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Housing Agency Officials Probed Nonprofit, Then Denied Records Existed

by Larry Bush on 07/01/2011

in Paper Trails

The San Francisco Housing Authority launched a probe into a nonprofit agency that has challenged the Housing Authority’s handling of public housing and tenant evictions, seeking copies of all documents from other city agencies and the group’s funders regarding whether the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco is in compliance with the law.

The Housing Authority’s Office of General Counsel cited the city’s Sunshine Ordinance in making requests to the Mayor’s Office of Housing, the Department of Building Inspection, the Department of Environmental Health, the San Francisco Rent Board, Legal Aid, The Tides Foundation and Ramp as well as to the Housing Rights Committee itself in letters dated April 7, 2011.

Bill Ford who also serves as the Housing Authority’s spokesperson signed the letters.

Ford denied the existence of any letters or documents on June 3 in response to CitiReport’s Immediate Disclosure request regarding the Housing Rights Committee. (read Ford’s letters here)

Failure to disclose records is a violation of San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance and potentially a criminal violation of the California Public Records Act.

CitiReport obtained copies of Ford’s letters from the Mayor’s Office of Housing with a Sunshine Ordinance request on June 9, 2011.

The Mayor’s Office of Housing confirmed that Ford had visited its offices to review all the documents on the Housing Rights Committee in its possession.

The use of a Sunshine Ordinance request from one city agency to other city agencies is unprecedented in the memory of most City Hall observers.

A city agency investigation into a nonprofit, including requests for documents from funding agencies, also appears unprecedented outside of city law enforcement agencies considering legal action.

The request itself has the potential to chill the relationship between the Housing Rights Committee and its funders and city agencies that work with it.

It is unclear what use the San Francisco Housing Authority hoped to make of the information it obtained, or whether it would seek to take further action that could inhibit the activities of the Housing Rights Committee in representing tenants.

The Housing Authority’s use of funds and staff time for this investigation also is open to further question.

Housing Authority Launched Wide-Ranging investigation

Among the records sought were all documents concerning compliance with the provisions and requirements set forth in the Administrative Code for the past three years, all documents concerning financial information regarding the HRCSF’s budget, management of funding and expenditures, all documents on its Board of Directors, including minutes, all documents on the number of clients served for the last three years and all documents concerning eviction protection activities engaged in by HRCSF including with the San Francisco Housing Authority.

The Housing Rights Committee receives some city funding to provide counseling services to tenants facing eviction, including tenants of public housing and Section 8 housing, both of which are operated by the San Francisco Housing Authority. It reports that it provides counseling to about 5,000 tenants each year.

The agency is a leader in advocating for improved housing conditions, increased availability of affordable housing, and in tenant protection against unlawful evictions.

Sara Shortt, the executive director, was named by then-mayor Gavin Newsom to a 30-member task force he appointed in 2006 to make recommendations for improving the city’s public housing operations.

At that time, Shortt was quoted complimenting Newsom’s expressions of commitment to public housing improvements while noting that the need is for action.

Shortt declined to comment on the Housing Authority’s requests, as did the Mayor’s Office of Housing.

The Housing Rights Committee was formed in 1979 out of Old Saint Mary’s, which serves as a headquarters for affordable housing activists dating to the fight to enact San Francisco’s rent control law.

SFHA’s Troubled Record

San Francisco’s Housing Authority has a 40-year history of controversy, mismanagement and criminal convictions that placed it on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Troubled List more often than not.

One former Executive Director, Ronnie Davis, was forced out in 2001 after being indicted by a federal grand jury over his handling of responsibilities in an Ohio public housing agency. His successor, Greg Fortner, was forced out in 2007 shortly after Newsom’s task force completed its recommendations. There have been convictions of housing authority officials for selling Section 8 voucher preferences during the past decade.  In 2007, two state judges ordered the Housing Authority put into receivership over its failure to pay court judgments following a fire that killed a tenant and several children.

Housing conditions at several public housing developments have fallen to such a low standard that displaced New Orleans families who lost homes in Katrina declined the offer of San Francisco Public Housing units, and dozens of units now are boarded up and taken out of the active housing stock.

Plans to revamp public housing under a SF Hope program appear headed for failure, as the city has been unable to muster the funding it promised when the program was announced.

The Housing Authority was on the Troubled List until earlier this year for its public housing units and remains on a watch list for its Section 8 units, which have been the focus of the Housing Rights Committee’s efforts on behalf of tenants.

The Mayor’s Office of Housing has played a critical coordinating role in helping move the Housing Authority forward toward improvements. The departure of its Executive Director, Doug Shoemaker, leaves that top position vacant, awaiting Mayor Lee’s decision on naming a replacement.

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