Allegations of racism and other discrimination against San Francisco Housing Authority Executive Director Henry Alvarez are flying in lawsuits filed by his subordinates, and it isn’t the first time the position has been plagued with criticism.
Two top Housing Authority attorneys are going to court over what they describe as inappropriate management by Alvarez, who is black and is accused of denying promotions, violating federal employee leave policies and assigning embarrassing tasks — at times based on racial bias against white people.
Attorney Tim Larsen, a white man, claims Alvarez denied him a promotion based on his race, as evidenced by comments he made to Larsen to not be “so Anglo” and admitting he would have granted the promotion “if you had more melatonin in your skin,” according to court documents filed last month. The suit surmises that Alvarez actually was referring to “melanin,” a hormone that determines skin pigment.
In one bizarre account, Alvarez allegedly asked Larsen to climb a telephone pole to cut down some dangling shoes. When Larsen questioned why he was being asked to do the task when it was clearly not in his attorney job description, Alvarez allegedly replied, “you and I are like Captain Kirk and Spock; you will never escape me.”
In a separate lawsuit, Housing Authority attorney Roger Crawford, a black man and Alvarez’s special assistant, complains that his boss spoke openly to others about Crawford’s leave of absence and suggested Crawford should “hurry up and return otherwise he would be subject to a demotion.”
While Mayor Ed Lee’s office had no specific comment on the legal action, the mayor has called for a “very swift” investigation of the matter by the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission, a panel of mayoral appointees that oversees the federal agency.
“The mayor would like to see an investigation move forward and come to some conclusion before he weighs in,” said mayoral spokeswoman Christine Falvey, adding that the Housing Authority is a “tough agency” to run. “Right now they’re just allegations, but they’re very serious allegations.”
In his former role as city administrator, Lee recommended Alvarez for the job after a “nationwide search” following the 2007 under-pressure resignation of longtime Housing Authority Director Gregg Fortner, who clashed with then-Mayor Gavin Newsom over public housing conditions. Lee also happened to officiate Alvarez’s recent wedding, although Housing Authority spokeswoman Rose Dennis said the gesture was done more in his capacity as the mayor than as a personal friend.
Dennis declined to comment on the lawsuits, citing general confidentiality concerns over legal action.
“Mr. Alvarez is not going to be distracted by the pending litigation,” Dennis said. “He’s got a lot of support not only in the general community, but with the community leaders and elected leaders.”