The City of San Francisco has embarked on an ambitious plan to re-envision the troubled San Francisco Housing Authority (SFHA). SFHA is a federally recognized public corporation with a commission appointed by the local government and a mission to provide affordable housing to low- and moderate-income people. Concerned over the SFHA’s growing financial woes and poor organizational management, Mayor Ed Lee asked the city administrator and the director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development to lead an inclusive community process to identify strategies that would address the severe financial challenges facing the agency while still providing high-quality affordable housing to the more than 31,000 low-income residents it serves.
This month, the city released its findings as the re-envisioning process concluded. SPUR credits the City of San Francisco for conducting an inclusive process, and we believe that the findings are a good first step on the road to addressing the SFHA’s structural operating deficit, its unfunded capital needs and the lack of supportive services for residents and voucher holders. However, we believe that there is much more work to be done in order to stabilize the SFHA for the long term.
The Re-Envisioning Process
The process was spearheaded by the City of San Francisco and coordinated with representatives from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Residents, nonprofit service providers, affordable housing developers, local labor unions and private-sector development experts created working groups. These groups then established guiding principles that focused on: transparency and accountability; improving housing choice and access; creating safe and secure housing; supporting resident self-sufficiency and empowerment; and strengthening community connections. These principles inform six categories highlighted in the report: Governance and Administration; Financing and Re-Capitalization; Section 8 Operations; Public Housing Operations; Resident Services; and Tenant Leadership. Below we review the report’s key findings in each category and follow up with SPUR’s recommendations moving forward.
Governance and Administration
One of the SFHA biggest challenges has been the lack of stable leadership and a functional commission able to provide effective oversight. The housing authority has operated as a separate entity from general city operations. The report highlights the need for better alignment between housing authority functions and general city services. This coordination will allow the SFHA to focus on the delivery of housing services to residents and voucher holders while still addressing how to stabilize the city’s public housing buildings, both physically and financially.
SPUR agrees with the city’s primary recommendation to clarify the role and function of the SFHA Commission structure. We believe that SFHA commissioners should be recruited based on specific skills and expertise that enhance the operations and administration of SFHA functions. The commission needs to become a more professional oversight body with the capacity to appropriately address the SFHA’s fiscal and organizational challenges. In addition, we recommend term limits for the commissioners, to provide on-going accountability and transparency.
Financing and Re-Capitalization
The city recommends an affordable housing land trust model as way to ensure the preservation of public housing while addressing the capital needs of the buildings, in order to make operations more sustainable. This model keeps ownership of the land with the housing authority, thereby ensuring that the housing remains permanently affordable for residents. The buildings would be ground-leased to high-functioning, private affordable housing developers and property managers who would either rehabilitate and manage, or just manage, the developments. Residents would still be subject to all of the income and other restrictions intended to provide permanently affordable rental opportunities for those that need it most.
SPUR agrees with the city’s recommendation of the land trust model. We feel strongly that the SFHA should transfer the development and management of all public housing to third parties in order to limit the ultimate role of the housing authority to asset management. For this model to be successful, SPUR recommends that the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD) engage in a collaborative and strategic process with the private affordable housing developers in order to appropriately assess the public housing portfolio. This process would determine which properties need modernization; not all of them require demolition and rebuilding. In addition, it is not likely that resources will be available to redevelop the entire portfolio. Working with third-party developers under this public land trust model will allow SFHA and MOHCD to leverage public housing resources through use of rental assistance demonstration, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and other financing tools not available for direct use by the SFHA.
Due to SFHA’s troubled status and lack of compliance with HUD standards, HUD issued the housing authority a remedial plan to fix its fiscal and administrative problems, called a Corrective Action Plan. While SPUR recognizes the city’s need to act quickly given the timelines established by HUD in the Corrective Action Plan, the city should be realistic about what it will be able to implement and take the time to develop an effective strategy for the SFHA moving forward. Some of the timelines in the city recommendations — such as upgrading building conditions in 2,000 public housing units within the next three years and applying for “moving to work” status (which provides additional funding from HUD) over the next eight years — are aggressive and should be further analyzed.
