It is often easiest to blame a single person for a problem, but such criticism does not always resolve the underlying issue. That appears to be the case with the San Francisco Housing Authority.
There is little doubt that former Executive Director Henry Alvarez was a polarizing figure. A series of San Francisco Chronicle news articles outlined allegations against the head of the department that runs public housing in San Francisco, including charges that he discriminated against employees and was offensive in his conduct. Then came the news that the Housing Authority had landed on the “troubled” list of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Mayor Ed Lee appropriately cleaned house at the Housing Authority Commission, and after Alvarez went on leave, he was eventually terminated. The mayor vowed to set in motion sweeping changes at the authority, which are clearly needed and can only be a good thing.
But a new letter from HUD shows that the failed leadership of Alvarez and the commission were not the only variables dragging down the Housing Authority. In fact, the letter showed that the Housing Authority had actually improved in the final year of Alvarez’s watch. And while HUD itself cited a “lack of leadership” and the ineffectiveness of the commission, it’s also clear that steep budget cuts from the federal government played a role in stymieing improvements at the Housing Authority.
In 1991, the authority said it needed $143 million for capital improvements, and the federal government gave it just $23 million. By 2012, its budget needs had risen to $270 million, but the federal funding had fallen to just $10 million. It is no wonder that the agency struggled with maintenance and upkeep, issues that also affected its vacancy rate. When a housing agency cannot repair units quickly enough, they stay vacant. Those vacant units contributed to the low scores from HUD that put the authority on the troubled list.
That death spiral is only likely to continue as federal funds keep drying up. After a federal budget showdown last year, automatic spending cuts went into place this year, and the effects of those reductions are just starting to become clear. In some instances, such as when furloughing air traffic controllers threatened to slow airline traffic, lawmakers have been quick to act and free up money to resolve the issues. But in other cases, including spending for public housing, the inertia in the Beltway is close to choking off much-needed resources for the most vulnerable in society.
At its current pace of spending, the Housing Authority is set to run out of cash sometime next month. In a move of desperation, the agency has asked the Police Department, the Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to forgive nearly $5.94 million in bills. The move came after the Housing Authority had $3.1 million cut from its federal funding allotment.
No matter who comes in next to run the Housing Authority, or what actions the new commission members take, one of the largest issues facing the agency cannot be easily solved by local officials. Federal lawmakers are engaged in an entrenched ideological war with real human costs across the nation. Addressing the failings of the local officials who lead such underfunded agencies may be necessary, but that alone does nothing to stop the strangulation from a failed federal system.