Thursday, May 01, 2008

Demolishing and Redeveloping Alphonso Jackson: Part 4

I've been doing all sorts of research on Mr. Alphonso Jackson, former secretary of HUD.

He resigned recently as his office was bombarded by allegations of cronyism and political retaliation.

In Part 1, I described Mr. Jackson's illuminating speech to minority real estate investors in which the Secretary warned potential contract bidders against speaking negatively of the President. I discussed the result of the investigation into his comments: Jackson's own employees testified to Congress that the Secretary had indeed instructed senior staff to look at potential contractors' political orientation.

Part 2 briefly discussed the end of municipal authority over housing in New Orleans. HUD officials took over the Housing Authority of New Orleans in 2002.

Part 3 delved into the scandal that most directly brought about Mr. Jackson's resignation. HUD had been systematically retaliating against the Philadelphia Housing Authority for the agency's refusal to hand over a valuable parcel of land to a well-connected developer who had built only 80 housing units out of 236 required by his contract with the city. Kenneth Gamble, the developer and political player, had cultivated relationships with officials from both parties throughout a long career. However, exclusive WCBF research uncovered that Mr. Gamble had been stringently abiding by Mr. Jackson's advice to minority business contractors. After delivering an address to the RNC in 2000, Mr. Gamble gave exclusively to Republican Congressmen from late 2001 through 2004. When PHA determined that Gamble's nonprofit had failed to meet the terms of its contract, the developer made a personal appeal to his friend at HUD. Alphonso Jackson was willing to hold the entire Philadelphia Housing Authority and its residents hostage by withholding federal money in an attempt to extort a valuable parcel of land to reward a loyal minority contributor.

It was the fallout from this game in Philadelphia that ultimately caused Jackson to step down. Carl Greene, the longtime executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority collected the various telephone and email threats from HUD staff over the course of the land dispute. PHA's lawsuit against HUD blew the various allegations of Jackson's improprieties onto the front pages of newspapers and into the consciousness of Congressional investigators. While various allegations had dogged Mr. Jackson for business dealings in the Virgin Islands and in New Orleans, it was the spat with PHA that seemed to bring down the Secretary.

Earlier this week, the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, Mr. Carl Greene was kind enough to speak with me directly about the scandal that brought about the resignation of Alphonso Jackson, his experience working with HUD during the Bush administration, and his view of public housing in New Orleans.

"One thing that came out of one of the depositions that were conducted of some of the HUD staff people was things related to time spent talking to New Orleans, the mayor of New Orleans, and [Jackson] being on the phone with the mayor of Philly or people in Philly. Jackson was directly involved in both cities for different reasons."

"The challenge to him in Philadelphia was that we were our [own] housing authority with administrative control. With the situation in New Orleans, HUD hires and fires the staff. . . He was able to replace [local] people directly. Whereas, in Philadelphia, I really don't work for HUD. I work for a board. I don't work for [Jackson]. He sort of, I think, got a little carried away with himself."

". . . His perception of his power and his influence may have gone to his head with respect to New Orleans and the Virgin Islands because he had control of those housing authorities. . . Therefore, all he had to do was pick up the phone and make some phone calls and get people to do things. Whereas in Philly, when he did that, I refused to go along with it."

I was impressed with the manner in which Mr. Greene used his administrative independence from HUD to expose their efforts at retaliation. HUD was threatening to withhold federal funds for what they claimed was PHA's failure to meet a minimum federal standard of 5% units reserved for disabled persons. To Greene, who is also African American, Secretary Jackson had an agenda designed to serve minority contractors willing to become socially and politically connected with the Republican elite in Washington.

"We did our own independent survey of independent architectural firms to go out and measure every unit - and we have 8%. But they [HUD] didn't want to let the facts get in the way of their vendetta. I think Alphonso Jackson somehow felt as though he was the king of black people and his job was to somehow [benefit] these black contractors at the expense of the law.

". . . [I]t's not just African American because I don't think it's just about black. I would say black-hyphen-socially-elite black. There's still a lot of poor black people out there that I'm in the business of serving every day. [Jackson] wasn't doing nothing for them. He went to Congress and said 'oh yeah give them 75%, give them 76% funding, take away all of their money.' But on the other hand, for one guy who can make some records, or some guy that makes contributions, or some guy that hangs out at the right golf club, I mean, the whole socially elite type that he was interested in - he would sacrifice the whole program for the purposes of benefiting the social elite. And that's what it came down to. It came down to the self-ascribed country club social contacts that he had, and he didn't care about the rules when it came to these folks."

I asked Mr. Greene to provide some insight into what he understood about the public housing situation in New Orleans and the base disadvantages the city faced in terms of lacking independent authority from Mr. Jackson and HUD.

"New Orleans in some respects is like the mothership of tragedy. So many people had to exit the city because of the natural disaster and instead of there being an advocate for New Orleans who really was a housing expert and an advocate on behalf of the Housing Authority who tried to repopulate the city with affordable housing, there was an advocate for Washington who wanted to take care of certain friends. So, taking care of certain socially connected people, the socially elite African American communities that [Jackson] wanted to take care of, meant that the top priority - the thousands and thousands and thousands of folks down there that wanted to come back home - were not going to be getting any housing.

