Handbook for Housing and Redevelopment Commissioners
by Joel Solkoff
1980/National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO)
NAHRO serves the Nation’s Housing and Community Development Needs
NAHRO Publication Number N606. 1980
National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, 2600 Virginia Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20037
- Thirty-four years ago, I published this version of the Handbook for Housing and Redevelopment Commissioners for the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO).
- Much has changed since then.
- Before proceeding, please consult the current NAHRO version of the Handbook: http://www.nahro.org/publications
- Since 1980 NAHRO has moved from the Watergate complex to 630 Eye Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Phone: 202-866-2476. Email: [email protected]
- NAHRO’s National President is Preston Prince, CEO/Executive Director, Fresno Housing Authority, Fresno, CA.
- NAHRO’s Chief Executive Officer is Saul N. Ramirez, Jr.
- NAHRO publishes the bi-monthly Journal of Housing and Community Development, the only periodical devoted exclusively to the affordable housing and community development (HCD) field. It features articles on all aspects of the industry, including legislation and advocacy, finance, international HCD initiatives, green building, maintenance and administration, as well as semi-regular columns from various industry leaders.
- Today, on my 67th birthday, I am publishing the Handbook I authored when I was 33 years old.
- This re-publication honors the memory of my dear friend Frederic M. Vogelsang, then director of NAHRO publications.
- We conceived the nature of the Handbook reproduced here at the bar of the Watergate Hotel.
- We were drinking martinis at the time. Fred’s martini had vodka; mine had gin.
- Nevertheless, I was cold sober when I researched and wrote the Handbook. Fred was sober when he edited it.
- I used Studs Terkel oral history technique: Interviewing, taping, and transcribing the words of commissioners and executive directors throughout the U.S.
- I remain hopeful that what emerges still is the praiseworthy tradition of service dedicated to providing shelter to the poor, the elderly, and disabled.
To my father, Isadore (“Izzy”) Solkoff zt”l
About the Author
Joel Solkoff is a free-lance writer and consultant based in Washington, D.C. Mr. Solkoff recently resigned from the U.S. Department of Labor where he served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary, advising on policy and public information issues. Mr. Solkoff has been published in The New York Times, the New Republic, Skeptic, and the Village Voice. He is currently working on a book to be published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Cover and Book Design: Rubin Krassner
Chapter One—The Job
Chapter Two—The Risks of the Job
Chapter Three—The Executive Director
Chapter Four—Meetings of the Board of Commissioners
Part III—Program Advocacy and Promotion
Chapter Five—Commissioners as Government Officials
Chapter Six—Commissioners as Community Leaders
Chapter Seven—Commissioners as Advocates
Appendix—Chronology of Housing and Redevelopment Laws
This new edition of the NAHRO Commissioners handbook reflects awareness of the rapid changes taking place in the fields of assisted housing and community development. It recognizes the expectations of all who serve in those fields that key leadership responsibilities are increasingly vested in the commissioners of local agencies administering those programs in thousands of communities throughout the United States. This awareness and those expectations underlie NAHRO’s conviction that its continuing service to and for housing and redevelopment agency commissioners is a major contribution to the professionalism of individuals and to the success of the housing and redevelopment programs for which they are policy and decision makers.
NAHRO’s tradition of service to commissioners is a long and distinguished one. The previous editions of this handbook (1950; 1968; 1972) are examples. That tradition was considerably strengthened by the efforts of Joseph E. Canale, my predecessor as NAHRO President for the 1977-1979 term. President Canale established a National Commissioners Committee and appointed Elizabeth Wells, Chairperson, Housing Authority of the County of King, Seattle, Washington, to serve as its first chairperson. The- success of this energetic and thoughtful committee under Mrs. Wells’ leadership has benefitted NAHRO as an organization as well as individual commissioners in localities throughout the country. I was pleased when Mrs. Wells accepted appointment to a second term as chairperson.
A major item on the committee’s agenda was the publication of a new edition of this NAHRO handbook. The decade of the 1980s promises to be one of increasing demands and difficulties for housing and community development programs and for those who administer and direct them. This book will go a long way towards providing assistance and guidance for the upcoming years.
–Paul D. Chapman President NAHRO, Tulsa, Oklahoma June 1980
I would like to thank all the commissioners, executive directors, authority staff members, authority residents, local, state and federal officials, and NAHRO staff members who helped make this book possible. Numerous commissioners had their suppers interrupted and their weekends disturbed by long conversations and persistent questions. For their patience and their concern that this book honestly and clearly reflect their experience and their knowledge, I express my gratitude. Specifically, I would like to thank Commissioners Elizabeth Wells of the King County, Washington, Housing Authority; Henry P. Albarelli of the Burlington, Vermont, Housing Authority; John P. Robin of the Pittsburgh Redevelopment Authority; John Mule of the Meriden, Connecticut, Housing Authority; Sonia Rivera of the Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Housing Authority; Franklin D. Walker of the Rockford, Illinois, Housing Authority; Linda V. Brodhead of the Lebanon, Tennessee, Housing Authority; Randolph L. Gregory of the Wilmington, North Carolina, Housing Authority; Robert Shepack of the El Paso, Texas, Housing Authority; Helen M. Young of the Ogden, Utah, Housing Authority, and Susan Crocket-Spoon of the Wichita, Kansas, Housing Authority.
Also, I’d like to thank Bernard L. Tetreault, executive director of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Housing Opportunities Commission; Frederic A. Fay, executive director of the Richmond, Virginia, Redevelopment and Housing Authority; Joseph E. Canale, Connecticut commissioner of housing; Clayton Jones, executive director of the Pontiac, Michigan, Housing Authority; William J. Ratzlaff, executive director of the Denver Housing Authority; Ralph W. Carey, executive director of the St. Louis Housing Authority; Robert McNulty, executive director of the Meriden, Connecticut, Housing Authority; Melvin J. Adams, director of the Dade County, Florida, Department of Housing and Urban Development; John Simon, general manager of the New York City Housing Authority; Lana J. Balka, executive director of the Topeka, Kansas, Housing Authority; Alan R. Andrews, executive director of the Springfield, Massachusetts, Redevelopment Authority; J. Robert Cameron, executive director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority; and John Burns, executive director, and Mary James, assistant director, of the Santa Clara County, California, Housing Authority.
On the NAHRO staff, I’d like to thank Frederic M. Vogelsang for his clear editorial supervision; Mary K. Nenno for knowing almost everything; Mary Pike, for having the rest readily available in the library; Richard Nelson, Jr., especially for his guidance on liability issues; Robert W. Maffin for his helpful insights into commissioners’ roles in complex programs; and Mary Ann Winter and Veronica M. Bukowski, who supplied material from NAHRO conferences, conventions, workshops, and recorded group talks that made it possible for me to wake in the morning and go to sleep at night listening to non-stop cassette tapes of commissioners talking about their problems. In addition, I’d like to thank those cooperative officials at Department of Housing and Urban Development who are too numerous to mention by name; Joseph Burstein for his knowledge and precision; Henri de Ybarrondo for scaring me about liability; Betty Hood for typing so quickly and accurately.
In the most recent NAHRO handbook for commissioners (1972), the “Responsibilities and Functions” section was a succinct 21 pages. Since then, the role of commissioners has become so much more complex and the demands they face—both voluntarily and because of community and legal pressures—have become so much more extensive that no brief description of commissioners’ roles is possible.
Instead, in developing this handbook, it was recognized that the responsibilities and functions of a commissioner’s job have grown and changed so extensively that to describe them now requires book-length treatment.
In a further departure from tradition, the editorial decision was made to use a journalistic approach. Rather than produce a document that reflects mainly what experts—many of whom are Washington-based—understand as the basic role of the job and provides general advice on its function, this book was prepared on the basis of the actual working experiences of incumbent commissioners.
In large part, this book was written by commissioners themselves, describing their individual experiences and their approaches to specific problems. As a journalist, my technique was to talk to as many commissioners as possible, finding out what they are doing, how they are doing it, and what they think is important.
Like a newspaper reporter covering city hall, the courts, or the state capitol, my “beat” was the boards of commissioners of independent housing and redevelopment authorities and my concern was not in writing about the way things ought to be, but describing—in the words of those presently involved—what actually is happening.
I was asked to write a book that describes the roles, functions, and responsibilities of commissioners of independent public agencies administering local housing, redevelopment, rehabilitation, and community development programs. Intended as both a guide and a reference work, its purpose is to examine such subjects as the setting of program policy, relationships between the board and the executive management of the agency, commissioners as program advocates, commissioners in the local political circumstance, how a commission meeting is conducted, press and media relations, and insurance and liability—recognizing there are differences based on the size of programs and of agencies and on their geographic location and areas of jurisdiction.
Within these guidelines, I asked commissioners to tell me their stories, supplementing their information with that supplied by executive directors, staff members, and local, state, and national housing and redevelopment officials.
I visited local authority programs, attended meetings, met community and authority residents, and conducted personal and telephone interviews. I read such documents as national and state laws, municipal ordinances, bylaws, resolutions, reports to the board, minutes, annual reports, policies, contracts, meeting notices, newsletters, press releases, and regulations. I listened to taped sessions of NAHRO conferences and workshops at which commissioners discussed their problems and expressed their frustrations.
I interviewed 74 commissioners, executive directors, and other officials from such states as Maine, Florida, Texas, Illinois, and California, talking to officials in communities ranging geographically from the Virgin Islands to Hawaii and in size and character from enormous metropolitan authorities to small rural ones.
The most common statement was, “I’m sure that they do it differently elsewhere, but here we have this special problem. So maybe you should talk to someone at a more typical authority.”
After a while, it became apparent that there are no typical authorities, that each authority really does have a special problem or a different approach or a different situation that makes it unique.
To use this book effectively, the reader is advised to be tolerant. Perhaps the most important area of tolerance is with oneself.
Most commissioners told me that at one time or another they feel overwhelmed by the amount of work required of them, the nature of their authority’s problems, the responsibility they must exercise, and the detailed knowledge they are assumed to have—but often don’t.
The commissioners who seem most successful in their jobs are those who have come to terms with their own limitations, who recognize they can’t do everything, even though it may be expected of them, and who calmly set about learning what they need to know—one thing at a time.
A commissioner’s job is often so demanding it is possible to be overwhelmed. Perhaps this book’s emphasis on how individual commissioners at specific authorities approach particular aspects of their job will help.
General principles on the way things ought to be are useful, but, increasingly, the complexity of the commissioner’s job and the limitations on an individual’s time and resources make general guidelines and principles insufficient.
If this book is successful, it will help make an awesome job clearer and more manageable. It will help the individual commissioner understand that if the impossible is dealt with step by step, it becomes possible.
It will help in gaining the realization that though there may be no clear answer on exactly how to do the job, there are sources of help, information, and support.
Commissioners can listen to the experts and talk to their colleagues—both at the authority and throughout the country. They can listen, study, read, observe, and learn. All will help to sustain their faith in their own abilities and in the programs they serve.
Part I Responsibilities
Chapter One: The Job
The problems of commissioners have been largely neglected for decades. A literature search, for example, shows that with the exception of previous editions of this NAHRO handbook, there is no national book or publication directed to the problems of the nation’s housing and redevelopment commissioners.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development library, which has 500,000 items, does not have a single entry on the subject. The Library of Congress, which has over 18 million books and pamphlets, has no separate catalogue entry on the subject, although it does list “Commissioners of deeds” and “Commissioners of supplies.”
This neglect may be surprising when one considers that the job may be one of the most powerful in America’s housing community and affects most communities in the country.
At the beginning of the 1980s, there are some 2,700 active public housing authorities serving some 4,170 communities in each of the 50 states plus Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam.
The vast majority of the tens of billions of dollars the federal government spends on housing for the poor and the elderly is administered by local, independent, non-paid housing commissioners.
These commissioners are directly responsible for spending over 80 percent of HUD’s annual budget1.
That does not include money that may be received from other government agencies, from independent bond issues, and other direct and indirect HUD funding for middle-income housing, for social services, and for redevelopment and community development.
For the foreseeable future, most of these local housing authorities will continue to be independent, will continue to administer a predominant share of the country’s assisted housing monies, and the commissioners who run the authorities will gain a greater understanding of their own considerable powers and will use them.
There is a mood of change taking place in housing authorities throughout the country. When a New England state official pointed out to a roomful of his former colleagues, “You do not realize how much power you have as commissioners,” he was telling them something they had already begun to realize.
1In some communities, housing authorities are part of the local government and are not independent. In some states, such as Massachusetts and New York, some commissioners are paid. However, in most places, the job is not remunerative, with the exception of expenses.
At the same time housing authorities are going through a period of change, the independence of redevelopment authorities is in a period of transition. Although no reliable figures are currently available, there are perhaps several hundred independent redevelopment authorities with commissioners who have responsibilities equivalent to those of housing commissioners.
In addition, because the purposes of redevelopment and housing are often so closely related—to rehabilitate dilapidated buildings, improve neighborhoods, and provide an environment for decent housing as well as the housing itself—some communities have joint housing and redevelopment authorities, governed by the same commissioners.
However, the independence of redevelopment authorities is being seriously affected by one of the country’s major governmental changes—a shift to block grants as a mechanism for disbursing federal assistance to general local government, particularly the community development block grant program enacted in 1974.
This shift in power to the local level provides many new opportunities for commissioners, but it has also meant that urban renewal programs of previous years have been phased out. Redevelopment monies that once went directly to the independent redevelopment authority are now going to city and county government.
In many communities, the redevelopment authority has merged with local government and is now a city or county department that administers programs funded by community development block grants, and no longer has independent powers.
Commissioners and executive directors for the remaining independent redevelopment authorities predict that this trend toward merger with local government will continue. Even so, some communities will continue to fund and use the services of existing redevelopment authorities and enjoy the legal benefits that their independent status makes possible.
The importance of independent housing and redevelopment authorities requires that special attention be given to the problems of commissioners, who—for a variety of reasons—are becoming increasingly attentive to their roles and responsibilities.
One commissioner explained that authorities are becoming more active and there is an “emerging role of real life commissions today.” Another, from a Southeastern city, discussed the job pressures that can exist, “I don’t have to butt in to find out what’s going on in my agency,” she said. The local city council tells me every week. The media tells me every day. Television tells me every night. It’s rough, tough. HUD calls me and says the executive director and the staff do not have the legal responsibility—you [commissioners] do, the five of you—and here’s what we want done.
“It is tough. There’s a public out there that wants every dollar justified and that’s what we’re living with on a day-to-day basis. And the day of ivory-tower housing planning and development is over.”
Many commissioners explain that when they are first appointed, they have difficulty understanding the nature of their job and what is expected of them. One commissioner said that it took him six months of attending meetings before he was willing to make a decision.
“For those six months,” he said, “I was the most popular man in town. You see, mine was the deciding vote, but I wasn’t going to use it until I knew what I was doing.” Part of the difficulty is the complexity and sophistication required to understand the field of housing and redevelopment. However, another part—and the one which this book attempts to correct—is the inability to find a readily available description of the job.
The most obvious way of obtaining a description is from the law. A commissioner, after all, is a public official who takes an oath of office. Certainly, the law defines the duties of its public officials. The problem is commissioners are an unusual kind of public official, and, while it is useful to obtain the law, it is also useful to understand its intent.
The original purpose of the law was to make possible the development of federal housing and slum clearance projects. However, instead of giving the money and power to federal officials, the law specifies “the maximum amount of authority and responsibility shall be vested in local public housing agencies . . . ”
Following the passage of individual state enabling acts, these local independent authorities could be set up to establish and administer the federally-assisted programs. So, while most of the assistance money commissioners spend (except that collected as tenant rents) comes directly from the federal government and while most of the programs they administer are federally assisted, the commissioners themselves are not federal officials.
They are, instead, local officials whose jobs are defined and whose activities are governed by both state law and local ordinance.
For a commissioner to get a job description, he or she must find two sets of laws: (1) the state law, which makes it possible for cities or counties in that state to create independent housing or redevelopment authorities, and (2) the local ordinance in which the city or county declares that it wants such an authority in its jurisdiction.
Generally, the state law describes the need for housing and redevelopment authorities in the state, provides a general description of the power of these authorities, states authorities are run by the commissioners, and specifies how many commissioners serve on each authority, who appoints them, the length of the term of office, and whether additional terms can be served.
The state law also explains how a jurisdiction can create an authority—namely, by passing a city or county ordinance declaring its intention to do so. In some states, local ordinance determines the number of commissioners on the authority and their method of selection. Also, local ordinances can give commissioners additional powers and responsibilities.
Because the laws governing housing authorities vary from state to state and from community to community, the legal powers of commissioners—and therefore the job they are expected to perform—differ from authority to authority.
In some states, commissioners have considerable discretion in determining the income-levels of the people served. In other states, income-levels are more rigidly defined. In most communities, authorities can issue tax-free bonds under their own power; in others, they can also choose the option of issuing bonds under the county’s authority.
In some communities, authorities make it possible for middle-income families to obtain mortgages they could not obtain elsewhere. In other communities, authorities only provide housing assistance to low-income individuals. In some areas, new low-income housing can be built only if the registered voters in the county pass a referendum giving approval.
Elsewhere, there are ordinances requiring contractors building new private housing to set aside a percentage of the new homes built (regardless of their market value) for low-income families, often with assistance.
Because of the differing language of the laws defining the job, it is a good idea for each commissioner to read the laws that established his or her authority. In some communities, the executive director gives new commissioners a packet of relevant laws and ordinances; in others, copies must be requested.
Joseph Burstein, a former federal housing official and now a Washington, D.C., lawyer specializing in housing, recommends commissioners should “read these laws… to see what meaning emerges in light of the current pressing needs of the community and the resources available.”
Usually, an authority has from five to seven commissioners. They are required by law to make policy decisions on current and future programs, to determine how they are to be administered, and to obtain and protect monies needed to keep them operating.
They are required to report to appropriate local, state, and federal officials on their activities, to keep the public informed, and to generally further the authority’s legally stated goal of providing assistance for those in need.
An authority has the power of eminent domain—to acquire private land for public purposes under its own authority.
An authority is a public corporation on which commissioners serve as governing officers or directors. Just as in private corporations, time, efficiency, and staff morale make it prudent to delegate day-to-day decisions so the directors (commissioners) do not get bogged down by unnecessary detail and so they can concentrate on important leadership and policy-making issues. However, just as in private corporations, directors of public corporations are ultimately responsible for actions and decisions made by corporation employees. So commissioners, like directors in private corporations, must have confidence in the executive director and staff.
