The federal government's recent intervention in the operation of D.C. public housing, after it tried for more than a decade to prod the city into correcting serious deficiencies, will not necessarily result in immediate improvements or additional funding for the program, according to housing experts.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development lists the District housing department among the 24 most troubled out of more than 2,800 public housing agencies overseen by HUD.
U.S. Housing Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr. announced March 11 he had taken the unusual step of assigning a top assistant to work directly with the D.C. housing agency, which has failed to comply with many of the recommendations contained in a highly critical 1984 HUD audit. HUD found that the District had major problems collecting rent, maintaining deteriorating apartments and repairing vacant units.
However, housing directors for other troubled authorities in which HUD intervened, including Chicago, Boston and Tampa, Fla., said the results were mixed and that they had to rely heavily on their own personnel and financial resources rather than HUD's.
"HUD has really not brought much to the table to help troubled authorities except a good bit of rhetoric," said Gordon Cavanaugh, legislative counsel to the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. "HUD does not have a wealth of people with direct experience in managing the direction of public housing."
James Baugh, the acting HUD assistant secretary for public and Indian housing who has been assigned to work with District officials, said he expected the solutions to involve "technical assistance and monitoring." Baugh, who has worked with other troubled public housing agencies, noted that the solutions would not necessarily mean more federal money for the District housing authority.
"There is a perception out there that we have these deep pockets and if there is a problem out there we can come riding in on a golden horse to fix things," said Baugh. "Money is not always the problem."
From a political standpoint, HUD's action is being characterized as everything from a blessed event that will help to get the D.C. agency back on track to a major embarrassment for Mayor Marion Barry, whose administration has been responsible for the city's public housing program for the past seven years.
Barry, who was first elected in 1979 pledging to improve housing conditions greatly for low-income residents, said recently that he welcomed Pierce's intervention and that it would increase efforts to maintain and upgrade public housing.
"It always helps to be in the national office, because you can get more done," Barry said.
But some D.C. City Council members view HUD's move as a stinging commentary on the city's failure to provide safe and decent housing for many of the 60,000 people who live in the city's 11,684 public housing units.
"If I were the mayor, I would be highly insulted," council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) said. "I think we could have gotten more for what we have spent. I just think the housing staff is incompetent, and I think that it stems from the top down."
Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), chairman of a House subcommittee on housing and community development, warned last week that the Reagan administration might be intervening in the District to further what Gonzalez called an anti-public housing philosophy.
"At this particular time, I'm somewhat distrustful of HUD's being in a position to review the District housing authority," said Gonzalez. "It is generally known that this administration is an enemy, not a supporter, of public housing. I'm sure this HUD decision is 100 percent politically motivated."
Deborah G. Dean, Pierce's executive assistant, said Gonzalez's assessment was "ridiculous."
"Mr. Gonzalez is a very political person and he's on the other team," said Dean. "We have no reason to highlight the problems in our own city. If anything, it is a bad sign that there are problems in our own back yard."
Dean said HUD would not speculate on what is likely to be done until Baugh and Barry reach tentative agreement on a plan and present it to Pierce.
The nearly two dozen public housing authorities that are on HUD's "troubled" list are plagued by such problems as low operating reserves, excessive vacancies, high levels of uncollected rent and run-down physical conditions. Others on the list include the housing authorities in Atlantic City, N.J., Detroit, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Oakland.
HUD annually distributes millions of dollars in subsidies to housing authorities that live up to the term of their contracts with the federal government. Federal intervention in troubled housing authorities has ranged from sending in HUD officials to run an operation after declaring that a housing authority has defaulted or breached its contract -- which HUD has done six times -- to helping housing officials develop financial and operational plans. In the case of the troubled Bridgeport, Conn., authority, a private management firm was hired to run the authority.
The Tampa housing authority, which has 4,650 public housing units and about 25,000 tenants, made HUD's financially troubled list by "spending beyond its means" and incurring a deficit that had exceeded $400,000, according to Tampa's housing executive director, Juan Patterson. Although the authority now has a surplus of $600,000, Patterson gives HUD little credit.
"They told us we had a problem and to fix it," said Patterson. "We got very litle direction as to how to fix it and very little flexibility. The only thing that HUD did was to request a lot of reviews and ask for a lot of additional information."
HUD cites the Chicago housing authority, which operates 39,461 units, as a troubled authority that has made substantial improvement since HUD intervened. The authority has erased a $33 million deficit and now has operating reserves of $15.7 million, according to HUD officials.
"HUD does not come in and sit down beside you and look at every check you sign," said Zirl Smith, the executive director for the Chicago authority. "We knew when we came in what we could do to improve things, and we made HUD a partner in the process. HUD is not equipped to give technical assistance. They are spread pretty thin."
HUD's 1984 audit, which concluded that "significant operational and managerial deficiencies" were costing the District housing authority millions of dollars in annual income, made 70 recommendations and gave the District 120 days to comply. But HUD officials say that the city has acted on only 37 of the recommendations.
In monitoring the city's public housing program, HUD found a total of $4.8 million in uncollected rents as of September 1983. The housing authority at the time was collecting a monthly rental income of about $1 million.
Madeline Petty, director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, said that the annual rent collection increased from $12.6 million in fiscal 1984 to $13 million in fiscal 1985 and that delinquent rent collections increased from $1.2 million to $2 million during the same period.
HUD's audit also found:
An excessive number of vacant units had resulted in an annual rental income loss of $1.4 million. The number of vacant units has risen from 1,396 in February 1984 to 1,900 vacant units as of January, when Petty launched a program to reduce the number of vacant units.
Maintenance operations were inefficient, ineffective and uneconomical. The department has designed a 40-hour training program for maintenance supervisors and employed tenants as maintenance workers on 11 properties.
No effective internal controls to prevent the "misuse, loss or theft of ranges and refrigerators for which the department had spent $300,000 over a three-year period. Petty has asked the D.C. Office of the Inspector General to conduct an audit to make certain her department can fully account for $1 million worth of ranges and refrigerators purchased in fiscal 1985.
Since 1981, the District has appropriated $23.4 million to supplement the more than $115 million in federal public housing operating subsidies provided for the District for the same period and appropriated $55.9 milion in capital funds between 1977 and 1984 for public housing modernization projects.
City Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), who has 3,088 public housing units in his ward, said he has no problems with the way public housing is being run and that Barry has put more money into public housing than most mayors.
But council member John Wilson (D-Ward 2), whose ward has more public housing -- 3,312 units -- than any other ward, said the District must face the fact that it has failed in its efforts to run public housing but should not expect HUD to provide the solution.
"HUD or nobody else can make the housing bureaucracy jump into an effective operation overnight," said Wilson. "It is just a lack of management and a lack of desire. People collect their checks and go home. I really think Petty is a decent person trying hard, but the department is loaded with people who can't do what they are supposed to do.