Public housing repairs backed up

It surely comes as no revelation that San Francisco public housing has been a long-running disgrace, both for its history of financial mismanagement and for the shamefully neglected condition of its 6,200 units. If the San Francisco Housing Authority were a private-sector landlord, it would undeniably be fined millions of dollars and possibly even face jail time as an incorrigible exploiter of tenants.

Even so, it was quite a shock to learn that whenever one of the 32,000 public housing occupants needs a home repair — including emergencies — they must phone the request to a single maintenance manager who works Monday through Friday. After-hours calls are taken by an answering service, so obviously if your toilet pipes break at 3 a.m. Saturday you are seriously out of luck.

This absurd bottleneck is presumably a major factor in the Housing Authority’s backlog of 3,200 repair orders. The new SFHA management apparently feels it deserves some credit for reducing the backlog from a high of 8,000. But that still leaves at least 3,200 San Franciscans left to live in notoriously rundown and aging buildings with mold-infested walls, broken locks, smashed windows, leaky roofs, no heat and broken plumbing.

There are a few rays of hope. In three more weeks, the maintenance calls will be handled by The City’s year-old 311 Call Center, which earned good reviews as a helpful 24-hour service operating in 176 languages. For the first time, public housing callers will receive a tracking number to monitor the work orders and they will be given a time estimate for getting the job done.

By itself, this is an obvious improvement. Although as tenant advocacy groups and individual SFHA tenants are quick to point out; getting a timely work order into the computer system is hardly the same as sending out a qualified worker to replace a broken window. And the work-order backlog is expected to climb at first, because some residents had stopped requesting repairs altogether. They felt it was useless under the old system.

Mayor Gavin Newsom deserves credit for trying to directly address public housing disrepair, instead of merely mouthing the traditional empty promises. His Hope SF initiative is a $100 million public/private partnership seeking to leverage federal and bond-issue funds to renovate the worst 2,500 public housing apartments in San Francisco’s southeast neighborhoods.

Just this month the Housing Authority commissioners selected three development teams for Hope SF’s renovation of the Sunnydale, Potrero Terrace, Potrero Annex and Westside Courts projects. These sites contain 1,531 of The City’s most distressed public housing family units. And groundbreaking is expected next year on an earlier contract for repairing the HuntersView project.

These efforts should not end until every San Francisco family in public housing has a decent place to live.

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