Recently, a commissioner from a Northeastern city told a national meeting of housing and redevelopment commissioners:
“I . . . appreciated the comment of the… gentleman who said, ‘You are state agencies; you are independent; and you can run your own show,’ because we have always taken that stance. We . . . have had some problems not with our city council, but with department heads that we are not a department of city government.”
The importance of this comment is it stresses the independent nature of authorities, many find difficult to understand. Even though commissioners are generally appointed by such local officials as mayors and members of city or county councils, once appointed, commissioners are independent.
They do not work for the local officials who appointed them, and, except for cases of established incompetence or impropriety, they cannot be removed from office until their terms expire. Generally, most public money comes directly from federal or state government, and the commissioners are accountable to the federal government or the state—and not local officials—for how the funds are spent.
The land and the buildings the authority buys and manages are owned by the authority, and not by the city, county, or state in which the property is located. Such property is tax-free, with payments made in lieu of taxes. The independent authorities make cooperative arrangements with the local government so that such municipal services as police and fire protection, water, sewage, and garbage disposal are provided.
Traditionally, this independence has served to protect housing and redevelopment programs from shifting political pressures.
From its earliest days, the national movement for assisted housing, slum clearance, and redevelopment assumed each community has prominent citizens willing to work on behalf of these goals.
It assumed these citizens are willing to put aside partisan feelings to work on programs that civic-minded citizens would agree are worthwhile to the community and beneficial to its least powerful citizens. It assumed that prominent citizens would be willing to give their time and attention to housing and redevelopment in a spirit of public service.
Based on these assumptions, an independent authority run by independent commissioners was viewed as the best way to further worthwhile and beneficial goals while insuring in doing so the community can make the best use of the services of its talented citizens.
When appointed, a commissioner is expected to put aside personal partisan beliefs while performing the job because the job requires the commissioner to serve as an advocate to convince local, state, and federal officials to help out in the effort.
Advocates are more effective when they have no political ax to grind. In addition, the fact commissioners are not paid for their work was traditionally seen as a way of furthering their credibility as advocates.
An Ohio commissioner explains, “I have always been against board members receiving any pay or remuneration. This becomes a testament of your good faith and desire to help your community to the best of your ability. You, as a commissioner, are doing a difficult job without any pay because you want to do the job! You have nothing to gain when you ask the public to support a particular program. You have nothing to gain when you approach one of your legislators for more and better housing or for their support when laws are being laid down. By giving of your time and energy without remuneration for a program which is not always popular, you wield a mighty power!”
Tradition plays an important part in the operation of authorities and the way commissioners view their jobs. The survival and growth of the assisted housing and redevelopment programs in this country may be attributable to the fact that for decades communities throughout the country have established a tradition of protecting and furthering public programs that generate controversy.
The result is many authorities have been able to ensure their survival by establishing a public position their authorities are not political in nature and are run by individuals who serve without pay as a commitment to public service.
At a 1980 national housing and redevelopment meeting, one commissioner said about his mayor and city council, “They tried to politicize us, but we wouldn’t have it. We told them that politics has never played a part in the running of our programs and never will, because once you let politics in, you destroy everything.”
This statement reflects a sentiment prevalent among commissioners. Some, however, did take issue with their colleague’s statement. Of course politics plays a part in what we do,” one commissioner argued. “After all I’m appointed by a politician and I serve in a political office—housing commissioner is by definition a political office—and of course politics affects me. It has to.”
To some degree, each of these differing positions is true and both can be true at the same time. An example of an extreme and unusual situation can help to illustrate. A commissioner in a housing authority in a wealthy suburban county explained that years ago county officials established a housing authority, and commissioners were appointed. However, he explained that the real purpose of establishing and maintaining the authority was to make sure that no one in the community could establish low-income housing programs in the area.
They used to meet,” he said, “in an office in the back of the bank during the afternoons. That way, no one knew about the meetings, and no one could come, and no housing would be built.” This example is unusual in that most authorities have consistently worked on behalf of their stated goals, rather than intentionally trying to subvert them.
In the mid-1960s, progressive members of the county became established in the local government, and as vacancies occurred, the housing commission changed its membership. “We turned it,” the commissioner explained, “into one of the most progressive and active housing authorities in the county.”
The example authority’s current state of harmony and solidarity is more probably the rule than the exception. What happened was that while political developments changed the nature of the authority, the newly appointed commissioners established a tradition that they hoped would serve to protect the cause of assisted housing in their community.
They turned their authority into a nonpartisan body in which each of the seven commissioners works toward basic goals upon which all can agree. The individual commissioners come from different professions and backgrounds and might differ, personally, about the best way to achieve the goals. However, in public they put their differences aside to support the majority position and to make sure that the community knows this is a group of civic-minded individuals who are working together behind the clear goal of housing for the county’s needy.
They hire an executive director they trust and who is given considerable authority to exercise his judgment on a day-to-day basis. The executive director, in turn, makes sure that he keeps his commissioners adequately informed so that they can make the major policy and leadership decisions. In addition, the fact the commissioners have such diverse backgrounds and experience means that the board can draw on individual talents when they are needed.
Whatever the reason for taking the job, a new commissioner suddenly finds himself or herself—as a commissioner from the Midwest said—”a target” for everyone who wants something from, expects something from, or is in any way affected by the authority.
The government demands accountability for funds and adherence to its laws and regulations. The community demands service. Tenants, authority employees, low- and moderate-income residents in the community all have needs and problems. Contractors would like their contracts renewed. Others would like to sell their goods or services. Political, social, and community groups would like their constituents to get a larger share of authority programs or would like to change the way those programs affect them.
For whatever reason the job was accepted in the first place, suddenly a new commissioner finds as the member of a governing body, he or she is expected by the community and by the law to be completely familiar with all the authority’s programs and issues and to make informed and competent decisions that have a major impact on the daily lives of thousands and frequently tens of thousands of individuals.
The risks involved with accepting such a job can be considerable. If a new commissioner is not careful and prepared, the risks can involve his or her reputation and good name and, in addition, can involve legal actions for decisions he or she makes or fails to make.
A problem commissioners face—especially new commissioners—is the government, which demands accountability from the authority, and the public, which demands service from the authority, frequently do not have the time, the interest, or the sensitivity to concern themselves with the difficulties of being a commissioner.
The fact, for example, that the mayor may have appointed you as an honor because you helped on his or her campaign; that you have a full-time job to do in addition to serving in this non-paid job; that other demands mean that you can only attend the monthly commission meetings; that you don’t have time to read the Constitution of the United States, all the current interpretations of the Constitution, federal and state civil rights laws, housing laws and their interpretations and regulations; and that you may not be an expert on housing, management techniques, labor relations, and a number of other relevant specialties does not protect you from the government’s, the public’s, and the law’s expectations and requirements.
You may, for example, be called into court for failing to protect the civil rights of a dismissed employee of the authority; the fact you were ill and were unable to attend the meeting at which the board decided upon its personnel policy may be no defense.
In fact, it may be used as proof of negligence on your part. Why weren’t you there? Why didn’t you express your concern about the authority’s personnel policy at earlier board meetings or at later board meetings?
There are ways of alleviating risk, protecting against, and preparing for dangers that may affect one’s reputation, peace of mind, time, and personal finances. A commissioner may serve for many terms and experience the rewards and satisfaction of public service without ever being exposed to its hazards. In fact, most do.
However, if a new commissioner wants to accomplish his or her goals and enjoy the term in office, it is prudent to realize some of the realities of the job. The job requires the commissioner establish policy for programs that are sources of considerable controversy, and, in a period of increasingly limited funds and shorter supplies of housing stock, more demands will be placed on individual authorities, which will have fewer resources to meet those demands.
Therefore, in a litigious society where more people are going to court and where the low-income citizens who are frequently most affected by your decisions can obtain free government-paid legal counsel, the likelihood is increasing that a commissioner, personally, may be sued for what a plaintiff thinks is some decision the commissioner should have made or for some decision the plaintiff doesn’t like.
Anyone can sue anyone for anything. Or, as an attorney for the Houston, Texas, Housing Authority put it, “You can be sued for nothing.”
One way to prepare is knowing what is expected of you and who can help you. The problems of commissioners are frequently neglected because both the public and officials responsible for housing and redevelopment—when they think about commissioners at all—assume that commissioners can afford to work without pay because they have high personal incomes. They assume as “prominent members of the community,” they have considerable experience working on boards of directors and on commissions, their experience has taught them how to stay out of trouble and how to reduce their liability, and if, for some reason, they find themselves in some difficulty, they have their own personal lawyers anyway whom they can afford to pay.
The federal official in charge of legal affairs for one of HUD’s 10 regional offices expressed that perception when he said, “People who are commissioners normally are people who are involved in the community, have been around, have been involved in politics, in public office, have businesses of their own. These people are big boys. They didn’t just come off the Christmas tree yesterday.
“They understand the exposure and the maybe bad publicity, good publicity and what is to be gained by holding a public office. You have to assume that these people are adult and mature and understand all the ramifications of holding public office, and if they don’t, they should seek advice from private counsel before they decide to take the selection to a board.
“I mean that’s the way it is. If somebody offers you a job, you don’t just take the job. You may want to find out from somebody who’s worked there and from somebody else who knows something about the particular job or from the person you’re working for as to what they think. I think it’s the same thing with public office.”
This not uncommon perception of the background of commissioners had its origin several decades ago when authorities were first established. Then, presumably, appointments were made of individuals who represented what is commonly called “the establishment.”
Authorities were run by prominent business persons, union leaders, social workers, bankers, charity workers, architects, builders, religious leaders, and retired persons who wanted to do something meaningful.
Some appointments were made because it was assumed the appointees represented important constituencies and could use their influence to gain support for assisted housing and other goals. Also, professional contacts and expertise were regarded as useful, such as relying on a banker’s fiscal knowledge and business ties when the authority planned to issue bonds.
These kinds of citizens continue to serve on boards, but as society and the power structure in local communities have changed to become more broadly representative, so has the nature of many commissioner appointments.
Appointing officials have become increasingly responsive to the argument that since the poor and elderly are most affected by its decisions, it is patronizing to these groups to have an authority governed by a board on which they are not represented.
There has also been an increased interest in public service among all economic segments of the community, and individuals of moderate income find they can make the time to serve in non-paid positions. Appointing officials also realize that blacks, Hispanics, women, and other groups must have fair representation on an authority whose power affects everyone in the community.
Yet, there is a time lag for perceptions to catch up with reality. Meanwhile, successful authorities continue to function, as they must, presenting an image of being run by commissioners who are all completely familiar with the programs and issues; who are sufficiently informed to be competent to make policy decisions; who are fully aware of the implications and risks of their decisions; and who are prepared to deal with those risks.
This public expression of control and self-reliance— essential if an authority is to receive public funds and maintain credibility in the community—may also help maintain old stereotypes.
Meanwhile, the problem remains of a new commissioner learning what the job requires and what hazards to avoid. For the new commissioner, the people who ought to be most directly concerned in helping with orientation, information, and background are the executive director and staff and the fellow commissioners on the authority board.
The executive director has two major interests in providing information and assistance: (1) as a new commissioner, you become one of his or her bosses, to whom the director and staff are accountable for their actions, and (2) the executive director is a professional who is paid a professional’s salary to administer the authority on a daily basis.
As one whose reputation and career are at stake, it is in the director’s interest to make sure the commissioners have the information to make the necessary decisions for insuring the authority’s resources, support, and direction.
Programs for training commissioners vary with authorities. At one, for example, the executive director gives each new commissioner a copy of all official policies and procedures and conducts a tour of the facilities and programs.
At another, commissioners receive an hour-and-one-half briefing before each monthly meeting as part of an on-going educational process. The briefing explains how Congress went about passing relevant housing laws, what the laws say, how HUD interprets them through regulations, how the authority staff goes about understanding and implementing the regulations, and how the executive director and staff decide which of the hundreds of day-to-day decisions are routine and which should be communicated to or require the approval of the commissioners.
The director explains, “We take commissioners from ground zero in the business. It is helpful to the agency for them to understand the process of legislation, the writing of regulations, the organizational chart of the agency, and the basic steps of how housing works here. That way, when they make policy they can make informed decisions.”
At some agencies, commissioners arrange to take off one or more days on a week-end to get together and learn more about each other’s backgrounds, values, and goals. Some authorities choose to join with each other to hold commissioners workshops on leadership skills, on how to make meetings work, on how to move a program to accomplish specific goals, on active listening, and on decision-making techniques and methods. Some NAHRO regional councils hold regular meetings for commissioners for training purposes and at least one state agency schedules commissioners training programs.
Fellow commissioners also have a major interest in helping the new member to become informed on policies and issues.The policies of an authority are determined by a vote of the commissioners.
Each new commissioner has a vote that can be used to change or retain established policies. You will be entitled to and entrusted with information that can be extremely sensitive and have a powerful impact on the lives and fortunes of many.
Your presence on the commission can make the difference between receiving valuable funds and not receiving those funds. You can enhance the authority’s and your colleagues’ prestige, or you can diminish it, and you can do something that might cause or prevent legal difficulties. Your fellow commissioners (and your executive director and staff) have the same powers in relation to you. No matter who appointed you or why you were appointed, it is in your mutual interest to work together.
It is common practice for public and private decision-making bodies to protect their most junior members during the initial period of their terms, when they are learning the information and issues.
No commissioner of an authority could reasonably be expected to master all the relevant laws, regulations, programs, and specialties involved with running an authority. A new member, especially, must give himself or herself time to see what’s going on from the inside, to determine which issues and information demand attention, to understand the dynamics of the individual authority and its personalities.
A new commissioner from a city on the West Coast said, “I’d have to say that . . . I’m very surprised at what a large business housing for the poor and those in need has become.”
Many commissioners report that when they were originally appointed they were surprised by the scope of the job they had accepted and of the responsibilities involved.
One woman from the Southeast said, “When the mayor called me up and told me he was going to appoint me, I told him he had the wrong person. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I’m going to appoint you because your father was a commissioner.’ I said to him ‘Just because my father was a commissioner doesn’t mean I know anything about housing.”
One man explained that the mayor “called me in and said, ‘Will, I’ve decided I need a black activist commissioner and you will serve.’ ”
Some commissioners are appointed, as they see it, to serve certain constituents or to accomplish certain goals. An Hispanic commissioner from the Southwest explained that he wants to increase minority representation in the contracts into which his authority enters.
A commissioner from the Northeast explained he was president of his tenants association when he was appointed, and they expect him to serve their interests. There is danger in maintaining too narrow a focus, as was pointed out by a former government official who warned commissioners against thinking exclusively of the interests of their individual “constituents” and failing to consider the impact upon the community as a whole.
He said, “There is nothing wrong . . . with having commissioners who are labor leaders, women, blacks, tenants, etc., but if the labor leader’s only interest is to inspect every item in the maintenance shop to be sure it carries a union label, the black commissioner’s only interest is to appoint a black director, the lady commissioner’s only interest is to appoint a female director, and the tenant’s only interest is to lower rents, it would be better to have no commission.”
The warning against a single-minded perspective may be not only good policy, but, given the nature of court developments, it is also sound legal advice. A union leader, for example, whose constituent interests cause him to neglect the details of a bond issue may be held personally liable for not doing his job.
A commissioner in the Midwest said, “Rule number one” for a new member of an authority is “Wait.” She says, “Oh, I know it’s difficult to wait! You are eager and excited and proud and you want to help.” The reason for waiting is so that your fellow commissioners and the executive director have an opportunity to inform you of what’s going on inside the authority.
You do not need to give up your goals. Far from it. You were appointed to use your talents.” One former California commissioner wrote, “Be Innovative—You weren’t appointed to be a rubber stamp. Bring your own talents and experiences into your . . . commissioner role.”
However, as the newest member of a group required by law to make decisions as a group, in addition to learning the specifics of the job, you also have to spend some time learning how to work on the inside to make sure that your voice is heard and your point of view is reflected in the group’s actions.
Being an insider does not mean you have to go along with everything the majority decides or you shouldn’t express your dissent at public meetings. It does, however, mean you have to be careful.
Your term lasts for years. It will be a more effective term if you don’t damage your credibility and your effectiveness by beginning with actions that are ill-informed, rash, or not thoroughly considered.
You have to be careful because, even though you are a new member, you have the same responsibilities as does a commissioner who has served for years. Knowing the background and history of the authority’s experience can help you avoid risks of which you may be unaware.
The most obvious personal risk involves conflict of interest. HUD, in its standard annual contributions contract with all authorities, requires, “Neither the PHA [Public Housing Authority] nor any of its contractors or their subcontractors shall enter into any contract, subcontract, or arrangement, in connection with any Project or any property in which any member . . . of the governing body has any interest, direct or indirect.”
Provisions are made for disclosure of interest by any incoming commissioner. HUD also requires the individual authorities to prohibit conflict of interest on the contracts they issue.
In addition to federal requirements, states and municipalities also attempt to insure housing and redevelopment programs not be run by commissioners who might profit from the decisions they make. In some areas, appointment of commissioners involves a hearing process in which, for example, the city or county council must approve the appointment by the city or county executive.
Questions are asked about the appointee’s background and income to make sure future decisions will be made impartially. In other communities, mayors or city or county officials do not need to get approval for an appointment to an authority. However, in many communities some personal income disclosure statement may be required.
In some areas, the commissioners are only required to disclose income and business interests if, in the individual’s opinion, a potential conflict of interest may arise. In others, commissioners disclose all their personal assets on a regular basis.
The rules about what an individual must reveal about personal finances vary, but generally they appear to be token efforts. However, legislators and rule-makers nationwide are showing an increased tendency to require full disclosure by public officials at all levels of government. Also, the public is beginning to expect personal financial information from its decision makers, and if it is not available, an industrious reporter may wonder in print or on the air about its absence.
One official explains while the law does not require him to do so, he annually reports the details of his income and assets. “That way,” he says, “nobody can question any of the decisions I make.”
Ideally, an individual who anticipates some conflict of interest problem should consult with an attorney before accepting an appointment.
If one does not have a personal lawyer, the authority or the local government’s legal staff can provide the answer to any questions. However, all incoming commissioners—especially those like builders, architects, real estate agents, and others whose business activities might suggest an opportunity for profit—should request advice on disclosure and on avoiding the opportunity for possible conflicts.
Individual commissioners might also consider refraining from participation in or voting on decisions where some question might arise. Especially during a period of heightened concern about ethics and morality in government, care about this subject is important—both for personal reasons and to protect your authority’s reputation and funding.
The practice of appointing tenants to boards of commissioners may raise conflict-of-interest questions. While federal law permits and some federal officials encourage tenant representation on authority boards, the law in some states prohibits tenants from serving.
According to state laws, tenants are defined as having a conflict of interest because, as housing commissioners, they have the power to make such decisions as reducing their own rent.
