Who’s overseeing our public housing?

Political scandals have touched tax-funded agencies for the poor

First conceived in 1937 to boost working-class families out of the Great Depression, public housing projects built over the subsequent four decades in Hoboken, Jersey City, and North Bergen have been subject to investigations and politics as the federal government leaves more power in the hands of local political appointees.
Under the 1937 Housing Act, the federal government provided public financing for low-cost, multi-family homes that were managed by a national public agency. But after World War II, when most working-class families could afford to buy homes, public housing became ghettoized islands for the poorest families.
Today, there are federally-funded “projects” for low-income families and senior citizens in Jersey City (2,670 units), Hoboken (1,353 units), and North Bergen (985 units).
These projects are funded in part by federal tax dollars, although families pay some of the rents, depending on their income.
In towns with large projects, there have been federal investigations, rumors of tampering with housing waiting lists, and heavy campaigning for votes in those neighborhoods at election time.
This year, cutbacks at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which funds the authorities, have drained money from the projects and pushed the agencies to run under even less federal oversight.
Some believe this is part of a continued effort by HUD to force public housing agencies to run themselves. The only question is: who’s running them?

Recent investigations

Although the directors and board members are hired to oversee the disabled, the elderly, and the poor, they sometimes have been accused of using the money in ways that didn’t benefit these most vulnerable tenants.
In the last 10 years, the following scandals and problems have occurred:
Hoboken, 2002: After Hoboken Housing Authority Executive Director Troy Washington left to take over the Jersey City Housing Authority, his replacement in Hoboken said that Washington left behind a $3.62 million deficit, a $412,000 unpaid utility bill, and nearly $1 million in over-expenditures. What’s worse, the new Hoboken director discovered that the long waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers in Hoboken had no local residents on them, but instead listed mostly Jersey City residents, a very strange occurrence. A few months later, Troy Washington was terminated from the Jersey City Housing Authority, for other apparent misdeeds (see below).
Jersey City, 2003: Washington was terminated from Jersey City after an internal investigation determined that he spent $190,000 on a conference table, and another $4,000 on a paper shredder. According to the JCHA Board of Commissioners, he also took an eight-day trip to Cuba barely two months after being hired, and supposedly failed to designate an acting director in his absence.
Hoboken, 2005: The Hoboken Housing Authority’s new director, Robert DiVincent, who was brought in from the West New York Housing Authority after Washington left, was suddenly terminated by the Hoboken Board of Commissioners at their monthly meeting, although the board couldn’t give a good reason for the abruptness of the action. Rumors suggested that Hoboken Mayor David Roberts wanted to move his director of human services, Carmelo Garcia, into the position, but that HUD said he wasn’t qualified yet. The commissioners, for their part, said that since DiVincent was still overseeing two other Housing Authorities in West New York and Weehawken at the same time, he didn’t have enough time to spend in Hoboken. Still, many observers were bewildered by his untimely dismissal just when he was trying to turn Hoboken’s projects around.
Two weeks later, DiVincent was asked by a regretful Board of Commissioners to come back, and he agreed to return. Later, in August of 2007, Garcia was hired as his deputy director.
Hoboken, 2006: Eric Hurt, an accounting manager at the Housing Authority, pleaded guilty to a federal charge of embezzlement after admitting to writing 34 checks worth $111,083 to himself from 2001 and 2004, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
North Bergen, 2008: This past February, the U.S. Attorney in Newark launched an investigation into favoritism and fiscal mismanagement at the North Bergen Housing Authority. Richard Anastasi, the attorney for the North Bergen Housing Authority, confirmed at the time that federal investigators were looking into allegations that some NBHA employees were being placed at the top of the wait list for housing, ahead of North Bergen residents who applied.
In addition, the feds were investigating whether furniture – bought with taxpayer money and supposedly purchased for community rooms in NBHA buildings – went to employees’ homes. A source said that the allegations came from a former employee.
Earlier this month, the director of the NBHA, Diane Peirano-Ingvaldsen, told the Reporter that the investigation went nowhere and that it was solely due to a disgruntled employee. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office said last month that they do would confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
In the local housing projects, even when probes fail to turn up evidence, rumors are common about political interference. True or not, they are spread largely due to the fact that residents are vulnerable and must depend on the politicians for their housing. Even if there is no corruption, the perception and fear remain.

