Sweet deal at PHA: 6-figure salary, $654-a-month rent

Asia Coney, seen here at a 2007 housing protest in Washington, runs Tenant Support Services.
Asia Coney, seen here at a 2007 housing protest in Washington, runs Tenant Support Services.
Posted: August 21, 2010

Asia Coney was a poor single mom and tenant leader living off welfare in the projects.

Then she met Carl Greene.

In early 1998, then-Mayor Ed Rendell and then-City Council President John Street asked Coney to go to Detroit, where Greene headed the city's housing commission to help size up if he'd be a good choice to take the helm of the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

She returned a huge fan. Greene landed the job. And Coney's life took an upswing.

It was payback time.

"She came back and was his golden child," said Cynthia Jones, a former PHA manager.

Greene appointed Coney to run Tenant Support Services, Inc., (TSSI), a nonprofit subsidiary under contract with PHA to provide services to tenants.

Since TSSI was launched in 1992 by former PHA director John White Jr., no employee, including the president, secretary and treasurer, earned a salary.

In 1999, one year after Greene became PHA's executive director, Coney's starting salary was $38,447. It only got better - and fast.

In 2001, she earned $80,000. In 2003: $84,241.

By 2007, the most-recent IRS filing available, she broke the six-figure mark at $101,170.

Meanwhile, she still lives in public housing, paying $654 a month in rent.

As a PHA resident, she serves as president of the Resident Advisory Board, an independent group that advocates for tenants.

This doesn't sit right with Greg Brinkley, 51, who lives at Abbotsford Homes in East Falls.

"How can you really represent us in an aggressive and unbiased fashion and then turn around and have a PHA contract that Carl Greene has to sign off on?" he asked.

Greene said he doesn't believe Coney's dual role as tenant advocate and TSSI director is a conflict of interest. "She's elected by the residents to head the RAB," he said.

But Coney's sweet deal could thrust Greene into an even bigger firestorm. At a party marking Greene's 10th year as executive director in 2008, Greene asked hundreds of vendors, attorneys and other friends of PHA to pony up a $1,000 to $5,000 donation to TSSI.

Coney's TSSI raked in $38,200 in donations; $16,266 went to pay for the lavish 10th- anniversary party, which left TSSI with a $21,934 profit.

Yesterday Greene said the profit went toward college scholarships for needy teens who live in PHA housing.

Greene said that asking contractors who do work for PHA to donate money is "not pay-to-play." He said the donations are voluntary and don't violate any U.S. Housing and Urban Development rules.

Nor does the fact that Coney lives in public housing.

According to HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan, there is no income level at which tenants can be kicked out of public housing. Sullivan said tenants are required to pay higher rates as incomes increase, up to fair market value.

Greene said Coney's entitled to live there. "We really don't have the right to evict them," he said.

Tell that to the 32,000 families on the PHA waiting list.

"Sure. You can live in public housing if you make $100,000 or even $1 million," said Virginia Wilks, a tenant leader for 27 years and president of the Richard Allen/Gladys B. Jacobs Manor Resident Council in North Philadelphia. "But most people when they get a good job move out. Because now, a person who really needs housing can't live in a PHA house because she's there.

"If you aren't poor, why would you tie up a house?"

Most public-housing advocates were incensed when they learned of Coney's salary.

"It just galls me," Wilks said. "No other resident leaders could really apply for the job. . . . No one but her could get it."

Greene said the position became salaried to provide more structure and support.

"We wanted tenants to have a more professional setting for ensuring that they got social services," Greene said.

Coney could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The TSSI office is in a house on Walnut Street near 56th. The locked glass door on the side is the public entrance, but a woman refused to open the door when a Daily News reporter knocked.

"You must be a reporter," she muttered. She waved her hand as if to shoo the reporter away and walked out of view.

A woman then came to the open window on the second floor and yelled, "Asia's not in." She said she could not let the reporter inside. "We can't answer any questions. You have to ask Asia," she said, before walking away from the window.

Voter registration records list Coney's residence as a PHA rowhouse on Diamond Street in Wynnefield, nestled in the middle of a quiet, middle-class tree-lined block with front lawns, flowers, hedges and outside furniture. The house has been owned by PHA since 1974. No one answered the door yesterday afternoon. When a reporter asked a man who trudged up the walkway to the front door when Asia Coney would be home, he said she didn't live there.

TSSI itself remained somewhat of a mystery yesterday.

In tax filings, it lists its stated goal "to empower Philadelphia's public housing residents toward self-sufficiency."

The nonprofit reported assets of $1 million in fiscal year ending June 30, 2008. That same year, it listed $810,748 in contributions. But where that money comes from is not clear.

"They (TSSI) win grants on their own," Greene said. "She doesn't work for me. She reports to her own board."

Greene, who was listed as chairman of the board in 2003, no longer serves in that capacity.

It's also unclear how TSSI spends its money.

In the past, TSSI used money for things like a basketball court, a weekend dance, a workshop or field-trip money for children, Wilks said. "Now I don't know what happens to it," she said.

Greene defended Coney yesterday. "She provides good services for public housing. She fights for them," he said. "TSSI is strictly there to promote social activities and services for residents."

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