Some states have solved this problem by passing specific amendments to the law. In California, for example, the state law was changed to exempt tenants from conflict-of-interest provisions, thereby making it possible to enforce the other change in law, which requires the appointment of two tenants—one elderly and one low income—to each housing authority.
Other states have been less cautious about changing their laws, putting into question the right of tenants to serve as commissioners or to participate in certain of the authority’s decisions. A tenant commissioner might consult with the authority’s attorney. In those states where there is some question, the tenant commissioner and colleagues might request the state legislature clarify the law in order to protect the authority’s decisions from being overturned by the courts.
Chapter Two: THE RISKS OF THE JOB
Liability and insurance
Most authorities carry some form of insurance to protect themselves against legal judgments. This way, if the court requires that a sum be given to a person suffering bodily or personal injury, the insurance company pays rather than the authority. There are three basic kinds of liability coverage many authorities carry. The first is public liability coverage, which protects the authority against accidents and against improper actions by authority employees. Under this coverage, if a tenant breaks a leg on stairs that are poorly maintained, or a visitor falls down an unguarded elevator shaft, or the authority police force arrests someone without grounds, or the newsletter editor prints an unintentionally libelous statement about a community leader, the authority is covered against damages.
They also purchase,” insurance adviser Joseph H. Albert explains, “automobile liability insurance to protect themselves for incidents that arise out of the use of vehicles on authority business.” Thirdly, they purchase a policy called an “umbrella liability policy.” Its purpose is to make sure that if a major accident or catastrophe occurs that involves costs higher than those covered by the other two policies, those additional costs are covered.
So if, for example, a large high-rise building is destroyed and the tenants win a judgment for $50 million, then this policy would pay the additional costs up to the stated limit—which could be $50 million.
Mr. Albert suggests that commissioners or their staff examine their current policies and consult with an insurance adviser. Many of these policies are printed on standard forms or use standard formats, so their wording is not directly applicable to housing and redevelopment commissioners.
Hospitals, for example, generally are run by “trustees” rather than “directors,” and so insurance agents and the organizations mutually agree to change the wording. This special wording—called an “endorsement”—does not cost any money because the costs for protecting the people who run the authority have already been paid. It’s just that the policy form calls commissioners by the wrong name. If one doesn’t pay attention to this detail, commissioners may find themselves not covered even though the coverage was paid for.2
HUD allows authorities to use federal funds to buy insurance of this type. Generally, when people sue for bodily and personal injuries, which these three policies cover, they sue the authority and not the individual commissioners. They assume that it is easier to get a judgment or corrective action from an authority than from an individual, and it is easier to collect money from an authority than from an individual, who may not have it. However, attorneys, for a variety of reasons—including political—may decide to name individual commissioners, suing them as individuals in addition to suing the authority.
In one case, for example, a tenant—who was allegedly raped by an authority employee—sued both the authority and the commissioners as individuals. The commissioners were named because they are responsible for establishing the authority’s personnel policy, which, presumably, allowed a dangerous employee to be hired. Because there is no presumption of malice (translation: the commissioners did not deliberately intend to hire a rapist), the commissioners are covered by insurance, and the commissioners are content to have the authority’s legal counsel, who is defending the authority, also defend them as individuals.
In the past, HUD policy has made it difficult for individual commissioners to get payment for any private legal counsel. So, in this case, for example, if the authority attorney decided that there was a conflict of interest between representing the authority and one or more of the individual commissioners, then the individuals involved would have had to find and pay for their own lawyer. This would be unusual, but it could happen. If, for example, one of the commissioners knew that the “rapist” employee had a criminal history of rape and was regarded by physicians as emotionally unstable and the individual failed to inform the authority in advance of hiring the employee, then the courts might hold the authority blameless and the individual liable. In that case, the authority attorney would be doing the authority a disservice (there would be a conflict of interest) if he or she also represented the individual.
2Joseph H. Albert, President, J. H. Albert International Insurance Advisors, Inc., Needham, Massachusetts, is quoted from remarks he made at NAHRO's 1979 convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Also appearing at that session was Robert Sinclair, Risk Manager for the City of Nashville, Tennessee. Mr. Sinclair suggested that authorities consider hiring a risk manager at a high level in the staff organization. That person would identify and correct potential hazards and review accident-claims policies. Mr. Sinclair believes that the insurance savings would more than pay the additional staff cost. Mr. Sinclair also suggests that authorities consider creating self-insurance plans, and, if they are too small to do so, that they pool their resources with other authorities. Mr. Sinclair believes that properly run self-insurance is much cheaper than commercial policies. He also says that agencies considering self-insurance often find that rates on commercial policies go down because the companies are afraid of losing the business.
On the other hand, an individual may decide that his or her personal interest requires separate counsel from that of the authority. For example, the individual may have publicly dissented from the commission’s personnel policy, saying that this would allow rapists and other unstable employees to be hired in sensitive positions. The commissioner may then believe that the authority itself should be found liable for its negligent actions. In that case, a personal defense would be in conflict with the authority’s defense.
In the past few years, there has been an increase in law suits against local public officials and against directors of private corporations seeking to hold them liable as individuals for actions that they have made or failed to make in their official capacity.
At this point, it is not clear what the law says. Since the law varies with individual states and with the interpretation of individual judges, it may be a number of years before a commissioner can get a clear answer to the question: Will a court hold me personally responsible for a decision I make in good faith in my official service on a housing and redevelopment authority? If a constitutional or civil rights issue is involved—and, as one attorney says, you can trump one up”—then the likelihood decreases considerably of getting a clear answer in the foreseeable future.
While an authority can get insurance that will protect commissioners if someone wins a suit for bodily or personal injury, there are other areas of risk where protection is not readily available. These areas concern failure of a commissioner to do his or her duty that results in injuries that go beyond standard concepts of physical or personal damage. It is more difficult to predict the costs of neglect and of correcting abuses suffered if commissioners fail to allot apartments in the fairest possible way, if they provide inadequate protection so tenants are afraid to leave their apartments, of if they violate civil rights in hiring or promotional policies.
Private corporations generally protect their directors by reimbursing them for legal costs and judgments that may arise out of their official duties. Frequently, this assumes that the abuses were not deliberate. Corporations frequently carry what is called “errors and omissions” insurance, which protects directors against court judgments resulting from such acts as failure to attend committee meetings, permitting misuse of inside information, improperly rejecting bids or offers, failing to disclose important information to the public or other officials, and failing to correct or disclose improper conduct of fellow officials.
While some authorities do purchase a form of errors and omissions insurance, which in some way is modified to protect commissioners, there are a number of problems with these policies. First, in many instances HUD has refused to allow federal funds to be used to pay premium costs. Some authorities use other funding sources, but many do not have that option.
Second, in addition to being extremely expensive and difficult to obtain, the policies that authorities have purchased have exclusions for suits brought for constitutional and civil rights violations. One expert says that because of these and other exclusions, the policies currently in existence “aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.” Finally, the policies do not pay legal fees. Given the kinds of cases that are brought or are likely to be brought, a prudent commissioner of a well-run authority generally does not have to worry about judgments. Joseph Albert, for example, points out, “Defending oneself can be more costly or.as costly as any judgment.”
An attorney for the Houston, Texas, Housing Authority, talking especially about constitutional and civil rights suits (the area he believes ought to be of the most concern to communities), says, “I really think that if the commissioners are afforded competent legal protection on the pit level and have some guidelines under which to operate, they’re all right—but not to fall off in a dead faint should they be sued. My commissioners in the last two years have been sued three times. . . . Now as far as I’m concerned none of the three [suits] should have been brought. But, unfortunately, it can happen.”
To reduce risks of personal liability to its commissioners, he suggests that each authority:
—”Record all government administrative policies and procedures in writing. Have them reviewed by legal counsel as to the constitutionality and accord with other relevant laws and make copies of these established policies and procedures available to all employees.
—”Undertake in-house training of all personnel regarding established policies and procedures.
—”Establish a system of monitoring employees’ compliance and familiarity with the established policies and procedures.
—”Seek the legal counsel of the city attorney or other appropriate legal adviser when policies or procedures are adopted and revised and when administrative decisions are made in an area of potential risk.
—”Increase contacts with and use the advice of outside experts such as specialists in civil rights law, management consultants, labor relations specialists, certified public accountants. (If you’re in bond issuing or any type of private financing . . . you’re under a very strict requirement to know exactly what’s in the indentured statement. It’s no excuse that you do not know.)”
If you, as a commissioner, are served with a summons, do not panic. The chances are good that the suit is against the authority and not you as an individual, and the reason that you are being served is because you are legally one of the directors of the authority.
Even if you are named as an individual, the chances are that the authority is also being named and whoever represents the authority will also represent you (at no cost to you). Talk to your authority first.
HUD requires all legal action be reported to the solicitor in the regional office. HUD’s past policies have prohibited payment of legal expenses and judgments for commissioners who are sued as individuals. However, these past policies have not been absolute, so in some areas payment was possible.
In May 1980, HUD Assistant Secretary for Housing Lawrence B. Simons responded to a set of questions raised by NAHRO regarding HUD policy on liability of commissioners as follows (This is current HUD policy as of the date. It is, of course, subject to change.):
“The Department is aware of an increasing national concern on the part of PHA officials over personal exposure to lawsuits. In view of this concern, the Department is carefully considering the question of reimbursement of personal liability costs incurred in connection with the performance of functions related to the development or operation of public housing projects. The objective, of course, is to provide PHA commissioners and employees with a reasonable level of protection at the lowest cost to taxpayers.
“The Department recognizes that a changing legal climate and an increased inclination by tenants, employees and other individuals to pursue their grievances through the court system has raised the possibility of personal liability on the part of PHA commissioners and officials. While the concern on the part of local public officials is real, we are not aware of any significant instances of actual cost incurred by a PHA official or employee resulting from the good faith performance of their official duties.
“[In response to ] . . . a number of specific questions concerning this area of personal liability of PHA officials . . . current HUD policy [is ] . . .
“1. What is the intent of Section 516 of the ACC—No member or officer of the Local Authority shall be individually liable on any obligation assumed by the Local Authority here-under.
“This clause has reference to obligations of the PHA in development and operation under the ACC. In particular, it means that members and officers have no liability on bonds and notes issued to finance development of the projects.
“2. Can project funds be used to purchase Errors and Omissions insurance? “The Department does not allow this form of insurance as an eligible project expense. This type of insurance, variously known as Errors and Omissions, Directors and Officers or Public Officials liability insurance, is a nonstandard insurance contract with the terms and conditions varying significantly among insurance companies. Liability insurance of this type is costly, considering the infrequency of liability expense incurred by PHA officials and employees.
“3. Can project funds be used to defend individuals if sued as individuals?
“HUD permits the use of project funds to pay legal expenses for defense of actions against PHA officials sued individually on a case-by-case basis. The Department is guided in part by whether the local officials acted in good faith within the scope of their employment or duties.
“4. If judgment is awarded, can project funds be used to pay judgments?
“HUD has not approved the use of project funds to pay judgments in the past, but will consider such a use in the future on a case-by-case basis.
“5. If judgment is awarded, but the finding is that the commissioner or employee acted in a willful or malicious way, will project funds sea be used to pay the judgment?
“If HUD found that a PHA commissioner or employee did not act in good faith and within the scope of his employment or duties, HUD would not permit project funds to be used to pay the judgment.
“6. Would the attorney’s fees have to be repaid in the case of number five (5) above?
“As explained in number three (3) above, whether project funds can be used to pay attorney’s fees in such circumstances would be determined by HUD on a case-by-case basis. If HUD decided that project funds could not be used for such purpose in a particular case, the PHA official could be required to repay any project funds advanced for attorney’s fees.
“7. If insurance premiums are an ineligible cost, but defense and judgment costs can come from project funds, will these costs come from the operating budget of the housing authority or will HUD set aside a pot of funds for these purposes?
“HUD will not set aside any funds specifically for this purpose. Where HUD approves use of project funds for payment of legal expenses or for payment of judgments, the amounts required must generally be drawn from funds otherwise available for project operations.”
Some communities have sought ways of protecting their commissioners.3 A recent Massachusetts statute protects local officials against individual negligence suits by authorizing payment of legal costs, expenses, and judgments up to $1 million. In Richmond, Virginia, the Redevelopment and Housing Authority passed a resolution “to indemnify . . . a commissioner . . . against expenses (including attorney’s fees), judgments, and amounts paid in settlement . . . if he [or she] acted in good faith. . . .”4
3Some of these methods may work and some may not. One authority, for example, passed a resolution saying that none of its commissioners is individually liable for official actions. Saying you are not liable does not mean that you're not liable. Care should be exercised before-instituting or believing in ad hoc remedies.
4Depending on HUD policies, it may or may not be possible to use federal funds to provide this kind of protection, as indicated in the current HUD policy statement above.
Part II Activities
Chapter Three: The Executive Director
Talking about the relationship between commissioners and staff, the executive director of a Western redevelopment authority said:
“Basically, the board does listen to our recommendations, but they certainly don’t always go along with them. My staff and I put together all the summary sheets [to ] make it easier for the board to review . . . to make it easier for them to ask intelligent questions . . . and also [to put] them in a position so that if they’re questioned by the local press or if they’re questioned by city councilmen or the mayor, Why did you do this?’ they can give an intelligent answer.
“I want to emphasize,” he continued, that “I think my biggest criticism of some boards—both housing boards and redevelopment boards—is [that] citizens are simply rubber stamps. And I think the mayor can get himself into real problems—I think programs can be devastated—if citizens aren’t involved—I mean the citizen board members.
“I think a board of commissioners can’t be something [about which a] guy can brag at the Rotary Club that he’s on the urban renewal commission, that he’s on the housing commission. I think they have to work. I think the mayor should have an understanding when he appoints: ‘Charlie, if I appoint you, are you going to be able to come to meetings or are you going to be off taking care of your own business?’ I think it’s terribly important that board members have a clear understanding they’re expected to work at this thing, participate, make decisions, raise hell with the executive director.”
A commissioner makes policy and furthers program objectives through six basic activities: (1) relationship with the executive director and staff; (2) meetings of the authority commissioners; (3) budget formulation; (4) interaction with local, state, and federal governments; (5) community relations; and (6) press relations. For any of the five other activities to be successful, the board and the executive director must work well together, must respect and trust each other, and must have mutually understood roles and responsibilities.
The chairperson for a Connecticut housing authority observed, “The director really runs the show. He should run an efficient, effective operation and make appropriate recommendations for whatever programs he feels are necessary. He must make the contacts with the different agencies. He’s the hub of the whole thing.”
Of the role of the executive director, a commissioner for a New Jersey housing authority said, “That’s a big job. My God, that’s a huge job!” When that authority’s director died, the commissioner quoted worked on the search committee to hire a replacement. “I gave up my, summer vacation for that,” she recalls.
The commissioners had agreed that the person hired must be approved unanimously by the board. The result, she said, was, “We used to fight like cats and dogs,” until they found someone upon whom they could all agree. Confidence in the executive director is important because, she explained, “The board doesn’t go in there and manage the housing authority. That’s what we have him for.”
The difficulties an executive director encounters in managing an authority can be illustrated by an extreme, but actual, example.
The general manager (executive director) of the New York City Housing Authority, when asked about the role of the executive director, said:
“To be truthful with you—and it shows you the role—I just spent four hours in a meeting with a very tough group of tenants who were holding our staff against their will and I just negotiated a peaceful settlement.
“And I’m now going into a union meeting and the union’s threatening to walk out. The moon must be down. I would like to talk to you about it very much, but I can’t talk about it right now. Forgive me.”
While this is an extreme example, it also illustrates the importance of having someone in the job the board can trust and who can and will handle the day-to-day problems that arise—no matter how unusual or unpredictable. Another big city director, asked the same question, said:
“Executive directors, in, my opinion, are different categories. The problems that I have and [that] New York City has are completely the opposite from a mid-America city where the smaller non-controversial housing authorities are. Our programs are multifaceted. In our city, the executive director is also the secretary to the commission, so he does sit as a member of the commission. He doesn’t vote, but he is the chief executive officer of the agency. The commissioners, on the other hand, are the policy makers and do not get involved in the administration of the program.
“Policy sets the direction of the agency—the goals—and establishes and approves programs, reviews progress, but does not get involved in the implementation and in the actual administration of these programs. That’s left up to the professional staff…. ”
Most commissioners are fortunate because most authorities do not often go through the difficult and demanding task of hiring a new executive director—a hiring process that requires board members to reexamine the purposes of the authority and how they want those purposes to be reflected in the day-to-day decisions of the person they hire.
Instead, incoming commissioners generally can devote their time to learning the duties of their own job—absorbing the details necessary for making responsible decisions. Part of the executive director’s responsibilities include orienting the new commissioner, “bringing him” as one commissioner explained,. “up to speed with the other members of the board.”
As the administrator—the person responsible for handling the organization’s day-to-day problems, and being up-to-date on current and anticipated future developments—the executive director is both the board’s source of information and the board’s means of implementation.
Board members must depend on the director’s judgment that they have been provided with all the information they need to make responsible policy decisions. They must also rely on the director’s administrative and other skills that will transform those decisions into reality.
Part of the orientation process for new commissioners is the differentiation between the role of the commissioner and that of the executive director. Frequently, fellow board members—especially the chairperson—help clarify this for the incoming commissioner.
Sometimes it is difficult for a commissioner to be careful about role distinctions when the appointing mayor is on the telephone asking for help in finding an apartment for a constituent, when a disgruntled authority employee wants a pay raise that has been denied, or when a tenant complains of delays in having a leaky faucet repaired. While the commissioner does, indeed, make policy on admissions, employee grievances, and maintenance procedures, dealing with individual cases, is the director’s responsibility.
There is: no point in a commissioner establishing admission procedures, for example, if a person wanting an apartment can get around those procedures by going directly to the commissioner. If a commissioner intervenes on behalf of an individual who wants precedence over people who are ahead of him or her on the waiting list, then the commissioner is not only damaging the effectiveness of the admissions procedure (which the commissioner helped establish), he or she is also damaging the authority of the executive director to administer that procedure—and all other procedures. Also, the commissioner is confusing the staff in charge of processing applications, making them uncertain as to who is in charge and, thereby, damaging their efficiency and their ability to adhere to policies that the board has established.
Certainly, a commissioner is likely to receive many requests for personal help or assistance. Generally, the requests are not improper. Sometimes the petitioner may be quite convincing and may appear to be in the right, and often the commissioner may feel under pressure or may feel motivated to personally, intervene. “Never,” one commissioner advises,” [say] that you will personally solve the problem.”