Local shortage of qualified directors

DiVincent, who still technically runs Hoboken’s Housing Authority, does the same in West New York and Weehawken at the same time. Sources said he was chosen to help Hoboken at a crucial time because of his stellar reputation. But due to a shortage of other capable directors, he is also spread thin.
Local officials say there is a shortage of people in the area with the proper qualifications to run housing authorities. Recently, Hoboken’s city government asked William Snyder, the director of Secaucus’ public housing, to oversee the disbursement of five units of workforce housing that were recently approved by local officials.
Housing directors must meet certain criteria. They have to take 10 one-day classes offered by Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and have at least five years of management and supervisory experience and a college degree.
These requirements actually came out of housing corruption scandals that occurred in the mid-1980s when HUD started getting out of the housing business, according to several local longtime housing authority directors who were interviewed for this story.
As a result of those scandals, the state implemented the mandatory certification training for housing authority directors in 1992 and similar, though abbreviated, training for housing commissioners. Now, even the members of a Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners – seven per authority – must take several one-day courses in management and finance in an 18-month period at Rutgers University. The requirements are unique to New Jersey.

Budget cuts at HUD

By state statute, housing authorities have been created in 278 towns in New Jersey. While there are also private companies that build affordable housing, it is the federally subsidized municipal Housing Authorities that oversee the brick buildings complexes colloquially as “the projects.”
Each Housing Authority in New Jersey is run primarily by a paid executive director and his or her management and maintenance staffs. Another group theoretically helps oversee the projects: the unpaid seven-member board of commissioners, who are political appointees.
Each Housing Authority and its Board of Commissioners follows the policies of, and gets its funding from, HUD, but HUD seems less interested in managing public housing these days, leaving major decisions in local officials’ hands.
HUD has experienced a 14.9 percent drop in funding over the last eight years, which has translated to major budget cutbacks at local housing authorities.
The Jersey City Housing Authority has had to trim its budget by 12 percent since 2000. In the same time, the Hoboken Housing Authority has cut its budget by 11 percent, about the same rate as North Bergen, according to the housing directors in those towns.

_____________

“Among government agencies, public housing is like the stepchild agency.” – Robert Deutchman
________

In 2006, HUD announced that its budget was reduced by $600 million from the year before. As a result, local housing authorities were told they would receive about 85 percent of what they had gotten in 2005.

‘Commissioners are volunteers’

When local housing authorities or their officials are investigated, some blame politics, and others blame HUD for not providing enough support and oversight.
“There are a number of local housing authorities, in New Jersey and across the country, that are in disarray,” said Robert Deutchman, associate professor of urban studies at Rutgers University, recently. “Among government agencies, public housing is like the stepchild agency. And the general public tends not to care about public housing because it’s a program for poor people.”
He added, “So, this has led, in some cases, to mismanagement, financial improprieties, theft, and other problems within agencies.”
Carmelo Garcia, the deputy director of the Hoboken Housing Authority, said that issues like the Troy Washington debacle are symptoms of an underlying problem.
“Well, clearly, Mr. Washington was a bad apple. I wouldn’t say he is indicative of housing authority directors across Hudson County,” he said. “But the problem didn’t end with him. For Washington to do the things he did, clearly there wasn’t enough oversight from the [housing authority] board. So you have to look there as well.”
John Garvey, a commissioner with the Jersey City Housing Authority, noted, “Commissioners are volunteers. We all have full-time jobs. There may not always be an incentive to put in the extra time to scrutinize resolutions introduced by the director.”
Attempts to find Troy Washington were unsuccessful. Residents and housing commissioners in Jersey City and Hoboken said the prevailing rumor is that he is living and practicing law in Cuba. While serving in Hoboken and then Jersey City, he had been taking law classes at Rutgers University.

Millions of dollars

Housing authorities oversee large budgets – $80 million in Jersey City, $11 million in Hoboken. But the director chosen to run them is often someone local, rather than the result of a national search.
Some say it is important to pick someone who can work with the local City Hall, while others worry about that politics could turn projects into local fiefdoms.
When Carmelo Garcia, who grew up in the public housing in Hoboken, was hired to be the deputy director of that city’s Housing Authority last year, people complained that there was not an open search.
When asked about this at the time, Garcia said he preferred to look to the future rather than the past.
“I want to create the most decent, sanitary and safe housing authority in the state,” said Garcia, adding that he was committed to removing drugs and crime from the area.
He does come with political baggage, as does any local appointee – he currently serves on the Board of Education and was reprimanded several years ago for accidentally voting on a contract for a relative. At the time he was hired last year, there were rumors he would be made director instead of DiVincent. At the time, one of the commissioners said, “There has to be an open process for an executive director; otherwise people would say it’s an inside job. It wouldn’t be fair to Carmelo.” But that commissioner also acknowledged that Garcia “obviously has the inside track, as well he should” due to his ability to work within the community.
In the end, Carmelo was hired as deputy director, working under DiVincent.
Perry Belfiore, an outspoken member of the HHA board for the last seven years, said last week that Garcia is the man for the job, and has the right energy for it.
“He needs to be continually engaged,” Belfiore said. “And the Hoboken Housing Authority, just like any Housing Authority, is total engagement. You can’t leave the authority at the end. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. Carmelo has made a dramatic improvement as well as Bob DiVincent. The presence of a full-time assistant director who goes in and inspects the buildings at a daily basis, that does the intake that’s involved, and is involved in every facet, has made a dramatic difference.”
Belfiore, who has relatives in the projects and remembers the days of Troy Washington, said that sometimes HUD backs a subpar director, and then is loath to admit their error, instead moving that person to another authority. He said it was only when Washington ruffled feathers with his actions in Jersey City that HUD realized there was a problem.
“They’re too big to manage [public housing],” Belfiore said, “… and they don’t want to admit that they’re doing a poor job. It’s a governmental authority that’s worse than FEMA.”
But Belfiore said that things are greatly improving in Hoboken’s public housing due to the new leadership.
In the last two years, a long-awaited ID system has been put in place, and people can now call to see where they are on the wait list.

