The Housing Authority of the City of El Paso has been consistently the subject of negative public comment on the El Paso Forum and at City Hall. As is the case with most public agencies, there is usually one or two disgruntled former employees or public “rabble rousers” whose only intention is to serve their own agendas and hurt the public entity. Initial public innuendo and outcries of wrongdoing are usually silenced in a matter of months as those crying “wolf” usually just give up and go away never to be heard from again. In the case of the local Housing Authority, the complaints and allegations have ranged from simple unfair practices, to a Tom Clancy-type drama of bulletproof offices with doors barricaded with combination locks that change regularly.
Digging through the innuendo and allegations, a picture of an apparent rogue agency handling millions of dollars in taxpayer’s funds begins to emerge. The truth is hard to discern as the accusers throw out accusation after accusation and the agency seems to posture down behind closed doors and layers of attorneys. This article started out as a simple, one-page commentary on the on-goings of the local agency and as information began to emerge, the piece eventually evolved into the five-day series that starts today. As with any controversial topic, especially with millions of dollars at play, the threats of legal actions is omnipresent as those who stand to lose the taxpayers dollars circle their wagons in a last ditch effort to salvage their gravy train. Already, layers of lawyers have been summoned to defend the interests of the Housing Authority before the City Council and the State of Texas. Lawyers representing developers, in-house lawyers representing the local Housing Authority while another set of lawyers are hired from yet another law firm to represent yet the Authority once again has been the norm in recent months. Rudolf C. Montiel, Executive Director of the El Paso Housing Authority, recently hired a local attorney to look into possible litigation against some of the posters on the El Paso Forum. Rumors of Housing Authority employees banned from participating on the El Paso Forum also began to circulate in recent months. As lawyers are added to the conflict, the intrigue continues to grow proportionally as the questions continue and answers are no where to be found, except maybe in the realization that money dictates even at the expense of the elderly and less fortunate then us.
Intrigue does not even begin to describe the debacle the Housing Authority of El Paso is becoming. Novelist Tom Clancy would relish the opportunity to dramatize a municipality-controlled agency whose allegations leveled against it are laced with “Gestapo-type tactics” and city-owned buses that refuse to enter Housing Authority areas after dark for fear of being rocked by juvenile delinquents. Unfortunately for the city, Clancy’s fiction could not rival the allegations being leveled against the Housing Authority today. Rumors began to circulate around November 2001 about serious breaches of decorum and fairness within the Authority itself. At first these allegations appeared to be nothing more than disgruntled employees out for some sort of revenge. The Housing Authority, through its PIO, Alfonso Velarde, has alluded to this as a reason for the bad publicity. The first serious indication of a possible problem emerged in the form of a written complaint filed with the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development against the Authority by residents of the local Housing Authority; Cristina Rivera, Aurora Valverde and Rosalinda de La O. According to documentation available, the HUD opened an investigation at the Federal level on March 10, 2003. In the complaint the residents alleged eviction policies applied unfairly to residents that seemed to go against the administration, to an alleged illegal alien serving in a high capacity position in the management, to the possible misuse of Authority resources in support of one mayoral candidate over another. According to recent news reports, the HUD closed the case with no apparent wrongdoing. Apparently a case of disgruntled employees, or so it seemed.
Almost immediately after the election of Mayor Wardy, more serious and worrisome allegations began to surface about the Authority as the posturing for city paybacks begun in earnest around political circles. Although many complained to the new Mayor’s office, little if any news was forthcoming regarding possible solutions to alleged problems. What is known is that the Mayor has had at least one meeting with Montiel in private, apparently to address some of the issues and that the Mayor was forced to cast his first vote in order to break a Council tie in an issue before it regarding the Authority on June 17, 2003.
