The Hoboken Housing Authority Board of Commissioners may have succeeded in removing former Executive Director Carmelo Garcia, but in its first meeting since his departure this past Thursday, he remained the elephant in the room. When they moved to address a host of emergency issues, Garcia was cited as the culprit for the problems.
Though Garcia was not present to provide his typical boisterous defense, his supporters among the HHA residents continued in his stead, pointing out potential problems with the current acting director and another director who is scheduled to be brought on board, the same types of criticisms the board once aimed at Garcia. Residents pointed out that the new acting director was criticized in a HUD audit for his management of Stamford, Conn.’s public housing in the late 2000s.
After the Aug. 4 special meeting for Garcia’s termination, which saw a tense, overflowing council chambers, at least 15 Hoboken police officers were on hand for Thursday’s meeting at City Hall.
In the end, they were not needed. The meeting was well attended but subdued, with board chairwoman Dana Wefer brooking no interruption from the attendees and receiving little.
“Really, [the housing authority] is in a state of crisis.” – Dana Wefer
When Richard Fox took over as acting director of the Housing Authority last Wednesday, Wefer said she got her first full look into the financial situation of the Authority. In an open letter sent before the meeting on Thursday, she called it “a state of crisis.”
Several physical problems in the projects are particularly dire, including broken elevators in senior citizen buildings and a malfunctioning electrical panel that left at least one apartment without power. In addition, the HHA’s housing choice voucher program is in shortfall, meaning that the rent support it provides is not fully covered by government funding and fees.
Several of these emergent issues were addressed at the meeting. The board approved a contract with Slade Elevator to provide repair and maintenance for the Authority’s elevators. Wefer said the board was allowed to hire Slade without seeking other bids because it is a state-approved contractor.
The projects have been without an elevator repairman since the previous contractor, Schindler Elevator Corporation, cancelled its contract in July, stating that it was owed around $125,000. At Thursday’s meeting, the board approved a good faith payment towards that balance of $44,000.
However, board members and Acting Director Fox made clear that they were unhappy with the speed with which Schindler responded to calls. Fox said the new contract with Slade would require response times of two hours or less in most circumstances.
The board also approved its application for a $10 million grant from a state fund to improve infrastructure damaged during Hurricane Sandy, which could include the repair and replacement of elevators. The application received a letter of support from the City Council last week.
In addition, defective electrical subpanels at 560 Marshall Drive that led to loss of power in at least one apartment will be replaced by the HHA’s engineering contractor, Remington & Vernick under an emergency expenditure clause.
Remington also had not been paid since March, but the board voted to award it a lump sum payment of $25,000.
The board also approved going out to bid for contracts for a locksmith, plumber, electrician, and general building supplier, which Wefer said Garcia had not secured.
According to Wefer, as a result of a recent procurement review, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which oversees the HHA and provides much of its operating and capital budget, has imposed a zero dollar threshold on the agency. This means HUD must approve every service contract procured by the HHA.
Wefer wrote that this oversight “will likely result in some initial hardship,” but said the agency is preparing a comprehensive preventive maintenance program that should help alleviate problems before they become emergent, leading to less contracts secured outside the bidding process.
HUD previously designated the HHA as High Risk and as a Sub-Standard Physical Troubled Housing Authority.
According to Wefer, the Authority did not have standing contracts for a variety of repair and infrastructure issues, while other contracts had been cancelled or allowed to lapse. Wefer blamed a “lack of internal control mechanisms to track preventative maintenance, inventory, and vendor contracts” under Director Garcia’s tenure for the issue.
Several calls to Garcia this week went unanswered. Garcia also serves as an assemblyman and was elected last November.
At the meeting, residents questioned the blaming of Garcia, suggesting that the Authority’s financial problems were artificially created by the board as a way to push him out. They cited the board’s multiple rejections of contracts and bidding proposals sought by Garcia. “What you’re doing is what Carmelo was trying to do, but you held him back,” said resident Kyelia Colon.
