Charges of Mismanagement Common in Housing Authorities

September 25, 1994|By MICHAEL A. FLETCHER

The federal government took over Philadelphia's housing authority after documenting years of mismanagement and corruption that included abuses such as the 25 apartments repaired annually by a maintenance staff of 627 workers.

In Washington D.C., auditors discovered that thieves were stealing $20,000 worth of equipment weekly from that city's housing authority, rated worst in the nation by federal housing officials.

And in New Orleans, investigators found that it took an average of 154 days to renovate a public housing unit when it only should have taken a month.

In Baltimore, federal auditors recently discovered massive waste the Housing Authority's $25 million no-bid emergency repair program. The discovery came just a couple of years after the agency was criticized for sitting on piles of renovation money, even as public housing units crumbled.

Waste, fraud and abuse are problems in housing authorities nationwide, and federal housing officials are much to blame for the the mess, according to Thomas Henry Massaro, a developer who has run housing authorities in Philadelphia and in Newark, N.J.

For example, a year after the federal government took over Philadelphia's housing authority, it was in worse shape than it had been under local control. The number of vacant units increased, along with the backlog of repair requests and the amount of unspent renovation money.

"It's the same old movie," said Mr. Massaro, whose experience as a housing official and a developer gives him a broad perspective on public housing. The situation is so bad in many cities that Baltimore may look good by comparison: Despite its problems, Baltimore has fared well in evaluations by HUD.

* In Washington, a D.C. Superior Court judge last week named David Gilmore, the executive director of Seattle's public housing agency, to serve as the court-appointed overseer of the district's troubled public housing agency. Mr. Gilmore helped turn around the San Francisco and Boston public housing agencies before taking his current post in Seattle.

The D.C. agency has had 13 directors in the past 15 years. Some 12,000 families are on the waiting list and housing advocates say takes an average of seven years to get an apartment, and a fifth of the city's 11,796 public housing units are in disrepair and uninhabitable.

* In Kansas City, a federal judge took over the housing authority last year after a host of problems surfaced, including the agency spending $1 million for renovations on a housing project that were never done.

Why do housing authorities have so much trouble doing their jobs?

Mr. Massaro points to two factors: politics and stifling federal regulation. He says many housing authorities around the nation have become political dumping grounds. Too often, he said, political connections, rather than competence, are decisive in getting on a housing authority payroll or securing lucrative contracts.

"But even if you take the politics out of the housing authorities and you eliminated the corruption and the incompetence, you are still left with a regulatory morass that would at least diminish if not severely impair the ability of a housing authority to do a professional, first-rate job," Mr. Massaro said.

He said the thousands of pages of HUD regulations are counterproductive. "If the purpose of these regulations are to ensure a clean, efficient operation, it's quite clear that they are not serving their purpose," he said.

As a private developer, Mr. Massaro said, he routinely secures discount prices by having a single meeting with a building supplier. But he couldn't do that when he ran public housing. The regulations would not allow it.

In fact, he said, the endless string of local and federal auditors, evaluators, procurement officers, compliance officers and affirmative action officers involved in most every housing authority transaction "virtually ensures that housing authorities will pay the highest prices on the face of the earth."

But the most intractable problem, he said, is the prevailing culture surround public housing. The tenants don't have any respect for management, and management doesn't respect tenants.

The result, too often, is that neither side acts responsibly: Some tenants vandalize, and many maintenance workers do the minimum amount of work. Managers rotate in and out of the top jobs, and the auditors have a field day. "There are breakdowns in authority and responsibility everywhere," Mr. Massaro said.

Mr. Massaro said he saw an early example of this when he was a child growing up in public housing in Paterson and Newark, N.J.

He remembers being surprised that his mother baked a cake after discovering that a bathroom faucet in their apartment was not working. He was even more surprised when his mother summoned him to take the cake to the building's boiler room.

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