The Post vs. HUD on the HOME story
One of the ingredients readers don’t see in a finished news story is the amount of head-butting that goes on between The Post and government officials. There is a constant behind-the-scenes tussle over stories, facts, content, tone and language, before and after publication.
One of these struggles is going on between The Post and the Department of Housing and Urban Development and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan.
The conflict is over a 9,000-word series The Post did in May about HUD’s HOME program, the largest federal block grant to state and local governments designed to build and renovate affordable housing for low-income households. It generally costs taxpayers nearly $2 billion a year.
In a Post op-ed that appeared on June 9 and in meetings with The Post and with me, Donovan has said that the HOME series was inaccurate, sensationalistic and misleading. He has requested 16 corrections to the story.
The Post has said no to the corrections, responding in detail to Donovan, and is standing behind the stories.
I thought when I first read the stories that some of the language oversold, that some conclusions reached just a little too far based on the given data.
I’ve waded into the subject chest deep — reading scores of documents, Capitol Hill testimony and HUD inspector general reports, and talking with HUD officials, Jeff Leen, The Post’s assistant managing editor for investigations, and Debbie Cenziper, the series’ primary reporter. And now I think The Post made a good case that the HOME program has serious flaws.
In HUD’s favor are several factors. The HOME program, passed with bipartisan support in 1990 and signed by President George H.W. Bush, has indeed helped fund, build and renovate hundreds of thousands of low-income housing units, using a combination of federal, state, local and private money.
It’s also true that the financial crisis and real estate collapse has hit HUD’s HOME program hard in the past three years — it’s a program that combines private and public money, after all.
In the end, it appears that HUD’s tools to oversee the HOME program are inadequate. And it’s very difficult, as The Post showed, to tell at any one time which of some 28,000 incomplete HOME projects at 650 local agencies are delayed significantly, are making progress or have been abandoned — and which projects are properly constructed and complete.
This is why the opening of the story said the program “has squandered hundreds of millions of dollars on stalled or abandoned projects,” and that “nationwide, nearly 700 projects awarded $400 million have been idling for years.”
Squander means to spend extravagantly or foolishly and wastefully, and it implies some willful negligence. It can also mean missing an opportunity. I think the verb was a bit strong. I wouldn’t have used it, but that’s an argument over tone and language, not over facts.
As to the 700 projects idling for years, a point HUD has disputed vigorously — I think the facts point in The Post’s favor. But I would have qualified it, as The Post did in an accompanying article explaining its methodology, when it called this number an “estimated 700.”
I am persuaded by The Post’s shoe-leather reporting on 430 of the 700 projects that the series said were idled, delayed or abandoned. Cenziper spent two months calling 165 local housing agencies and visiting 10 cities to ask the status of individual projects. She found projects stalled for years, many abandoned, and empty lots where housing should have been. Those 430 projects had $233 million committed to them — money that, with better monitoring, could have been reallocated to other, more deserving projects.
And I am persuaded by HUD data given to Congress this month, in which the agency acknowledges that 821 projects, funded at more than $100,000 each and at least 41 / 2 years old, are in one way or another not closed out on its books. That’s $800 million outstanding.
HUD is correct to point out that HOME was designed to let local jurisdictions handle monitoring and oversight. Congress didn’t want an army of bureaucrats looking over the shoulders of local agencies.
But in this era of online databases, HUD’s main computer program to track these programs is inadequate; the HUD inspector general’s office has repeatedly said so. And the HUD assistant IG for audits, testifying before Congress last month, said that, “in some instances, no monitoring is occurring” by the local agencies and their grantees.
Moreover, since January, when HUD, to its credit, began demanding more information from the local agencies, it has canceled more than 2,000 projects that had been idle for at least a year.
This story is not over. The Post and HUD are still analyzing data, still trying to get a handle on all of the delayed and abandoned projects. As HUD’s deputy inspector general, Michael Stephens, said in an interview, increased oversight could do a lot to help the HOME program. After all, he noted, “it’s all taxpayer money.”
Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at email@example.com . For updates, read the omblog at voices.washingtonpost. com/ombudsman-blog/.