It may not seem like a dream assignment to volunteer on the seven-member board of commissioners that oversees Hoboken’s public housing projects, but local politicians have vied for years for seats on the board – especially now that they are considering a multimilliondollar project to renovate the federally funded buildings, which means doling out lucrative contracts.
Besides having control of the money, those appointed to the board may be able to cultivate votes for their political masters. The Hoboken projects (1,373 units of affordable housing in the southwest part of town) have always been a source of ballots for whichever group is in charge. Old-school politicians typically pay low-income residents $40 or $50 to help get out the vote for their candidate on Election Day.
For those with more noble motives, a seat on the board could mean helping the city’s poorest residents enjoy a good quality of life.
“For a long time, there was no politics. Everyone respected the golden rule that we are an autonomous agency.” – Carmelo Garcia
This past Thursday night, the battles kicked up another notch. Garcia was served a Rice notice earlier in preparation for the meeting. A Rice notice is given to employees to let them know that a board will discuss the terms of their employment. The employee can opt for the discussion to occur in public or in private. Garcia requested a public discussion Thursday night.
At the meeting, the board addressed a motion to terminate Garcia’s 2010 contract, within 120 days.
Some board members are unhappy with the contract, which expires in 2015, mainly because it gives sole appointing authority powers to him (meaning he can nominate professionals for the board to approve or veto). The board also wants other revisions.
Thursday night, HHA Board Chairman Jake Stuiver, who heads the Zimmer faction, moved to allow the public to speak before the board began voting on its agenda items for the evening. This upset many attendees, who knew they would address Garcia’s job and wanted to speak about that specifically.
“If that doesn’t smell odious in terms of giving the people what they deserve in terms of the opportunity to be heard,” said former 4th Ward Councilman Chris Campos. “There’s something wrong, Mr. Stuiver. There’s something very wrong.”
After several members of the public spoke in favor of Garcia, the board voted on some less contentious agenda items. Then Stuiver added two resolutions: One was an effort to terminate his contract within 120 days, and the other was to make public a letter from the city’s attorney regarding the recent controversial hiring of a new lawyer for the HHA. The Zimmer majority and Garcia have been at odds over the attorney appointment.
Garcia responded by asking to speak on his own behalf.
Stuiver started the timer on the table and said he’d give Garcia 10 minutes, but the public protested, so the board said Garcia could speak for an unlimited amount of time.
But after Garcia spoke for five minutes, Stuiver called abruptly for a recess.
Garcia got cut off after he started claiming he had documentation (texts and e-mails) from Mayor Zimmer and Stuiver going back to last May, in which Zimmer supposedly began “asking [Garcia] to deliver the votes for Jake to be chair” and expressing disappointment when Stuiver first lost.
Garcia also said that residents told him they believed the administration wanted him to play ball or they would get him out.
Stuiver then had police escort everyone out of the meeting and recessed with Garcia outside.
Once back from recess, the resolution was instead tabled for 90 days while both sides try to re-negotiate Garcia’s contract terms. Commissioner and Councilman David Mello voted against tabling the resolution.
“In thirty-seven years in this city, I have never seen politics as bad as they were Thursday night,” Garcia said on Friday. “I pray that good policy will prevail over bad politics.”
Stuiver declined to comment last week.
Of the seven members of the board, one commissioner is appointed by the mayor and one is appointed by the governor. The rest appointed by the City Council. The current commissioners are: Judith Burrell, Gregory Lincoln, Councilman David Mello, Eduardo Gonzalez, Jean Rodriguez, and Robert Davis III. There is also a chairperson, currently Stuiver.
Stuvier has been on the board for over three years in a non-chairperson role. Last summer, Stuiver discovered that a co-commissioner, Marianne Camporeale, had not completed her training courses in the allotted 18 months that board members have to do so. Camporeale was a member of the anti-Zimmer faction. Because Camporeale was both elderly and disabled, some residents and council members said the board should give her time to finish the courses.
Instead, the board appointed someone to fill her seat – Gregory Lincoln, a Zimmer ally. This tipped the scales to a Zimmer-allied majority, and the new majority voted for Stuiver as chair.
Since then, Garcia and Stuiver have sparred on multiple issues.
At Thursday’s meeting, Camporeale called Stuiver a “rattlesnake.”
