EDITOR’S NOTES The guy who runs the San Francisco Housing Authority is in pretty serious doo-doo: His agency has just been placed on the federal government’s “troubled” list, and he’s getting sued by his own lawyer, and he’s hiding from the press while tenants complain that they can’t get basic repairs.
Although Mayor Ed Lee has so far officially stuck by Henry Alvarez, he’s already backing off a bit, and it’s pretty likely Alvarez will be gone when his contract expires this summer. He may be gone even sooner than that; there’s a growing chorus of voices calling on the mayor to fire him.
So at some point we’ll get a new director, who will make a handsome salary (Alvarez gets $210,000 a year plus a car and seven weeks paid vacation) and live in a nice house and go into work every day to deal with problems that are pretty damn far from his or her life.
That’s always the case to some extent with the heads of agencies who deal with the poor, but it’s particularly dramatic when you talk about the Housing Authority. Public housing is never luxurious, but in San Francisco, it’s been riddled with problems for many years. And frankly, I’m much more concerned about the tenants than about Alvarez or his management style.
I get that the Housing Authority has financial problems. The federal government long ago abandoned any serious commitment to funding housing in American cities, and the authority only recently managed to pay off a multimillion-dollar judgment from a lawsuit filed by the families of a grandmother and five children killed in a fire on Housing Authority property.
Yet, tenant advocate continue to complain that it can be hard, even impossible to get a response from the agency. When critics complain, the agency goes after them: The Housing Rights Committee went after the Housing Authority over evictions, and wound up getting investigated by SFHA employees who wanted to gut their city funding. And while some say Alvarez is a hard-charging person who demands results (and thus pisses some people off), nobody has used the words open, accessible or compassionate to describe him.
I’ve got an idea for the next director (or for Alvarez, if he wants to stick around). Why not live in public housing?
Seriously: Why shouldn’t the person who controls the safety and welfare of tenants in more than 6,000 units spend a little time understanding what their lives are like? Why not spend, say, one night a week in one of those apartments?
In the old days, judges used to sentence slumlords to live in their own decrepit buildings, which seemed to work pretty well: Once the guy in charge has to deal with the rats and roaches and broken windows, he’s much more likely to expedite repairs.
But it wouldn’t have to be punitive — just a chance to get a first-hand look at how the agency policies are working on the ground. The city employee unions have had a lot of success asking members of the Board of Supervisors to do a union worker’s job for a day; the director of the San Francisco Housing Authority could certainly live like one of his tenants every now and then.
Think of it as a management tool: What better way to figure out whether his staff is doing the job than to look at the end product? Or figure it as a way to stop being an asshole and see what people who live on less than ten percent of his salary really think of his administration.