A measure to expand the board that governs public housing in New Orleans cleared the Legislature on the last day of the session Thursday.
It was one of two bills legislators considered that would have changed the makeup of the Housing Authority of New Orleans board, which has struggled to gather enough members to hold regular meetings. The other measure, which was backed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, died in committee.
The proposal that succeeded — introduced by Rep. Nick Lorusso, R-New Orleans, and not backed by Landrieu — increases the board’s membership from seven to eight, adding a landlord. The change was applauded by the New Orleans Landlord Association, which has complained that the panel lacks landlord representation.
But a fair housing advocacy group said the measure is inadequate because it doesn’t also include a seat for one of the 18,000 Section 8 tenants who receive housing vouchers from HANO.
The Section 8 program, officially called the housing choice voucher program, is the federal government’s program for assisting low-income families, the elderly and the disabled to afford housing in the private market. They receive vouchers to pay for privately-owned apartments.
The 18,000 tenants amount to “a quarter of all renters in the city of New Orleans,” said Monika Gerhart-Hambrick, policy director for the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. “We’re talking about a huge percentage of the city’s rental population.”
Under the new legislation, HANO will be governed by an eight-member, mayor-appointed board that includes two public housing tenants and one landlord. Seven of the members will serve staggered five-year terms. The landlord member will serve a term concurrent with that of the mayor.
The bill calls for the mayor to pick the two public housing residents from a list provided by the Citywide Tenants Council Inc. and to appoint the landlord from a list submitted by the Landlords Advisory Committee.
Landlords Association President Donald Vallee said the measure ensures that all three parties that participate in the city’s public housing system — HANO, tenants and landlords — all have a say in decisions.
“The landlords bring 18,000 people to the table,” Vallee said. “Therefore, you want to have them on the board, at least.”
But Gerhart-Hambrick said those 18,000 tenants also should have a representative on the board.
“If there is a seat for a Section 8 landlord, then there should be a seat specifically for a Section 8 tenant,” she said. “I think it’s important that all of the parties understand and value tenant representation, meaning Section 8 voucher holder representation, on the board.”
The Citywide Tenants Council, sometimes called the Citywide Tenants Association, is largely made up of public housing residents, not Section 8 tenants.
The composition of HANO’s board has been a point of contention over the past several months. Although the law calls for the board to have seven members, only five have been seated. Landrieu has refused to seat the two members nominated by the Tenants Council. Citing a state Ethics Board opinion, he has argued that they would have conflicts of interest.
The nominees, Constance Haynes and Donna Johnigan, each are perceived to have a financial connection to the housing authority.
Haynes manages a community center that received a federal grant as part of the redevelopment of the Fischer housing complex in Algiers. She receives about $39,000 a year from the grant, which is administered through HANO.
Johnigan does not have any personal or business relationships with HANO, but she is employed by a firm that administers a social services program for the B.W. Cooper Resident Management Corp. Johnigan is on the board of that management group.
Both dispute that their jobs amount to a conflict of interest.
The disagreement is the subject of a pending lawsuit in Civil District Court.
With just five members, several HANO board meetings have had to be canceled for lack of a quorum.
The other HANO-related bill, sponsored by Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, at the request of Landrieu, would have released the mayor from the requirement that he fill the two seats on the board reserved for public housing residents with people nominated by the Citywide Tenants Council. That bill did not make it out of committee.
The new law, however, provides another remedy to future standoffs.
In addition to adding one person to the board, the measure includes a provision that would allow the New Orleans City Council to intervene if the mayor fails to make an appointment within 60 days of receiving nominations. In that instance, the council would have 30 days to appoint someone from the same list presented to the mayor.