After taking control of the board in May, Wefer questioned over $3 million in contracts awarded by Garcia outside the normal bidding process since 2010.
On Thursday, housing board vice chair and councilman-at-large David Mello said there were concerns over Garcia’s “resistance to transparency.”
But Barbara Reyes, the President of the HHA Resident Advisory Board, said her organization’s members had brought physical problems in the housing projects to the attention of the board numerous times, and they were ignored.
“Your goal from the minute you sat on this board was to take out the executive director,” said Reyes, “and you concentrated on that at every single meeting.”
Garcia had often been at odds with the board majority, which is considered by many to be allied with Mayor Dawn Zimmer. He filed suit against Zimmer and her allies last year for allegedly targeting him.
$1 million over budget
In total, Wefer said the Housing Authority was operating at a $3 million loss and was currently $1 million over budget for this year.
Hoboken has been called the sixth borough of New York City, and its public housing issues are sadly reminiscent of the problems currently faced by the massive New York City Housing Authority. On Monday, the New York Times reported that NYCHA was facing a $77 million budget deficit and $18 million in unfunded capital.
Meet the new boss
At the meeting, the board approved entering a local shared services agreement with the West New York Housing Authority to secure the services of its director, Robert DiVincent, as acting executive director.
The board also announced plans to keep current acting director Fox around past the two-week period initially cited for his tenure. Wefer said having two executive directors would allow to HHA to fully address the serious problems it currently faces.
Fox’s services still fall under the contract secured with his employer, Hamilton Management Solutions, when Fox served as a consultant to the Authority. He is paid $2,500 a week, and the not-to-exceed amount on his contract was extended Thursday to $85,000.
The cost of DiVincent’s services is not yet known, as the contract with West New York has not been fully negotiated. This week, the HHA board cut a $56,000 check to cover the last four months of outgoing director Garcia’s contract, as required in its interpretation in order to fire him.
DiVincent has a long history in public housing in Hudson County. He currently serves as the Executive Director of the West New York and Weehawken Housing Authorities, and he served as the interim director of the HHA for over five years before Garcia, then his deputy director, took over in 2009.
In 2004, the HHA hired DiVincent to right the ship after previous director E. Troy Washington left the agency with an alleged $3.6 million deficit. During his time at the Hoboken Housing Authority, DiVincent was applauded for bringing stability and accountability but was criticized by some for being unable to fully focus on its issues due to his responsibilities at other agencies.
DiVincent himself said that Hoboken deserved a dedicated full-time director when the search that led to Garcia’s hire began.
Fox’s past positions paint a mixed picture of his leadership in a public housing context. A 2012 Stamford Advocate report noted that Fox was let go from his position in Stamford as part of a massive administrative overhaul after $17.7 million in unexplained expenses were incurred between 2008 and 2010. A HUD audit said lack of oversight was behind the expenditures rather than any intentional wrongdoing.
Internal assessments criticized Fox’s “‘significant difficulty’ with remembering names, time management, and trouble with delegating authority.” However, they also applauded his “advocacy on behalf of residents and work on the redevelopment of two public housing projects.”
In July 2010, Fox was placed on paid administrative leave by the Atlantic City Housing Authority board in a closed session, according to a Press of Atlantic City report. The board declined to state a reason for removing Fox.
Several residents alluded to these past experiences, questioning the board’s decision to bring him on as acting director. Fox “looks like a reverend preacher, but he’s suspect,” said Sigsby Cheatham.
Fox said he was proud of the work he had done in Stamford, including the implementation of two HOPE VI revitalization plans. He characterized the end of his tenure as a “mutual nice part of the ways” triggered by a change in the city administration.
He added that his departure from Atlantic City was also a mutual agreement with the board stemming from a disagreement over the implementation of a HUD improvement plan.
Wefer emphasized that both Fox and DiVincent will serve temporarily as the HHA launches a nationwide search for a full-time permanent director. She said residents would be incorporated into this decision-making process.