The Washington Post

Feds to help Prince George’s revamp its housing programs

The troubled Prince George’s County housing department, which was the center of former County Executive Jack B. Johnson’s bribery and development schemes, is about to get a makeover.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development plans to send specialists to help Prince George’s do a better job of managing housing programs and other community revitalization efforts.

The arrangement is part of what County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has said will be an overhaul of the agency, which has a budget of $92 million. For years, the housing agency has been under fire for questionable practices and poor management that contributed to a loss of $2 million in unspent federal funds during the administration of Johnson (D).

An au­dit last year by Virginia Tech, commissioned by the Prince George’s County Council and the Baker administration, is helping shape efforts to remake the agency. The review found that the county’s housing department op­erated with untrained staff members and lacked a long-term hous­ing pol­icy, al­lowing millions of dollars to be awarded to devel­op­ers who had not met any formal cri­te­ria. Baker’s transition team said the agency had a “lack of leadership.”

An agreement between HUD and the county agency is expected to be signed Monday at Baker’s office in Upper Marlboro. Nearly all of the county’s housing funds come from the federal government.

Mercedes M. Marquez, HUD’s assistant secretary for community development, said Baker sought her out for federal assistance.

“He came to my office, essentially saying, ‘This is now on my watch, and I want to be a model for the country’ and put the county’s history behind it,” she said. The preliminary assessment will take about two months, Marquez said, and then a detailed improvement plan using HUD’s recently established “college of experts” will be designed.

The effort to revamp the Prince George’s housing agency is similar to work that HUD is doing in several other places around the nation, including Detroit, Houston, New Orleans and the District.

Eric C. Brown, whom Baker appointed last year to head the county housing agency, said he’s eager to tap HUD’s reservoir of specialists and consultants.

“The experts will be in everything from economic development to organizational management,” Brown said. They are to assess the staff and recommend any necessary training for the agency, as well as for nonprofit groups receiving grants from the agency.

The federal assistance also will help the county agency determine if it can coordinate projects with the District and Montgomery County in border communities such as Capitol Heights and Langley Park, which have a shortage of affordable housing and are ripe for revitalization.

The prospect of helping county nonprofits, which have received funds from the housing agency but have demonstrated only mixed success, is especially significant.

“A number of nonprofit groups that we fund really do not have the capacity to carry out the activities we fund them for. They have great ideas but do not have the infrastructure or capacity to carry things out on a day-to-day basis,” Brown said.

During the Johnson administration, HUD repeatedly questioned nearly all the county’s housing programs. The county was forced to return $2 million in federal housing funding in 2010 because it had failed to spend the money by the end of a five-year period. In October 2008, Prince George’s nearly lost $5 million in federal affordable housing funds for failure to meet a deadline. A 2009 county audit also showed a lack of oversight by the housing agency of spending on nonprofit groups during the Johnson administration.

HUD had complained that the county was slow to act and unresponsive to its concerns.

Federal prosecutors secured a guilty plea last year from Jack Johnson’s housing director, James E. Johnson, on conspiracy to commit extortion. Prosecutors said the two men, who are not related, were working to steer federal housing funds to developers in exchange for bribes. James Johnson awaits sentencing; Jack Johnson will begin a seven-year prison term Saturday.



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