Instead, she suggests, refer such requests to the director, “who is the one and only person who handles these areas.” If one feels that the request is sufficiently important or sensitive, the commissioner might promise to ask the executive director about it. However, it is prudent to be graceful when receiving requests.
Oftentimes, a friend, acquaintance, the person who appointed you, constituents, community residents, or the public may not know the details of how the authority works, but may have your name.
Many requests, while they appear to be ones of personal intervention—e.g., Can you get my mother an apartment? So-and-so promised me a raise and I didn’t get it, what are you going to do about it? Can you get someone to fix my leaky faucet?—may simply be informational.
The questioners may not know that they have to go to the executive director or to a member of the executive director’s staff. A pointer in the right direction may be all that’s needed.
Of course, if commissioners are bombarded by complaints and if, after continual referral to the director, they are not corrected and the complaints continue to come back, then there may be a different kind of problem. It may be an indication that the commissioners as a whole have to recognize a breakdown in authority administration and arrive at a general policy decision.
One big city director said, bluntly, “Commissioners don’t operate with any of my staff. They only operate with me. You can’t have your staff feeling that they have more than one boss. Your staff works for the executive director not for the commissioners. There’s only one person in the housing authority who works for the commissioners and that’s the executive director.”
A former California commissioner advised her colleagues, “You’re not expected to waste time on routine operations. Your staff is paid for that. If they can’t handle it, find out why. Don’t do it for them. Maybe administrative problems are the result of your lack of policy direction.” Indeed, the advantage of a full-time executive director and staff is that they free commissioners to concentrate on the job the law requires them to do: give the program direction. One staff member summed up the distinction between policy and administration with an example. At her authority, construction of new housing requires a county referendum. The board’s job” she explained, “is to tell us whether to put a referendum on the ballot. Once they decide to have a referendum, it’s the staff’s job to write it. It would be stupid for them to write it because they don’t have the detailed knowledge necessary to make sure that the wording is correct and conforms with the law’s requirements. That’s a specialty which we have. The job of the board is to tell us whether to use that specialty.”
Especially on large authorities, where there are sometimes hundreds of staff members and where there may be labor unions and civil service rules and regulations, it is important for everyone concerned to know that the person responsible for administering the day-to-day operations of the authority is the executive director.
It is important for them to understand that the executive director is in charge because he or she has the full support and approval of the commissioners. Also, all concerned should know that the policy the director administers is developed by a board of commissioners, which is regularly informed about—and approves—how that policy is being carried out.
Some directors, however, are less formal about commissioner/ staff relationships than others. In these cases, if a commissioner wants the answer to a question or wants additional information, the commissioner does not feel obliged to check with the director before talking to the staff member. As one director said:
“We’ve got too damn many things going on to be passing everything through me and me saying, ‘O.K., yeah, go ahead, meet with this person and so forth.’ “Yet, even this director points out that “on the important things” he must be informed of what’s going on. He says that, in many cases with which he is familiar, “only the executive director meets with the board and only he informs the board of whatever he wants to inform them of.” While the style is changing so that staff members more and more frequently appear with the executive director at board meetings and so that commissioners do not feel obliged to inform the director every time they want to talk to a member of the staff, a commissioner should be careful about not interfering with the established director/staff line of authority.
Often, a board member who has been serving for years and who has a clearly defined relationship with the director will call a staff member for routine information. That commissioner does not feel obliged to inform the director because he or she has established a reputation for respecting the distinctions between policy and administration. So, were the director to find out about the call, the director would not be concerned about his or her authority being undermined. Also, all the staff know this commissioner and no staff person would consider using the informational call as an opportunity to take some grievance over the head of the director.
A new commissioner, however, is in a different position. The new person’s relationship with the director is not yet clearly defined. Being a new commissioner means that the director has a new boss. In such a context, it is a sign of courtesy and professional respect for a new commissioner to request the director’s permission when he or she wants to talk or meet with staff members. Also, it helps staff morale and efficiency when a new commissioner demonstrates respect for the director’s authority over staff.
It is a good idea for a new commissioner to begin the job by demonstrating a willingness to find out how the authority operates. You may not like what you see. You may be dissatisfied with the information the director is giving you and you may feel that the quickest way to get an understanding of, for example, all the maintenance complaints you’ve been hearing is to pick up the telephone and talk to the maintenance superintendent.
However, as a new commissioner with limited time and with a whole set of duties to learn, you are dependent upon the executive director to make sure that the day-to-day operations—for which you are responsible—are being carried out. You are also the newest member of a board that has an on-going relationship with the director. While you should feel free to ask the director for all the information you need or for supplemental information if you think it necessary, it is prudent, in the long run, to be careful not to begin your term by unnecessarily offending the director—whose assistance you need—and your fellow board members—whose votes you will need to do an effective job. Few events can damage an authority as much and as quickly—internally, in the community, and with the funding sources—as an open dispute between commissioners and the executive director.
At some authorities, some administrative decisions that occur may appear to blur or lessen the director’s authority. There are, for example, communities where commissioners form committees to concentrate on such issues as personnel, tenant relations, community relations, or maintenance. Using the board in this way may help in augmenting an authority that has a small staff or in dealing with difficult on-going problems. Commissioner committees with administrative responsibilities may represent an on-going tradition at that individual authority or may be an experiment.
On redevelopment boards, especially, specific commissioner assignments and committees of one or more commissioners are methods of taking advantage of a special talent or set of talents which individuals may have. Also, in some communities, tenant involvement may include a group of authority residents who, with government or other funding assistance, develop certain self-help skills. They may eventually, for example, sign a contract with the housing authority to perform specific maintenance responsibilities.
These and other board and authority activities caused one executive director to observe that the distinction between administration and policy is not always clear and that it is “something everyone is groping with.” However, without an effective executive director an authority cannot be successful.
So, in communities where the board is involved in activities or experiments that involve administrative decisions, commissioners should be especially careful to inform the executive director of their activities. They should also try to delineate which of those activities are non-policy making. That way, commissioners can ensure that, if they are involved in administrative actions, fellow board members, the staff, and the public-at-large know that the director is ultimately in charge.
Many authorities have established written goals, job descriptions, and evaluation procedures. At one housing authority, there are a series of general and implementing goals relating to housing, tenant services, and the community. In addition, there are specific time-linked goals; for example, within three years, 350 new units of housing will be built; 150 units of subsidized housing will be obtained; energy conservation plans will be developed and implemented; and at least 25 percent of the staff will be hired from the tenant population. Job descriptions and policies delineate responsibilities. For example, here is one authority’s written “Functions of the Executive Director”:
“a. To ensure that all employees shall have the opportunity to participate in reaching the goals of the . . . Commission and carrying out the intent of these regulations.
“b. To make recommendations to the Commissioners for the establishment and the classification or reclassification of all positions in the Agency.
“c. To make recommendations for, and after adoption by the Commissioners, administer rates of compensation covering all classes of positions in the Agency. Such recommendations shall be included each year as part of the budget recommendations of the Executive Director.
“d. To establish standards of qualifications for all employment positions established by the Commissioners.
“e. To recruit, examine, investigate, and determine qualifications of applicants for all positions in the Agency.
“f. To appoint, transfer, promote, demote, suspend, dismiss, or make any other changes in the status of an employee.
“g. To maintain such personnel records as may be required.
“h. To recommend measures calculated to increase efficiency and to promote the interest and welfare of employees.
“i. To devise necessary administrative procedures to execute the policies of the . . . Commission.
“j. To administer such rules and procedures as may be set forth relating to the Agency.
“k. To insure the evaluation at least annually of all employees.”
Clearly defined goals, job descriptions, and follow-up evaluations help commissioners ascertain that their policies are being properly carried out and allow them to modify their goals and policies as conditions change. In addition to helping the board gauge its own effectiveness, these management tools also help determine the effectiveness of the authority’s administration. Occasionally, board members and their executive director may disagree about policy issues or about how policy is being carried out.
Written direction clarifies for the director the board’s expectations.
In some rare instances, the board may lose confidence in the director. Then, a more formal board/director relationship may be necessary to secure the information the board needs and to change the way the agency is being administered. While the board ultimately has the power to hire and fire,5 the process of dismissing an executive director must be approached with great care. Board members, realizing the extreme consequences of the action, should make every effort to avoid or correct the situation. As one commissioner said, “If a director is not doing the job he’s supposed to be doing and he has been constantly reminded of this, then he should be aware of what’s coming. You’ve got a moral obligation to this guy—I won’t say guy because there are female executive directors—to this person to keep the person informed of this goal system so they know what’s going on.”
As a commissioner observed, when a director is dismissed—especially one who has been in the job for a while—”then it’s a failing both of the commissioners and the director.” A dismissal of an executive director is a very serious event. Not only can it be the subject of unpleasant press stories; community leaders, tenants, government officials and others may become extremely concerned and involved. Depending on how it is handled, the dismissal of an executive director can result in bitter personal lawsuits against commissioners, the destruction of the authority’s bond ratings, and unwillingness of competent professionals to take the job.
A commissioner from a Northeastern state said, “Firing is a tough word. . . . When you start talking about this, put yourself in an executive director’s shoes. Try and feel this—get this feeling yourself. What do you have to do wrong in order to get fired? I don’t believe in political firing and I’d fight like hell on something like that. As far as nonpolitical failure to perform—and he’s been well aware of it and he’s been warned of it—then he’s either asked to resign or he’ll be removed. What else can you say? We’re in the business of housing people. If his inabilities are such that it’s affecting the operation, then something’s got to be done.”
As was pointed out earlier, hiring an executive director can be a long and difficult task. In that earlier example, the commissioner said that her authority was looking for “someone with fresh new ideas,” an individual who was aggressive enough to find solutions to the agency’s problems—someone who “knew what he wanted and wouldn’t take no for an answer.” After sifting through many resumes and interviewing candidates, the board finally decided to choose someone from the area who was known to and familiar with the community.
5In some instances, a board does not have the power to hire and fire because the executive director has tenure or is otherwise legally protected by contract.
In one Kansas authority, on the other hand, a new executive director was hired during a period when a series of bitter community-wide disputes put the city’s housing authority and administration in turmoil. She was hired, she said, “Because I was not from here and because I did not have any particular ax to grind with any group in the city. They very particularly wanted someone who was not from any political faction and at that time the city probably was a little lacking in women administrators.”
Asked about the qualifications necessary for a good executive director, many directors pointed out the necessity of making sure that a politician is not appointed. However, the director of a large Florida housing and redevelopment department said:
“I think a successful director can come from lots of different backgrounds, such as—which might blow the minds of some of my colleagues—I think he can be a politician. . . . I would say when I think of a politician I don’t think of someone who is a ward-healer, who is interested in giving this guy a job and that guy a job, who couldn’t care less about the qualifications. . . . I just think a politician who is a very good politician is very sensitive to the needs of people and balancing conflicting interests and that’s what this job is.”
The executive director of a large Western housing authority says, “I don’t know that there’s a mold cut. What comes in handy is a financial background, real estate background, public relations background, any of these or any combination of these. . . .
“It all depends on what the housing authority is doing in that particular city. Like here, we do it—you name it—and any of these backgrounds really comes in handy. In some cities, the executive director is a manager and that’s about it. But where the housing authority is growing, the city’s growing, there’s a lot of development, any one of those backgrounds comes in handy.
“Like here, we’re doing home ownership, we’re doing co-ops, we’re doing Section 8, we’re doing conventional public housing, and all of these are in addition to a typical management role of just managing x number of units or buildings. And it sure in the world comes in handy when you’ve got a little knowledge of real estate, zoning, any of that. Either you’ve got some knowledge there or you wind up being very vulnerable and hiring someone who’s got all that knowledge.”
A director of a large Midwestern authority says that a prospective executive director should have “management skills . . . basic business administration and I think some knowledge of accounting is probably important. But you could have terrific business skills and die and fail, so to speak, in the operation of public housing if you cannot deal and negotiate with the public, with the tenants, and with the politicians. At the same time, you can be able to do all that and if you don’t have those administrative skills you’ll go under because everything’s falling apart.”
One big city executive director says that “psychology is more important” than any specific specialty. “I think that you can buy skills, but you can’t buy knowledge of people.” The director of an Eastern county authority says that the profession that most nearly duplicates his own is that of the city manager. One commissioner says of the executive director, “He’s a landlord, only generally on a larger scale.” Asked about how a redevelopment director’s skills might vary from those of a housing director, opinions vary from requiring a professional city planner to simply having a more intensive grasp of business and real estate issues.
Authorities have different requirements depending on size, location, program mix, politics, economics, and personalities. Advice on finding a director includes looking at one’s own authority to promote someone from within, attending NAHRO conventions and conferences to meet informally with prospective candidates, advertising in local and national publications and in professional journals—such as those of NAHRO, checking with other local governmental agencies to see whether someone doing similar kinds of work might be interested, and calling executive directors throughout the country to find out whether their “grapevine” tells them of anyone who might be available.
Chapter Four: Meetings of the Board of Commissioners
It is at the board meetings that commissioners exercise their powers. From those meetings, the executive director and staff also obtain the legal right to perform their duties. An independent housing or redevelopment authority is prohibited from conducting business unless the required number of commissioners vote on it at an official meeting. No money can be spent, no contracts can be signed, no bonds can be issued, no staff can be hired or paid, no building can be constructed, no land can be acquired or disposed of, no tenants can be housed or evicted, no maintenance can take place, no social services can be provided, no redevelopment or rehabilitation can proceed, no other authority activity can take place unless the board approves. The state legislation that enables communities to create independent housing and redevelopment authorities provides that “The powers of each authority shall be vested in the commissioners…”6
The importance of delegating authority to executive directors and their staffs and permitting them to perform day-to-day administrative duties has been noted. However, the power of executive directors and their staffs comes from the board, which at some legally recognized meeting following legally required procedures passed a motion or resolution that delegated that power to them. While there is general agreement that commissioners ought to concern themselves primarily with establishing policy, final responsibility for all the authority’s actions rests with the commissioners. Frequently, during the meeting process, board members are formally required to pass resolutions dealing with administrative decisions.
When voting on such resolutions, commissioners may find it difficult to weigh the distinctions between administration and policy.
6This language is a direct quote from legislation currently in effect in Connecticut, Wisconsin, Virginia, Maryland, and probably exists in the legislation in every state in the union. In 1937, when Congress established the landmark law financing low-income housing through local authorities, the Roosevelt Administration sent to state legislatures a model statute. The model statute was generally adopted, with some modifications, as the enabling legislation for the creation of authorities. Although laws, ordinances, problems, and programs vary with each individual community, there is enough of a common bond among authorities to make general principles possible.
An experienced board that has confidence in the executive director can readily distinguish between pro-forma resolutions and those that require thorough discussion. An incoming commissioner might want to meet in advance with the executive director in order to be more fully briefed on the issues involved in each agenda item.
Also, occasionally a resolution that appears to be merely administrative may, upon examination, turn out to have significant policy implications. However, meetings are limited by time, by pressing issues, by the desire of fellow commissioners and others to discuss certain agenda items, and by the tendency of meetings to drag on past the point where people have exhausted their attention span and their ability to be productive. Mindful of this, various boards avail themselves of opportunities to attend training seminars, examine the literature, and discuss among themselves methods of making meetings more productive.
The rules that govern meetings are determined by federal, state, and local laws, by the regulations of the board itself, and by the custom of the authority. Generally, this is not as complicated as it sounds. Since housing and redevelopment authorities are public bodies, they cannot—of course— do anything against the law, such as pass resolutions that are unconstitutional or hold closed meetings in states and communities where meetings must be open to the public.
The rules on the conduct and procedure of the meetings themselves are generally left up to the individual authorities. Some states make basic requirements. In Wisconsin, for example, the law says “Three commissioners shall constitute a quorum;” and “When the office of the . . . chairman . . . becomes vacant, the authority shall select a chairman from among its members.” However, in other states even these minimal procedures are left up to individual authorities.
As in most private corporations, the public corporations such as housing and redevelopment authorities usually adopt bylaws that may state how many members constitute a quorum, whether a majority vote is sufficient to pass resolutions, who chairs meetings, what role the chair has, how meetings are called, whether meetings are to be governed by Robert’s Rules of Order, and other general information to make the meeting process orderly and predictable.
The process of making bylaws requires an official meeting of the board at which commissioners decide what rules to use in adopting them. Also, they generally adopt some provision for amending the bylaws should it become necessary.
Authorities also adopt policies and procedures on specific subjects, such as personnel, admissions and occupancy, procurement, grievance, budget, and public information. Provisions for passing policies and procedures and for their review may be provided in the bylaws or may simply be part of the regular meeting process.
Policies and procedures are a traditional method by which boards delegate authority, so that they do not have to concern themselves at each meeting with every day-to-day detail. They also serve as a method of focusing board attention on areas the board regards as significant or as requiring special attention.
In one community, for example, the executive director is permitted by resolution to make contracts for equipment and supplies up to $5,000, but over that amount board approval is required. In another community, which is relatively small and which has been having problems in that area, board approval is required every time eviction is recommended.
Usually, boards get together for regular meetings at which there is a fixed agenda of various items that may require official attention. These are commonly referred to as “the monthly meeting,” even though many boards convene more frequently than that. Most states and communities require that meetings of public organizations, like housing and redevelopment commissions, be open to the public.
Most relevant legislation on public access to meetings commonly called “sunshine laws,” “open meeting laws,” and “public information laws”—is state law, and, therefore, provisions vary. One official commented that in his state the law “prohibits two commissioners from having lunch together,” but an attorney explained:
“They can have lunch together as long as they don’t discuss official commission business.” Joseph E. Canale, chief housing official for his state, says, In Connecticut, by law, every agency of the community that operates through a political process has to file with the town clerk of its own community and with the secretary of state the published dates of its meeting—time and place for the whole year. And, of course, they’re open to the public.
So a commissioner, if he or she is going to take the appointment from the chief executive officer of a community, better know when the commission holds its meetings and see whether or not he or she will be able to attend them. One of the biggest problems is attendance. The ‘monthly meeting’ of commissioners really does take in a lot of work because they develop policy for the whole program and of course they have to approve of all kinds of contracts. So, it’s very important at every meeting that every commissioner of a housing authority does attend. . . ”
Other states may not require, as Connecticut does, an annual list of meetings, but may have their own provisions for how meetings are to be scheduled, announced, or attended by the public. In some communities, every regular authority meeting is broadcast by local television stations, in addition to attendance by other members of the press. In some areas, commissioners find it useful to rotate the sites of their meetings to make attendance by various tenant and community groups easier.
Some meetings may attract large audiences or may involve some form of tenant or community participation. In addition to complying with the requisite laws, commissioners and the executive director might consider various methods of anticipating problems that interfere with the orderly conduct of business.
