Telling the Truth about San Francisco’s Public Housing

by Randy Shaw, 2013-01-17

If all you knew about San Francisco’s public housing came from recent media stories, you would think Housing Authority Director Henry Alvarez is the cause of the problems. But while Alvarez must be removed, he is just the latest in a long line of Directors whose failures are less personal than systemic. The Housing Authority is in crisis because it is $260 million underfunded in its capital budget, and the federal government pays it less than 50% per unit than it pays landlords renting under the Section 8 program. We have problematic Housing Authority chiefs across the nation because quality managers will not take a job where they know they cannot succeed. And if anyone thinks that the SF Chronicle’s extensive coverage of Alvarez has anything to do with their concern about low-income tenants or improving the future of public housing, I have a bridge to sell you.

In 1989, I joined with other activists in a major campaign that resulted in a dramatic decline in the number of vacant public housing units. This turnaround was directly implemented by Mayor Agnos’ Housing Authority Director David Gilmore, who now has a similar job in New Orleans.

Despite his success, Gilmore was very unpopular with tenants, activists and City Hall folks. He was not a “people person,” and even though he may have been the most successful SFHA Director in the past four decades, neither he nor Mayor Agnos got much credit for his accomplishments.

The federal underfunding of public housing was bad in the Agnos years, and it has gotten much, much worse. And for every Sara Shortt whose criticisms of the Housing Authority are based on a commitment to tenants, there are 50 critics whose goal is the elimination and defunding of public housing altogether.

These opponents have used complaints about Housing Authorities to justify demolishing over 100,000 public housing units in the past decade. Congressional Republicans have refused to fund the rebuilding of demolished projects, and have denied Housing Authorities the ongoing funding necessary to maintain units and keep a sometimes very troubled tenant population housed.

So while the media attacks Mayor Lee for not acting quicker in disposing of Alvarez, public housing advocates should be grateful that this mayor understands the true nature of the crisis. He recognizes from his long years working with tenants that public housing does not simply need a change of deck chairs, it needs a new ship.

I understand the dynamic whereby reporters target a public official and then claim victory when they are removed. But if the Chronicle wants to show it really cares about public housing tenants, it will run ongoing stories about inadequate federal public housing money and how this cheats low-income families out of the safe and decent homes they deserve.
We look forward to reading such stories, as well as Chronicle editorials calling out politicians by name for underfunding the chief housing of last resort for the nation’s poorest families.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron