Garcia: Agnos makes little sense in housing post 

The words troubled and Housing Authority have been linked for so long, you’d think that city officials would have come up with a new euphemism by now to describe the agency thatoversees public housing in San Francisco.

But the terms politics and public policy have an equally bad history together here, which is why the current case involving the San Francisco Housing Authority is an unseemly, frustrating, unmitigated mess.

A few weeks back, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy made the decidedly curious decision to appoint Art Agnos, the former mayor of San Francisco, to head a receivership for the Housing Authority designed to oversee that the agency pay back $15 million in legal judgments ranging over the last 10 years. Under McCarthy’s order, Agnos would have received the whopping salary of $400 an hour and have the power to hire his own staff of attorneys and consultants.

Putting aside the eyebrow-raising financial arrangement, the appointment of Agnos would be obviously problematic to anyone who has even paid scant attention to San Francisco’s combative political arena. The Housing Authority is a city agency run under the auspices of the Mayor’s Office. Agnos has been extremely critical of Gavin Newsom, and is rumored to be a potential candidate to run against him this year.

And while Agnos may have the experience to deal with housing matters after his years working for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, he is still not the proper person to fix the agency’s problem. Agnos is no more able to magically find $15 million that The City owes to pay off the Housing Authority’s legal bills than you or I, but overseeing a city agency during an election year would certainly provide a bully pulpit for a prominent political player.

The City immediately appealed McCarthy’s decision, putting the future of the agreement in doubt but still leaving the question of how San Francisco is going to pay for something with funds it doesn’t have. (McCarthy, through a court official, told me he couldn’t comment on the matter as long as it’s in litigation. He is on record,however, of having quipped that since Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi is speaker of the House, somehow federal funds could be made available — in stark contrast to HUD’s assertions.)

One can certainly understand the judge’s frustration as well as those of the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the cases involving the Housing Authority. The agency was found to be negligent in a 1997 case involving a fire at a Hunters Point housing development in which a woman and five children were killed. The authority paid $4 million of the $12 million judgment, but that figure has risen to $12 million again because of interest and attorneys’ fees.

A sexual harassment claim involving a former painter at a public housing development ended in a judgment of $2.5 million. And in 1999, another worker sued the agency for sexual harassment, winning a judgment of $650,000.

The Mayor’s Office of Housing had offered to transfer land on Candlestick Point from the Housing Authority and issuing a bond to pay off the judgments. But HUD officials have apparently sent word that they do not approve of that package, even though the official letter from Washington had not arrived this week.

Newsom, who inherited the authority’s lingering headache when he was elected, said he has been trying hard to come up with a plan to find the money.

"We have been working to come up with a creative solution," he told me. "But you can’t just say we’re going to take $15 million from an agency to solve one problem because that would immediately create huge problems that would be affecting more than 30,000 people."

Yet HUD, which funds the Housing Authority, has hardly been a helpful partner, since it has insisted that the authority cannot use federal funds to pay the judgments.

For his part, Agnos admits that coming up with the cash won’t be easy, but said lack of funds is hardly an excuse, since the Housing Authority has paid more than $2 million to outside legal counsel to fight the judgments.

"This is not about me running for something," he told me. "This is about me doing a job."

A job that, we both agree, he should not be doing.

"This is not my idea, this is a job I do not want nor should I have it," Agnos said. "It came to me — I did not go seeking it. But it’s The City’s responsibility to deal with it and it’s wrong that it’s been avoiding it for 10 years. This should have been taken care of a long time ago."

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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