Bum Advice

Ignore the trumped-up complaining; it is time to throw the bums out of the Housing Authority

While San Franciscans were savoring the spectacle of another Willie Brown acarreado1 parade earlier this month, I was in Mexico City, watching political herdsmanship of a more original sort.

It was the first of May, which outside the U.S. means International Workers Day, and I was jostling along with a mob of white-suited Boing!2 workers, making my way to Mexico City's Zócalo, or central plaza. There, the members of a few score of labor unions stood in the smoggy sun facing a large platform where speaker after speaker called for worker solidarity, denounced a proposed government sales tax hike on medicine and food, and mocked President Vicente Fox's rumored plans to sell electricity to the United States. It was nearly identical to the half-dozen or so May Day rallies I'd seen here in years past -- a few thousand workers listlessly marching through the heat, endless speeches heard through an inadequate sound system, oft-mouthed phrases mouthed some more. But there was a crucial difference this time.

Previously, the event had been a traditional show of force by the ruling party and its government-controlled unions; now, for the first time in decades, the annual May Day workers' rally was about denouncing the president. Mexicans, having recently evicted a 70-year-old authoritarian government, were reveling in that grand piece of social technology known, in America, as Throwing the Bums Out.

The idea that when government leaders do an awful job it's best to replace them is hardly new; witness the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Muerte al PRI, etc. Given its lengthy track record of success, one might have expected Throwing the Bums Out to have become prosaic. But it's still a controversial notion in many parts of the world -- including, it seems, San Francisco, which has treated the aforementioned Willie Brown acarreados as if they were a spontaneous reflection of popular will, rather than, well, acarreados. (For those of you who save the footnotes until you're done reading the article, this word means "trucked-in ones," and is a Mexican political term referring to supporters herded to rallies to cheer for the ruling party.)

To reprise and explain: Matt Gonzalez, a lawyer elected to the Board of Supervisors last fall, has for the past couple of months been calling attention to the fact that the Housing Authority -- the agency charged with managing the city's 6,000 public housing units and 7,200 low-income housing vouchers -- has been run as if by a band of hoodlums. A federal audit report released just over a month ago charged that more than $18 million in Housing Authority funds had not been accounted for. The report referred to this missing money as "possibly excessive" costs. Judging from the context and tone of the report, which states that the authority tossed money around willy-nilly with only the barest excuse for an accounting system, this appears to be a euphemism for "money that could very well have been stolen."

Last year, the same federal auditors denounced the agency for squandering, between 1996 and 1999, hundreds of thousands of dollars via suspect contracting practices and inflated administrative salaries. To ice the cake, in March an Ohio federal grand jury indicted San Francisco Housing Authority Director Ronnie Davis on charges of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money while working for the Housing Authority there; he is now on leave of absence from the S.F. authority.

It's not as if the federal audit or the federal indictment should have come as unexpected news. As has been reported repeatedly in this publication and elsewhere, the Housing Authority has given plenty of indication that it was a criminally influenced organization for years. Peter Byrne's recent story, "The Great Minnow Hunt" [Dec. 6, 2000], turned up allegations that the agency was run as a massive bunco scheme in which prospective tenants were shaken down for bribes, housing vouchers were sold as scrip, and agency executives lied on federal grant applications worth tens of millions of dollars.

In keeping with this atmosphere of criminality, the Housing Authority employment office had meanwhile become a hiring hall for ex-cons, with jobs, often high-paying ones, going to suspected crack kingpins and gangbangers. The result was an exacerbated atmosphere of fear at the city's housing projects, as described in the SF Weekly investigative story "Crime and Patronage" [Aug. 19, 1998].

If ever there were a problem that Throwing the Bums Out was designed to solve, the Housing Authority imbroglio would seem to be it. To this Out-Throwing end, Supervisor Gonzalez proposed to dissolve the Housing Authority Commission -- the members of which are currently appointed by the mayor -- and to bring the commission under the purview of the city's Board of Supervisors, which, at least, does not have a record of actively ignoring criminal activity in public office.

In a First World city, this move would probably be seen as simple, and obvious. In such a city, Gonzalez would either have been ignored -- why should doing the obvious be worthy of note? -- or praised mildly, for doing good where good obviously needed to be done.

In San Francisco, of course we were treated to the acarreados of Willie Brown, a group of around 200 presumed public housing tenants who packed a City Hall policy hearing earlier this month to denounce Gonzalez's plans to dissolve the Housing Authority Commission. Gonzalez has since been vilified as a racist, apparently, and entirely, because he is white and wants to throw the bums out of Housing Authority management. (Many of the agency's current employees are black, as are many residents in its buildings.) Supporters of that management suggested that, by asking acting Housing Authority Executive Director Gregg Fortner detailed questions about a recent Inspector General's audit of the authority, Gonzalez had showed himself to be prejudiced against African-Americans.

"You have brought racism to a high point!" the Chronicle quoted one such meeting attendee as saying.

Chroniclecolumnist Ken Garcia had suggested that Gonzalez's proposal proved our current Board of Supervisors is "gauche." "Our latest band of civic saviors has determined to take on an issue so far beyond its expertise it would make its previous monumental lapses pale by comparison," he wrote.

So last week, I found myself calling upon Jewel Green, 76, matron of the Hunters View housing project. She's lived for the past half-century in various San Francisco housing projects, spending the last 15 at Hunters View, which is located in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, one of the city's toughest. When I caught up with her, she'd just returned from dispersing a brawl.

