The last PHA scandal

    Being a big city mayor you’re held responsible for lots of stuff you don’t control – an underperforming school system, an armed back-to-nature group, or a public housing agency that’s imploded after the departure of its eccentric executive director.

    As I was walking out of city hall Monday, I ran into Mayor Nutter, who said he’d heard I’d written something recently saying he should be taking a greater role in the Philadelphia Housing Authority, currently paralyzed by multiple investigations and a five-member board who won’t quit.

    I hadn’t written such a thing, I told him (there’s another journalist in town with my last name), but I said I did kind of think that after hearing him give bland, non-committal answers when reporters asked him whether the current PHA board should quit, as federal officials have requested.

    Nutter and I go back a while, and we had a chat about some relevant history. I won’t repeat the conversation, but after our discussion I reviewed some old clips to refresh my memory, and a history on the last PHA scandal might be instructive here.

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    You can argue Nutter hasn’t shown strong leadership on PHA, and some remember the days in 1993, when then-mayor Ed Rendell and then-City Council President John Street both joined the PHA board and led a major overhaul.

    That, you might say, was leadership.

    But it’s easy to forget that before Rendell & Co. took on PHA, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development had already taken over the authority and tried to run it directly for a year.

    That was preceded by a bunch of newspaper stories and audits with truly horrific revelations: soaring vacancy rates, inept maintenance that left tenants in deplorable conditions, and disgraceful examples of political patronage.

    It was a nightmare, and HUD took over PHA in the spring of 1992. Leading the charge was the department’s regional director, a young Republican lawyer named Michael Smerconish. Yeah, that Michael Smerconish.

    HUD took over PHA but didn’t do much better managing it than the previous hacks had.

    While they were floundering, Bill Clinton won the White House and the charismatic Henry Cisneros took over at HUD.

    In August of 1993, Cisneros came to town and made it clear he wanted Rendell, then regarded as one the country’s most successful mayors, to lead a makeover of PHA.

    So while Rendell did take PHA by the horns, it’s fair to point out that he did so after HUD took control, and wanted somebody it could trust to take it away.

    I’m told by sources I believe that several months ago Nutter made a quiet effort to effect a turnover of the PHA board by approaching City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who appoints two of the five PHA board members. For whatever reason, that didn’t bear fruit, so the current board stayed in place until City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell finally resigned yesterday.

    I’m guessing there are some major shoes soon to fall on the PHA board in the form of audit reports that could be ugly reading. Signals from HUD are that they aren’t going stand around and watch while the current board holds its ground.

    So change is coming to PHA, and whether Nutter might have done more to accelerate it or not, his real opportunity lies ahead. If he plays a major role in reform at PHA, that’s what we’ll remember in the long run.

    I hope he’s got some good ideas up his sleeve.

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