"And what he failed to take into consideration one solution fits all from Washington doesn't work for New Orleans. New Orleans was a unique situation. Coming in there with that Hope VI-type mixed-use development could be a good solution - in some cities it is - but, in New Orleans case, you still need to figure out where all the poor people are going to live. You can't just develop mixed-use housing without providing housing for those folks who are very very poor. You have city where 80% of the people are below poverty and you've built all the houses for a different population. . . Then you had the profiteers, who were socially connected getting all the work."

"In my view, there needed to be a [housing] person whose interest was based on . . . being a champion for the city. . . and fighting sometimes against Washington to benefit better housing down there. That didn't happen. You had Washington in control. You had a self-appointed guy, a guy who ascribed to a philosophy that he was going to benefit socially-connected black contractors and that was his job. . .

"I think Jackson was left to his own discretion to do whatever he wanted at HUD and he used that discretion - he abused that discretion - to take care of business and personal friends who became part of an elite social and business network. This was done at the expense of the city of New Orleans and its Housing Authority and if the City Council or the Mayor tried to object then he could always threaten to withhold the money or not give the money.

"[T]hat was his normal M.O. 'If you don't go along with me then you won't get the money.' It's a 40 billion dollar agency and he's doling out money - he used it as a political weapon to force you to go along with his policy. With the compromising of the political infrastructure [in New Orleans], you had a guy [Jackson] that was in charge of the agency who would beat you over the head with the power of his office if you didn't really vote the way he wanted you to vote on the demolition application, so, effective advocacy for the very very poor folks down there, an effective, professional housing advisory to the Mayor and the Council and the housing authority board was not present. [H]e kind of hijacked that for his office and made it an organization that put on a front of taking care of affordable housing and public housing when at the same time, it was always the people that were part of the social and business elite crowd that he was associated with, that were getting the work.

"In Philadelphia, that's what it came down to, a member of the social and politically elite club and [because] that guy (Gamble) didn't get the work, [Jackson] was willing to destroy the entire Philadelphia Housing Authority. I refused to give it up.

That's why the [Mayor and Council in New Orleans] probably cooperated because if you fought [Jackson], and refused to give it up, especially in the case of New Orleans where he was also administrative receiver. . .

"The naked truth of the matter is citizens in New Orleans do not have housing, do not have a plan for housing, and do not have effective administration of its agency because the commitment to its mission was abandoned post Katrina. There was no mission or commitment to the community.

"When you look at Philadelphia, the man was willing to destroy the whole housing authority just because one individual, who is already a multi-millionaire, did not get a two million dollar piece of land for free. I mean that's a pretty substantial trade-off. We're going to give 2 million dollars to this guy and if he doesn't get it we're going to blow up the quality of life for 84,000 poor people. That's the value system of the man in charge of that agency.

"[Local advocacy] was not possible in [New Orleans or the Virgin Islands]. I had the ability to talk to my federal delegation. . . and apprise them of what was going on in this situation as well as file the lawsuit - in New Orleans there is nobody to that. You need an effective advocate with the competence and knowledge and courage and also the legal position where he's not under the control of someone like Alphonso who did not have the commitment or the compassion for the city of New Orleans."

Someone with the competence, knowledge, and courage to stand up to Alphonso Jackson?

Not in HANO, which was controlled by Jackson directly, and not in the Mayor's office or in City Council which were intimidated by Jackson's threats to withhold federal funds or engage in other forms of political retaliation. Or, more troubling, the Mayor's office and City Council weren't intimidated because they were just as content to ignore the affordable housing crisis as Alphonso Jackson was.

Keep in touch, this series will continue.


jeffrey said...

Or, more troubling, the Mayor's office and City Council weren't intimidated because they were just as content to ignore the affordable housing crisis as Alphonso Jackson was.

Content? More like gleeful. Hell, they were even blowing kisses over it. But thank God the condos are still ok.

Leigh C. said...

This series keeps getting better in some ways and worse in others.

I'm so, sooo glad Greene spoke to you. I'm so, sooo sad that he's right about New Orleans.

I already had a drink today over the airport. I'll need another over THIS one later.

Carmen said...

The Mayor's office wouldn't stand up to Jackson because, as is clear from Lee Zurik's report last night, efforts are concentrated to smoke out anyone asking questions about any contracts. It isn't just housing, or demos, or 311, or garbage, it's a whole racket:

This is one hell of a crooked City Hall.

BillKav said...

Thanks for this series. It puts a substantial amount of meat on the Jackson story for me. Jackson's supporters are working the line that those going after him did so for racial reasons.

Your posts do a fair amount to show the difference between hiring minority contractors and actually having the interests of tenants at heart.

I'm going to link to this over at my place.

E said...

Thanks Mr. Bill. I don't want investigations into Jackson's tenure to die. The consequences in New Orleans are very very real, as I'm sure you know.