such a project has been underway at the gunshot-plagued, largely boarded-up abyss at Hunters View for two years. And there's been no visible progress. The idea was that a consortium led by the multi-unit housing developer the John Stewart Company would tear down and rebuild this slum into a denser, more economically diverse neighborhood with lots of nearby shopping.

In practice, it's been a "very interesting, convoluted, brain-damaged deal in an unsafe neighborhood," company chairman and founder John Stewart told a trade magazine last month.

After two years and scores of community meetings and presentations to the Housing Authority Commission, the developer finds itself some $40 million short of the amount of money needed to build such a project. Making the project denser with market rate apartments would theoretically cover the cost. But this is a hard sell politically; commissioners and community members have been loath to add middle-class housing to the redeveloped slum. The project recently received preliminary conceptual approval from the Housing Authority Commission for a plan that would increase the current 14-unit per acre slum with 35 units per acre of low-income apartments and for-sale condominiums. He said he hopes to begin breaking ground in a year or two.

"I'm pleased the mayor has made it such a part of his urban goals," said Jack Gardner, CEO of the John Stewart Co., before noting that getting plans for the project approved has gone slowly. "They're trying, I think. But in some other communities, approvals can come in months — not years."

The Hunters View project's future nonetheless remains uncertain given the funding shortfall. The future of the thousands of other broken-down public housing units that Newsom's blue ribbon reports say might be refurbished under a similar scheme, are less certain still.

A $100 million housing bond might get rebuilding projects such as the one at Hunters View moving. Since shortly after he was elected, Newsom has been promising he'd back such an initiative on the ballot. Recent polls, however, which say such a bond measure might not pass, have apparently led the mayor to holster his political capital. Housing advocacy groups that backed previous low-income housing bond measures have not heard from the mayor, as they surely would have in the event he was actually planning such a campaign.

The belief among housing advocates is that Newsom has no plans to back a bond.

Viewed from the perspective of his inaction, the next time the mayor starts hollering about San Francisco's dilapidated, violent, dangerous, and degrading slum housing as if his hair were on fire, San Francisco should ask: "Why not put out the flames?"

About The Author

Matt Smith

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