12/06/2012 03:57 pm ET

Henry Alvarez, San Francisco's Public Housing Chief, In Racially-Fueled Scandal

As the scandal surrounding San Francisco Housing Authority Director Henry Alvarez continues to grow amid a trio of lawsuits, some have called for more leadership from Mayor Ed Lee.

Alvarez is being sued by two of the the Housing Authority's lawyers, Tim Larsen and Roger Crawford. Larsen's suit claims that his career was held back due to his being white, while a black co-worker, Crawford, received preferential treatment. Crawford's suit charges that Alvarez, who is also black, terminated him for going on paternity leave.

The San Francisco Examiner reports:

Attorney Tim Larsen, a white man, claims Alvarez denied him a promotion based on his race, as evidenced by comments he made to Larsen to not be "so Anglo" and admitting he would have granted the promotion "if you had more melatonin in your skin," according to court documents filed last month. The suit surmises that Alvarez actually was referring to "melanin," a hormone that determines skin pigment.

In one bizarre account, Alvarez allegedly asked Larsen to climb a telephone pole to cut down some dangling shoes. When Larsen questioned why he was being asked to do the task when it was clearly not in his attorney job description, Alvarez allegedly replied, "you and I are like Captain Kirk and Spock; you will never escape me."

A third suit filed by authority worker's compensation analyst Beverly Bernell Myres claims that Alvarez refused to accommodate the limited workload and physical exertion she needed to recover from knee surgery. As a result, Myres re-injured her knee and had to go back on medical leave. She was fired during that absence.

Last month, the Housing Authority Commission hired former City Attorney Louise Renne to look into the allegations further.

Of the 30 complaints received by the mayor's office from employees of the Housing Authority about Alvarez's stewardship of the agency, some mentioned programmatic failures--such as it often taking up to three weeks to do something as basic as fixing a broken toilet.

Alvarez, who previously headed the public housing authority in San Antonio, was appointed to his position by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2008.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius wrote earlier this week that Mayor Lee, who is friends with Alvarez and recently officiated at his wedding, needs to do a better job of displaying clear leadership while the scandal unfolds:

If true, [these allegations] constitute an ugly scandal. I think everyone would agree with that...Except we have yet to hear Lee say that.

As this story has unspooled, Lee has declined to comment, ducked the issue, and - in one unintentionally hilarious moment - claimed he was too busy to talk to Chronicle reporter Heather Knight and then walked out the door and signed autographs and posed for photos. That's not how to deal with the press.

"Clearly, the two are pals," wrote San Francisco Bay Guardian Editor Tim Redmond in an editorial on Wednesday, "and I understand the urge to stand by your friends in public life, and at this point, we just have allegations--maybe none of it is true, and maybe Renne will find that everything is just grand over at the Housing Authority. But the mayor ought to at least express concern...And if this was all really happening without his knowledge, then his staff isn't doing a very good job of keeping him informed."

Housing Commissioners approached by the San Francisco Chronicle defended Alvarez's performance. "I would say the general consensus is Henry's done a great job for the Housing Authority," said commissioner Ahsha Safai. "[There used to be] low morale, a culture of lawsuits and a culture of corruption...I think in general that has changed."

Lee similarly shrugged off some of the criticism aimed at Alvarez. "I don't get into personnel matters," he told the Chronicle. "But I am familiar with every Housing Authority [director] being called a bully. I've been called a bully, and I don't think I am."

Even if the embattled Alvarez survives these lawsuits and investigations, the contract for his position expires next summer. San Francisco Examiner columnist Melissa Griffin speculates that Bevan Dufty, the popular former Castro supervisor and currently Lee's "homeless czar," will likely get the nod to replace him.