Not fixing what’s broke

    Could public housing in Philadelphia actually get worse with a federal takeover?

    It’s happened before.

    Last Friday the five embattled members of Philadelphia Housing Authority board finally came out with their hands up and handed the authority over to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which will presumably straighten things out.

    Something had to be done for appearances sake if nothing else. The sexual harassment cases, belly-dancing parties and excessive legal expenses had become not just an embarrassment, but a fat target for Congressional Republicans looking to skewer the Obama administration, Democrats generally, and especially programs that spend millions on the poor.

    But I remember the last time HUD took over PHA, in early 1992, and it wasn’t pretty.

    In many respects the problems at the housing authority then were worse than the shameful management abuses we’ve been reading about over the past six months.

    The problems exposed at PHA in the early 90’s affected tenants in a far more pervasive way. The hiring of inept patronage hacks instead of skilled trades people had left PHA’s maintenance programs a shambles.

    Tenants waited months for someone to fix leaky roofs and toilets, and all too often the repairs were shoddy. Vacancy rates at PHA sites were appalling.

    I recently re-read a May, 1993 piece written by Matthew Purdy, an outstanding Inquirer reporter who went on to a distinguished career at the New York Times.

    Purdy’s story was a post-mortem on HUD’s disastrous 15 months in control of PHA. He found that key management jobs went un-filled or staffed with temporary hands, and that the percentage of the authority’s 22,000 residences that were vacant or awaiting repairs actually rose from 20 to 25 percent during the HUD takeover.

    HUD then lowered the official vacancy rate by writing off 800 units that were too far gone to repair.

    And I was struck by an observation from former high-ranking HUD official Alfred DelliBovi.

    “HUD is not equipped to take on the management of large housing authorities. It doesn’t have the staff that is trained to do these operational activities,” DelliBovi told Purdy. “When you cross over the line and do something that’s not your mission, it’s very risky and fraught with danger.”

    You can make a case that the HUD which took over the Philadelphia Housing Authority in the waning months of the first Bush administration was especially ill-equipped to do the job.

    I think they probably suffered from the delusion that once you purge the system of Democratic machine politicians, all will run smoothly. The truth is that managing anything the size of PHA is really hard. And managing public housing is really, really hard.

    According to Friday’s announcement, HUD’s chief operating officer, Estelle Richman will take over the functions of the PHA board.

    That’s reassuring to many. Richman was Philadelphia’s health commissioner in the 1990’s under Ed Rendell, and had several important roles, including managing director under Mayor John Street before becoming Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Public Welfare.

    But something else in the coverage of the Friday takeover caught my eye.

    It was this sentence from the Inquirer’s Saturday story: “Richman said she would spend a few half-days a month in Philadelphia while continuing her duties at HUD.”

    I sure hope nobody in Washington thinks Richman or anybody else can run public housing in Philadelphia with the kind of time commitment a lot of folks would devote to their local PTA.

    We could end up wishing we had the old board back.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.