In this Issue

ago, the nonprofit Mission Housing Development Corp., which has collected some $3.7 million in city money over the past two years, abruptly decided to shift its basic mission and focus. Instead of concentrating on building permanently affordable housing for low-income people, the board of directors decided, the MHDC would start looking into joint ventures with for-profit developers and looking toward building higher-end housing for people who could afford to buy their own homes.

The decision was made entirely in secret, without community input. The executive director lost his job when he publicly disputed the decision, and the new director admitted to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that he had hired a private detective to spy on the staff, in part to find out who was "leaking" financial information – like his own salary, which by law is a matter of public record.

That's not the way San Francisco should make housing policy. But the fact is, the city contracts out an enormous amount of work that involves real political and policy decisions to nonprofit organizations that operate without adequate oversight.

I'm not saying the MHDC shouldn't have gotten $3.7 million – over the past 20 years, it has done good work in the community, and its staff has demonstrated the skill to not only develop housing but also to manage it well and to provide essential and helpful services for its tenants. There are hundreds of other community-based nonprofits that are also doing amazing work and that are, and ought to be, getting city money to do it.

But when the city essentially privatizes the provision of public services, there ought to be a high standard for public monitoring. The MHDC shouldn't be able to change its basic mission without the public – the taxpayers, the ones who are helping fund it – having a say in what's going on.

As Matthew Hirsch reports on page 16, San Francisco has handed more than $1.5 billion to nonprofits in the past three years – and in many cases, it's hard to track exactly where that money has gone.

Nonprofit boards don't have to meet in public. The Sunshine Ordinance doesn't apply to private nonprofits – even when they're getting and spending public money to provide public services.

As more and more of what the government does is contracted out, that has to change. You want to do public service with public money? Great – just be accountable for it.

Tim Redmond