San Francisco’s Housing Authority’s Executive Director sought help from the Mayor’s Office of Housing to kill city funding for a nonprofit charged with assisting housing authority tenants, according to emails obtained by CitiReport.
The effort, which took place beginning in April and persisted over several months, sought evidence that the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco (HRCSF) was spending city funds for political activity, failing to provide evidence of its work with tenants, and lacking required insurance, among other allegations.
Henry Alvarez, Housing Authority Executive Director, and his legal counsel Bill Ford, also contacted the Tides Foundation that serves as the funding sponsor for the Housing Rights Committee, the downtown law firm of Coblentz, Patch, Duffy and Bass, and several other city agencies. Alvarez complained that the Housing Rights Committee was seeking information through public records requests on the condition of the agency’s housing units, complaints about repairs, and similar matters that affected tenants.
Alvarez, speaking through an aide, told CitiReport that he has “no intention” of working to defund the Housing Rights Committee or being involved in any other way, saying that he is currently immersed in budget discussions.
The Housing Rights Committee request to the San Francisco Housing Authority was made on April 6, 2011.
Alvarez initiated his complaints against the agency the next day, April 7, including requesting Doug Shoemaker, then head of the Mayor’s Office of Housing, to support a meeting with Mayor Ed Lee to voice his objections to the Housing Rights Committee.
“Is this even within their mission?” Alvarez wrote to Shoemaker after reading the HRC request. “We really need to address this with the mayor.”
Shoemaker responded to Alvarez after talking to HRC Executive Director Sara Shortt. “She says she was just trying to make sense of her clients repair problems,” Shoemaker writes. There is no indication in the material CitiReport received that Mayor Lee was aware of the dispute or that Alvarez succeeded in reaching him.
SFHA Retaliation Extended to Several Agencies
SFHA’s fishing expedition for information on the Housing Rights Committee (HRC) was first reported by CitiReport on July 1, but a subsequent public records request resulted in several hundred pages of emails and other documents from the Housing Authority showing that their goal was to defund the nonprofit.
The Housing Rights Committee receives $90,000 for code enforcement work, including on behalf of tenants in public housing, as well as $20,000 for counseling of public housing tenants.
Housing conditions had been a sore point for tenants, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and SFHA for a number of years. Two weeks before HRC sent a detailed request for information on conditions and vacancies, CitiReport posted the results of housing inspections by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that more than 1,000 Housing Authority units were rated as “substandard.” At about the same time, the San Francisco Examiner reported that HUD found 98% of Section 8 housing was failing to meet minimum housing quality standards.
On April 7, Alvarez sent a rapid-fire series of questions and requests to Shoemaker at the Mayor’s Office of Housing, all apparently intended to uncover problems with the nonprofit and provide grounds for ending city funding.
Shoemaker complied with the document requests while trying to cajole Alvarez away from a confrontation with HRC.
“I realize that you don’t think I’m doing enough to keep HRC out of your hair,” Shoemaker wrote to Alvarez on April 7, “so I spent part of my evening last night getting the records request (from HRC) rescinded.”
“I realize you don’t agree with me when I tell you that defunding HRC is not politically possible,” Shoemaker wrote in the same message. “You and I have spent a lot of time developing a good working relationship and its seems like we’re about to blow it up,” Shoemaker continued.
“I assume that neither of us wants that, so can we find some way to discuss this issue with other people whose judgements you trust?”
Alvarez Expands anti-HRC Efforts
Alvarez persisted in his effort to uncover alleged wrongdoing, requesting that Shoemaker provide copies of the HRC’s insurance coverage, then copies of the CDBG Grant Agreements for the prior four years, then for reports of compliance monitoring and the amount of funds spent “in political activities.”
Alvarez added requests a breakdown of salary hours for staff assisting tenants, complaining that the information he has “seems at best anecdotal. I’d like to see hud’s (sic) compliance audits if any related to tides (sic) or HRC…This info is not responsive to our requests.”
Alvarez, whose agency has no oversight role over HRC, then sent Shoemaker a message that he would begin his own audit of HRC. “We will be evaluating their (HRC’s) effectiveness for these valuable SF resources, and will provide our analysis to your office with appropriate questions and thoughts,” Alvarez wrote Shoemaker.
Shoemaker recommended that any effort by Alvarez to raise questions about city funding used for political activities be addressed to the City Attorney’s office. There are no emails or information in the material made available to CitiReport to suggest that any contact was made there.
SFHA also met with officials at the Department of Building Inspection to review records there and sought any information that the Department of Public Health might have.
Alvarez Contacts Law Firm
Over the next several weeks, Alvarez shifted his focus to the Tides Foundation that serves as the funding agency for HRC, finally discussing the issue with Coblentz, Patch, Duffy and Bass who serve as the legal advisor to the Tides Foundation.
“If you don’t mind, could you give me a little more detail about what prompted this email,” Coblentz attorney Zuzana Ikels emailed to SFHA General Counsel Bill Ford.
The firm also corrected SFHA’s General Counsel that the city’s Sunshine Ordinance only applies to government agencies and not to nonprofits, while agreeing to provide the requested documents.
The emails show that Ford personally went to the offices to review the documents he had requested, The firm agreed to also provide the documents requested by Alvarez, while noting that the Sunshine Act does not apply to nongovernmental agencies.
Apparently unable to find a smoking gun in those documents, Ford made a final demand of Tides and HRC. “The SFHA does not want Ms. Shortt or other members of HRCSF utilizing the SFHA’s facilities or developments to conduct business without the SFHA’s knowledge, authorization or consent,” Ford wrote. “Of course Ms Shortt and her staff are free to meet with residents at their invitation at their homes, but any other activities at our facilities or developments must be approved by the SFHA beforehand. Please advise your clients concerning this.”
Mayor Lee’s Past Role
Shoemaker’s advice to Alvarez that defunding HRC was not politically possible may have had its origins in Mayor Ed Lee’s own background as an attorney who once sued the Housing Authority over conditions for tenants in Ping Yuen public housing.
In 1978, Lee organized the first tenant strike against San Francisco’s public housing over unsafe and unsanitary conditions. The San Francisco Chronicle, in an article that helped introduce Lee to readers after his selection as Interim Mayor, wrote Lee acted on behalf of residents “tired of the San Francisco Housing Authority ignoring broken elevators, broken lighting, broken toilets and lack of heat.”
“Residents were especially outraged after a 17-year-old garment worker, forced to trudge up many flights of stairs to her apartment due to a broken elevator, was sexually assaulted in a dark stairwell and tossed off a balcony,” the article continued. “She survived, but the assailant dragged her back up the stairs and threw her down again, killing her, Lee said. He convinced the tenants to withhold their rent, and the conditions finally improved.”
City Seeks Political Leverage Over Nonprofits it funds
However, San Francisco has had its share of disputes with nonprofit agencies and their funding when high political stakes were involved. In 2001, current DPW Acting Director Mohammed Nuru reportedly required employees of a nonprofit that he funded through his agency to walk precincts on behalf of Gavin Newsom’s mayoral bid. There is no information that Nuru faced any repurcussions.
During debate over the Hunters Shipyard do-over by Lennar, Arc Ecology, a city-funded nonprofit lost its office and funding in September 2010 after it questioned the environmental impact of some decisions. Despite receiving the higher score for its work, it was passed over for the following year’s funding. That decision remains in effect.