Flip That Housing Authority

Local officials are resisting a federal takeover of the Housing Authority. They should stop.

Late afternoon last Thursday at San Francisco's Soweto, a housing project known as Hunters View, wouldn't ordinarily be described as "troubled," in the sense of being worse than any other evening of any other month or year.

Sure, dozens and dozens of young men at these cement apartment buildings near Candlestick Park stood still and expressionless on doorsteps, on the weed and dirt stretches between buildings, and on the skid-mark-filigreed street. But their impassiveness suggests this evening is nothing out of the ordinary.

It may be true that three-quarters of the apartments in the West Point Road building inhabited by Eunice Holmes, a 57-year-old great-grandmother who lives on public assistance, have had their windows covered in graying plywood. But the boarding up of public housing units has been going on for years now. And Hunters View residents seemed pretty much accustomed to living in mostly abandoned buildings.

Holmes' roof sags with a gaping hole from water damage, caused when thieves broke into the apartment above and stole a sink, which ruptured a pipe. Gushing water caved in her ceiling while ruining furniture and clothes. But that was four years ago. Holmes has been complaining to San Francisco Housing Authority maintenance workers ever since. They've done several repairs. Still, her ceiling continues to leak and sag.

"I'd like them to fix my house to the way it was before the roof fell in," Holmes says, in a matter-of-fact tone.

While the miserable conditions at Hunters View and other city-run public housing projects may be old hat for residents, federal inspectors are apparently appalled.

San Francisco's Housing Authority, which oversees 6,400 apartments that house 35,000 residents, is now officially "troubled," according to a just-released report by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The "troubled" moniker does more than merely describe the reality of the Housing Authority's insolvent finances, ramshackle buildings, deadly exposed wiring, and other safety violations. This designation carries with it bureaucratic force: It could jeopardize the local agency's ability to collect millions of dollars in subsidies from the federal government. And if the deficiencies cited in HUD inspections triggering the "troubled" designation persist, rules say that the federal government may take the local agency over.

And this may be a very good thing.

A federal takeover has the potential to require HUD to spend millions of additional dollars improving the local agency's finances, and repairing the appalling physical condition of San Francisco low-income apartments.

Housing Authority executive director Gregg Fortner, however, has been doing everything within his power to avoid a federal takeover. And Mayor Gavin Newsom has apparently been backing Fortner in this questionable campaign.

That's because for all the benefits such a federal takeover might convey on residents, it would amount to an admission of failure by the Housing Authority, and by the Housing Authority Commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor.

Apparently, our city fathers lack the courage to admit failure during an election year, even if the result might be to improve the lives of people like Eunice Holmes.

Momentum has been building for several years toward a possible federal takeover of San Francisco's locally controlled system of subsidized housing. But during the past few weeks it has snowballed.

In addition to the HUD report dubbing S.F. public housing as "troubled," additional inspectors' reports obtained by SF Weeklyportray conditions evoking apartheid-era images of Soweto, the township near Johannesburg.

Many of the city's housing projects are deathtraps, these newly released inspectors reports say.

According to a yearly HUD report from the period ending in October 2005, Hunters View was among 32 out of 40 inspected projects operated by the Housing Authority that suffered "life threatening health and safety deficiencies." Most of the projects had units that lacked smoke detectors.

The agency's newfound "troubled" status, meanwhile, refers not only to the aforementioned physical problems, and but to the well-publicized issue of the Housing Authority's ongoing insolvency.

As it happens, the agency's financial problems have roots in an apartment just upstairs from Holmes.

On Dec. 12, 1997, an early-morning fire in the now-abandoned apartment above Holmes' killed five children and their grandmother. A jury awarded family members a $12 million verdict for the Housing Authority's failure to install smoke detectors.

Yet, according to the federal inspectors' report, Hunters View is among 29 S.F. housing projects where some units still lacked smoke detectors.

That jury award, along with another $3 million in two separate verdicts in sexual harassment cases against the Housing Authority, have added financial peril to the agency's woes.

The agency's been unable to fully pay the $15 million in outstanding lawsuit judgments. HUD, which finances the Housing Authority, has so far not allowed the agency to use federal money to pay the judgments.

A court recently appointed former S.F. Mayor, and former regional HUD representative, Art Agnos, to act as a receiver for the local agency, as a way to force the Housing Authority to pay its legal bills.

(In 1996, Willie Brown requested that HUD briefly take over the Housing Authority. It was handed back to city control a year later.)

Agnos told me last week that his first order of business would be to push for HUD to take over the agency, so that federal deep pockets would be required to pay the judgments, and also improve conditions at Housing Authority apartments.

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