To see what a lack of oversight and accountability can lead to, look no further than the Decatur Housing Authority.
Housing authorities like Decatur’s oversee public housing. They are funded largely through subsidies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Decatur’s authority does, however, have a local board appointed by the mayor. That board then hires the authority’s director.
Once appointed, however, that board does not answer to the mayor or the City Council. That was made abundantly clear this week when the Decatur Housing Authority board declined to meet Thursday with the council at Ingalls Harbor Pavilion to discuss allegations of housing discrimination related to the authority’s housing communities, The Towers (composed of Summer Manor and Jordan-Neill apartments) and Westgate Gardens.
The Decatur Housing Authority agreed to a settlement this summer with HUD in which it had to pay a $200,000 fine that will be distributed to Westgate residents because of the alleged discrimination.
A compliance review letter issued March 25 by HUD said “staff at the Decatur Housing Authority repeatedly engaged in discriminatory practices that denied housing to elderly black applicants who sought units at both The Towers (Summer Manor and Jordan-Neill) and Westgate Gardens.”
The letter noted that 94% of tenants in The Towers were white and 100% of tenants at Westgate, in Northwest Decatur, were Black. The settlement also included a plan to remedy the problems.
The Decatur Housing Authority is now searching for a new director, but even that process has been questionable.
Despite objections from one board member, the Housing Authority board set forth a plan that would have given priority to internal candidates for the director post. External candidates would be interviewed only if no internal candidate was suitable for the job.
Given the pervasive issues cited by HUD, giving priority to internal candidates should have been a non-starter. And for HUD it was.
HUD has stepped in and ordered the Decatur Housing Authority to give equal weight to external candidates.
When it comes to searching for a new director or meeting with the City Council, Housing Authority board Chairman Albert Ridgeway has insisted he and the board are simply following their policy manual. That manual, for which a replacement has been formulated but not yet approved by the board, seems to be part of the problem.
The other part is that the only effective oversight over the Housing Authority is HUD, and it is difficult for the far-flung federal bureaucracy to keep track of the local agencies it oversees.
Even now, the Decatur Housing Authority denies any wrongdoing, saying it agreed to the settlement with HUD only to avoid the legal fees necessary to fight the discrimination accusation.
Apart from asking board members to resign, Mayor Tab Bowling has said, all he and City Council can do to remove a board member is initiate an impeachment proceeding in Circuit Court.
Ideally, there would be a middle way, but there is not. So if the Housing Authority continues to deny wrongdoing in face of the facts, if it continues to stonewall city officials and the public by hiding behind an outdated policy manual, and if it doesn’t properly conduct its search for a new director to clean up the mess the authority is in, the mayor and the council should consider the impeachment option.
At least putting the threat on the table might get results.