PHA lobbyist maps agency's 2007 war with HUD

Lobbyist David Urban . His firm has strong GOP ties.
Lobbyist David Urban . His firm has strong GOP ties.
Posted: January 24, 2012

In the final weeks of 2007, the Philadelphia Housing Authority's executive director, Carl R. Greene, was at war with the federal housing agency.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development was threatening to take away PHA's flexibility to spend federal money.

If that happened, PHA would lose millions, and Greene would have trouble finishing all the projects on the drawing boards.

He needed help from his guy in Washington, David Urban.

Urban, 47, the president of American Continental Group, had been working for PHA since 2003 - first as a consultant, later as a registered lobbyist. He was paid $10,000 a month either directly or through the law firm Ballard, Spahr L.L.C.

Urban has Republican political ties that run deep.

The West Point graduate and former Army artillery officer worked for five years as chief of staff for then-Sen. Arlen Specter.

Another contact is Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum. When then-Sen. Santorum lost his seat in 2006, Urban's firm hired him as a consultant for $65,000.

With an office a block from Washington's K Street, Urban has represented many government entities, including the City of Philadelphia.

During the 2007-08 PHA-HUD dispute, Urban was a key strategist, according to people familiar with the situation.

He summarized talking points and shaped arguments. He kept PHA's outside lawyers in the loop with e-mails - Sharon Geno and Adrian King Jr. at Ballard Spahr, and Alan Kessler and Monique DeLapenha at the now-defunct WolfBlock firm.

He arranged meetings between Capitol Hill allies of PHA and federal housing officials. At key sessions, Urban even went so far as to choreograph for lawmakers who should speak first and what they should say.

In one e-mail exchange to congressional staffers and lawyers before a meeting at Specter's office, Urban wrote: "We are hopeful Senator Specter would open the meeting and remind Assistant Secretary [Orlando] Cabrera that he's not a 'newcomer' to the issue."

The tension between PHA and HUD began building in 2007. The federal housing agency said PHA was not providing enough housing for people with disabilities. And if PHA refused to rectify the situation, HUD would take away its Moving to Work status.

HUD has more than 3,000 housing authorities, but only 33 of the largest ones are so-called Moving to Work agencies. As such, they receive HUD funding as a block grant and have more local control over how to spend it.

Greene rejected HUD's findings.

In a series of meetings at the end of 2007, PHA and HUD officials clashed in acrimonious meetings, usually convened by Urban in Specter's Capitol Hill office.

One session was so toxic that Specter would later describe it to The Inquirer as "unruly," with Greene and HUD officials shouting at each other.

"I felt like I was a referee in the middle of a boxing match, getting hit myself," Specter would say at the time.

A week after that meeting, HUD declared PHA in default of its Moving to Work agreement. In an unusual move, PHA turned around and sued HUD in federal court, charging that the agency was retaliating for a land deal PHA did not want to pursue. PHA summoned a battalion of lawyers from Ballard Spahr; WolfBlock; Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis L.L.P.; and Flaster/Greenberg P.C.

Almost a year later, the two sides reached a settlement: PHA would retain its special status, but agreed to produce, over a four-year period, 760 new units of housing for the disabled.

After this brouhaha, Urban continued to represent PHA on issues such as health care, its capital needs, and "weatherizing" homes, according to American Continental's quarterly filings with the Senate and House.

The firm's final invoice was submitted to PHA on Aug. 27, 2010 - the day after Greene was suspended from his job.

Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659,,

or @j_linq on Twitter.

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