Section 8 Operations
The Section 8 program, also know as the housing choice voucher program, is the federal government's major program for assisting low-income families, the elderly and the disabled to afford decent, safe and sanitary housing in the private market.
The city recommends that the SFHA work with a third-party technical assistance provider approved by HUD to effectively manage and administer the Section 8 program.
SPUR agrees that the SFHA should no longer manage the function of administering Section 8 vouchers in house and should retain a third-party provider. In addition, SPUR recommends that MOHCD also develop best practices that ensure the voucher program is managed professionally and meets HUD standards.
Public Housing Operations
SFHA staff must comply with HUD’s Corrective Action Plan in order to secure federal funding that will help the city address some of the challenges within the agency.
The city proposes to establish a maintenance mechanic position that would be responsible for addressing all on-site repairs. MOHCD would evaluate the entire public housing portfolio and assess which properties can be rehabilitated or modernized through public-private partnership with community-based affordable housing developers and the City of San Francisco.
SPUR believes that MOHCD should be responsible for any city funding allocations that would be provided to SFHA for emergency repairs and capital needs. The Corrective Action Plan also requires SFHA to establish a rent collection and eviction prevention plan to ensure better outcomes for both residents and SFHA. Prioritizing the requirements of the HUD Corrective Action Plan should remain a priority of the city and SFHA.
Currently, there is insufficient funding to provide adequate on-site service connections to improve the lives of public housing residents. The complicated geographic locations of several public housing sites have perpetuated the physical disconnection of residents from amenities like access to transit, jobs and schools. SFHA is also challenged by a lack of coordination in service delivery for residents and how to evaluate the effectiveness of the existing services being offered to residents.
The city recommends that funding be identified to ensure that there are adequate services available to public housing residents and voucher holders. The city also recommends that the SFHA establish formal inter-departmental coordination to assess what services are needed and how to integrate individuals and families into the city’s existing service delivery system.
We agree with the recommendation to require department heads to catalogue city departments’ existing service delivery to SHFA residents, as well as evaluate its effectiveness and develop a plan to deliver those services in the most cost effective manner.
The tenant leadership recommendations focus on the city providing additional support to tenant councils to encourage more participation from residents. The city’s primary recommendation here is utilizing the HOPE SF Leadership Academy to broaden leadership at all SFHA sites.
We agree that building leadership capacity among residents will better inform the SFHA in what services the residents actually need and how the city can work with the residents to better coordinate those services.
Plan for Action
The city has outlined short and medium-term action items that require buy-in from HUD before the city can execute them. SPUR believes that in the near term the city should create and fund a new position, a director of public housing initiatives, whose responsibility would be to ensure cross-departmental coordination and communications between residents, stakeholders, policy makers and HUD. Creating this position would allow the SFHA and MOHCD to respond to the most pressing financial and administrative challenges within SFHA while the SFHA Commission can oversee the organizational improvements that comply with HUD’s Corrective Action Plan.
We also believe that the most efficient way for the city to engage in public-private partnerships to rehabilitate or modernize public housing is to create a working group with local community-based affordable housing providers and other relevant stakeholders that can work with the SFHA and MOHCD to monitor the implementation of the recommendations from the report.
The deterioration of the SFHA took place over several decades, and it will take time to correct these systemic problems. SFHA is relying on HUD to give San Francisco a chance to respond to the items reflected in the Corrective Action Plan while also figuring out how to generate enough revenue to address maintenance and capital improvement needs. The city’s report surfaces the right issues, but it is unclear how much capacity the city or SFHA staffs have to adequately respond to the recommendations outlined in the report. We have to effectively evaluate how we administer low-income housing to some of our most vulnerable San Franciscans. SPUR believes that in order for this re-envisioning to be actualized, it will require sustained political will from the mayor and from political and community stakeholders to prioritize fixing the SFHA.