How to save the Housing Authority

Pub date January 23, 2008
WriterSara Shortt
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION After repeated media attention to the myriad problems at the San Francisco Housing Authority, Mayor Gavin Newsom asked the agency’s director, Gregg Fortner, to resign. An interim director, Mirian Saez, was appointed to fill his shoes until a national search is conducted to find a permanent replacement. The mayor has announced replacements for two of the seven commissioners; one of the new appointees, Dwayne Jones, is a senior Newsom staffer.

As an affordable-housing advocate who works with residents of public housing, I am overjoyed at the prospect of change at the agency. No matter who is chosen to be the new director, a few key changes should be seriously considered for the city’s largest low-income-housing provider. Here are some suggestions:

1. Appoint commissioners who get it and care. The mayor could have made sweeping changes after he asked the SFHA commissioners to submit letters of resignation. Instead, he used the opportunity to appoint someone who is on his payroll. As long as political connections continue to trump experience, understanding, and compassion, tenants will suffer. What about having a public process in which residents and the community can nominate candidates? How about sharing the power to appoint housing commissioners with the Board of Supervisors, as is done with some other city commissions?

2. Listen to the residents, damn it! While it is refreshing to see the mayor look for solutions to the rampant problems at the SFHA, a panel of national experts is hardly necessary. The best experts are right here. They are residents, and they are clamoring to have their voices heard. Conduct a local survey, have regular open meetings, encourage the formation of resident councils, work with service providers and community groups that reach out to residents, and allow for resident participation as much as possible.

3. Talk among yourselves. The same lessons we learned after Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina apply to this disaster as well. City agencies that serve public housing residents are often unaware of the major issues at public housing developments. The Departments of Building Inspections and Public Health, for instance, should be monitoring conditions and reporting to the mayor and the supervisors. The Mayor’s Office of Housing should be working closely with the Redevelopment Agency, the Office of Community Development, and the Human Service Agency as they plan for the demolition and rebuilding of distressed projects. City officials and agencies shouldn’t have to pull teeth to get basic information from the SFHA.

4. Tell Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues to fight like hell. Whoever leads the Housing Authority in the future will always have a defense against charges of not addressing poor conditions because Congress keeps hacking away at the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget. We have powerful congressional representation in San Francisco; let’s push harder.

5. Step up to the plate to provide local resources to improve public housing. As hard as we fight to leverage more federal funds, it is nearly certain that the SFHA will still be severely underfunded. We can no longer rely solely on federal funds to house our lowest-income residents. A commitment to creative and innovative local funding solutions must continue or we will see an increase in the exodus of African American families, which the mayor claims to be committed to curbing.

Sara Shortt

Sara Shortt is executive director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco.