The agency that supplies public housing to thousands of low-income residents in San Francisco is under intense pressure to get its own house in order. Last week, tenants of the city’s Housing Authority testified at a Board of Supervisors committee hearing about their struggles with roaches and rodents, leaks and mold. Two recent audits say the agency has done a poor job of managing its staff and budget and as a result has lost out on millions of dollars of federal subsidies.
Earlier this month, we saw a real-world example of how the authority’s problems affect its tenants when we met with Maria, who has lived in the SFHA’s Sunnydale complex for seven years. She complained of bedbugs and what she believed was asbestos, which she said the Housing Authority has not investigated despite repeated notifications.
As part of our continuing reporting on the troubled agency, KQED’s Stephanie Martin spoke with its interim executive director, Barbara Smith, and to the president of the Authority’s commission, Joaquin Torres. Here’s an edited transcript:
STEPHANIE MARTIN: Ms. Smith, since you stepped into your new role a few months ago you’ve been facing a massive backlog of repair work that needs to be done. How are you tackling this on behalf of residents?
BARBARA SMITH, EXEC. DIR., SFHA: We have enormous challenges at the Housing Authority, including a huge budget deficit, and we’re doing everything we can to address the backlog of work orders. We have reorganized our maintenance department, reinstated a director of maintenance who five years ago managed maintenance operations. We have a new IT system that enables our foreman to dispatch workers to properties much more efficiently than in the past.
We have a shortage of staff, however. And we don’t have a maintenance mechanic position or a maintenance general classification at each property. This maintenance mechanic position would enable us to address resident needs much more quickly.
MARTIN: And I understand that you’re working on that but labor negotiations are tying that up …
SMITH: We’re in the midst of labor negotiations now. We have gotten 90% of our labor contracts in place, for 90% of our workers. We still need to work with the specialized craft unions to get them to agree to allow this maintenance generalist classification to do all the repair work that comes up at properties on a day-to-day basis: plumbing repairs, clogged drains, light bulbs out, carpentry work, door hinges that are broken. Things like that really make a difference to the residents.
MARTIN: Any idea when this will actually be completed?
SMITH: Well, we’re hoping soon.
MARTIN: Mr. Torres, auditors also found many units sit empty and unrepaired while at the same time, people can languish for years on the housing wait list. How are you addressing that
JOAQUIN TORRES, PRESIDENT, SFHA BD. OF COMMISSIONERS: I think it’s always important to make clear that resident needs are our first priority. And it was very disconcerting for us to see as a new commission, who had our first meeting on February 14, to see the backlog of both 276 vacant units as well as a wait list that had not yet been updated in quite some time, and how that was a very real concern for residents and for advocacy groups who were speaking on behalf of those resident needs.
My understanding now is that we have been pushing staff to make sure that that list is updated starting at the beginning of July. With regards to the 276 vacant units, a lot of the progress that we’ve been able to make in such a short time is due to new partnerships that have been in place.
As it is for KQED, all the partners that you have, we need as many partners to make sure that our process to reform the Authority is strong and true. And one of the ways that we’re working on dealing with these vacant units is working with HUD. They gave us about $1.5 million to ensure that we had some funding that would’ve been used for other purposes to go toward rehabbing some of those units. That was complemented with about $600,000 from the mayor’s office to make sure we had funding in place to begin that process. And we’re very much looking forward to getting those units up and running. We have a leasing fair that will take place, the Potrero units, in about two weeks time, and we’re looking to get some units filled up that way too.
MARTIN: Ms. Smith, auditors and residents say the Housing Authority needs to be more accountable and transparent, especially when it comes to tracking clients and complaints. When will a better computer system be available for residents to see just how their requests are being tracked?
SMITH: We actually do have a new computer system that will have kiosks at 1815 Egbert Avenue, our main office, and we’re hoping to have kiosks at the properties, where residents can actually check on their work order status by just going up to the kiosk and putting the number in.
We’re also implementing a voice automated system where residents can call in and they get responses – they’re electronic responses, and they call in their complaint, they can describe their repair need, and then the voice automated system will give them a work order number. And they’ll be able to track where it is and when it will be repaired.
MARTIN: Mr. Torres, we know that lack of funding is a huge issue for the agency, but auditors have also documented a lot of inefficiency in the day-to-day operations. What steps are you taking to do a better job with the resources that you have?
TORRES: Well, one of the major pieces for us, and again I’ll speak about the partnerships that we have both with the City and with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, and that’s making sure that we are doing everything we can to transfer our operations to be in line with what is called “asset management.”
And one of the things and pieces of funding that we’re trying to access, and Barbara had spoken about it just a moment ago, was the establishment of a maintenance mechanic position that is the final piece in meeting all of the stop-loss criteria. We’ve made significant progress in terms of meeting everything else, and that is the last piece. For us we have very immediate financial concerns and needs, and we’re very much looking forward to making sure once these negotiations get ironed out, we can begin to be financially solvent, today.