One of Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's transition committees has recommended fusing three local agencies that deal with housing and development to more effectively fight blight and revitalize declining neighborhoods.
The proposal calls for merging the East Baton Rouge Public Housing Authority, the East Baton Rouge Parish Redevelopment Authority and the Office of Community Development.
Combining the three agencies would bring a "more coordinated and coherent approach to community development — one that would include revitalization, blight elimination and affordable housing efforts at its core," according to a draft of the transition committee's report obtained by The Advocate. The agency would be named the East Baton Rouge Housing and Redevelopment Authority.
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Though the mayor's transition committee on the Office of Community Development is recommending the change, it is unclear if the mayor will pursue it. Her office has kept the transition committee reports private, saying they will release them when the mayor finishes reading them and that any reports leaked before then should be be considered drafts.
"I have not finished reading all of the reports," Broome said in a statement Thursday to The Advocate. "Thus, as of today the recommendations are that of the committee's and not the recommendations of my administration."
The idea of combining the offices has been brainstormed for years, as each has a similar mission but "very little if any systemic coordination" happens among them, according to the report.
The Housing Authority handles low- to moderate-income housing, public housing and Section 8 vouchers for low-income families. The RDA works on redevelopment and fighting blight, while the Office of Community Development allocates federal money to nonprofits that work in housing and community development.
The proposed combined entity appears to have been the brainchild of Christopher Odinet, a housing authority board member who wrote a 2013 white paper about consolidating the offices. Odinet, who sat on Broome's transition committee for the Office of Community Development, referred all comments for this story to the mayor's office.
"Although there are only a handful of agencies where the redevelopment and housing functions are combined, the few that do exist enjoy a number of significant synergies and benefits," Odinet, a property law professor at the Southern University Law Center, wrote in his 2013 white paper.
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The transition committee's report uses the planned mixed-use residential development Ardendale as an example of the type of project that is possible when the entities work together. The urban village is expected to encompass 200 acres in Mid City, and a new career high school is expected to open there in August 2018.
The committee's recommendation also outlines the first steps toward melding the agencies: The RDA's board would need to first vote to merge with the Housing Authority, while the Housing Authority's board would then need to accept the merger. Afterward, Broome would need to direct her Office of Community Development to start allocating federal money to the new entity.
Its organizational structure would have an executive director leading the efforts, with a land bank director, redevelopment director and chief housing officer.
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Housing Authority CEO Richard Murray said he had heard about the recommendation but had not seen its details.
Combining the redevelopment arms may be an answer to funding and other various problems they have faced in recent years.
After the RDA asked for permanent funding from the city in 2014, former Mayor-President Kip Holden accused the agency of having misplaced spending priorities and the former director of having a bloated compensation package.
The RDA has been struggling since then, hoping the new mayor would commit to giving them permanent funding from the city.
Gwen Hamilton, interim RDA president and CEO, said Friday she agrees with the concept of merging the RDA with the other entities though she has not seen the transition committee's report. Hamilton said the three working separately have too many duplicative programs and that combining funds and efforts could be more productive.
"It is the way, in my opinion, to better serve the public," Hamilton said.
Multiple transition committees interviewed Hamilton during their research-gathering process, she said. And she said she hopes people realize that redevelopment, blight, housing and economic development are all related to the success of one another.
The RDA's board has not discussed the merger yet, Hamilton said, and she said they are waiting for Broome to share her vision.
The Office of Community Development has been on shaky ground, having received no general fund money from the city in the 2016-17 budget.
A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development audit last year questioned $2.2 million in OCD expenditures, with auditors accusing the office of incompetence and sloppy record-keeping.
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Monika Gerhart, who helped campaign for Broome, has been named OCD's new leader. Gerhart replaced Connie Hall, who held that job only since September. Gerhart said Thursday evening she could not answer questions about the merger recommendation and that she did not have time to answer them on Friday.
The transition committee report recommends replacing OCD with a new Office of Community Enrichment. The small staff of the Office of Community Enrichment would develop strategy and action plans, aggressively seek grants and issue cooperative-endeavor agreements with redevelopment and housing agencies.