Changes at PHA anger unions

Kelvin Jeremiah, interim executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, says of the changes he is making: "It's not about me. It has to be about this institution." DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff
Kelvin Jeremiah, interim executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, says of the changes he is making: "It's not about me. It has to be about this institution." DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)

Money-saving move cuts 335 "provisional" maintenance jobs.

Posted: September 03, 2012

Just two months into his job as interim chief of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, Kelvin Jeremiah has wasted no time changing what he calls "a culture of splurge."

But with his latest move to save money at the agency, he has kicked a hornet's nest.

Jeremiah has drawn the wrath of the city's trade unions by eliminating 335 "provisional" union jobs in maintenance.

PHA pays these workers - roofers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and laborers - at a rate equal to its in-house maintenance workers.

But the agency contributes directly to union funds for pensions and health benefits, which, Jeremiah said, cost about twice what PHA pays for its own staff.

On Sept. 14, PHA will lay off all the provisionals, but is offering to hire back 212, plus an additional 45 apprentices. So far, 176 construction workers have signed up to shift to PHA.

Jeremiah said the move will save PHA $10 million a year in wages and benefits. At least eight provisional workers, he said, made more than $100,000 a year.

"We would not be good stewards of public funds if we continued to make those kinds of payments," Jeremiah said in an interview.

It's not just the union deal that's the problem, he said. Under former executive director Carl R. Greene, the "culture of excess" included millions PHA spent on outside lawyers, elaborate celebrations, and excessive executive perks.

Thomas Jennings, a lawyer for the regional council of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, defended the arrangement with the building trades, saying it was beneficial to both sides. "This new guy comes in and says, 'Look at all the money we're spending for fringes, oh my God!' Like he found something out," Jennings said. "It was exactly what it was supposed to be."

He said the arrangement with the unions was set up by Greene, who was fired in 2010 for not telling PHA's board about sexual-harassment settlements against him.

Jennings said the hourly rate at PHA was less than union members could earn at other jobs: $25 an hour vs. $36.76 an hour. But the trade-off for the 90 or so provisional carpenters was a steady flow of work.

In return, members of the building trades helped Greene run a pre-apprenticeship training program. PHA got federal funding to run the program, and the unions provided journeymen to train PHA tenants for careers in construction.

Patrick Gillespie, president of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, called Jeremiah's decision "ham-handed." He said it would jeopardize the involvement of the unions in the pre-apprenticeship program.

John J. Dougherty, business manager of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which has about 20 electricians at PHA, echoed that concern. Without provisional workers, "we have no relationship with them," he said.

Electricians who go to work for PHA, he said, will not be represented by his local because the union does not have a negotiated contract with the housing authority. "This was a rather hastily made decision," Dougherty said.

Jeremiah has worked fast on several fronts since becoming interim executive director.

He has eliminated company cars for all but 19 employees, fired several senior staffers, and tangled with an influential resident leader.

But what Jeremiah views as decisive action some see as divisive. These critics say employees who labored under the mercurial Greene are once again on edge.

"If my objective was to ensure my continued employment with PHA, if I was self-interested, I'd be going slow," Jeremiah said.

"It's not about me," he said. "It has to be about this institution," which has transformed the face of the city but is "disrespected and disregarded" because of the conduct of some of its members.

"Most people at PHA are good, honest people," Jeremiah said. "But there has been a culture of bad behavior."

He cited the recent sentencing for extortion of former PHA contracts manager Kerri Bizzell, as well as the guilty plea of Edgar Bridges, a onetime risk manager who abetted insurance broker Kobie T. West in stealing $2 million.

Jeremiah, 39, joined PHA a year ago as head of audits and compliance.

Before that, he was inspector general at the New York City Housing Authority and was recruited to Philadelphia by his former boss, Michael P. Kelly. Jeremiah is a married father of three who emigrated from Grenada at age 13 and grew up in Brooklyn.

Kelly, a turnaround expert, won accolades for restoring morale and rebuilding PHA. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which supplies almost all of PHA's $372 million budget for housing 81,000 low-income people, took over control of the agency in March 2011.

Kelly resigned abruptly in June after admitting to an inappropriate, interoffice relationship with a subordinate.

Estelle B. Richman, PHA's sole commissioner and former deputy HUD secretary, said Jeremiah was drawing on his background as an inspector general. "He has advised me of many issues at the housing authority that weren't in line with a strong, accountable agency," Richman said.

"He's looking at everything," she said. "I didn't realize how far he'd go, but I think it's been good."

The months ahead will be critical for the housing authority. This year, the Pennsylvania legislature changed how PHA is governed by allowing Mayor Nutter to appoint a nine-member board of commissioners.

Nutter is expected to make those selections soon. He called Jeremiah "refreshingly straightforward."

But Jeremiah has taken particular heat from a former ally of Greene's, Asia Coney, recently reelected president of the Resident Advisory Board, an umbrella for most resident councils.

Under Greene, Coney wielded much influence, acting as the point person with tenants. She also held a $108,000-a-year job running a PHA-affiliated nonprofit, Tenant Support Services Inc. After Greene's firing, federal investigators subpoenaed the records of TSSI and PHA stopped funding it.

Under Jeremiah, Coney lost her PHA cellphone and car.

Coney has complained to City Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell - a former PHA board member - about what she sees as efforts by HUD and the mayor to "destabilize" PHA.

In a closed-door City Hall meeting Aug. 22, Coney and about a dozen resident leaders criticized Jeremiah for not seeking her group's input on key PHA decisions.

Coney refused to answer questions about the meeting.

"Clearly, there's been a power shift at PHA," Jeremiah said. "We're going to residents ourselves."

PHA, he added, has started monthly roundtable sessions, inviting all resident leaders to meet with him and staff about issues. "I want to make sure everyone's voice is heard," he said, "not just the ones who yell the loudest."


Contact Jennifer Lin

at 215-854-5659, jlin@phillynews.com, or follow

on Twitter @j_linq.

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