In 1994, following protracted litigation over the abysmal condition of public housing in the District, D.C. Superior Court Judge Steffen Graae concluded that the city was incapable of remedying the problem and placed the agency under the supervision of the court. It was my good fortune to be named receiver, charged with taking all necessary measures to bring about that remedy and given the power and authority to do so. That process began in July 1995 and will conclude within the next few months.
Judicial takeovers of public agencies are rare and occur only when there are no alternatives. Those of us appointed by the court have three objectives: Do the job well, do it quickly and position the organization to stay healthy. To achieve that third, all-important objective, I make the following recommendations:
The D.C. Housing Authority must be independent.
The agency did not fare well as a line department of what was in 1995 a dysfunctional D.C. government. Under the new mayor and council, the city has begun to recover, but the housing authority still needs to be independent. The authority must serve its residents 24 hours a day, every day, and it cannot do so properly and efficiently as one of 13 city departments competing for resources, no matter how competent D.C. government becomes.
The governing board should be selected with significant citizen involvement.
Public housing authorities function best when they are independent of political interests. Appointments to the governing board should be made on the basis of merit, not political allegiance, and should be beholden to no particular faction of officialdom -- only to the interests of the agency and its clients. This is best accomplished when responsible citizens are involved in the selection of commissioners.
The housing authority must be able to manage its money and personnel.
The authority is one of the District's largest businesses, with more than $1 billion in assets and an annual budget of more than $125 million (derived almost entirely from the federal government and tenant rents, not local revenue). Without question, the authority must be held to the highest standards of accountability, and its employees should enjoy the same rights and protections as employees of any D.C. business. However, the authority must be able to establish standards of performance for employees and enforce them as unencumbered as possible by forces outside the agency.
The authority must be able to purchase its own goods and services.
One of the keys to the success of the receivership has been relief from the Byzantine procurement process that yokes the city. We have established procurement policies and procedures that guarantee our ability to secure what we need, when we need it, with a minimum of bureaucratic complexity. The authority must continue to be exempt from the provisions of the District's procurement law.
The authority must be given the powers it needs to do its job.
Most state legislatures allow housing authorities to conduct their affairs with a minimum of interference. For example, most authorities can sell bonds backed by their own resources to support construction and redevelopment activities. For some time the D.C. Housing Authority has had a cooperative relationship with the D.C. Housing Finance Agency, a relationship that is expected to continue. But the ability to issue bonds should be granted to the D.C. Housing Authority in the event that the finance agency is unable to do the job. Many housing authorities also are empowered to acquire land and dispose of assets, and the effectiveness of the D.C. Housing Authority should not be diminished by a withholding of these powers.
The authority should recruit the best CEO available, pay him or her accordingly and keep the fine team already assembled.
For those who worry about accountability, the housing authority, because it derives most of its income from the federal government, will be subject to the scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and will operate according to federal regulations. In addition, the new federal housing act requires the development of one- and five-year plans that are to be subjected to regular, formal public scrutiny.
As I write, legislation before the D.C. Council, introduced by Chairwoman Linda Cropp and ably shepherded by member Sharon Ambrose, will address these recommendations. Together citizens and their elected officials can ensure that the word "receivership" will never again be associated with public housing in the District.
-- David Gilmore
is the receiver for the D.C. Housing Authority.