Where commissioners are distracted by roving television cameras, ground rules might be established in advance with broadcasters so that, for example, cameras, cables, wiring, lights, and microphones are all set up before the meeting is called to order and are not dismantled until it adjourns.
Where a particular meeting attracts considerable tenant or community interest, consideration might be given to placing audience participation on the agenda, establishing pre-arranged time-limits for speakers, making sure that the room is large enough to accommodate all who wish to come, and preparing microphones so that technical problems do not interfere with speakers being heard.
In addition to regular meetings, boards also get together as a body for special purposes and to hold executive sessions.7 Generally, bylaws will discuss how special meetings are to be called and why. For example, an emergency may take place—such as a roof blowing off—or the board wants to give special attention to a bond issue.
On rare occasions, special meetings may serve a purpose that falls under federal hearing guidelines. For example, a housing or a redevelopment authority may be planning a project that involves an environmental impact statement. Under federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations, a formal hearing is required and a special meeting, if properly conducted, can fulfill those federal requirements.
Executive sessions are closed meetings at which commissioners discuss some issue that is too sensitive for full public scrutiny.8 There may be a personnel or tenant problem that requires the protection of the privacy of individuals. There may be labor negotiations. There may be discussion of property acquisition or disposition plans that may raise the cost to the authority or permit unfair private profit before a final decision is reached.
7Some boards also have an "annual meeting," which generally is procedurally the same as the regular meeting. When commissioners meet on committees or with community or government groups and individuals for the purpose of discussing authority business, meeting laws and public disclosure requirements can apply. Boards may wish to establish procedures for such meetings in consultation with legal counsel.
8A memorandum from the city attorney's office in Pontiac, Michigan, defines that community's guidelines for "executive sessions" according to that state's open meetings act: "Closed sessions are permitted in the following circumstances. a. Upon a two-thirds affirmative vote of those members . . . appointed and serviag which involve: the purchase or lease of real property; consultations . . . regarding trial or settlement of litigation; and consideration of material exempt from disclosure under state or federal law. b. You may also go into closed session if the following person or group requests same: an officer or employee who is being dismissed, suspended, or disciplined; when either side negotiating a collective bargaining agreement requests same; and when a candidate for employment or appointment to public office requests same."
Because of open meeting laws, there are generally strict rules covering executive sessions—when they can be held, what information about them must be made public, and what activities they may involve. The rules usually serve to permit commissioners to exchange ideas on sensitive issues and to protect individual reputations and privacy before subjecting final decisions to full public scrutiny.
In addition to legal requirements, bylaws or other procedures may determine how the individual authority wants to run its executive sessions. In one community, minutes are made of these private meetings and are kept sealed9 by the executive director. In another community, a commissioner10—violating accepted procedures and jeopardizing her position as commissioner—went to the local press and reported in detail on a particular executive session meeting, stating her position and that of fellow board members.
The laws governing what constitutes a proper meeting, the interaction of commissioners, when commissioners can meet in private, and the public’s right to attend meetings and examine bylaws, rules, procedures, and minutes vary in states and communities. Penalties for violation of these laws can be significant.11 Incoming commissioners may begin to feel that they are being constantly advised to consult lawyers about everything they do, and authority attorneys may feel that they are besieged for advice from commissioners who are unduly alarmed.
9A commissioner from this community explained that because of past experience he insisted that minutes be kept as a precaution against or defense in possible law suits.
10According to one state law, this is the procedure for the removal from office of a housing or redevelopment commissioner, "For inefficiency or neglect of duty or misconduct in office, a commissioner of an authority may be removed by the mayor, but a commissioner shall be removed only after he shall have been given a copy of the charge at least 10 days prior to the hearing thereon and had an opportunity to be heard in person or by counsel. In the event of the removal of any commissioner, a record of the proceedings, together with the charges and findings thereon, shall be filed in the office of the clerk."
11Michigan, for example, civil and criminal penalties are established for violation of the state's open meetings act. Willful violation is a misdemeanor, punishable by afire of not more than $1,000. The commissioner can also be held personally liable in a civil suit for "actual and exemplary damages not more than $500." In the same state, violation of the freedom of information act giving citizens access to public records also may have serious consequences. The burden is on the public body to explain denial of disclosure. A requester who wins a lawsuit against a housing or redevelopment authority on this subject can be awarded "reasonable attorney fees, costs, and disbursements." Arbitrary and capricious violation of access or delay in disclosing information can also result in payment of "actual damages" and punitive damages of $500.
However, one official noted, “It’s not something you can afford to take chances with. Look at your state law and consult your attorney.”
As commissioners become more familiar with their role, they are better able to decide for themselves which of their many responsibilities require personal attention, which require the advice of legal counsel, and which they can confidently delegate to the director and staff. Also, communities differ and their problems differ, and what may require immediate attention in one authority may not even be an issue elsewhere. However, as one attorney pointed out, “You have to be fussy about meetings.”
Since meetings are the place where commissioners exercise their authority, virtually all the lawsuits that are filed or will be filed against commissioners result from the actions they perform or fail to perform at meetings. Meetings act, as one executive director explained, as the “quality control” over the agency. They are the primary method by which commissioners are informed of what is taking place in their authority. They are also the primary place where commissioners use their leadership skills and resources to approve budgets, develop financing sources, and to solve and anticipate problems and formulate new plans and programs. Every commissioner entering a meeting should be confident that the meeting is being held according to proper laws, rules, and procedures. The commissioners should be fully aware and briefed on each of the agenda items. When budgets are reviewed, they should know how to read them and what the items mean.
As one commissioner advised, “See that you have adequate written data well before board meetings. Study it. Discuss it with others, as needed. And then vote accordingly. A well planned, advance agenda with detailed back-up information is essential to making sound decisions on important . . . policies.”
Commissioners—especially incoming commissioners—should also be aware that everything said at regular and special board meetings is a matter of public record. Before speaking and voting it is useful to be aware that what you say and do may be broadcast live, may be in tomorrow’s newspaper, and must be made available—as part of the meeting’s official minutes—to anyone who asks to see it.
Former Counselor to the Secretary of HUD and Washington attorney Joseph Burstein gives one reason why commissioners must be fastidious about the conduct of their meetings. Housing authorities get a large share of their money from HUD contracts and from bonds issued under federal guarantee.
Some authorities give the executive director the power to sign—on their behalf—annual contributions contracts and bond offerings. Mr. Burstein says, “What happens in the files of bond counsel and what happens in the files of HUD is that they have to include the organic law, the resolution or ordinance of the city establishing the housing authority, the documents appointing the particular commissioners so that the file discloses that those commissioners who are there are properly there during that particular term.
There has to be evidence that the meeting at which the contract or bond was approved was in accordance with the statute or bylaws; in other words, if the bylaws call for there to be a quorum of [a certain number of] commissioners, let’s say, that that quorum was indeed there.
“All those things have to appear in the file. If one of these things is not in the file, there is a question as to the legality of the contract or the bonds. If the executive director is the one who signs, included in the file must be the authority that the executive director has and also that the executive director is validly appointed.”
In many authorities, the board elects the executive director as its secretary or secretary-treasurer. In such cases, in addition to being the agency’s chief administrator, the executive director serves at board meetings in an official (nonvoting) capacity. Some authorities establish the order of business for regular meetings in the bylaws. This order does not necessarily have to be rigidly followed, but it ‘provides a basic framework for agenda items. In one example, the order of business is:
“1. Roll Call.
“2. Reading and approval of the minutes of the previous meeting.
“4. Report of the Secretary-Treasurer [who is the executive director ].
“5. Reports of Committees.
“6. Unfinished Business.
“7. New Business.
The executive director of a Virginia redevelopment and housing authority explains about meetings, “They’re done differently, I’m sure in every authority.” Three actual descriptions may give a better sense of how differently meetings can be conducted, some techniques that may be useful, and the kinds of problems that may be involved. The executive director quoted above describes meetings of his board of commissioners as follows: “We, by resolution, have established the meetings at the second and fourth Mondays of each month at 12 o’clock as the official meeting time.
“That seems to be the time that suits everyone best. It’s been at that time for a good many years. In preparation for that meeting, we get out to the commissioners on the Friday before the weekend a copy of the agenda, copies of all the resolutions and other material needing to be dealt with.
“The staff prepares the agenda basically from materials that are submitted to me by the department heads. They prepare the resolutions which we then scan and prepare for the meetings, and that’s the way the agenda is developed. Of course, individual commissioners can bring up any matter that they may wish.”
The executive director also writes a detailed monthly report, which averages about 20 single-spaced typewritten pages, summarizing all the authority’s housing and redevelopment programs and up-dating information on the progress of projects, occupancy, financing, relations with government agencies, and contracts. The reports are easy to read and make it possible for even the lay reader—who may be an incoming commissioner—to get a good grasp of both the overall scope of the authority’s programs and detailed information on each project.
Each commissioner gets a copy of the monthly report by mid-month, in time for his or her “general study” by the second Monday meeting. However, every one of the authority’s major decisions—and some relatively routine ones on such subjects as contracts, purchasing, and maintenance—is made in the form of a written resolution approved by the board. Virtually all the agenda items are in the form of resolutions. “Each resolution,” the director says, is accompanied by an explanation and sometimes a memorandum indicating what the background is of the particular action being requested.
“The deadline for submission of materials to go to the commissioners is noon on the Wednesday before the meeting. That gives my secretary, staff, and me time to go over them and put them in proper shape and then duplicate them and get them delivered by hand. Any material that requires any legal review has to be in our hands the Monday before that—that is a full week before the meeting—so that it can go to our attorney before it finally is distributed. If it is not clear, I decide which material the attorney should see.”
Resolutions generally follow a format, some of which was adapted for the authority’s use. “Sometimes the form is standard, as in the case of some HUD items, relating to financing and approval of plans and things of that sort—in which case, HUD mandates the form and generally the substance of the resolution. Other than that, we try to develop our own wording. The nature of some of our resolutions differs from a simple action statement to an expanded type of statement that includes some recitals as to the background of the resolution, the need for it, things of that sort. There are no ground rules, so to speak; we use forms that customarily are used in corporate and governmental actions of that sort.”
“Preparation,” the director says, is extremely important. I think our commissioners need to read everything that’s distributed to them. If they don’t understand it, they should raise questions in advance of the meeting. They ought to feel free to ask questions during the meeting so that they understand what they’re doing and what they’re voting on. They also ought to understand the programs that they’re involved in making decisions on so that they can understand what’s being said to them in terms of their questions or what’s being presented to them. A new commissioner might call me and say Tell me what’s this all about’ and of course I’ll explain to the degree that he might like.”
Notices of all meetings are prominently published; they are open to the public, and they are routinely covered by the press. Tenant participation consists of elected representatives—one from elderly and another from low-income groups—who are asked by commissioners to comment on specific items.
The public is not asked to speak during the meetings because other city agencies have tried that with poor results and because it disrupts the “orderly” flow of business in meetings that are already quite lengthy. However, public correspondence is encouraged and considered during board meetings.
In a significantly smaller New England housing authority, com-missioners have a different style in conducting their regular meetings, which are held monthly. The chairperson of the authority’s board of commissioners describes the procedure. “When we have a commission meeting, first of all, three or four days before the commission meeting I go over, as chairman, the agenda with the director. A week or two before that the director calls up all the commissioners to find out whether there’s anything they’d specifically like on the agenda. I go over the agenda with the director so I’m familiar with it. At the meeting, first of all, of course, what we do is approve of the last meeting’s minutes. The next step is that we review all the bills that have been paid.
If there’s any question of any of the bills, it has to be answered by the director, of course. Then we follow the agenda. We insist that all our developments—we have developments where we have 50 or 60 families or more—are on the agenda for anything they want to bring up, complaints or anything at all. If they don’t bring up anything, the commissioners ask the director and the maintenance chief if there are any problems and what’s going on. Then we hear from all the tenant groups, organizations, and individuals who would like to have something done or have something they want to present to the commissioners.
“Then we take up the future. We discuss how the plans are coming for a new development. Even if we have no new development going up, we discuss our plans for the future. If there’s an architect involved, he’s usually there. If there’s something discussed that might be of legal importance, we have our attorney there to answer questions.
“Now we are in the process of building 37 units. We have an architect and our real estate people who are getting land for us at the meeting. It’s very difficult to get land here and we want to scatter housing all over, instead of putting developments in one place. We want to put two or three duplexes here, three or four there—like that.
“We have our real estate people come in and explain how they’re progressing with the land, if they’re finding any land. And of course anything they do—getting to take an option on land—they have to have the board’s okay on it first.
“The board may ask a lot of questions. It may even turn down a certain development because of certain options we’d like to get or because we figure it’s too close to another development. We like to keep tenants scattered, especially families. If they’re close to middle-income people, for example, they sort of have an incentive to live like that and keep their place up. We have to look over things like that very carefully.
“Once we start building, we will have the clerk of the works come in at every meeting to make sure that progress on the development or the houses or whatever we’re doing is being done correctly. If there’s anything that’s not being done, then we’ll call on the contractor. A long time ago we got in a problem like this and now we want to keep it closely watched, make sure the right wiring and the right plumbing is going in there. That’s more or less the monthly meeting.”12
This chairperson does not believe—as is the case in some authorities—that the chair is obliged to be neutral or to be reticent about expressing oneself. “You’re a chairman, but you’re also a commissioner, and you’re there to express thoughts and views and what you think is right and wrong. The chairman is only there more or less for coordinating everything.” He believes that every board ought to have at least one tenant commissioner. When the mayor of his community did not appoint a tenant to fill a tenant commissioner vacancy, the board had a showdown with the mayor. A tenant was finally appointed to the five-person board.
Tenants and other community residents in the community have direct access to the commissioners, if they feel it necessary. Board meetings are one place at which that can be done. “We have a good director” the chairperson says ”. . . [but still ] there are some things that we don’t always get. Someone may come in and say, ‘I called for the past month because my pipes are leaking or my heater doesn’t work right or my thermostat’s broken and no one’s ever fixed it up.’ Then we want to know why it wasn’t fixed. If this happen frequently, then there’s something screwy here.”
About the airing of complaints, the chairman says, “The director doesn’t care too much for that, but he knows how we feel. We tell the tenants all the time, ‘Remember, we would prefer, first of all that if you have a problem you go first to the housing authority staff. If you get no results then you follow through and go to the director. But, if you prefer, the door is always open to go to the commissioners and we’ll see what we can do.’ Now, I don’t believe in undermining the authority of the director and I don’t make any promises to the ten ants. But I think that as a commissioner I should make myself available to hear what they have to say.”
12The housing authority does not administer redevelopment funds, but it works closely with city and community agencies that do. At meetings, "They come and discuss problems with us," the chairperson explains. "A good example: they're working on a neighborhood development now. . . . They came to us and said, 'There's certain property that we'd like to get hold of and they don't want to sell it to us . . . and we would like to condemn it and you're the only people in the city that can condemn this.' "
In what seems an unusual situation, a commissioner of a housing authority in a medium size Midwestern city described the board meetings as continuing struggles. “I have been voted down,” she says, “a number of times on whether or not we are going to use Robert’s Rules of Order. The [other] commissioners say ‘We’re going to run this meeting the way we want to and we don’t have to use Robert’s Rules.’ ”
In some cases of disagreement, the commissioner explained that a minority of the commissioners on the board succeeded in overruling decisions made by the majority through the help of such community groups as the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the Community Action Agency, of the HUD regional office, of the housing authority’s “excellent” executive director and staff, of the “very patient and intelligent tenants,” and of the city government.
Asked to advise a new commissioner who is faced with a situation similar to hers, the commissioner said, “Over the last six years, we’ve learned that on our board we can be in the majority or the minority very easily, and sometimes it seems to me like the harder we fight the more our tenants wind up suffering. So we have learned to become more quiet and more passive.
“We’ve learned to pick and choose our major issues very carefully. There are some things that I don’t agree with and I normally would put up a heck of a scrap against them. Except when you look at who really suffers, it generally winds up being our tenants. I’ve learned to pick and choose the issues on which I really take a stand. At that point, we simply learn that there’s more than one way to accomplish goals.”
She suggests, “When you get defeated on something that you really, really believe in, if you can get some other people who agree that it is an issue that is important to the lives of people who live in your housing or important to your community in terms of providing low-income housing, then you seek another way to accomplish the same goal. Whether it is to go to the city commission . . . whether it’s to appeal to legal sources . . . whether it’s to file a suit . . . whether it is to get a group to march for you. Whatever it takes.”
She says, “I’ve even talked to our state’s ethics commission. I certainly believe that there’s a lot of miles and latitude about how a group of five people reach a decision about a point. However, I do think that all people sitting there ought to be aiming toward the same goals, although there’s a hundred ways of getting there. Our state charter directs us to provide ‘Clean, safe, decent sanitary housing for the low-income citizens.. . .’ I’m of the opinion that all of us on the board should be there for that purpose.”
While most commissioners are unlikely to be in this kind of situation, they may be encouraged to note that there are devoted commissioners overcoming problems and difficult situations that sometimes seem overwhelming.
Part III Program Advocacy And Promotion
Chapter Five: Commissioners as Government Officials
Previous chapters have pointed out some of the difficulties of defining the role of commissioners. There has been general agreement that within each authority the board is responsible for policy and the executive director (and staff) is responsible for administration. However, distinctions between policy and administration, as has been discussed, are not clear cut and the methods by which individual authorities make those distinctions vary.
On the other hand, when it comes to relations outside the authority, commissioners have a more easily defined responsibility: they are in charge. The commissioners are the authority’s primary advocates in developing the financial, political, and community support necessary to ensure the continuation and expansion of housing and redevelopment programs. This role of obtaining outside resources and support for the authority is a natural one for a commissioner. It is something the law defines, the community expects, and executive directors depend on.
For example, some executive directors might resent it as an impingement of their own authority or as a reflection on their own competence if commissioners exhaustively question maintenance employees to find out the details of high utility costs. However, an executive director will be delighted when—as board members in one Missouri authority did—commissioners go to the state legislature and obtain special appropriations to pay for the high costs of energy.
Many executive directors do,, indeed, have national reputations and are called upon for advice and, in turn, make use of opportunities to further their authority’s objectives. Also, as full-time employees, executive directors and their staff are readily accessible to provide information, answer questions, and generally represent their programs. However, executive directors and their staffs are not public officials; commissioners are.
As far as the law is concerned, the executive director and staff work for the board. The board of commissioners is ultimately responsible for the operation of the authority and for representing its interest. In a well-run authority, commissioners need generally spend a minimal amount of their time concerning themselves with operational matters.
