It’s difficult to sort out the facts from the rhetoric in the fiery dispute between board members who oversee the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA).
The agency manages publicly subsidized housing in Hamilton County. Each year, it serves people living in roughly 5,200 units in publicly owned housing as well as another 10,600 families that use the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program, or what used to be known as Section 8, to rent privately owned homes and apartments.
Most people served by CMHA are either the working poor or the elderly, statistics show.
Just before CMHA Board Member John Rosenberg resigned from the agency June 21, he sent a three-page letter to the person who appointed him — City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. — that described his fellow board members as “dysfunctional.”
In the letter, Rosenberg said he accepted the appointment because he believed his business experience managing residential rental properties would benefit an agency “charged with providing decent and safe housing for low-income families.”
“Over the past year, I have observed an organization in disarray, which can only lead me to believe now that my presence is ineffective, at best,” Rosenberg wrote. “It would be misleading to remain on the board, giving false hope to members of the community CMHA serves, CMHA staff, housing advocates and the public at large, that there is anything that I can do to change what I believe to be a fundamentally dysfunctional body.
“The concerns that I have are so profound that I am convinced that there is nothing short of resignation that can convey this.”
Although Rosenberg had only been on the board since May 2009, his tenure was a rocky one filled with controversy.
When Rosenberg was appointed, his mere selection drew fire. Rosenberg, who lives in Montgomery, is a retired partner with the Miller-Valentine Group, a major commercial real-estate developer in the region. More importantly, Rosenberg now works for Associated Land Group. Critics questioned whether he had a conflict of interest, as the firm receives federal housing vouchers from some of its tenants.
At the time, Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou responded to the appointment by blogging, “If Mr. Rosenberg is a Section 8 landlord not living in the city … this is exactly what has destroyed wonderful neighborhoods in our city. Absentee landlords buying Section 8 properties are what CMHA ought to guard against.”
Democrats quickly accused Triantafilou of playing politics and implicitly preying on the racial prejudices of some white homeowners who blame the program for bringing African Americans into their neighborhoods.
By the way, Triantafilou doesn’t live in “our city,” either — he lives in suburban Green Township.
(A quick side note: One of the issues that ex-Congressman Steve Chabot is using to try to win reelection is tapping into the anger of West Side activists over the influx of Section 8 housing in that area.
But it’s worth noting that Chabot voted in favor of the federal law in May 1997 that reinstated the use of vouchers so tenants could live where they wanted. Conservatives preferred that approach — which they said would benefit landlords — instead of grouping tenants together in large, publicly owned facilities. The same law also allocated funds to create mixed-income communities. But the Melva Gweyns and Mary Kuhls of the world seem to conveniently forget that vote in their knee-jerk GOP stance.)
Let’s get back to CMHA’s troubles.
Another board member, Arnold Barnett, made headlines in August 2009 when three CMHA tenants filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They alleged a list of racially biased activity perpetuated by the agency.
Their attorney, Robert Newman, said CMHA engaged in “racial vigilantism” to keep its African-American clients from moving into predominantly white neighborhoods ever since Barnett became board chairman. Shortly afterward, Barnett was quoted in an Enquirer article that claimed he ordered CMHA staffers to buy property in Hyde Park, where Newman lives, for use as low-income housing. “I told our director to go see if we can buy any property in (Newman’s) neighborhood,” Barnett is quoted as saying. “If he likes it so much, let’s give him a few.”
Barnett said he was misquoted and fired back at Newman by filing a defamation lawsuit against him seeking at least $500,000 in damages; a judge later dismissed the case.
Newman’s complaint prompted a HUD investigation, which still is ongoing. In the interim, HUD asked the board to halt its search for a new executive director until the probe was completed. Board members, however, recently hired an interim director who has no public housing experience. That, in turn, drew a sharp rebuke from HUD and sparked several groups — including Habitat for Humanity, the Legal Aid Society and the NAACP — to ask the federal government to take control of the agency.
Hold on, things get even worse.
First, Barnett was reprimanded by the board and removed as chairman after an October meeting where he angrily asked Rosenberg during an argument if he “knew what a kike was.” (Barnett later said his use of the slur wasn’t that bad because he also was part-Jewish.)
Then, Rosenberg himself was reprimanded by the board for actions he took in December. During a meeting, Rosenberg said the board should hire an African-American woman as executive director because it would “(appease) HUD and because she is a racial minority and a woman, that would be a double whammy.” Also, in an e-mail to board members, he wrote that Barnett behaved like an “ass.”
Maybe both men just need to be sent to bed early without having dessert. And no video games for a week.
The CMHA board consists of five people, each of whom is appointed by either the city manager, Hamilton County commissioners or local judges. Members serve for five years and can be removed only if a citizen files a complaint and collects the signatures of at least 15 percent of county voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election — or more than 44,000 people.
In other words, unless they resign like Rosenberg did, board members aren’t going anywhere.
The volatile mix of people on CMHA’s board makes a reasonable person question the judgment of the public officials who appointed them. What’s really going on is that each of the officials make their selection based on politics and who will look good to their constituency, resulting in a board with competing agendas.
As Nick DiNardo, of the Legal Aid Society, told CityBeat in October, “We need good leadership, and we don’t have it now.”
The real losers in this political tug-of-war are CMHA tenants, who aren’t well-served by an agency distracted by in-fighting and mired in conflict. This might be an instance where relinquishing local control of the agency is a good thing.
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