Housing Project Bureaucrats In Tiny Towns Get Rich Off The Poor While Doing Little Work

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Luke Rosiak Investigative Reporter
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Public housing managers in small towns often do little, but make six-figure salaries funded by tax dollars intended for the poor under Section 8 programs, which are largely run by federal officials and private landlords, according to a Daily Caller News Foundation analysis.

The executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Linden, New Jersey, for example, drew $295,000 a year for overseeing 200 government-owned housing project apartments and 350 Section 8 vouchers redeemed with private landlords.

That’s more than the same position makes in poverty-plagued Newark with 25 times as many residents, and more than the position in major cities like Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, according to HUD’s Public Housing Authority Executive Compensation database covering 2014, the most recent available year.

The Linden director makes the equivalent of $527 every time she processes paperwork to transfer federal tax dollars to a local landlord (that’s her salary divided by the number of families on housing assistance), without having to screen new applicants since her group, like many, is not accepting new applicants for benefits.

Ann J. Ferguson, the Linden executive director, did not respond to TheDCNF’s request for comment, but the city appears to have named a housing project — Ann J. Ferguson Towers — after her. Mayor Derek Armstead also did not respond to a request for comment.

The Housing Authority of the City of Marietta, Georgia, paid its director $243,000, including a $50,000 bonus, for overseeing 164 housing project units and 2,000 Section 8s in the 23-square-mile town. That’s 10 times the city’s per capita income.

The Marietta bonus alone is twice what an ordinary citizen of the town will make, for doing a job helping the poor. Mayor Steve “Thunder” Tumlin did not respond to a request for comment, and the housing authority has a non-working phone number.

Madison, N.J., a four-square-mile borough with 16,000 people, which the New York Times has called “quaint and charming,” pays its director $206,000 to oversee 324 subsidized families, most of whom live in private landlords’ homes through a federal program. Mayor Robert Conley didn’t return a request for comment.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) pays private landlords to let poor people live in their houses under a partial privatization of welfare program intended to reduce bureaucracy. Yet the bureaucracy hasn’t been eliminated, it’s been duplicated over and over at the local level, even though much of the work has been removed.

In addition to funding direct costs, HUD funds “public housing authorities,” para-governmental administrators that operate as independent entities alongside city governments, with hardly any media attention or oversight. There are more than 3,000 local housing authorities, all funded through HUD.

Small towns all over the country have entire agencies dedicated essentially to processing paperwork once a year to secure federal money and pay landlords.

The most egregious abuses occur in states with multiple small townships — Massachusetts and New Jersey are the worst offenders on this score. Areas with strong county governments have fewer such abuses. Some of the townships have few poor people.

The Woburn, Massachusetts Housing Authority has a 100-apartment housing project and 288 other families in Section 8s, and its director is paid $172,000, including a nearly $20,000 bonus. Woburn is 12 square miles, with less than 7 percent of its population below the poverty line. Mayor Scott Galvin did not return a request for comment.

Some salaries were notable not because of the high dollar figures, but for doing what might amount to only a few minutes of work per year. In Hingham, Massachusetts, for example, the public housing authority executive director makes $63,000 annually and the assistant director $56,000 — they handle paperwork for 25 Section 8 families, many of whom simply renew each year.

The Warren County, New Jersey Housing Authority administers 666 Section 8s and no physical housing projects, and its director is paid $114,000 a year.

The City of Alameda, California Housing Authority pays its executive director $202,000, while the median household income there is $87,000. Director of Housing Victoria Johnson told TheDCNF the high salary is paid because unlike many places, the housing authority is also the city government’s housing agency, not a parallel authority, and runs many of its own initiatives that are paid for with local tax dollars.

“It’s driven me crazy for years when cities have a housing department and then there’s a housing authority, there’s just so much inefficiency. We administer 100% of the city housing programs,” Johnson said.

The County of Alameda, which contains the city, also has its own housing authority, and Johnson said consideration is being given to at least merging operations like wait-list processing, since poor people are likely to submit multiple applications and move to the first available space.

Johnson added that especially in cases where the housing authority has little connection to the rest of city government, it could make sense to model independent housing authorities after utility or education districts, which often cover larger areas.

“It makes more sense rather than having two of everything,” Johnson said, but while working at very large authorities in the past, “on the other hand I found we kind of stumbled over ourselves as a bureaucracy.”

She said that the average citizen is far more likely to be engaged in the operations of the housing bureaucracy if it is an agency within the city government, rather than a wholly independent authority — whose interaction is often only with beneficiaries, not taxpayers.

The odd relationship between the federal funding agency and the local bodies sows uncertainty that can lead to apathy. Previous reporting has found that the local housing authorities do little enforcement such as ensuring ineligible adult men aren’t residing there; they may think another agency conducts enforcement. (RELATED: Two-Parent Families Get Subsidized Housing By Posing As Single Mothers)

For its part, HUD funds local housing directors’ salaries, but then claims it can do nothing about mismanagement, fraud and failure to abide by federal policies because the authorities are independent.

From 2011 to 2014, HUD senior executive Debra Gross was in charge of regulating local housing authorities, while she simultaneously worked for a trade group that lobbied for their interests.

Her actions included figuring out how to sidestep a law that capped the federal-funded portion of local directors’ salaries at about $158,000. Additional compensation is paid from state or local government sources. Mayors and other local officials may not realize that the figures can add up to significant amounts after drawing from all sources.

The public housing executive data covers total compensation for nearly 10,000 officials working for 3,345 public housing authorities (PHAs) across the nation for fiscal year 2014, the latest available year. Data for another 615 PHAs is not included because HUD officials couldn’t verify the accuracy of the numbers reported to them.

At least 74 of the public housing executives were paid annual bonuses in excess of $25,000, with four getting bonuses of more than $75,000. The median annual household income for a typical U.S. family last year was $54,000.

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