Unless unusual or deep-seated problems are involved, commissioners can rely upon their director to make sure that authority’s policies are being properly administered. They can feel confident that the power they have delegated is in capable hands. Most of the contracts and administrative motions can be approved routinely, without exhaustive examination. This is not to say that a well-run authority will not have problems, but, generally, administrative problems can be left to the executive director. On the other hand, the problems that stem from outside the authority, no matter how well it is administered—not enough money, not enough housing, not enough services, decaying neighborhoods, community apposition, and political pressure—are primarily the problems of the commissioners.
The executive director and the staff can help by providing information on how the authority is working and what the authority needs. They can help by preparing the budget, submitting grant proposals, packaging bond offerings, and answering press questions, but they are helping by relieving the commissioners of the burden of details, and they are helping by providing the information necessary to make informed policy decisions. If the policy of the authority, for example, requires the construction of new housing, then the commissioners must be prepared to use their position as public officials to convince local, state, and federal officials and the public at large that the authority must secure the necessary money and the necessary support to build that additional housing. It can be a difficult and time-consuming task that requires commissioners to take, as one official put it, “a lot of heat,” but that is what the job of being a commissioner involves.
Some commissioners and executive directors express the view that a major role for commissioners is protecting the executive director from the outside pressures that might interfere with the director (and staff) administering the authority on a day-to-day basis. The director of an independent redevelopment authority explained, “I can think of a couple of cities where the executive director almost serves two masters and this can be bad. I think he should be responsible to the board. The board, in my case, is appointed by the mayor, approved by the city council, and if the mayor and the city council don’t like what the board does, they can get rid of them. But, the executive director should not be placed in the position where one minute the mayor is telling him to do one thing and the next minute the board is telling him to do something else. He should be responsible to the board and answerable to the board.”
One big city housing director, who insists that board members address all their questions about daily staff operations only to him, is disturbed because the commissioners, in turn, do not protect him from outside pressures in the same way that he protects his staff. “The dilemma that we face as executive directors,” he explains, “is that everybody is our boss.”
Many commissioners agree that their role includes fighting to protect the director against political pressures, as well as working with the political power structure to secure necessary services and support.
Reflecting a growing mood of activism among board members, one commissioner said “I’m almost a rubber stamp for my executive director and I want to know something more so I don’t have to be a rubber stamp.” In some communities, commissioners were once content to serve in what they regarded as primarily an honorary or “advisory” capacity. This meant that local officials regarded the executive director as their employee and officials at all levels of government ignored the board in their relationships with the authority. As more commissioners understand, accept, and exercise their full responsibility and authority, some are finding it necessary to educate local and federal officials about what the role and powers of commissioners really are. This could entail the need for a commissioner to call up the mayor who appointed him or her and say, “I don’t want you bothering my director. If you don’t like something, tell me about it. That’s why you appointed me.”13 It may also mean that, as the chairperson of one board had to do, insisting that HUD officials inform the commissioners when they make their periodic audits or report their findings. “We’re the ones who are responsible and we’re the ones they hold liable if anything is wrong,” he explained. “But I had to tell those guys in the area office over and over again to let us know what they’re doing and to inform us of their actions until they finally understood that we were serious.”
In some communities, the increased activism on the part of board members has caused conflict with executive directors. Some executive directors have been reluctant to give up the authority they grew accustomed to exercising as a result of previous boards defaulting in their responsibilities. However, the need of those being served by the authority or those who are eligible for service is so considerable that there is plenty of work available. Most executive directors, rather than resenting an activist board, welcome the assistance.
13"There is a distinction, here, between the mayor or some other local official calling and asking to get a relative housed in the authority or asking for some other special service, and a mayor calling to complain about some policy decision, such as plans to build a development in a certain neighborhood. In the former instance, it is appropriate for the commissioner to explain that the staff handles admissions and other administrative procedures. In the latter, it is appropriate for the executive director to explain that the board makes the policy decisions and the mayor should express those complaints to the board. Also, both executive directors and board members should be informed about all communications with public officials. After all, the mayor who one week may be calling to complain that eligible citizens are unable to obtain housing, might be calling the following week to complain about the development of a housing project. A polite reminder that the authority must have services in order to provide them may be helpful in getting the official's support.
The primary sources of conflict or potential conflict are involved when commissioners ignore what directors regard as the distinction between policy and administration and become preoccupied with day-to-day details. As has been discussed, commissioners need to feel confident that their information is adequate for making policy decisions and that those decisions are being carried out.
At the same time, executive directors need to feel that their professional duties are respected rather than undermined by the board. Some activist commissioners view their appointment as an opportunity to correct abuses or deficiencies involved in the running of the authority.
Deficiencies and, indeed, abuses do exist at some authorities. However, most authority problems stem from intense demand on too few resources. Housing authorities, for example, find that in a period of inflation and government budget-cutting, the money they take in does not provide the level of maintenance and other services that either the tenants or the staff feel adequate.
Low- and moderate-income individuals, the aged, and the handicapped find themselves on waiting lists, rather than receiving the assistance for which they are eligible. The administration finds that it must use fewer staff members to do more work, and the staff may feel that it is underpaid and overworked.
If, on top of this, an overworked executive director must face a board of commissioners he or she believes is quibbling about insignificant administrative details or is rehashing old complaints and problems on which the staff is already working or which are insoluble without additional resources, then the director will regard the board as only adding to the difficulties.
On the other hand, if the board members decide to use their energy to secure additional resources for the authority and alleviate the demand, then the director will not only be grateful, but will feel more comfortable in presenting problems that might best be solved by individual board members.
There may, in fact, be a natural tension between policy makers and administrators, and there may be authorities that run well and effectively when a skeptical board presses the executive director for more information and when a skeptical director feels that the board is overly concerned about day-to-day issues. However, if the authority is to accomplish its goals, then there must be a decent working relationship between the board and the director. The board, after all, cannot be there all the time to take care of routine problems. That is why the director and the staff are employed. Nor can the director comfortably administer policy, unless that policy is clearly formulated by the board and is based on accurate and timely information.
In periods of stress, it sometimes seems easiest to argue with those who are most readily available. Housing and redevelopment authorities have stressful problems that are made more difficult and stressful by controversial programs and dwindling funds.
Therefore, it becomes increasingly imperative for men and women who believe in the same basic program goals to overcome individual differences and work together. As discussed earlier, it is important that the board have confidence in the director and staff. For commissioners to fulfill their legal responsibilities, however, respect and confidence of the board and the director must be mutual.
Each commissioner is someone who has sworn to insure that low- and moderate-income citizens—many of whom may be otherwise unrepresented—have a decent home in a decent neighborhood in the individual commissioner’s community. Legally, the commissioner is required to do everything in his or her power to fulfill these goals and, to do so, each board member must be familiar with the roles of the commissioner as an advocate for .the authority’s programs, as a spokesperson for the authority’s policies, and as a representative of the authority’s positions.
Commissioners must feel confident that they know all the relevant information. Each commissioner must also be willing to put aside personal differences, even when in the minority, to represent the majority position of the board and to publicly support the authority’s director and staff.
One of the commissioner’s most important duties has to do with the budget. Programs run on money, and boards use the budget as a way of making policy, furthering specific goals, and identifying specific needs. As members of the governing body, commissioners must approve the authority’s budget at a formal meeting.
The budget is, as one official explained, a “continuous evaluation yardstick”—a yardstick that commissioners use to gauge the effectiveness of their policies, which other public officials use to decide whether the authority ought to be granted the funds requested, and which the public uses to see how its money is being spent. For commissioners, the process does not end upon approval. They must be prepared not only to defend the budget against criticism, but also, as one commissioner put it, to do a selling job.”
Housing and redevelopment authorities have more than one funding source, so a separate budget package must be sent to each. This makes it useful for commissioners to establish working relationships with the federal, state, and local officials whose approval is necessary to keep the authority running, and with private financial institutions (involved with, for example, bond issues).14 To be an effective advocate for the budgets the board has approved, commissioners must be familiar with each major line item, provide assurances
14 As a cautionary note, commissioners serve as members of a team that works together. On boards of five or more individuals, it would be disastrous if each moved independently in separate directions without the knowledge and approval of the majority. As an advocate, it would be counterproductive if, for example, each of the five board members—without the others' knowledge—called up the governor and asked for additional funding. The governor would assume that here is an authority that does not have unified leadership. It is similarly that the items are necessary and well-managed, and be able to explain the human consequences if each line item is not approved. This requires that commissioners have a detailed and up-to-date knowledge of the authority's budget and the programs it represents.
To do so, authorities generally set aside a block of time—one commissioner suggests two weeks—to go through the total annual budget. However, many recommend periodic reports on the financial situation so that there will be no major surprises when final approval is required.
One commissioner from the Southeast said, “I’m sure you all are like we are back home—that you don’t have the time the staff has. It’s a part-time, civic thing you’re doing. But to get that information monthly from the controller, then you’ve got your finger on it and you can . . . get it rectified.” The monthly reports, he says, protect commissioners because “at the end of the year, ‘My God,’ you wouldn’t come up and say, We’re off 35 percent in our rent collection.’ You would know that ifyour fiscal year starts in July, you would be down on income in July and you could say, `Let’s get someone on the ball here.'”
Another commissioner from the Northwest recommended that commissioners go on periodic tours of program facilities with their executive directors so that commissioners are familiar with the human dimensions of the budget. As another commissioner advised, “Know your local operations. Visit projects and offices besides the board room. Attend project functions. Get statistics on occupancy, rent collections, maintenance costs, etc. Know the quality of your maintenance, the financial status of your program, and the operations of your staff.”
Commissioners are constantly battling old-fashioned stereotypes, which continue to generate considerable opposition to new programs. One official noted, “All of us are getting away from what used to be standard brand operations . . . from the old public housing days when you built public housing projects and probably many of them were mistakes and the same with urban renewal where we were doing bulldozer operations.” However, not only do the old stereotypes remain, but in many housing authorities so do the old high-rise projects. “They’re ugly,” one Northeast commissioner explained, “but they’re almost indestructible. If we could afford it, I’d tear them down. They symbolize everything that was done wrong with public housing. I tell my fellow commissioners, it is important to consult with the executive director, so if the director receives a call, he or she will know what’s going on.
“Frequently, the chairperson is the board’s primary advocate and the one who can delegate specific assignments to individual board members, depending on skills, political contacts, and interests. One method of operating might be to have one member responsible for contacts with city or local officials, another with state officials, and still another with federal officials.
One might be in touch with community groups, another might act as the principal press spokesperson, and so on. While there are no hard-and-fast rules, it is important for each commissioner to coordinate his or her activities with the other members of the board and to inform the executive director of what is going on.
`Whatever you do, don’t build one of those ugly high-rises. It will kill low-income housing in your community.” Just as budgetary and other decisions made years ago by previous commissioners continue to affect your authority and its current reputation and status, so the decisions present commissioners make will affect its future.
The budget is one of the clearest ways of pointing out the long term consequences of commissioners’ decisions and of the time lag between making a decision and seeing it carried out. As public officials, it’s not hard to become frustrated because of the time that may, for example, be required to revitalize a neighborhood: rehabilitating old housing and restoring it to use, replacing inadequate water and sewage facilities, putting in appropriate street lighting, creating open spaces, and establishing public and commercial facilities.
Even after securing the money, the authority must go through extensive activities to accomplish the neighborhood revitalization program that the commissioners determined was needed. The accomplishments of a new commissioner on either a housing or a redevelopment authority may not become immediately apparent.
Many of the difficult problems faced require not only a lot of work but also a lot of time, not only in making the original decision to work on the problem, but also to continually follow through to ensure that it gets solved. To successfully accomplish such goals, a commissioner needs help. It can come from fellow commissioners, staff, tenants, the community, business, and government officials on a local, state, and national level. Budgets are one way of identifying and mobilizing the help that is needed.
Commissioners have to deal with two basic kinds of budgets: (1) an operating budget, which maintains current programs, and (2) a developmental budget, which makes future programs possible. Long-term consequences are involved in operating budgets, just as in developmental budgets.
For example, a decision may be required on insulation and the board may decide between one process, which is initially cheaper, and a second, which requires larger immediate expenditures but may result in long-term savings in fuel costs. Or, another example, funding cuts may mean that the authority will have to reduce its day care program,15 which not only reduces the level of services, but may require working parents to stay home, reducing resident income and thereby resident rents. In addition, if maintenance is not kept up, housing stock will deteriorate, which, in the long run, is not only expensive, but furthers the poor public image that innovative assisted housing programs have been struggling so hard to correct. However, authorities can go bankrupt,16 and tenants, staff, and other concerned individuals should be aware that budget-cutting may be less onerous than the consequences of financial disaster. Therefore, a secure and prudently managed operating budget is not only important for current programs, but ensuring their continued existence.
15There are some authorities that receive direct funding for day care and other social services.
16Boston is one example.
Conversely, in the developmental budget, it is important to consider not only the costs of developing new programs, but also the costs of operating them. While commissioners are frequently advised to be “realistic” about their budgets, many housing commissioners point to the necessity of making sure that new buildings are attractive, well-designed,17 and, in accordance with the local “housing assistance plan,” do not isolate the poor and the aged from the rest of the community.
The commissioners who are willing and able to secure the funds necessary to accomplish their authority’s objectives often find themselves embroiled in controversy, having to secure political, economic, and community support. Cheap, poorly designed buildings in undesirable locations may originally cost less money than their alternatives; in the long run, however, they may present costly problems.
Housing authorities get a large share of their revenue18 from HUD, which, since 196519 has been a cabinet level department of the federal government funded by Congress. The Secretary of HUD is a Presidential appointee, as is the Assistant Secretary for Housing-Federal Housing Commissioner,20 whose office is responsible for HUD’s contributions and subsidies to individual authorities, for approving budgets and auditing programs. The funding policies and procedures, while ultimately developed in Washington, are generally administered in the appropriate regional office—HUD has divided the country up into 10 regions—and often by the nearest HUD area office and FHA insuring office (which report to the regional office, which reports to the Assistant Secretary for Housing).
17The language of HUD's annual contributions contract reads, "Each Project . . . shall be developed in such a manner that it will not be of elaborate or extravagant design or materials, and shall be developed and administered to promote serviceability, efficiency, economy, and stability and to achieve the economic and social well-being and advancement of the tenants thereof."
18The basic sources of revenue for federally-assisted housing programs are: (1) HUD subsidy; (2) rental income; and (3) interest on investments. The investment income comes from reserves, which represent regular payments to service the debt on bonds. Federally-backed bond issues have been the traditional methods of financing low-income housing.
19In signing the bill creating HUD, President Lyndon Johnson said, "It is not enough for us to erect towers of stone and glass, or to lay out vast suburbs of order and conformity. We must seek, and we must find the ways to preserve and to perpetuate in the city the individuality, the human dignity, the respect for individual rights, the devotion for individual responsibility that has been part of the American character and the strength of the American system. . . . Unless we match our imagination and our courage to our affluence, we could fail both our past and our posterity."
Redevelopment authorities also get a significant portion of their income from the federal government, only their funding is indirect. The mayor, the county executive, or the local governing body’s office receive HUD funds21 for general redevelopment and neighborhood revitalization. Those funds may be given, in whole or in part, to the independent redevelopment authority in the form of contracts.
Commissioners of both kinds of authorities are most effective when they are able to express their views to responsible officials at each governmental level. Often, it is useful to go up the bureaucratic ladder22—stopping at each office to see whether the problem can be solved at that level.
You may be told, for example, that your subsidy is based on a funding system developed in Washington, and if you believe that system to be unfair, it may be necessary to make your views known in Washington. Informing officials that you intend to pursue the issue to a higher level is not only courteous, but the officials may be persuaded by your arguments or relieved at your willingness to take direct action on your own behalf. So, they may suggest effective methods of pleading your case. In fact, going, as the expression goes, to the top” does not have to involve antagonizing individuals along the way.
An effective advocate is often able to develop support in the process. You may, for example, talk with the Secretary of HUD, who explains that without additional appropriations HUD will be unable to help you. The Secretary, however, may suggest that you talk not only to your own Congressional delegation, but testify before the appropriate Senate and House appropriations committees. Washington is a place—especially at Congressional and high bureaucratic levels—where there is great respect for local officials who are dispensing basic services, who can describe how federal dollars are currently being used to meet real needs, and who can be specific about what additional assistance is needed. In the process you may want to get the assistance, for example, of tenants who can explain their problems or of the mayor, who can tell about the demand for housing in the city.23
20The United States Government Manual explains, "The Assistant Secretary for Housing, who is also the Federal Housing Commissioner, directs housing programs and functions of the Department including the production, financing, and management of housing and the conservation and rehabilitation of the housing stock."
21From the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development 22Because independent housing authorities get their money directly from HUD, it is appropriate for them to appeal financial decisions directly to HUD. However, commissioners of independent redevelopment authorities or on joint housing-redevelopment commissions who are appealing redevelopment grants do not have the same independence. They must be especially careful about receiving approval from the mayor (or the local official who granted the contract) before going to HUD. In some instances, the mayor may be delighted to have the redevelopment authority doing advocacy; in others, the mayor may prefer to do it.
In many communities, the housing authority not only provides housing, but also is a community center for important social services to the aged, the handicapped, and the poor.
Many of these services are federally funded, and their continuation helps improve the quality of life of the tenants and helps make them more productive members of the community.
Job training, nutritional, income-support, medical, and public service programs may be especially important or effective for your authority’s residents. As a housing commissioner, one is not only an advocate for housing programs but for all the programs that are an important part of the authority. So, commissioners may also have to express to officials who provide these non-housing services the need for their continuation or their growth.
Many authorities also receive state and local funds. Testimony may be required before the state legislature and the county or city council. Meetings can be held with the mayor and the governor. The pressures on individual commissioners can be alleviated by a demonstration that you are working on that specific problem, that in fact you are scheduled to talk about it with the mayor, the governor, your state legislator, your senator or member of Congress. As a government official, you are entitled to respect by other public officials.
On a one-to-one level, you should feel free to explain to the mayor or the local official who appointed you what your problems are and what assistance you need. Also, commissioners provide services for citizens who vote. A commissioner enhances his or her influence who can tell the mayor or governor or a member of Congress that the authority’s residents are willing to vote on behalf of their own interests.
Budgets, however, are not the only way in which government affects authorities. There are, for example, zoning, code enforcement, municipal services, and planning and environmental regulations. One commissioner explains the importance of a “close rapport” with local officials:
“We’ve worked very closely with county government and the city government and as a result we knew the steps to take to deal with the planning commission and get what we wanted. Believe me, it took some fancy footwork and fancy finagling to get the planning commission to agree to something before the city council would. And the city council wouldn’t agree to anything before the planning commission would. And we got it all done.
