Inquirer Editorial: New day for the PHA

Posted: March 08, 2011

The resignation of the Philadelphia Housing Authority board of commissioners was needed to remove the cloud of mismanagement and distractions at the agency.

PHA Chairman John F. Street and four other board members finally agreed to surrender control of the agency after months of turmoil and scandal. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development took over temporarily on Friday. Said Street, "It's really time for us to go."

The former mayor's sense of punctuality is a bit off. He and fellow board members Michael Eiding, Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, Debra Brady, and residents representative Nellie Reynolds had overstayed their welcome.

On their watch, former PHA executive director Carl R. Greene secretly settled sexual harassment complaints against him for $648,000.

Also on their watch, PHA has spent $38.3 million since 2007 on legal costs. That tab included conflict-laden payments to the law firm of Street's son to do work for PHA. The Inquirer reported Monday that Sharif Street's firm billed PHA $3,360 for a single day in June 2007 on which he attended a pro-housing rally in Washington. The younger Street said he did not charge the agency for attending the rally, but did bill it for working 14 hours that day on behalf of the housing authority.

The elder Street claims to have had a waiver from HUD to vote on matters involving his son, but HUD says Street is mistaken.

It's exactly the kind of entanglement that has caused the public, and Congress, to lose confidence in PHA's ability to carry out its mission. While PHA should be focused on providing quality public housing for needy residents, the agency instead has been awash in allegations of cover-ups, waste, and fraud.

If PHA is ever going to regain its sense of purpose, interim executive director Michael P. Kelly must be able to operate without all that baggage. The New York housing official will stay on for at least a year with the new title of administrative receiver. He will be aided by HUD chief operating officer Estelle Richman, a former city managing director and former welfare secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell. Richman's appointment apparently helped persuade the PHA board to finally quit.

Given their inept oversight, the commissioners showed breath-taking nerviness to hold out for terms in behind-the-scenes talks with HUD officials. They were not in a strong position to negotiate.

The board claims not to have known the PHA had settled lawsuits against Greene. At minimum, the commissioners failed to pay attention while Greene recommended exorbitant expenditures on public-housing construction and outside legal counsel. There was no confidence in these unpaid board members' ability to direct a housecleaning at PHA going forward.

With its takeover, HUD has taken a needed step by forcing this issue. The federal cabinet agency provides most of PHA's funding, including $371 million this year. It has the authority to take control of PHA, which has 80,000 tenants.

The most serious allegations about PHA involve Greene. His alleged actions show that the agency needs a strong system of checks and balances.

The board simply failed to provide the oversight needed. That's why the current group of commissioners had to go.

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