Why would anyone have a fight over who gets seated on a housing authority, anyway?
This might be said of Hoboken, where opponents of Mayor Dawn Zimmer clashed with pro-Zimmer people over an appointment to the board.
The board is made up of seven volunteer members as well as a paid staff and oversees 21 federally-subsidized buildings throughout Hoboken. The City Council appoints five members, the mayor one, and the governor, one.
For many people the job as a commissioner is somewhat thankless, since these people oversee some of the most petty human problems possible, from complaints about leaking toilets to lack of (or in some cases too much) heat. Many public meetings become an endurance test of residential complaints.
But there are very valid political reasons to control that board. For some, it becomes a political platform similar to the Board of Education for those aspiring to run for higher public office. But unlike the Board of Education, where a potential candidate runs the risk of alienating as many potential voters as he or she gains – such as by supporting an unpopular superintendent of schools or cutting back on popular teachers – housing commissioners are often seen as benevolent benefactors who look out for the interests of their tenant.
Honest housing authority members help get needy people places to live and help solve problems they might confront in their day to day living. Dishonest commissioners broker deals that get unqualified tenants slots in housing that they would not otherwise be entitled to. They sometimes help politically-connected friends jump the waiting list over other people who have been on the list longer. While there are legitimate reasons for people to advance on the list, such as a widow of a veteran or someone who is in particularly dire financial straits, many times dishonest commissioners build a political base through these means.
“I used to look out for these,” says former Secaucus Housing Authority Commissioner Tom Troyer. “Sometimes I got blamed by my political enemies for keeping people out, even when I had nothing to do with it.”
Some residents – particularly senior citizens – mistakenly believe the commissioners are responsible for their benefits, when in most cases commissioners are merely the conduit for federal dollars passing down to municipal housing authorities. This sometimes gives commissioners influence over seniors and allows those who control boards to generate votes. Seniors and others beholden to commissioners may vote as a way of saying thanks.
“I believe that’s what happened to me in the last election,” Troyer says, referring to his recently failed Board of Education reelection bid. “They got the seniors in the housing buildings to come out against me.”
These housing complexes are usually densely populated, making it easier to get out the vote.
Fear also can play a role in these “vote for who I say” political efforts, since some seniors and other residents of housing developments may mistakenly believe that these commissioners have the power to evict people who do not follow their political recommendations.
For good or ill, commissioners often become very familiar faces among populations of housing developments, residents get to know them, and more importantly, commissioners get to know the residents. For an honest commissioner, this becomes a means of building trust. For those not so trustworthy, it becomes a way of intimidating people, an “I know what you did last summer” kind of scenario.
Often commissioners can quietly campaign in housing developments when other candidates they oppose are excluded.
Control over these populations, influence over their lives and their political choices, makes commissioners very powerful. Even if they do not seek higher office for themselves, often they can provide blocks of votes to a favored candidate, and thus can wheel and deal for returned political favors.
Blocks of votes in Hoboken’s 4th Ward from some of these institutions allowed Tim Occhipinti to beat Michael Lenz in a special election in 2010.
Many believe that traditional Hoboken politicos – some people scathingly called the “Old Guard” – have been entrenched in the Housing Authority for decades, farming votes and dispersing favors as if they were Santa’s little helpers.
By gaining access and perhaps control over the Housing Authority, Zimmer people can potentially break the back of her opposition by denying them this pool of votes.
Troyer said his appointment to the Secaucus Housing Authority in the mid-1990s served as a breaker onto potential abuses.
“I looked into everything I thought was suspicious,” he says, noting that the model for corrupt practices in housing authorities came from abuses that were later uncovered in North Bergen in the 1980s.
Redistricting of the ward lines in Secaucus may benefit Sal Manente’s chances for a council or perhaps mayoral run next year. Manente moved a block away from his old house where he had successfully run in the 3rd Ward for council in the 1990s and found himself in the 1st Ward. Redistricting put his new house back in the 3rd Ward.
Meanwhile Jack Butchko, the Hudson County political and media consultant, will be playing a part in the presidential debates later this year between President Obama and Mitt Romney. One of the debates is scheduled for Oct. 16 at Hofstra University, Butchko’s alma mater. Butchko is part of a planning group working on the ground rules and logistics for the national event.