WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department is investigating allegations that the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities and several of its members conspired to thwart Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp's program to turn public housing over to tenant groups.
The much-ballyhooed tenant-empowerment program is a key element of the Republican urban agenda.
In a letter to Mr. Kemp released yesterday, the council accused Mr. Kemp of triggering the investigation for political purposes. The council represents 58 large housing authorities across the country.
But a spokesman said yesterday that Mr. Kemp requested the investigation after receiving complaints from tenant groups in several cities, who said local housing authorities were blocking their attempts to buy their developments.
The dispute stems from a long rift between the authorities and Mr. Kemp over the adequacy of funding of the $361 million Home Ownership for People Everywhere program, or HOPE, designed to facilitate the sale of public housing to its tenants.
The council and its members have long maintained that the program does not provide enough money to allow tenant-owners to maintain their developments successfully. And they said the program provides no money to housing authorities to replace developments sold to tenants, thereby reducing the nation's affordable rental stock.
In an interview yesterday, council Director Mary Ann Russ said: "There are a million people on waiting lists for public housing. It doesn't make sense to reduce the stock."
Ms. Russ said she believes Mr. Kemp called for the investigation to silence the authorities' criticism.
"It isn't clear what his intention is," Ms. Russ said. "We support home ownership for public housing tenants, though we think his program is pretty lame. But we certainly haven't violated any lobbying laws."
In his letter to Attorney General William P. Barr, dated July 15 but released yesterday, Mr. Kemp asked the Justice Department to determine whether the housing authorities had violated tenants' "civil liberties and program rights and whether federal lobbying laws or other statutes have been violated in the process."
He added: "The dreams, livelihood, and basic rights of low-income Americans seeking to improve and control their own destiny, and to pass a new legacy of assets and secure neighborhoods on to their children, is at stake."
Joseph G. Schiff, assistant secretary for public housing, said yesterday in a statement: "Secretary Kemp received complaints from three national tenants organizations that he felt warranted an investigation. The Justice Department is an appropriate agency for such an investigation.
"The investigation is pending. Therefore, it wouldn't be appropriate to comment further."
In the wake of the Los Angeles riots, the Bush administration has embraced HOPE and other Kemp programs. Mr. Bush has asked Congress for a $1.3 billion appropriation for the program in fiscal 1993.
But housing activists, many of whom worked closely with Mr. Kemp early in his tenure, have criticized HOPE as a poorly conceived program. Only 5 percent of public-housing tenants can afford to buy homes under the program, the activists say.