Wednesday, February 2, 2010

A bill exposing housing authority affiliates to sunlight is good legislation. By Walter Pierce

It’s not astonishing to me that some are dragging state Rep. Rickey Hardy over the coals for his ongoing role exposing what is at the very least profound mismanagement at the Lafayette Housing Authority.

There are factions within black leadership in Lafayette as there are in any political demographic. Hardy is on one side. Former City-Parish Councilman Chris Williams, whom Hardy beat three years ago for the District 44 seat and who is a central figure in the LHA story, is on the other. Spread around Williams is a phalanx of us-against-them sycophants that marches in lockstep against “the man,” whoever that is — Joey Durel? Housing and Urban Development? The media? All of the above? Hardy neatly fills the role of Uncle Tom in this respect.

The federal government, which is another way of saying us taxpayers, pours multiple millions of dollars into housing authorities across the country. And with dull regularity these agencies are exposed through audits as poorly managed money pits chronically plagued by political patronage and, often, outright fraud. We’re not saying the latter will prove to be the case with the LHA, but it’s fair to say a collective jaw will drop in Lafayette if someone isn’t indicted following multiple federal investigations.

Last November, as the LHA saga took one bizarre turn after another, a federal audit of the Shreveport Housing Authority found that agency had “inefficiently and ineffectively managed more than $1.5 million in [federal stimulus] funding.” The SHA was told to repay the feds more than $1 million it improperly spent on one of its housing developments.

The evidence is mounting that housing authorities in Louisiana have dodged public oversight for too long. They’re a cookie jar open to too many hands, and they’ve benefitted from state-sanctioned opacity.

Hardy is now trying to remedy that. He recently filed notice of intent to author a bill that would make affiliates of housing authorities subject to the same public scrutiny as the housing authorities themselves. An agency like the LHA routinely enters into arrangements to build housing projects in which it is a minority partner, selling tax credits to private investors and signing contracts with development companies — the affiliates — that do most of the work getting the project off the ground. Consequently, these affiliates reap most of the profits — yes, there is beaucoup money to be made developing housing for the poor — from these ventures.

One sentence on Page 70 of the 113-page Act 1188, a 1997 state law broadly designed to empower housing authorities, also shields much of these affiliates’ paper trails from public scrutiny: “Affiliates of housing agencies shall not, by virtue of their affiliation with such local housing agencies, become subject to the laws of this state applicable to public agencies and their governing bodies, including but not limited to laws pertaining to public disclosure of records, open meetings, minimum wage rates applicable to government contracts and employees, if any, procurement of goods and services, and laws relating to public employees.”

Hardy’s legislation would effectively strip that sentence from the Act 1188, making it possible for the public, the taxpayers, to see who is involved in these developments, how the money is being spent, who is profiting from them and whether there are conflicts of interest.

The push back is likely to be formidable; there appear to be some powerful interests behind these housing developments who, not unlike vampires, shrink from the sunlight.

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