“If I was your wife, I would’ve put my foot in your behind,” said Camporeale.
Since last summer, when HHA attorney Charles Daglian’s contract expired, the HHA attempted to select a new attorney, who must specialize in landlord/tenant issues as well as be versed in how to handle a state and federal mixed entity.
The board put out a request for proposals. A committee made up of Garcia, his CFO, and his asset manager, used a criteria-based evaluation tool to judge the firms that put in a bid. They also scored Daglian. They said Daglian scored the highest (100), and had the lowest bid. So Garcia appointed Daglian, subject to the board’s acceptance or veto.
The board majority rejected the appointment of Daglian and by sub-committee found that Florio, Perrucci, Steinhardt & Fader, was better suited. Garcia and Stuiver disagreed on who should be the appointing authority for a contracted officer: Was it Garcia, or the board?
Daglian was awarded the contract in February 2013 because Lincoln voted with the minority.
But according to a letter sent to the Reporter by Stuiver from HUD officials, the procurement process used to award the contract was found to be flawed.
“If you review the HUD letter, you will see that HUD has formally advised the board that the scoring process used by Mr. Garcia was, in fact, not only unfair but illegal, as were many other aspects of the procurement process that Director Garcia attempted to employ,” Stuiver said in an email to the Reporter last week.
The HUD letter says that the scores were unfair. According to the letter, the contract ceiling for legal counsel was $50,000, and firms whose fees exceeded $50,000 were given a zero for that criterion in the evaluation. This meant that the other firms reviewed could only score a 75 at best. The letter states that the budget cap should have been revealed in the request for proposals.
Garcia said Friday, “There are minutes from the meeting when I announced the $50,000 budget. HUD acknowledged that the process was legally flawed for technical reasons. I acknowledged a HUD addendum for general legal services and I told HUD already that I’m fixing it to perfect the process.”
Stuiver introduced at the meeting a letter from the city’s attorney, Mellissa Longo, giving her opinion regarding the issue. However, Stuiver and other board members were not sure if they could make the letter public.
The Hoboken Housing Authority receives federal funds and is overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Hoboken Housing Authority is the largest provider of very low and low income housing in the city. Properties include Andrew Jackson Gardens, Harrison Gardens, Columbus Gardens, Fox Hill Gardens, James Monroe Gardens, and John Adams Gardens.
Three of the buildings are designed for seniors and disabled residents while the other buildings are considered family housing. Most of the buildings are around 60 years old.
HUD sets the AMI (Area Median Income) appropriations, which are provided through Congress. Rent in public housing units varies depending on an income percentage and the number of bedrooms. Flat rents may also be offered to those who begin in public housing units but later make enough money to exceed the income ceiling eligibility.
Amanda Palasciano may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evolution of ‘the projects’ in Hoboken
Carmelo Garcia jumped from a three-story building in Hoboken in 1985 when arson for profit was rampant. That was how he was displaced from his home at 58 Monroe St.
“I remember my family getting a call while we lived [in an interim residence] in North Bergen, that a public housing unit opened,” Garcia, the executive director of public housing, said last week. “Then we got down here and they gave it to someone else.”
Eventually Garcia’s family moved into a different public housing building, 320 Jackson St., a decision that forever shaped his career path.
“Back then, you’d see people that overdosed in the hallways, the elevators always got stuck; you’d put in a work order and they’d get to it in two months,” said Garcia.
By the time Garcia got involved with HHA in 2001, there was a lot of cleaning up to do.
“It was a jungle. There was a lot of mismanagement; a lot had gone neglected. The infrastructure was hemorrhaging. There was an executive director that [allegedly] absconded after costing some four million dollars to the HHA. There was an interim executive director, my predecessor, who started to salvage and leverage [HHA funds].”
Today, there are 705 people on the waiting list, and only a 1.1 percent vacancy.
According to Garcia, close to 85 percent of families living in the projects are working class.
“It’s not generational housing; it’s not entitlement housing,” he said. “The intent of public housing is to foster self-sufficiency and mixed-income integration.”
Today, he said, the perception of the “projects” has changed, as has the crime rate. After the implementation of a “one-strike rule” those who are caught with drugs or commit other violations can lose their housing.
“Seven years ago you would never have seen young professionals bringing their kids to play at Mama Johnson field,” said Garcia.