“That’s why I say that a close rapport with your city government will reduce many problems.” Another commissioner says, “We invite members of the county council—they appoint us—to join us at our meetings. We’ve also been invited to come to their meetings. We try to set up a rapport, keep them informed of what’s going on in our projects.”
23Depending on your authority's needs, it is often useful to include those most involved or affected in the advocacy process. If, for example, tenants are especially concerned about a maintenance problem that the board believes is legitimate but that requires an appeal for special funds, then including a tenant representative in the process not only demonstrates that you are working on the problem, but also makes it easier for the official to fully understand the problem's human dimensions.
One Midwestern commissioner explained that there are 103 mayors in his county, each of whom gets grants for community development programs.
Sometimes, he says, it may be effective to point out the possibility of civil rights action. If they are threatened with a cut off of community development fluids,” he says, “then they listen a little harder to accepting low-income housing. It’s one of the tools you can use and which we did use.”
Another commissioner in a wealthy West Coast community explains how low-income housing can be made available with local cooperation.. Even though $130,000 represents the cost of “medium-priced, homes,” developments continue. However, a technicality in the enforcement of clean air laws prohibits new homes from being connected to sewage lines. The appropriate officials (who support assisted housing) waive those prohibitions when developers agree to contribute a percentage of their new homes to the community’s low-income housing program.
One official advised, If you can do it head on politically, great. If you can’t, be innovative.” One of the innovative devices suggested was the creation of non-profit corporations, so that the identity of the purchaser will not be known until after the property is obtained.24
A Florida commissioner says, “We have the rapport and we have the clout. . . . Isn’t is a shame, you have to be political to help somebody?”
Many communities and states develop official medium- and long-range plans for housing, redevelopment, and land use. The governor’s office in Hawaii, for example, issued a housing plan, which is one of 12 statewide plans for the future. The purpose of the State Housing Plan,” the document reads, is to guide State housing agency actions so that the goals of increased housing opportunities and orderly residential development . . . will be realized. Many of Hawaii’s people have urgent housing needs. Many low and moderate income families pay more for housing than they can afford; many are unable to reach their goal of owning their own home; and a significant number of families still live in substandard or crowded conditions despite improvements in recent years. . . .
Under current conditions, it is estimated that government programs will produce an average of 2,180 units a year. Because this level of production is below the 2,300 units needed to accommodate population growth and demolitions, existing programs must be made more productive and new programs may have to be funded.” The governor’s office in Florida issued a report noting that “The housing situation in Florida continues to be critical for many of our citizens, especially the low-income, the elderly, and the handicapped.
“The cost of owning or renting an affordable home is greater than 25 percent of the annual budget of many of our citizens. Over 70 percent of our families are forced to spend more of their budget on housing costs than should be necessary. . . . It is estimated that Florida will need . . . between 1.1 and 1.6 million units by 1985. . . . Florida’s objective of eliminating all substandard housing units by 1985 is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve. At present, there are about 300,000 substandard units in Florida.”
24In some areas, a properly established non-profit corporation may be a way of avoiding some of the open-meeting law requirements that may make property acquisition difficult or more costly. In others, however, using non-profit corporations in this way may be patently illegal.
While these and similar reports produce grim statistics, they also give official support to the work of independent housing and redevelopment agencies. One report, for example, notes that community opposition to low-rent programs can be mitigated if the programs are shown to be part of a state-wide plan “ensuring that all communities share in the responsibility of providing public housing sites.”
The large number of citizens eligible for services that they are not receiving point to a growing constituency capable of voting and otherwise expressing their needs from government. By participating in the development of community25 and state-wide plans, independent authorities can work with officials at different levels of government who share basic goals and who will work in cooperation to help achieve them.
In those states where the governor’s office has a state program, the authority may become your community’s part of the effort. The independent nature of authorities, their tradition of service, and their legal powers—such as eminent domain—put them in a leadership role in community-wide and even in state-wide housing and rehabilitation efforts.
Because of the multiplicity of offices on a local level—planning, zoning, code enforcement, social services—many housing or redevelopment authorities are in a natural position to coordinate activities so everyone is working toward the same goal and there is no duplication of effort.26
Commissioners can ensure that the involvement of officials at all levels of government in their activities is acknowledged. The annual reports, which fulfill legal requirements of publishing financial information, frequently contain expressions of thanks, photographs at agency events, and an opportunity for the mayor or county executive to praise authority accomplishments or take credit for its achievements.
Newsletters and press releases can also serve to recognize the area’s state and Congressional representatives and other officials for their efforts. It is especially useful to touch all political bases when you are in the planning stage. As one official said, You have to know who your state legislators are. Someone is representing the district . . . and you’ve got to get hold of that person in advance before you just jump out and do something. . . . Don’t let him know after the fact. You need to get to know this guy in advance.” In fact, a letter of support or a commitment of assistance can do wonders while you are still in the planning stage.
25A local "housing assistance plan" is required in all communities receiving community development funding. In a HAP, communities assess housing conditions and needs and specify annual goals for the provision of assisted housing.
26If some other governmental body—such as the mayor or the county executive's office---decides to take the leadership role, then the authority should involve itself in the most productive way possible. The point is not who's in charge, but rather what works best in the community to accomplish housing goals.
Chapter Six: Commissioners as Community Leaders
The chairperson of one Midwestern housing authority advises that new commissioners have “got to understand the reasons why they were appointed. Who appointed them and what is the interest-level in public housing of the person appointing them?
“That’s something every commissioner should know. What is it that prompted a mayor to appoint him? What are the real factual reasons that they can conjure up? And what abilities do they bring to dealing with the multi-million dollar organization that most housing authorities are?”
He says, “Try to get people to know that if they’re a participating part of the community, then they can’t be excluded from the community. Many times housing authority residents suffer from a certain stigma that is attached to being tenants of the housing authority.
“Well, commissioners have got to be able to articulate opposition to that and show how these people are just as important to the base of the community as any other group of people and that they should not talk about ‘we/they’, but about ‘citizens of their local municipality.’ ”
Commissioners of housing and redevelopment authorities are not always able to articulate their reasons for being appointed. Some, in fact, express surprise that they were chosen. However, many board appointments are made to fulfill a specific community need.
Basically, there are two sets of communities affected by assisted housing and redevelopment: those that are served by the programs and those that are not. Some commissioners are appointed because, among other things, they have special ties with one particular set of community residents (or with several).
These ties help to support the authority. For example, one Ohio man who had recently retired from a community agency, where he had achieved city-wide respect, received a call, ” ‘You’re going to be nominated and you’ve got to serve. We’ve just been through a rent strike and a pretty critical situation in the community.’ And I first said, ‘No’ and he came around again and I said ‘Yes.’ ”
The commissioner realized that the reputation of a program he believed in required the service of someone in whom both the tenants and the community-at-large had confidence.
The chairperson of a housing authority in the Southwest explains“ We had a controversial situation . . . in that some local lady started a great deal of very unfounded allegations about the housing situation. So, being me, I went to the mayor and I asked him to appoint me. I wanted to be a commissioner.
“I felt that if a woman had stirred this and a woman had not been on that board for 30 years, that it was time that a woman go ahead and step in and make things better.”
Today,” she says, “We have a beautiful board. We have been very constructive. We are a good unit. When things do happen that are disagreeable, we bring it right out, and it’s taken care of. We work very closely with the staff. We invite not only the staff, but the tenants to come to us with whatever problems they have, but we do it in a very businesslike manner—in a very kind and gentle way, but we are firm in the manner we handle this.”
Another Southwest commissioner was appointed several months previously as part of a total authority-wide effort to clean house, restore community and public confidence in the board and its administration, and to ensure the continuation of basic tenant services. He explained:
“Primarily, the authority was going into the red to the point that the Feds had just cut off all new money to us. They expressed serious concerns by writing to the mayor and the mayor took definitive action.” The executive director had already resigned, and the mayor asked for and received the resignations of the entire board.
“There were some serious concerns with the manner in which the projects were being run and the management of the finances and personnel. There were no irregularities, as such, in terms of misuses—somebody stealing the money—it was just being spent unwisely. Things like massive security services that we shouldn’t have been providing. They weren’t even using police, they were using security guards—things like that. The mayor just asked us to move in and correct it, which we did.”
The commissioner continues, “I agreed to join it because there was work that needed to be done and I was available and a member of this community. For one thing, in addition to being an experienced administrator—I’m a college president—I’m also an architect. . . . Each one of us is on the board for that kind of a reason. We were all carefully selected by the mayor for special expertise.”
Fortunately, most commissioners do not face the pressure of being required to immediately solve a massive problem. Rather, wise appointing officials appreciate that the reputation and credibility of the board—and ultimately the authority—will be enhanced by each appointment. So, some new members explain that in addition to their skills or professional abilities, they’ve been appointed because the board never had a black, a female, an Hispanic, a low-income tenant, a disabled tenant, or an aged tenant commissioner. Some commissioners explain that they accepted appointment because finally a new city government recognized the importance of a serious redevelopment effort. A Washington state commissioner explained that his service on the local council on aging helped get community support for the authority.
One union leader said that the mayor called and said, “We have some problems and we have no labor participation.” Another commissioner said, “They didn’t have any minorities on the housing authority and they had one project where only blacks were living at that time, and I wanted to get in there and break that racial stereotype.”
A Los Angeles tenant commissioner said, “People don’t believe that I own my own home.”27 She said, “People think that people who live in public housing have this terrible disease so we can’t be independent. So, they feel driven from the community because they’re afraid of catching the disease and feel they have to get out of the community ”
Some say that their appointment is due to activities in the League of Women Voters, in community-based organizations, or because of certain technical expertise such as real estate or finance. A Tennessee housing authority commissioner says, You know, in public housing, you have to sell it, and as a commissioner you’re better able to sell it than your executive director because you’re not paid.”
Commissioners, as community leaders, have to make sure that the people entitled to services receive them, and they have to persuade the community-at-large that it must provide the support and assistance necessary for these important programs to continue. In housing, more so than in redevelopment, there is considerable controversy over how the community being served might best participate in the decision-making process.
A growing tenants rights movement, whose effect is being felt both in local communities and on a national level, requires that commissioners develop clear tenant relations policies. A California housing authority chairperson advises commissioners: “Listen to tenants. Don’t forget that tenants are your constituents. And not one of you would be sitting here as an official, if you didn’t have the tenants. Just remember that. That’s your priority.”
An Illinois commissioner says of his board, “You see, I’m the only black commissioner on there. And the great majority of the people we have—about 80 percent of the people in public housing—are black. And so I’m the advocate for the people and the other commissioners don’t have the same interest level. These are my people I’m dealing with, by-and-large. . . . I want to see that their rights are being upheld. Where there’s an interpretation of policy, I generally try to interpret the policy to their benefit.”
While increased sensitivity to tenant needs is important, board members are being required—either by local groups or by federal regulation—to formulate their authority’s response not only to tenant participation, but also to tenant management and tenant control.
Tenant control is clearly the most extreme—and the most controversial. Suggestions for its implementation range from boards made up solely of tenant commissioners to requirements that tenant groups sign off on budgets or exercise veto power over board decisions.28
27Given some of the conventional stereotypes of public housing, it is useful for tenants who are involved in some of the more innovative programs—such as home ownership—to explain how they work and to reassure the public that programs can be innovative and increase area property values without being extravagant.
Commissioners, executive directors, and other specialists argue that tenant control would jeopardize the funding and administration of the authority, would unfairly discriminate against prospective eligible tenants (by keeping current tenants in the authority despite income29 increases), and would destroy public acceptance of a program that is already highly controversial.
A report by Executive Directors Dorothy O. Forbes and William J. Ratzlaff included in NAHRO Materials on Tenant Participation in Public Housing, points out any attempt to mandate, on a national basis, a single tenant participation mechanism overriding state and local law and contractual obligations of PHAs is doomed to failure, to the detriment of all concerned but; most particularly, to the detriment of public housing tenants. . . .
“We have been advised by bond counsel that . . . ‘If tenants assume management decisions in critical areas such as lease terms, eviction procedures, and maintenance budgets without regard to permanent lending criteria, there will be no lenders.’ At a time when HUD is experimenting with alternative methods of financing low-income housing . . . a dramatic shift in management functions would be very upsetting to investors.”
One chairperson reported an outside group of volunteers and professionals working with tenants came up to him. “The big gripe with the social agencies,” he said, “was they had the feeling that the mayor and the legislature should set something so that all the directors—all the commissioners (probably, except one—should be tenants, and, Why don’t you write to the legislature and go to the mayor and try to convince them of this.’ ” (The board chaired by this commissioner has one low-income tenant commissioner.)
28The NAHRO publication, NAHRO Materials on Tenant Participation in Public Housing (March 1979) points out (page 5) that " . . . operations of a public housing agency are a public business; decisions are not at the unrestricted discretion of the local board of commissioners. In a real sense, commissioners of PHAs carry out their responsibilities as a public trust to ensure that the program is operated, within the constraints of state law and federal contractual obligations, for the best interests of the entire community, currently and in the future. Tenant participation, in this context, is one element within the total framework of public responsibility. Tenants are citizens of the community-at-large as well as of the public housing community.
29As an aside, it is worth noting some commissioners regard the problem of zero rent to be one of their worst. Tenants who pay nothing for their living accommodations—or, even receive a payment from the authority ("negative rents")—are believed to have less incentive for maintaining their housing. On the other hand, there are problems with policies that require authorities to exclude the poorest of the poor because of the necessity to make sure that rent income is maintained. In any event, an authority run entirely by tenants might be assumed to give their own interests greater priority than those of more needy people on waiting lists or those of the authority's general fiscal interest.
He replied to the group, ” ‘Because I disagree with it. I believe there should be another one on—an elderly person—but I don’t understand what you people are doing here.’ I said ‘You’re spending all this time here working with these people and talking to them to try to be on commissions and that’s the only thing you’re fighting for. Yet 30 percent of those people out there can’t read or write. And we’re spending millions of dollars on adult education. Why aren’t you here trying to help them get these programs out here? Why aren’t you here trying to get alcoholic programs or health problems and other problems solved? These are the things that I think you should be working on with these people—not trying to get them on the board where they’d have a hard time doing the job.”
Another commissioner, whose board is in the process of selecting an executive director, said that tenants are not involved in the selection process and ought not to be. “I think that the administration of the project is the responsibility of the employees and that policy making is the responsibility of the board. Where we need input on board policy, we seek consultation with those people who are affected, and that’s the way I think it ought to be.” The same commissioner suggested that the board should ensure tenant consultation by “constructing a formal process.” He said, “You know, when you have 6,000 units as we have, you can’t depend on informal contacts.”
As one housing specialist pointed out, for legal, financial, and other reasons, there are some things you cannot share.” However, there are “some things you can share with tenants” and “each authority should develop its own tenant participation plan.” Tenant participation is not only important for reasons of fairness and because it is good social and political policy; it may also be legally required. Federal law advises authorities to have “maximum feasible participation” by tenants in the development and operation of . . . tenant programs and services.”
Authorities may be required to establish procedures on leases, evictions, and tenant grievances that show consultation with authority residents. Where a tenant organization does not exist, it may be a good idea to help start one or to otherwise insure that resident views are regularly heard and that they reflect majority sentiment. Where practicable, authorities are advised to give tenants preferential treatment in hiring staff or training for staff positions. In some areas, tenant groups form nonprofit corporations that contract with the authority to perform maintenance or provide other services. One commissioner noted that tenant organizations are “pretty well generated by their own needs and interests.
“We have one project . . . that was built a number of years ago before any of us came on the board. It is very much isolated from shopping centers, recreational areas, and so forth. And that isolation has created, as we might suspect, some internal problems in terms of discipline with kids and this sort of thing, because they don’t have anything to do but hang around that particular project. When we began to have a few crime reports out there, the tenants became concerned about it and formed an organization to help us improve the living conditions out there. It’s a very constructive process. Our experience so far is that tenant organizations emerge from problems rather than attempting to find new things for them to do.” Tenant participation is also important because, as one tenant commissioner said of non-tenants, “People are suspicious of what we’re trying to do.” It is a great help in developing community-wide support to show that tenants are willing and able to work on their own problems and to participate in the community in which they live.
Another commissioner recommended: “The commission must see that every effort is made to keep tenants and the community informed of the authority’s activities. Release as much positive information as possible.
“Design or develop a good communications link from and to the tenants. Encourage an active tenant association. The group must represent the majority since that is the ultimate. A strong tenant association with whom a trust relationship is built can be extremely valuable. Periodic commissioner/tenant meetings may be fruitful.”
However, as a California commissioner said to a convention of her colleagues, “We’re a motley crew. We come from all areas. We’re on different types of authorities and it’s very difficult to make blanket rules and regulations and to solve everyone’s problem on a national level. Each area has specific problems and you can only solve them within that area.”
A Maryland executive director advised about developing tenant participation policies, “Styles are different. There is no right style or wrong style—whatever’s comfortable to you.”30
One commissioner says he tells tenants, “Tenants organizations are the best thing that ever happened. They’re really good. Now in some states and in some parts of the country, they have great tenant organizations. But when they want to get something through they don’t come to the housing authority, because the housing authority has to follow Congress’ rules and regulations and that’s it and if they don’t they’re in trouble. But if you want something changed…then go to your senate or to the legislature. That’s where you change things.”
30Do not, however, forget the law.
A commissioner in a medium-size Midwest city says about those on the authority’s long waiting list as well as about the tenants, “The only way people can begin to change is if they get a sense of involvement. I just tell them, ‘Hell, you people have got a lot of votes locked up in this damn place.
“‘If you begin to use 90 percent of them to your welfare, then you’ll have some degree of control.’ You know, you’ve got to play the political game. The political game is not necessarily a humanistic game, and I deal with political education because it’s from a political decision that these houses will be here. So you’ve got to understand these phenomena and deal with it on the same level.”
The chairperson of a large Eastern redevelopment authority described the community relations roles of commissioners on an independent redevelopment authority. “You have three roles. One, of course, is the areas where you’re actually working as a redevelopment agency.
“There, according to general practice, you have a community PAC [Project Area Committee I—a community organization in each redevelopment area—organized as a community response to the redevelopment authority’s efforts in that designated district. Then, of course, secondly, there are certain programs of the redevelopment authority . . . [that]are city-wide, through which we are able to provide low-interest loans for home repair primarily and for commercial rehabilitation.
“There you’re dealing with a wider community, obviously, than you are in designated redevelopment/renewal districts. Finally, of course, you’ve got your relationship with the total city, as a city, a voting public, and a public opinion body whom you hope will support your efforts and whom you owe explanations of what you’re doing.”
