Rent Payments to SF Public Housing Agency Plunged in Last Two Years, Spurring Eviction Fears

Multiple three-story apartment buildings line a San Francisco hillside in the Potrero Terrace public housing development.

Chris Carlsson/CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Many residents of the Potrero Terrace apartments pay rent to the San Francisco Housing Authority, where rent collections have plunged over the last two years.

Rent collections by San Francisco’s public housing agency fell precipitously in late 2019 and have continued to decline to less than half of what is owed, according to a San Francisco Public Press analysis — but the agency can’t explain why.

Only 47% of rent paid directly to the Housing Authority was collected this July, the latest month for which data is available. The 974 households whose units are managed by the agency — the rest pay rent to private management companies ­— pay roughly 30% of their monthly income, or $489 on average. These residents owe at least $4.5 million in back rent to the city.

Officials at the Housing Authority said they could not provide an explanation for why the shortfalls in rent collections began increasing in September 2019. Nor could they say why San Francisco’s Housing Authority has a far higher rate of delinquencies than parallel agencies in other big cities, some of which are collecting as much as 98% of the rents due.

“Prior to the onset of the pandemic, the authority robustly embraced local efforts to keep people housed and worked with households to enter them into payment programs if they were struggling to keep up with their overall expenses,” Rose Dennis, a Housing Authority spokeswoman, said in an email. “This may have impacted pre-COVID rent collection.”

The shortfall illustrates the continuing financial challenges for both the city and its poorest residents in the midst of a global health emergency. One in 20 of the city’s residents has been infected with the virus, and at least 605 have died.

Thousands of people have lost income, and only the imposition of city, state and federal limits on evictions has prevented them from losing their homes. At least 75,000 of the 200,000 renters in the San Francisco area who are behind on their monthly payments believe they will be evicted within 60 days, according to an August Census Bureau survey. The San Francisco metro area extends out to include San Rafael, Livermore, Redwood City and cities in between. Public housing residents, with an average annual income of $18,800, have been among the hardest hit, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Rent formula punishes success

Monica Ferrey, a former resident of Potrero Terrace Annex, a Housing Authority development in Potrero Hill, estimated she fell behind on her rent as her income started to rise.

“I thought there was a grace period,” said Ferrey, vice president of the city’s Public Housing Tenant Association. “I was shocked.”

Her rent soared from $200 to $1,550 last November after she found work, since she reported higher income. Ferrey, who works as a community development specialist for the city’s Recreation and Park Department, thought she could fill gaps with a few part-time jobs. But life during a pandemic intervened. She found the needs of her four children, one of whom is too young to be vaccinated, were too great, forcing her to cut back on the part-time work. Car trouble added to her woes.

Now she’s at least $6,000 in arrears, Ferrey estimated. “I got to a point where I really don’t care about it,” she sighed.

She noted that as of August the agency is “working on having residents do a declaration that should significantly reduce what is owed.”

Records show the increased delinquencies predated the pandemic by several months. The number of Housing Authority residents paying rent on time dropped from 87% in September 2019 to 59% in November. In March 2020, when Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a pandemic-related state of emergency, it stood at 65%.

The shortfall in collections was not mirrored at other large public housing authorities. In July 2020, for example, San Francisco collected 56% of rent due, while the New York City Housing Authority collected 86% of rent. Chicago took in 91%. Los Angeles housing officials said they collected 96% of rent due in July 2020, and Denver and Houston both collected 98%.

Despite federal government stimulus payments that amounted to as much as $3,200 per adult — sent in April 2020, December 2020 and March 2021 — rent collections topped 60% only once in the last 15 months, in June 2020.

Eviction threat looms

Deborah Thrope, deputy director of the National Housing Law Project, said an increase in the number of tenants who owe back rent is a red flag that indicates problems with a city’s housing authority. Often, housing authorities don’t communicate the need for tenants to “recertify” or notify them when circumstances change, Thrope said, and tenants can wind up owing thousands when rent is raised after they get a new job or increased wages or benefits.

“Post-pandemic, nobody should be evicted for rent they didn’t pay,” she said. “It’s related to COVID loss of income and loss of employment. There is absolutely no reason at this point that public housing tenants should be evicted for nonpayment of rent.”

In a non-pandemic situation, residents who do not pay rent can expect rent collectors to follow up with phone calls or home visits. If it is still unpaid, the authority can issue 14-day notices, letting them know that they need to pay the balance or move out. If they still cannot pay, they are eventually evicted. Residents behind on their rent also are not allowed to be considered for moves to newer or larger public housing units.

“The authority is working closely with resident service providers and residents to request rent relief where available,” said Dennis, the Housing Authority spokesperson. “During the pandemic time frame, the authority has not issued notices to residents, prioritizing client health and housing stabilization instead.”

More than two-thirds of public housing residents live on “other incomes,” such as modest pensions or Social Security retirement or disability payments, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Another 5% eke out a meager living with welfare benefits. The remainder — like Ferrey, the struggling tenant association vice president — support themselves with jobs that come and go.

“It’s like, every time I kind of begin to catch up,” she said, “I just fall behind again.”

Support for this story was provided by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.Thanks also to the Investigative Editing Corps, which helped launch this series, “Public Housing in Private Hands,” in 2020.

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