"Some guy came up here, he was black, he bought some drugs; the dope wasn't good dope, it was fake stuff. He came back with a baseball bat, and 30 people jumped on him," complains Green, whose voice betrays the weariness of someone who's routinely asked to police such matters. "I'm the one gets the call. I go out, and all of them take off running. We never get any police when we need them."

Ms. Green didn't join the troops who showed up to denounce Matt Gonzalez the other day. She says she watched them on television and was angered. Current Housing Authority management, she says, has overseen a series of structures that remain dilapidated and dangerous, year after year. "I saw those people on TV. I saw them and know who they are," Green says. "They're doing nothing but lying."

Former Supervisor Amos Brown, who has organized City hall protests supporting the indicted and suspended Ronnie Davis, has also praised the agency's policy of hiring ex-convicts, saying the policy provides work for the otherwise unemployable. Green says no other community in San Francisco would tolerate being forced to share its apartment buildings with ex-con day laborers.

"You take somebody who has been in jail two or three times for drugs -- they cannot possibly be doing a good job. Don't bring anybody over us who's been in the pen two or three times. If you want to get him a job, fine, but don't put him over us," Green says, adding that the presence of convicted criminals on the authority payroll adds to an already tense housing project atmosphere. "I hear shooting, killing. There's roofs caving in people's houses. They move them out, move them back in, and the same place has caved in again. They don't have qualified people doing the work. There's no business having a roof fall in a second time.

"I'm black. I've worked with people of every color, and this is not a racist problem; it's a problem that has to be solved. Look at the money these people have taken. Every time you pick up the paper, somebody has robbed somebody here. Every time you look up, somebody at the Housing Authority has taken money. These people ought to be gone. They don't have any business being there. There is no reason to have this money missing."

Ergo: Throw the Bums Out.

This credo may appear racist and gauche to some of the mayor's supporters.

But it's worth asking: When an agency charged with providing housing for the city's poorest residents is turned into a multimillion-dollar money tree for political cronies of the mayor, can that situation not also be labeled, at least, gauche? When housing vouchers are sold as scrip by bureaucratic Mafiosi, thereby shutting out poor black people who've been waiting for years for affordable places to live, can that misuse of resources not be seen as a kind of racism, too? And when the Housing Authority becomes a jobs program for convicted criminals, rather than an organization dedicated to making public housing better for its residents, is that circumstance not gauche, and racist, and, well, just plain awful?

For those concerned about these problems, yet still put off by the frightening gaucherie of eliminating the culpable, I remind you that our city recently Threw Out the Bums, and to surprisingly good effect.

Last fall we discarded a Board of Supervisors that had served largely as a rubber-stamp committee for the mayor. That many of the new supes professed liberal leanings provoked only-in-San-Francisco sneers among the likes of USA Today, Garcia, Mayor Brown, et al. But the fact is the new board hasn't done anything terribly untoward. If anything, city politics has been vitalized by the new supervisors' zeal.

Part of that vitality (and just as in the case of Mexico these days, you can see it and feel it on the street, in cafes, in San Francisco's central plaza, and in City Hall) comes from the hope that the new board will consummate its popular mandate to confront the corruption of the Brown administration. That a couple of hundred phony acarreados showed up to intimidate Matt Gonzalez into recoiling from this task is entirely to be expected in a place like San Francisco, which is only now learning how to Throw the Bums Out. It's still a couple of months before the American version of Labor Day, but it just might be high time for San Francisco citizens to revel in our newfound power. Tell the mayor and the rest of the supervisors that public housing isn't meant as a patronage trough -- it's a way to provide shelter for those who can't afford it. At least it will be, when San Francisco joins the First World.

As many who know me are aware, since receiving the advice of well-meaning strangers a few months ago, I had been diligently preparing myself for the moment I would try Today's Medical Marijuana. Naturally, I wanted my first time to be special. I desired a provider I could count on for discretion, support, and an easygoing attitude -- in the parlance of the medical marijuana community, I wanted someone who was "cool." And naturally, I decided to contact Marion P. Fry, M.D., who practices in Cool, Calif.

Actually, though, given the unique protocols of the medical marijuana movement, it seemed important that I start using my medicine before consulting a doctor. As Dr. Fry says in one of his medical marijuana bulletin board postings, it's important to "see a doctor if you are using marijuana as a medicine and become legal."

So in the same manner that I would consult a physician after beginning a regimen of, say, cytotoxic chemotherapeutic drugs, I thought I'd light a doobie or six, then call Dr. Fry for medical advice. Alas, just as I was about to embark on this journey toward wellness, I read of Clarence Thomas' opinion that medical claims for marijuana are bogus under federal law. Now, I'll grant that Thomas is a most bogus Supreme Court justice. But given that in California medical marijuana has largely become a bogus pretext for big-money recreational drug dealing, it seemed wise to pay the good judge heed. I'll save my virgin toke for another day. The one when hell freezes over, and the Supreme Court legalizes pot.

1 The term "acarreado," or "trucked-in ones," is a Mexican political term describing members of the poorest sectors of the population -- campesinos, garbage pickers, and the like -- who were traditionally trucked in to public demonstrations of support for ruling-party hierarchs, usually for the price of a T-shirt and a sandwich. In this case I'm referring to the 200 or so souls bused to City Hall earlier this month to defend the S.F. Housing Authority from probing by Supervisor Matt Gonzalez.

2 A brand of soft drink.

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