He says, further, “We deal as closely as we can” with the people in each redevelopment area. “We hope not to have an adversarial relationship and for the most part we do not. In fact, in one of our redevelopment areas . . . we’ve converted the PAC into a development corporation, nonprofit, and really have engaged them to do much of the actual project work for us.”
In that case, when plans are formulated, area residents have the opportunity to give their support or objections before the city planning agency and in formal hearings before the city council. By the time the redevelopment authority goes into the final planning and implementation stages, there is generally support for going into a particular area.
Through an elected process, the PAC “represents the people in the area. We have a contractual relationship in all instances providing for consultation. This goes back to certain regulations of HUD,31 and I think you’d find this customary throughout the country. Normally, PAC representatives will come into our meetings when their own area is on the agenda or we will go to their own meetings, which they hold from time to time. Where we’ve had any friction, we do our best to find out why and solve it.”
31Some advocates of tenant participation recommend using HUD policies on citizen participation in community development and rehabilitation as a model.
Commissioners emphasize the necessity of going outside the authority and talking to civic groups and others about the contributions assisted housing and redevelopment make to the community at large. One commissioner says, “I think the commissioner should be trumpeting the housing authority horn: how viable it is,how it takes up the slack in the need of housing, how the private market is very suppressed right now and this is a definite need in the community. It brings jobs into the community in the form of construction and the like.”
One western housing authority commissioner is a member of the League of Women Voters, which has an active interest in low-income housing. She is also a member of a non-government coalition formed by concerned individuals and groups that supports the activities of authorities and agencies throughout the state and works for decent housing in decent neighborhoods for low-income, aged, and handicapped individuals.
She says, “I would recommend that commissioners look about and see what organizations are developing a better understanding in the community and in the state relative to low-income housing. And they should do something about it.”
Chapter Seven: Commissioners as Advocates
One redevelopment commissioner from the Northeast said of the changes taking place in his job and the authority in which he works, “Life is more complicated.”
A Midwestern commissioner advised incoming board members, “All that you know about your [Public Housing Authority ] is what the general public knows or assumes. You have a lot to unlearn.” However, it is not enough for a commissioner to change his or her own perceptions and master the complexity of the job. Where misunderstandings and misinformation exist, programs are in trouble. Where complex problems and procedures exist, it is easier for opponents (and even friends) of the authority to latch onto some irrelevant detail and make that an issue. Authorities need public support and understanding. Getting that support and understanding is part of a commissioner’s role. Board members, therefore, must concern themselves with the public’s view of housing and redevelopment. They need to articulate the importance and purposes of their authority’s efforts. They also need to understand sufficiently the complexities so that the basic issues involved can be presented clearly and simply.
Many commissioners explain that when they receive speaking invitations, it is because civic and community groups want to get basic information. They want to know where the authority’s money comes from, and the procedures for admission or the receipt of services. They want to know why the services are necessary and how the authority makes sure that its money does not go to individuals who earn too much or are unwilling to work.
In our community,” a Southeastern commissioner said, they accept it and are proud that we have a place” for low-income citizens. A commissioner from the West said, “People, I think, understand that not everybody can afford a $140,000 home.”
Commissioners say that there may be one or two people in a given audience who express disapproval of government action of any kind or of citizens who do not have the resources to help themselves.
However, in a period when housing is in short supply and the economy is unstable, commissioners report that they find their audiences at social and civic groups generally willing to accept the need for public programs for the aged, the handicapped, and low- and moderate-income citizens, and for programs that renew and revitalize the community’s neighborhoods.
Speaking to groups is one way in which commissioners engage in public relations. The general area of public relations, public information, and press relations is probably one of the least understood. One commissioner, for example, said that she was grateful that her authority doesn’t have to “deal with public relations yet.”
Another said that budget-cutting measures will mean that his authority will have to get rid of the staff that “does public information.” The fact is that as a public official and as a member of a governing board, each commissioner is constantly engaged in public relations. Performance at board meetings and establishment (and follow-through) of policies all help create an image of what the authority is about.
Because meetings are open, because commissioners make policy decisions at meetings, and because those decisions may affect the lives of thousands of people and involve expenditures of millions of dollars, commissioners are constantly a source of public attention and information. Since what interests the public also interests the press, commissioners, by definition, are involved in press relations. When a television camera takes a shot of a commissioner (or of his or her empty chair) at a commission meeting, that commissioner is involved in press relations.
When a reporter notes what a commissioner does or does not do at the meeting, that commissioner is involved in press relations. Every reporter has been trained to go to the highest possible source in order to get information or comments on a story. As a member of a governing board in which each has one vote, a commissioner is the highest possible source.
“For the record now,” that reporter might well ask, “why did you say what you said to the chairperson?” “Why did you vote for the acquisition of land in that neighborhood?” “Do you think the executive director is doing a good job of handling this particular problem?”
Commissioners spend so much of their limited time mastering the complexities of their job that they don’t often consider their image or that which the authority conveys. There is the familiar argument that the image is not important, the substance is important. So, for example, as long as you’re doing a good job helping people, what difference does it make how you express yourself at board meetings or whether you refuse to talk to reporters and decline speaking engagements?
However, if your authority is doing a good job and nobody knows about it except the people you serve, then how are your funding sources and the general public going to find out about it? Getting the story out now about the good things you’re doing will make it a lot easier to get funds for future developments, to get your point of view across if there is opposition to those developments, and to deal with the periodic crises that come up.
For example, a story that reports on the indictment32 of a staff member for stealing and selling authority stoves on the black market can be presented in many different ways: “Housing Authority Funds Stolen” or “Housing Authority Ferrets Out Corruption” or “Housing Authority Acts to Prevent Future Thefts.”
32This did happen at one West Coast authority.
Depending on your rapport with members of the press and the fact that your authority has basically been doing a good job, reporters are more prepared—if a crisis does come along—to present a story in a non-sensational way or to give the authority’s position appropriate consideration.
The basis of any public affairs strategy is the quality of the product. One California commissioner said, “I really try to help people and I really get upset if I can’t.” She was expressing what all good commissioners must feel from time to time—a mixture of purpose and frustration. It is not only reassuring but useful for each authority to periodically review its accomplishments—to ask itself, How have we helped people?
Your authority’s achievements in helping people and your plans for doing more in the future are the basis of each authority’s public affairs strategy. Since that also happens to be the purpose of the authority itself, then telling what you are doing—”trumpeting the . . . authority horn”—is basically all that’s required.
The importance of formulating and keeping track of goals has already been mentioned. A natural outgrowth of that goal-making process is letting the public know the authority’s accomplishments, and it is a good idea for commissioners to evaluate how well the authority is telling its story and what might be done to improve the process.
Authorities use annual reports, newsletters, brochures, audio-visual materials, press releases, and public appearances to present themselves. Larger authorities may have one or more full-time public information specialists on staff. But, frequently, public affairs is simply an additional responsibility of the executive director, other staff members, or commissioners themselves.
Part of developing a public information policy is finding out what the authority is saying about itself, coordinating the activities, and making clear delineations of responsibility. Certainly, it is unnecessary for the entire board to review copy for each newsletter. However, generally the board should be aware of what publications the authority has, who prepares them, how frequently they’re distributed, and to whom.
Some boards assign one member or more to oversee these activities and to handle special public relations assignments. This way, if an individual board member wants to contribute an idea to the annual report, wants to develop a slide show presentation to bond holders, or would like to write an article for the newsletter, the commissioner is aware of the time-tables and procedures.
One board member, explaining the need for a policy, said, “This reporter keeps calling me on the phone and I don’t know what to tell him.” Such comments demonstrate that it is important for the board to develop a clear policy on who speaks for the authority.
Generally, it is a good idea for the professional public affairs person—on the larger authorities—to handle all routine press requests and speak on the authority’s behalf. If a reporter wants additional quotes, the professional has the authority—which the board has delegated—to recommend that another staff person, the executive director, or an individual commissioner comment.
In smaller authorities, the executive director frequently acts as the press officer, with the chairperson speaking for the board on policy issues. However, for a press relations policy to work at all, reporters need to feel confident that they are getting up-to-date information that comes from the decision makers, and the staff and board members have to cooperate by not leaking information and by not talking at cross purposes.
A press officer or an executive director, or even the chairperson loses credibility if one of them says, “I can’t talk about that” or No comment” when other commissioners have already spoken to the reporter for attribution.
Especially on sensitive issues, such as collective bargaining or land acquisition, real problems can be created if, for example, the executive director says one thing and a board member says something else or if a dissenting board member goes public and tells reporters, “I don’t care how the majority voted, this is what I think.”
Given the controversial nature of authority activities, projects can be undermined, reputations destroyed, and the authority’s image tarnished if board members make a practice of fighting out their disagreements in the press.
Meetings are public; if an individual commissioner disagrees with the majority on an issue, that dissent is a matter of public record. If the dissenting commissioner feels strongly about the issue, he or she may wish to explain for the record why. However, as a board member, the commissioner’s primary obligation is to further the goals of the authority. As one commissioner said, “If you lose, you lose. It is crazy to go on fighting after you’ve lost.”
This means uniting behind the authority after a decision is reached. So, even if the vote is lost, if the press calls the board’s press spokesperson, then that commissioner is obligated to explain and defend the majority’s views—not his or her own. If the call is to a commissioner who is not the delegated spokesperson, the reporter should be referred to the spokesperson. It is also possible to say that you will support the majority’s decision and you have no further comment.
Since it is a good idea to give the press access to those people who are most closely involved in the decision making, commissioners frequently take turns talking to the press about difficult or sensitive issues on which they are working.
A reporter may, for example, call the executive director about relations with city hall and the director—according to established procedures—may suggest, rather than calling the chairperson, talking to the commissioner most directly involved in governmental or city hall relations. Major policy statements made on behalf of the authority ought to be cleared with the board. So, for example, if the board hires a new executive director, then the head of the search committee or the chairperson ought to check the announcement with all board members to get approval at a previous board meeting to make such an announcement.
The whole idea behind a press policy is to create an orderly framework so that if a crisis comes along, everyone knows how to handle it and knows who is responsible for talking to the press about it. Executive directors should try to inform commissioners of major developments between board meetings. This avoids putting commissioners in the embarrassing position of getting their information from the press, rather than from the authority they govern.
Unfortunately, press relations are frequently regarded as adversarial activities. Generally, there is no major crisis taking place. However, every day there is something going on in the authority that is worthy of public attention. The press, after all, is nothing more than a larger audience.
Just as commissioners feel free to talk to civic groups—informing the board of their activities and checking on occasion if something critical is happening—so commissioners need not feel intimidated by reporters. A reporter may call a commissioner after a board meeting and ask for a further explanation about why a development is important or to talk more generally about the work of the board, and it may present a fine opportunity to get publicity for the authority’s objectives.
In addition, each community has opportunities for appearances on televised talk shows and on radio programs. The media offer—as part of their public service responsibilities—opportunities to announce public events or present views. Newspapers provide space for comment and columns by responsible community leaders. Executive directors and fellow board members will welcome your contributions to the effort of letting the public know about the goals of assisted housing and redevelopment.
One commissioner explains why she believes the job, is rewarding: “You can find this work all encompassing and a labor of love. You will have stature in your community and within yourself. It will not be easy But it can be gratifying.” Another says he believes:
“To do the job in the best way is why we are here. That’s why we serve. To meet the challenge can be a major satisfaction. To do the job can be its own reward.” Yet some commissioners serve because the job is a stepping stone to a political career, and some have less clear motivations.
Most commissioners, however, realize that their jobs have no tangible rewards other than the personal satisfaction of furthering goals in which they believe. Most commissioners—as the comments quoted throughout this book demonstrate—find the job gratifying, despite the problems, the lack of pay, and the commitment of time required to provide decent housing, decent neighborhoods, and adequate services for those who are limited by income and opportunity.
This tradition of public service without tangible rewards has made assisted housing and redevelopment a reality in this country. This tradition-will also determine the future of these important programs.
At no time in the history of public housing and redevelopment have these programs been without controversy and without considerable problems. In creating independent authorities at a local level, the lawmakers hoped that each community would find public-spirited commissioners capable of generating the necessary financial, political, and popular support.
It is not surprising that as society has become more complex, as citizens expect more services out of their government, and as resources become more limited that the problems of commissioners become more difficult. Fortunately, most commissioners appear to be men and women who enjoy solving difficult problems.
A commissioner for a county housing authority in the West, says, We don’t sell our product. We have a great product, but we don’t sell it.” Although she admits, “I’ve never seen a blueprint of what a commissioner should be,” she emphasizes that it is important for commissioners to be energetic advocates on behalf of their programs.
The problem is, as one specialist pointed out what must have seemed obvious to a roomful of commissioners, “You’re not in the most popular business in America.” Commissioners, listing their authorities’ problems, talk about shortages of operating and developmental funds. They talk about long waiting lists and few vacancies, and of local governments that provide minimal services in, for example, garbage collection and street repair.
Redevelopment commissioners cite examples of bureaucratic red tape, of difficulties in acquiring sites, and of real estate speculators whose activities may negate months of negotiations and planning.
There are tenants who don’t pay their rent; federal agencies that are slow to approve budgets and release funds; state and local officials who respond to political pressures; tenant groups that want more services; neighborhood organizations that oppose assisted housing; and reporters who believe that all public service will make a scandalous story if one only asks enough nasty questions. These problems, and others that may be all too familiar, explain why you have been appointed as a commissioner, namely, to help solve them.
CHRONOLOGY OF HOUSING AND REDEVELOPMENT LAWS
Community development (physical renewal and redevelopment) and assisted housing are comparatively recent additions to the functions of local and state governments.
Significant activity in publicly-assisted housing and physical improvement of local communities began in the early 1930s as a result of federal government initiatives.
Although concerns about slums and blight can be traced back to far earlier origins, such as the federally-supported investigations of city slums in 1892 and 1908, and while there was a surge of activity related to publicly-assisted housing for war workers during World War I, major on-going activity began as a result of the national economic depression following 1929.
Following is a listing of the most significant federal legislation that has spurred the expansion of local and state functions in these areas.
1933—The National Recovery Act of 1933 authorized the use of federal funds to finance low-cost and slum clearance housing and subsistence homesteads. It resulted in 50 low-rent housing projects containing 21,600 units in 37 cities, as well as 15,000 units in resettlement projects and “greenbelt” towns. This activity also stimulated the creation of local housing authorities under state enabling legislation, with powers to receive federal assistance, and to finance, develop, and manage low-income housing.
1937—The United States Housing Act of 1937 established a permanent public housing program and led to the expansion of local housing authorities and their activities.
1949—The Housing Act of 1949 established the national housing goal and policy of “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.” To implement this broad commitment, it established federal assistance to local communities to carry out slum clearance and redevelopment programs. Local delivery agents for this assistance varied across the country, depending upon state law: in some states, local housing authority powers were broadened to assume new development activities; in other states, new instrumentalities called local redevelopment agencies were created; in still other states, general purpose local governments created new departments or added redevelopment functions to existing departmental functions.
1954—The Housing Act of 1954 expanded still further the scope and direction of federal assistance by changing the name of the 1949 “slum clearance and redevelopment program” to “slum clearance and urban renewal” while extending its focus to the prevention of slums and blight through the rehabilitation and conservation of blighted and deteriorating areas. New contracts for federal assistance could not be approved until the locality had an approved “workable program” for eliminating and preventing slums and urban blight.
1955—The Housing Act of 1955 established a new federal public facilities loan program for a broad range of eligible states, general purpose local jurisdictions, and local public agencies.
1956—The Housing Act of 1956 authorized relocation payments to persons and businesses displaced by urban renewal activities, the first permanent program of assistance for such development applying to any federal or federally-assisted program.
1961—The Housing Act of 1961 established a below-market interest rate mortgage insurance rental housing program (Section 221(d)(3)) for moderate-income families. It also extended the Section 202 direct loan program for housing for the elderly to public agencies. Sponsors under both 221(d)(3) and 202 could include public bodies or agencies other than local housing authorities receiving assistance exclusively for federal public housing assistance. This same act established loans, planning assistance, and demonstration grants to local public bodies for urban mass transportation.
1964—The Housing Act of 1964 authorized a new type of urban renewal project that moved federally-assisted activity closer to a traditional local government function—that of minimum housing standards codes. The new project type consisted entirely or substantially of a program of intensive code enforcement, including public improvements, in an urban renewal area. After September 1967, no “workable program” could be certified or re-certified unless the locality had in effect for at least six months an adequate minimum housing standards code and was carrying out an effective program of enforcement compliance.
1965—The Housing Act of 1965 established federal assistance, administered through local public agencies, to provide low-interest direct loans (Section 312) or rehabilitation grants (Section 115) for home repairs and rehabilitation. In this same year, matching federal grants were authorized to local public bodies and agencies to finance basic water and sewer facilities, and neighborhood facilities. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development was also created in 1965.
1966—The Demonstration Cities (later Model Cities) and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966 authorized federal grants and technical assistance to local communities to plan, develop, and carry out comprehensive city programs for rebuilding or restoring entire sections and neighborhoods of slums and blighted areas by the concentrated and coordinated use of all available federal aids, together with local, private and governmental resources.
1974—The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 consolidated five major “categorical” assistance programs into a new community development block grant program (CDBG). General purpose state and local governments were authorized as the direct recipients of assistance, and funds were allocated under a formula allocation to eligible communities and, under a “discretionary” application process, for other communities not eligible under formula entitlement. Eligible activities for. use of CDBG funds included a broad range of physical improvement activities. Funding was on a three-year cycle. The 1974 act also created a new federally-assisted housing program—Section 8—which authorized federal “housing assistance payment contracts” to sponsors, including local and state public agencies, for the development or rehabilitation of housing or leasing of existing housing for lower-income families.
1977—The Housing and Community Development Act of 1977 authorized federal urban development action grants (UDAG) to severely distressed cities and urban counties to help alleviate physical and economic deterioration, through coordination with private investment and reinvestment opportunities. The funding ‘cycle is three years.
1978—The Housing and Community Development Act of 1978 established a new “moderate rehabilitation” category under the Section 8 existing housing program and a new public housing security demonstration program. It also authorized a new system of operating subsidies for Federal Housing Administration-assisted “troubled” multi-family projects. Two special programs were enacted: the “neighborhood self-help development program” (to provide grants and other assistance to qualified neighborhood organizations) and the “livable cities” program (to enhance the artistic, cultural, or historic resources of neighborhoods. The Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation, designed to promote reinvestment in older neighborhoods, was established as a public corporation.
Originally published in 1980 (and superseded by more recent NAHRO Handbooks: http://www.nahro.org/publications),this version of Joel Solkoff's Handbook for Housing and Redevelopment Commissioners is Copyright © 2014 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.