In a sudden move, the Hoboken City Council approved a resolution Wednesday that authorized a fact-finding investigation into the Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA), which oversees the city's 1,353 federally subsidized units in the southwest part of the city. The HHA answers to the federal department of Housing and Urban Development and is not city-run, but the City Council and mayor appoint some of the commissioners.
According to Councilman-at-Large Ruben Ramos Jr., the sponsor of the resolution, the probe will investigate both the seven commissioners on the HHA's volunteer board and the HHA's executive director, E. Troy Washington. Some of the HHA commissioners have been serving for less than a year, and Washington has served as director for three years.
The resolution provides the payment to the law firm of Lynch, Martin and Kroll of North Brunswick, N.J. to perform the investigation. The firm specializes in workers' compensation, medical malpractice, and work-related injuries.
"Over the past two years, we have been bombarded with residents questioning quality-of-life issues in the Housing Authority," said Ramos at Wednesday night's City Council meeting. "This is calling for an investigation to alleged reports of mismanagement and improprieties by the [HHA's] executive director and its commissioners."
Ramos pointed to items such as alleged delinquent work on maintenance orders and what he deemed are poor conditions of the grounds. He also said there have been allegations of people jumping ahead on waiting lists to get apartments.
Washington came to Hoboken in 1998 to serve as the HHA's comptroller and had no political ties. But since then, he has been alternately criticized and supported by various politicians and HHA residents. Last year, the housing board commissioned a resident survey to find out if complaints hurled at Washington by residents at housing meetings were representative. When the results were turned in, 50 percent of residents who had an opinion on the job Washington was doing said it was "excellent" or "good;" 27 percent said it was fair, and 23 percent said it was poor. 554 residents completed the survey.
Two months ago, while the director's chief critics were at a council meeting across town, the Hoboken Housing Authority board voted 4-3 to approve a new five-year contract for Washington. Washington had recently rejected a job offer for the directorship of the Asbury Park Housing Authority.
Last week, Washington said that the $30,000 contract is a waste of taxpayers' money. He said that he would like to sit down and talk with Ramos and others on positive programs for the community, rather than being at odds. He called the measure "political." He noted that at the behest of Ramos in 1999, U.S. Rep. Bob Menendez (D-13th Dist.) asked HUD's inspector general's office to investigate 10 allegations about problems in the projects. A review conducted from December of 1999 through June of 2000 found that three of the 10 complaints needed follow-up: Problems with a contractor who was fixing the HHA's bathrooms, slow turnaround time for vacant units, and generally poor conditions of some buildings and units.
However, according to a follow-up memo from HUD, a year later, it was determined that satisfactory progress had been made on all three issues. A memo sent to the HHA at the end of last year said that the status of the three recommendations was "closed."
"Seeing that [a HUD investigation] was already done, and seeing that HUD does a normal review on a yearly basis, and that things have only been improving, it begs the question of 'why,' " Washington said Thursday. "The answer is: Point blank, it's just genuinely political. The council has to get past the fact that, look, I got my five-year contract. Stop trying to discredit me and my staff and stop using residents. The Housing Authority is doing fine. What the City Council should be doing is looking for ways to help and better the lives here and improve the problems."
Washington added, "All I've gotten from them sadly enough is just criticism. We are definitely used for our votes here, and we're getting no representation on the quality of life. Now we're going to waste taxpayers' money on some lawyer. With a budget crisis in Hoboken right now, the money could be used a lot better. How about using the $30,000 for a joint effort on a teen pregnancy program? That's where the money should go. To waste it for an empty groundless investigation is absurd."
Washington sent a memo to the housing commissioners Thursday with copies of HUD's memos regarding the 2000 review. Washington's memo stated, "I find the current action and prior actions of the City Council bordering on harassment."
A spokesman for the local HUD office in Newark said that the City Council can probe the HHA if it so chooses. "We know of no irregularities or wrongdoing at the Hoboken Housing Authority," the spokesman said, "but as the appointing authority for the Housing Authority commissioners, the City Council can investigate their activities. They can do that. They appoint most of the commissioners, and they can investigate."
It's about the residents
Sixth Ward Councilman A. Nino Giacchi, a Newark lawyer, was named as the council's representative to be the liaison between the law firm and the council.
Mayor David Roberts voiced approval of the council's action last week and said that previous actions had not corrected the problems at the HHA.
"We have tried every option at our disposal to try to find a diplomatic resolution to conditions at the Housing Authority," Roberts said. "But [we] feel that we have no other option than to conduct a inquiry. This resolution will allow the city to have an independent law firm come in and articulate description of exactly what is going on there."
Councilman Ramos has complained about the conditions in the projects since his first council campaign in 1999. When 4th Councilman Chris Campos ran for office this fall, he also criticized conditions in the projects, which fall under his geographical jurisdiction.
Ramos said last week that he and other city officials have spent years compiling complaints and affidavits and did not feel there was any other recourse than to pay for an investigation. "This is something that is two and a half years in the making," said Ramos. "We owe it to the residents to make sure there are significant changes down there."
HHA Commissioner Billy Noonan was the only housing commissioner present at Wednesday's announcement. He said he was unaware of the council's plans for an investigation, and added that he was not consulted on the matter.
"I have never been shown the complaints that they say they have complied," said Noonan. "I gave a fairly good confidence that [Ramos] and Campos are sincere in their effort to respond to complaints. I just would have appreciated it if they would have come to the commissioners for more consultation and discussion." The only member of the council to vote against approving the resolution was 1st Ward Councilwoman Theresa Castellano.
"Can't we do this in-house?" asked Castellano. "I don't know if we have the type of money to spend on this. I think we as a council we can do this ourselves."
Campos disagreed with Castellano's assessment. "I don't think you can put a price tag on a person's life," said Campos. "We have exhausted every possible option. This is a statement that the city of Hoboken cares about how and where you live."
Washington said that he and the commissioners will continue to work hard. "This is not going to stop in any way our ongoing progress here between myself and the commissioners," he said. "It will not hinder us or stop us in any way. I look at it as almost, unfortunately, a joke. A political joke. Either come to the table and talk about things to move forward, or stay our of our lives, because you're not doing anything for our residents."