Examiner Editorial: The city housing authority that couldn’t

When trouble is uncovered at a city’s public housing agency, it generally involves failure to keep the units livable. Our San Francisco Housing Authority has certainly been caught in too many of these embarrassing foul-ups through the years. But now, the SFHA seems to be exploring new depths of incompetency.

The Inspector General’s Office of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department issued a scathing audit of the Housing Authority’s Section 8 rentals, uncovering a spectacular inability to enforce safe and healthy living conditions for the tenants. The inspector general found that 89 percent of the Section 8 units it randomly audited were below federal quality standards.

HUD’s Section 8 program is a public-private partnership that funnels money to local housing agencies for subsidizing rents to private landlords of low-income tenants. The City’s Housing Authority receives around $212 million annually from HUD, more than half of which is spent on Section 8 rental vouchers.

The SFHA had supposedly inspected 1,255 of its Section 8 homes. But when federal inspectors randomly rechecked 65, they discovered that no less than 516 deficiencies were accumulated among 58 residences. Many of these violations were substantial, such as electrical hazards, security breaches, garbage and debris. Auditors reported that some Section 8 houses had missing doors, leaving the rear of the units totally exposed.

Particularly mind-boggling is that the Housing Authority doesn’t even need to make Section 8 repairs. All it had to do was inspect the properties each year — as required by federal law — and either withhold rent subsidies until the landlord made repairs or just move the tenants into better-kept units.

During 2009, the authority failed to collect more than $2 million in rent owed by tenants living in its public housing developments, blaming the problem primarily on computer glitches and faulty record keeping. This resulted in some tenants being overcharged while others weren’t making rent payments, creating a backlog of uncollected rents that violates federal regulations. So now, the SFHA has extended its halt of evictions and is starting an installment plan for tenant repayments.

San Francisco Housing Authority Executive Director Henry Alvarez, brought in to clean up the agency two years ago, seems to have a curiously self-forgiving attitude toward these messes — as do members of the Housing Authority commission. Alvarez said about the HUD audit of inadequate inspections of the Section 8 rentals, “It confirms the suspicions we have had concerning the inspection group.” Do we need to point out that having suspicions is hardly as good as taking steps to ensure that the inspectors start doing their jobs
properly?

Alvarez and the commission say improvements are already under way and more are coming — which is a song we’ve heard from the authority before. The unacceptability of what is currently happening at the SFHA is easily illustrated by comparing it to a private business that fails to inspect its vendors or collect from its customers.

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