It is no accident that when David Gilmore was appointed as the receiver for the D.C. Department of Public and Assisted Housing in 1995, one of his first actions was to give the agency a new name -- the D.C. Housing Authority. He wanted to send a signal that the agency was going to be different from the way it had been for two decades.
Before Gilmore took over, the department had been a symbol of ineptitude and corruption in the District and throughout the nation's public housing program. It was the first agency ever placed on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's infamous Troubled Housing Authority list -- and there it remained for 18 years. When Gilmore took over, 25 percent of its units were vacant, and many were uninhabitable. The department had had 16 directors in 17 years, and Section 8 certificates were being sold for personal profit. Despite some good employees, the agency as a whole was a disgrace and a failure.
Now the D.C. Housing Authority is emerging from its long nightmare as a vastly improved public body. Its homes are back on line and in many cases, a credit to the neighborhood. Significant revitalization plans are under way at a number of sites. The books are balanced. Integrity is the norm for a hard-working staff. Residents are involved in every aspect of the life of the agency.
The lion's share of the credit goes to Judge Steffen Graae, the wise, patient and caring Superior Court jurist who has presided over the agency's turnaround, and Gilmore, the passionate advocate and skillful manager who has directed these changes with a deft hand.
But the time is approaching when the agency should be returned to management by the District. This transition will provide a remarkable opportunity for the city leaders to show their constituents and the nation that the District can govern itself.
To that end, the staff to run the agency's day-to-day operation must be made up of professionals who are selected for the excellence of their technical capacity and not because of whom they might know.
The executive director must be knowledgeable about the work of the staff, gifted as a manager and able to provide leadership and vision.
The board of commissioners must be able to set policy and guide the agency toward the goals it sets, and it must have sole authority to select the executive director.
And finally, the mayor and public housing residents must select commissioners they believe can establish insightful and just policies and who are determined to guard the integrity of the agency.
Across the nation, an almost direct correlation exists between excellent public housing programs and agencies where these principles are followed. The inverse correlation is even stronger:
When mayors appoint commissioners for political reasons rather than for their wisdom and insight, agencies fail.
When elected officials intervene to choose executive directors whose allegiance is greater to political or personal goals than it is to professional ones, agencies fail.
And when commissioners try to direct the daily operational work of the agency rather than stick to their policy domain, agencies fail.
With support from residents, advocates and citizens at large, the D.C. Council should pass the proposed changes to the D.C. Housing Act of 1994 to create a fully independent housing authority. This authority still will be tied appropriately to the political life of the city through the mayor's appointment of commissioners from a pool nominated by a group of distinguished and concerned citizens. But its organizational structure otherwise will reflect that of the most effective and mission-driven public agencies in the nation.
In taking this action to create an independent authority -- without congressional intrusion or judicial requirement -- the District and its leaders will earn and deserve the respect of the nation as a city that is growing into its maturity.
-- James G. Stockard Jr.
was a special master in the case of Pearson v. Kelly in 1993. His report to the judge led to the appointment of David Gilmore as receiver for the D.C. Housing Authority.