San Francisco Housing Authority chief booted amid controversy

The head of San Francisco’s public housing was let go Tuesday and the moment was seized upon by city officials to promise a new day for the long-beleaguered agency that houses about 41,000 people.

The six-member Housing Authority Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to terminate Henry Alvarez’s contract ahead of its June 12 end date. Alvarez, who has a salary of $210,500, had been out on medical leave since February.

Alvarez has become the latest Housing Authority director to leave the post amid political controversy and allegations of poor leadership.

Since the commission voted to terminate the agreement for reasons other than failing to meet the job’s performance standards, Alvarez will receive full compensation, including cashing out any accrued time off.

Agency officials did not disclose the specific reasons for the termination, calling it a personnel matter.  

The timing of the vote, however, could affect Alvarez’s retirement benefits under the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, since it comes just weeks before the five years of service were to be vested. An authority spokeswoman said that was a matter between Alvarez and CalPERS.

Alvarez was not present at the meeting.

He initially came under fire publicly late last year when two high-ranking agency attorneys, who are white, filed lawsuits alleging racism and discrimination by Alvarez, who is black. While out on paid medical leave, he reignited controversy when it was revealed that he was working to open a restaurant in Berkeley on May 1.

“It’s time to act and show that we are serious about moving forward and starting anew,” said Joaquin Torres, president of the commission.

Torres said the current operations are unacceptable. “To find ourselves on the troubled list looking at a mounting deficit deeply impacted by the costs of the federal sequestration, in a place like San Francisco, is simply unacceptable,” Torres said, referencing the authority’s poor evaluation from the federal government. Agency officials plan to meet with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development next week to present a plan to address the “financial crisis,” Torres said.

This isn’t the first dust-up over a director of the authority. In September 2007, Gregg Fortner resigned amid political pressure from then-Mayor Gavin Newsom.  

Mayor Ed Lee’s spokeswoman Christine Falvey said the mayor has a broad vision for the authority’s future, with plans to replace the “‘poverty housing’ with mixed-use developments with public and private investment.”

A department veteran, Barbara Smith, remains as the agency’s acting director.

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