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Monday, October 18, 2010

Rehabilitating the Housing Authority

Philadelphia Inquirer

This old agency is in dire need of repairs. The legislature can help.

The maelstrom surrounding the Philadelphia Housing Authority and its former executive director, Carl Greene, has yielded promises to do better. We can probably expect a new director, and maybe some new direction, soon.

But all may be for naught if we don't address the root of the problem: the lack of coordination between the Housing Authority and the city government. That can't be remedied without state legislation, which determines how the Housing Authority is run.

As it stands, the commonwealth requires the authority's governing board to include two members appointed by the mayor, two appointed by the city controller, and a fifth chosen by the other four members who is supposed to represent tenants. As such, the agency does not have to coordinate its efforts with the city administration. Regardless of his or her morality and competence, no PHA executive director is obligated to heed the city government or its elected officials.

No other U.S. housing authority of any size is run this way. The PHA's counterparts in other cities are generally controlled by mayors and city councils.

It took a scandal

We need to make the Philadelphia Housing Authority - which has a $400 million budget and ranks fourth nationwide in housing units - similarly accountable to the city.

The state law governing Pennsylvania's housing authorities was written during the Great Depression. The structure of government has changed dramatically since then, and public housing has become a far greater part of the city. Its integration with city planning and budgets is long overdue.

It shouldn't have taken a scandal to make us recognize the problems inherent in the Housing Authority's long-standing lack of accountability. True, the PHA - like many other housing authorities in Pennsylvania and the rest of the country - has taken advantage of changes in federal policy and demolished many dangerous, crumbling high-rises. And it has replaced some of their units with safer, cleaner, more efficient, low-rise housing. But that shouldn't have blinded everyone to the agency's flaws.

Now several members of Philadelphia's legislative delegation have promised to press for reforms to the Housing Authority's structure and oversight. The state House Urban Affairs Committee plans to hold a public hearing Thursday on updating and improving the state housing authorities law (Act 265 of 1937).

Corrective measures
I will be urging lawmakers to take the following steps:

Add a provision saying that all Housing Authority board members appointed by elected officials serve at the pleasure of those who appointed them.

Expand the PHA board to include seven members, as the legislature did in Pittsburgh, four of whom are appointed by the mayor.

Instead of the city controller, give City Council, which is intimately involved in housing and community development, the power to choose two appointees to the board. One should be picked by Council's majority leader, and the other by the minority leader.

Create a mechanism for Housing Authority tenants to choose their own representatives.

Eliminate the recently enacted provision calling for five-year contracts for Housing Authority employees. Three years is a more reasonable term.

Subject all Housing Authority subsidiaries and related organizations to the rules that apply to public agencies, including the open-meetings and right-to-know laws.

Require that the financial statements of any Housing Authority subsidiary or related organization be consolidated with the financial statements of the Housing Authority.

The state legislature cannot let this issue fester much longer. The current controversy could bring the PHA to a near-standstill and jeopardize its ability to qualify for some federal funds.

Pennsylvania needs to move quickly to change the way the Philadelphia Housing Authority is run. Some of our neediest citizens depend on it.

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