Housing Authority not prioritizing Section 8 homes

San Francisco’s Housing Authority is failing to do one of its most basic jobs: hold landlords accountable for ensuring Section 8 housing units are safe and offer sanitary living conditions, according to a new federal audit.

The Office of the Inspector General, the investigative branch of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development department, found 89 percent of the Section 8 housing units in The City that were audited failed to meet federal quality standards.

Of the 1,255 homes inspected by the authority, federal inspectors randomly selected 65 for the audit. Of those, 58 had 516 deficiencies.

The deficiencies ranged from electrical hazards and security breaches to garbage and debris. In some cases houses had missing doors, with the rear of the unit fully exposed, according to the Aug. 31 audit report.

These health and safety issues have been neglected in part because the San Francisco Housing Authority — the nation’s 17th-largest — didn’t properly inspect Section 8 properties and make landlords accountable for upgrading living standards mandated by federal housing authorities.

The Housing Authority — which is responsible for maintaining safe and healthy living standards for low-income residents — admitted that it has been “self-managed” and has not established policies and procedures that would help inspectors ensure quality living standards for Section 8 rentals.

“It confirms the suspicions we have had concerning the inspection group,” said Henry Alvarez, executive director for the San Francisco Housing Authority. “We had some concerns with the inspection process as to whether they were not being done or being done properly.”

Dani Johnson knows this firsthand. The Bayview mother has been renting a three-bedroom house for the last year. During that time, she said she has contacted her landlord with complaints about mold in the bathroom, a leaky roof and no heat in her daughter’s bedroom.

She finally contacted the Housing Authority inspector, who said they would send the landlord a letter.

That was in May. Nothing has been fixed, Johnson said.

“I’m stressed,” Johnson said. “Why is she not helping me?”

Owen Brady, Johnson’s landlord, said he has fixed the leaky roof, although it won’t be noticed until a major downpour occurs. Other things, including the bathroom ceiling mold, he said inspectors labeled as cosmetic issues, meaning it’s not urgent.

Still, Brady feels the frustrations of tenants. He has been a landlord for the last 14 years renting properties mostly to Section 8 families. During that time he has seen how disorganized the SFHA has been, but noted it’s gotten better in the last few years.

He fears a critical audit like this will discourage landlords from participating in the Section 8 program, which subsidizes rent for low-income individuals and families.

The Inspector General’s Office conducted the audit after the Housing Authority received a zero score for voucher-funded housing inspections last year. Meanwhile, the Housing Authority received more than $212 million, 99 percent of which was HUD money. More than half of that was spent on the Section 8 program in San Francisco, said Rose Marie Dennis, spokeswoman with the Housing Authority.

HUD requires completed and documented inspections of all voucher-funded housing units annually. But last year, the Authority couldn’t provide inspection reports for 48 percent of the 65 housing units that were audited, the report said.

The investigation found that, among the small audit sample size, more than $279,000 in federal funds was spent on housing units that were “not decent, safe and sanitary,” according to the audit.

The Inspector General fired off a list of actions the Housing Authority should take to reverse the problem, starting with establishing some policies and procedures for inspectors. In addition, it suggested that the Housing Authority repay HUD for the money spent on housing units that were deficient.

It’s the latest blow to the troubled agency that’s struggled to rebuild its organization since Alvarez took over as executive director two years ago.

In addition to the inspection issues, the Housing Authority is also facing criticism for its rent collection, with some public housing tenants being overcharged while others owe more money. As a result, the authority has not yet collected on more than $2 million in owed rent.

Alvarez said it’s true the Housing Authority has not made inspections for Section 8 units a priority until now. But, he says, he has already started working to correct that. 

The Authority has purchased a new software system to help track information on housing inspections as well as monitor enforcement and program compliance using GPS devices that are installed inside inspectors’ vehicles. In addition, it hired an ombudsman, someone to act as a liaison between the agency and its constituents and return phone calls to clients, Alvarez said.

But with all of that, Alvarez said he does not believe the financially challenged Housing Authority should have to reimburse HUD for money that was used to assist deficient units.

Instead, he is proposing to use that money to train his inspection team.

“We are going to have to rebuild our business,” Alvarez said.

None of this is news to housing advocates, who say tenants are being victimized as a result of the sloppy bookkeeping and inspections at the Housing Authority. If it’s not rent issues, it’s unsanitary living conditions, said Sara Shortt, executive director with the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco.

“Was the Housing Authority turning the other cheek?” Shortt asked. “The Housing Authority has condoned Section 8 voucher holders living in substandard housing and that’s a horrifying precedent.”


Fixing problems will take time, insist housing chief, mayor

San Francisco’s Housing Authority Chief Henry Alvarez is the first to admit he’s running a troubled organization with a controversial past.

A slew of audits have kept the nation’s 17th-largest housing authority on HUD’s “troubled” list. It was only this year that the Housing Authority was removed from that list in the category for public housing, after working to settle some of its glaring issues.

But the Authority faces some problems, including a backlog of rent collections and now a new audit that’s questioning the Authority for not properly inspecting Section 8 housing units.

Mayor Gavin Newsom — who appoints the commissioners for the Housing Authority board — said the tenants deserve better than what they are getting from the agency. At the same time, he noted that there have been “steady and measurable improvements in recent years.”

“You can’t turn around decades of problems overnight,” said Tony Winnicker, Newsom’s spokesman. “The inspection reports and audits will help improve the quality and efficiency of the inspectors and guide the Housing Authority’s continuing management and organizational changes.”

Alvarez said he is working hard to turn around past practices and the lax culture that’s led to some of the present-day problems. Aside from more training, he is already cleaning house and organizing the record-keeping so that the Housing Authority can keep better track of what is and what is not getting done, he said.

“We are addressing these issues throughout our organization that have been going on for many, many, many years,” Alvarez said. “It will take some time to get them corrected — it’s not as simple as turning a switch.”

— Erin Sherbert

San Francisco Housing Authority

In 2009:

6,262 public housing units owned

2,027 were designated for seniors and disabled

7,409 Section 8 vouchers were administered

$90 million Received for housing voucher assistance

Top 10 most common housing deficiencies

  • Electrical hazards
  • Window conditions
  • Water heaters
  • Security
  • Smoke detectors
  • Safety of heating equipment
  • Garbage and debris
  • Stove
  • Wall conditions
  • Electricity
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