So what is the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso that it garners so much attention in a city replete with government agencies? According to available information, the Housing Authority is a quasi-government agency that operates in order to provide housing for the city’s low and very-low income families. The El Paso Housing Authority is structured under the State of Texas Housing Authorities law. According to the agency’s website which is dated August 27, 2002, it was organized in February 1938 in order to serve the housing needs of the community. According to the website, the Housing Authority owns and operates approximately 7,000 units while providing rent subsidies to another 4,000 families in the city. The website also indicates that the Authority also provides education, recreation, anti-drug, job training, small business development, community organization and other unspecified activities for the residents. The website further states that the Authority currently employs 378 regular employees and fills an additional 286 temporary and part-time employees in 18 departments or sections. More current information can be found in the complaint filed by the residents. According to the complaint, the Housing Authority has $300 million dollars in assets and an operating budget of $100 million dollars. The same complaint states that the Authority in actuality employs over 500 individuals. The issue for the community then becomes one of taxpayer funds as the monies managed and controlled by the Authority are mostly directly derived from public monies. The amounts should be enough for the community to take notice and questions how and how much of the public trough is managed by the current Authority.
The El Paso Housing Authority is currently managed by a Board comprised of five Commissioners, which include the Chairman, Charles Earnest Garcia whose term expires February 17, 2004; Commissioner Steven Yellen, whose term expires February 17, 2005; Commissioner Maria Esperanza Vilchis, whose term expires February 15, 2003; Commissioner William Ruiz, whose term expires February 17, 2004 and Commissioner Mary Stillinger whose term expires February 15, 2005. By all indications, all of the Commissioner’s were appointed by the previous Caballero administration, but this could not be confirmed. According to State statues in regards to Housing Authorities, specifically Section 392.031, subsection A, a municipal housing authority shall be governed by five, seven, nine or 11 commissioners. The section further adds that the presiding officer, in this case the Mayor of El Paso shall be the one to appoint the commissioners and to unilaterally determine how many commissioners shall govern the Authority. If the layman interpretation of this statue is correct, then Mayor Wardy has the authority to change the makeup of the board simply by appointing additional commissioners to serve, drastically changing the voting blocks in place. Removing serving Board Members seems to be a little more complicated. This may become an important item as the authority over the managers of the HACEP ultimately rests on the shoulders of the city’s mayor.
Had the controversy surrounding the El Paso Housing Authority continued to be just a group of disgruntled employees, then the controversy would have subsided by now. Rather the controversy continues to resound across the city as the City Council itself recently voted a controversial measure to actually oppose the awarding of millions of dollars from the State of Texas for an affordable housing initiative, this along with a strongly-worded letter sent by City Representative Anthony Cobos against the funding and a recent letter by Congressman Silvestre Reyes rescinding his previous letter of support in light of allegations of possible irregularities on the procedures followed by the applicant of the funds betrays a sense that the allegations leveled against the Authority may have merit after all. A very public resignation by Aurora Valverde before the El Paso City Council where she delineates tales of an “abusive leadership” only adds fuel to the serious issues emanating from those who would know if indeed there are problems within the Authority. It is easy for those in power to disguise dissention with cloaks of “disgruntled employees” or “crazy people” but when the dissention is documented and derives from multiple sources, the power-monger’s PR tends to disintegrate as rats tend to abandon the entity in times of public scrutiny and add to the public record in hopes of alleviating future possible punishment.
So what are these irregularities that have all of sudden gotten the political circles scrambling for cover? Although many issues have surfaced and continue to surface, this in itself should be concern enough, the following four issues appear to be the most problematic for the Housing Authority and its partners. Should any or all of these issues have any merit, the fallout could eventually reach the highest levels of our city government. The most public controversy to date is the apparent issue of “clustering” or the grouping of low-income peoples together, also known as “redlining”. The second is the apparent insubordination displayed by the Authority in regards to the wishes and authority of its ultimate governing authority, the City of El Paso. Unfortunately the concerns do not end here as questions of possible bidding irregularities have begun to surface as the complex partnership structure begins to reveal more and more players in this high stakes game involving $13.5 million dollars and a tidy potential profit of $3.5 million for a private local developer. Finally the problems give rise to possible malfeasance in the application process itself as inspections of actual documents filed apparently show incomplete or erroneous information that has fallen through the cracks of government inefficiency. The seriousness of just one issue is enough to cause concern, as possibility of the misuse of public funds is too much to ignore. The City of El Paso, as the ultimate authority over the Housing Authority will ultimately be responsible, but unfortunately, the taxpayers of El Paso will pay the ultimate price, as the lawyers will no doubt salivate over the fallout of this whole fiasco.
Author’s note: This is a five part series that will continue on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and conclude on Wednesday. Sunday’s piece is titled: “Clustering: A Housing Authority Ignoring Its Stated Mandate”