Newsom Should Name Ed Lee to Head Housing Authority

by Randy Shaw on October 2, 2007


Last week, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom named City Administrator Ed Lee to head a transition team to find a new leader for the city’s embattled Housing Authority.

But the best person to immediately turn around tenant attitudes toward the SFHA, however, is the person in charge of the search: Ed Lee. Lee began his career as an attorney for low-income tenants, and has shown at the Human Rights Department, DPW, and in his current job that he knows how to run a large bureaucracy. Lee is an “insider” via his relations with Newsom, but is an “outsider” to those working and living at the Housing Authority. Ed Lee’s history shows that he would never quietly tolerate bad living conditions for tenants, and his appointment would show that San Francisco is on the right track in addressing the SFHA’s problems.

The San Francisco Housing Authority has an extraordinary opportunity to begin building an entirely new slate. It has no permanent director, its Commissioners have all submitted resignation letters, and we are in one of those all too frequent news cycles where public attention is focused on solving problems in public housing.

Mayor Newsom faces a critical decision in selecting his new leader. And fortunately for the Mayor, his best choice is Ed Lee, the person already heading his transition team.

I have known Ed Lee for 25 years, and realize that by writing this piece he will regret that he ever made by acquaintance. Lee has a safe job at the CAO, and the SFHA position is often seen as a “no win” position that inevitably subjects the Director to angry complaints and eventual firing.

Why give up a well-paid, no-pressure lifetime job for the pressure-cooker of running an underfunded, troubled urban Housing Authority?

One reason is that the SFHA’s Director has enormous power to improve people’s lives. And providing quality leadership to a besieged low-income community perfectly defines “public service.”

Here’s why Lee’s choice makes perfect sense.

First, the top criteria for Director should be a background working to improve living conditions for low-income tenants. The fact that most Housing Authority chiefs lack such experience helps explain why public housing has deteriorated for decades. Housing chiefs across the nation appear to be selected for their ability to negotiate bureaucracies or secure federal money, not their skill at ensuring that tenants get repairs.

Ed Lee gained this essential experience with the Asian Law Caucus during the 1980’s. He knows the frustration tenants face in dealing with uncaring bureaucracies, and would demand that tenant repairs are a top priority.

Lee’s pro-tenant history gives him credibility in negotiating with public housing residents around the proposed rebuilding/renovation of the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood projects. Tenant suspicions about the SFHA and Lennar Corp. are so deep that a Director with roots in tenant advocacy can best engender the trust and credibility necessary for the ambitious, multi-year project to succeed.

Since entering the public sector, Lee has headed the Human Rights Department, DPW, and now the CAO. His success at DPW shows that he can handle large bureaucracies that are the frequent target of public complaints.

Since Lee knows the city, he can hit the ground running in his new job. He already has the mayor’s confidence, and can use Newsom’s backing to force change at an SFHA bureaucracy that for too long has been disconnected from political accountability.

What is the case against Lee? He’s not African-American, and would be working in a position where one’s race has long been viewed as an essential job requirement. The last non-African American to serve as permanent Director was David Gilmore during the Agnos years.

The large percentage of African-Americans living in public housing has long led to calls for SFHA leadership to come from the black community. But Ed Lee probably knows more people in the SFHA than either of his two predecessors (Fortner and Lonnie Davis) did when they began their jobs.

For those keeping a racial scorecard, Newsom did replace the white Marsha Rosen with the African-American Fred Blackwell as head of Redevelopment. And many Asian-Americans living in public housing, so Lee’s appointment would hardly smack of cultural insensitivity.

The other obstacle to Lee’s selection is that he is local. Mayors like to pick new leaders from outside their home city because it sends the message that every corner of the nation has been searched in pursuit of the best candidate. In San Francisco, the new head of MUNI was from Atlanta, the Planning chief from Seattle, and the Department of Building Inspection leader from San Diego.

But in each of those cases it could be argued that there was no stronger local candidate. And none of the above agencies were in a sense of deep crisis at the time of hiring, imposing an urgency that does not give months for getting up to speed.

Ed Lee’s appointment sends the message that Mayor Newsom was so committed to solving our public housing mess that he selected his best available person, even though that created an opening in another department. Feel free to conduct a “nationwide search,” but do not pass up a great candidate currently working in City Hall.

Lee would hit the ground running. And the long-suffering Housing Authority tenants would finally get the high-quality, publicly accountable leadership they deserve.

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