Problems not isolated

Hudson County is far from alone in facing local probes and problems.
Last summer, the board of the Dallas Housing Authority forced out its executive director after a local newspaper uncovered major accounting problems.
Last year, HUD threatened to place the Miami-Dade Housing Authority in receivership after more than $1.5 million was apparently stolen from the agency’s coffers.
At least three other local housing agencies – in New Orleans, Sarasota, and Detroit – are currently in receivership and are being managed by HUD.
“Housing authorities tend to be these forgotten agencies,” said Virginia Polytechnic University Professor Ted Koebel, who has researched public housing since the early 1990s. “They get much less scrutiny than schools and police departments.”
Each year, regional HUD offices evaluate and rate local housing authorities in four areas. Housing authorities can earn up to 30 points for each of the first three areas, and up to 10 points for the last one. A score of less than 60 points means HUD considers the authority to be “troubled.”
“HUD inspectors do a very cursory evaluation of local authorities, and problems often aren’t found during the annual audit, they’re found out only after the problems reach a critical point,” said Hudson County Freeholder William O’Dea. “So clearly these evaluations aren’t thorough enough. Now, in fairness to HUD, it should be pointed out that one reason these evaluations are what they should be is partly because the department no longer has the budget and manpower they need to do the job better.”
According to a spokeswoman for the national HUD office in Washington, D.C., there are 3,400 housing authorities in the U.S., about 200 of which are considered troubled at any given time. None in Hudson County are currently considered troubled.

Trying to get out of the housing business

HUD seems to be trying to get out of the public housing business, leaving local directors to deal with the results.
In Jersey City, the Board of Commissioners recently wrestled with Executive Director Maria Maio over issues like the future demolition of some of public housing complexes (to be replaced eventually with mixed-income units) and the fact that the board chairman was removed for allegedly not taking the required courses in time.
An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people live in Jersey City public housing, and another 10,000 people get Section 8 vouchers through the agency. The agency has 250 employees, from $8,000 part-timers doing maintenance work to Maio’s $155,800 as executive director.
Right now, the JCHA, like other housing authorities across the country, is subject to a HUD policy known as “stop-loss.” That means that they will experience a decline in federal funding this year, but can have their losses stopped at 5 percent if they can show a successful conversion to “asset management.” Asset management is a recent HUD policy making the individual housing sites responsible for their own management and working with their own budgets, rather than all management decisions being made at a central office.
Tenants and others connected to the JCHA have said that HUD’s policies are basically a way for the federal government to shift its duties to others.
“The federal government has largely gotten out of the business of providing affordable housing,” said Kevin Walsh, senior counsel with Fair Share Housing, a housing advocacy group in Camden.
“Public housing really is a direction-less program, from top to bottom,” said Margery Austin Turner, director of the Urban Institute Metropolitan Housing and Community Policy Center. “Right now there are no clear signals from the government. We don’t know what the government plans to do with this program long-term.”

And what of the tenants?

This leaves local appointees, mayors, and sometimes inexperienced directors to try to oversee a necessity of life – housing – without mismanaging the funds and being influenced politically.
Meanwhile, tenants are just waiting for the locks to be fixed on their doors or the drug dealers to be pushed out of the halls.
Deana Martinez, a resident of Jersey City’s Marion Gardens complex, is worried about a broken banister in her stairwell, where kids often roughhouse.
“It’s been like this for three weeks,” Martinez, who lives there with her two children. “You can see someone taped it together. But I’m afraid someone could fall and get hurt.”
She said she had called management several times to get the jagged railing fixed. She said no one could give her an estimate of when a maintenance crew might repair the damage.
“I’m going to keep calling until they fix it,” she said. “I’m not going to stand for living in a crappy building, just ’cause I live in public housing.”

Staff writer Ricardo Kaulessar contributed to this story.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at awright@hudsonreporter.com.