City Councilwoman Stacy Head, long a critic of the Housing Authority of New Orleans, is accusing its director of being overly secretive about the agency's plans for redevelopment of its "scattered sites" in the Uptown area.
In a news release late last week, Head attacked HANO head Gregg Fortner for refusing to update a council committee on contracts his agency has awarded to redevelop 20 of those properties, which are typically small apartment buildings with fewer than a dozen units.
“I am troubled by how little information the public has about the deals regarding the Uptown properties, and hoped the discussion at the committee meeting would shed some light on the post-award negotiations, which Mr. Fortner is conducting out of public view," Head said.
Fortner declined to attend the meeting, his staff said, because he's already provided Head's office with information about the projects and because he did not want to discuss a pending lawsuit over a few separate Uptown sites. Fortner also has discussed the contracts at HANO meetings, his office said.
The snub further incensed Head, who has become increasingly critical of Fortner's handling of HANO's portfolio.
In her drive to complete her to-do list before she leaves office next year, the 11-year council veteran has put herself at the center of a handful of heated debates, such as when she accused her council colleagues in April of not fulfilling their obligations to voters when they wouldn’t back a municipal employees’ pension reform package she had worked on for years.
At the heart of this latest dispute is whether HANO should be selling, rather than redeveloping, its small apartment buildings.
Head has said the sale of such sites to private developers would place them back on the tax rolls and bring more revenue to the city, while Fortner has said keeping them and renovating the buildings allows HANO to turn a profit over the long term at a time of declining federal funding for the agency.
Most recently, Head asked Fortner to give a full public accounting of the agency's contracts with developers to rehab the scattered sites, including contracts for 20 properties awarded in April.
The firms that won those deals are Project Homecoming, Perez/Harmony Neighborhood Development, JC Patin Group and the team of REO LLC, Nationwide Real Estate Corp. and Doucette & Associated General Contractors.
Fortner has given Head some information, but he also directed the councilwoman to the public records of meetings at which the HANO board discussed the contracts, according to a string of emails the agency provided late Friday.
The firms assigned to redevelop the Uptown sites will start work after they agree on a timeline, the type of units to be built and other details, Fortner wrote.
ITEX Development Group, the firm assigned to redevelop a separate group of scattered sites in the Bywater neighborhood, has revised its previous development plan amid changing market conditions and requirements for public subsidies, he said.
The emails show that Fortner, through his attorney, declined Head's request that he attend the July 11 council committee meeting, saying such a discussion could jeopardize HANO’s position in a lawsuit filed by a would-be buyer of three HANO-owned properties on Melpomene Street.
When Head’s office, in response, said she didn’t want to discuss sites under litigation, Fortner declined again, saying that HANO has discussed, and will continue to discuss, the scattered-site properties at its own board meetings.
Aside from HANO’s selection of the four redevelopment groups, there’s little at this point to talk about, he added.
“There are no further ‘details’ or ‘arrangements’ to discuss or report. Nothing has been negotiated with any selected entity,” he said. When an agreement is finalized, it will be made public at a HANO board meeting, he said.
A week after his email, Head fired off her news release, which also mentioned the broader disagreement between the two public officials.
"Despite my rational requests to remove vacancies and blight and to invest in New Orleans through new developments and property tax revenue, Mr. Fortner has simply announced one vague plan after another, none of which have resulted in a new dwelling for a New Orleans family,” Head said.
“We can wait no longer for HANO to move its fallow properties into commerce."