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The Housing Authority of New Haven is Turning a Regional Operation Into a Housing Empire

Housing and Urban PlanningInterior PolicyPublic HousingJustice System

The Housing Authority of New Haven has turned into something of a regional rescue squad in the last few years, sending staff to help out troubled public housing operations in Ansonia, Wallingford and Bridgeport.

Of course, the HANH isn't doing it for free. The authority and its officials are being reimbursed with hundreds of thousands of dollars for management services throughout its mini-housing-empire. State housing experts says there's no law against such arrangements. "Part of our strategic plan is to become a regional provider of housing services," says Jasmin Franjul, a spokeswoman for the authority.

But the New Haven organization's expanded role has brought complications, questions about how it's able to handle all that extra responsibility, and a conflict of interest complaint that's been filed against its outside legal counsel.

There are 2,800 public housing rental units in New Haven. Another 2,600 in Bridgeport. Wallingford has 317 and Ansonia 280 taxpayer supported units.

HANH officials say the authority has 182 full-time staffers and 5 part-timers. And they say they haven't had to hire any more people to handle all the extra duties involved in Ansonia, Wallingford and Bridgeport.

One top state lawmaker says the issue of staffing is his biggest concern.

"That's a red flag that it raises for me," says John McKinney, the state Senate's top Republican and a member of the legislature's Housing Committee.

McKinney (who also happens to now be running for governor) says he wonders how HANH is able to handle all those other housing authorities without any more people. "Was there too much staff here before?" he asks, and was there any wasted taxpayer money?

New Haven housing officials have thus far provided no answer to those questions despite repeated requests for comment.

The deputy executive director for HANH, Jimmy Miller, has also in the past year served both as acting head of the Ansonia Housing Authority and the Bridgeport Housing Authority.

In 2012, Miller got a new deal from HANH that boosted his salary by five percent to cover his added work for the Ansonia authority, bringing his pay to $162,579. In April of this year, a deal was approved that has the Bridgeport authority paying $106,500 to the New Haven operation for Miller's services as acting housing director in Bridgeport.

And an agreement reached earlier this year saw the Wallingford Housing Authority pay HANH $153,697 for three months worth of management services. A second management contract will pay the New Haven authority more than $500,000 to manage Wallingford's public housing.

Franjul says HANH "is often approached by HUD (the federal Housing and Urban Development agency) and other public housing authorities to provide assistance."

It was that second Wallingford deal that triggered the conflict-of-interest complaint involving Rolan Joni Young Smith.

Young Smith is legal counsel to the New Haven authority. She is legal counsel to the Bridgeport authority. And she is legal counsel to the Wallingford authority.

A member of the Wallingford Housing Authority's board named Thomas Mezzei doesn't think Young Smith should have been involved with both ends of that New Haven-Wallingford management deal. He calls it a conflict of interest and has filed a complaint against Young Smith with the state Judicial Branch's Statewide Grievance Committee.

The more than 100-page complaint includes the fact that Wallingford officials insisted they were aware that Young Smith was representing both sides. HANH's spokesperson Franjul notes that her agency "has signed waivers that acknowledge the common counsel."

Lawyers can and often do represent both sides in negotiations, but it's kosher only if both parties know what's going on. In his complaint, Mezzei argues that the "informed consent" letter in which the Wallingford housing officials signed off on Young Smith's status with New Haven came far too late in the game.

Young Smith, 46, belongs to the law firm of Berchem, Moses & Devlin, with offices in Milford and Westport. She served as chair of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority from 2006 to 2010. Her resume includes memberships on the boards of directors for both the Start Community Bank in New Haven and the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, and a term as president of the Greater New Haven chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Mezzei says he doesn't want to talk about his complaint.

Michael P. Bowler, the attorney handling the complaint investigation says he can't comment. "The proceedings at this point are confidential," Bowler says.

According to Bowler, if the Statewide Grievance Committee's local panel decides that there is probable cause to continue the conflict of interest case, then there would be public hearings and the records in the case would also be public. That decision could take months, and if the complaint is dismissed there will be no comment from the grievance committee at all, Bowler says.

In both Ansonia and Wallingford, the need for some outside help came about because of controversies and scandals that resulted in the abrupt departures of top housing authority officials.

In Ansonia, James Finnucan resigned as executive director of that city's housing authority in December 2011. A former mayor, Finnucan was accused of a conflict of interest for violating federal housing ethics policies by owning a publicly subsidized rental unit overseen by the Ansonia Housing Authority.

In Wallingford, allegations of misuse of funds and mismanagement of that community's public housing authority were followed by the resignation of its chairman, William Fischer, in 2011.

Whatever happens with the complaint against Young Smith, questions remain about New Haven housing authority's dramatically expanded role in the region.

McKinney says as long as local housing authorities in Bridgeport, Ansonia and Wallingford retain ultimate control over their local operations, it doesn't appear that they have much to worry about.

He also points out that changes in federal law would be required for New Haven's organization to become "one authority doing housing for an entire region."

At the same time, it does seem curious that HANH doesn't need to hire any more staff to handle twice as many public housing units as it took care of before it began expanding beyond New Haven's borders.

 

ghladky@newhavenadvocate.com

Follow @GregoryBHladky on Twitter

 

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