MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News.
Alphonso Jackson announced his resignation as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development yesterday, four years to the day after he was confirmed to the post. Like many officials heading for the exits in this second term, Jackson cited personal and family matters in a Monday press conference. But his departure is widely seen as a response to a growing scandal over alleged influence peddling. Allegations that he repeatedly tried to steer contracts to friends and political allies. It was, as the New York Times put it, a striking reversal of fortune for Mr. Jackson, who not only brought a compelling personal biography to Washington, he was the youngest of 12 children of a foundry worker, but he was also the first housing secretary to have actually run a public housing authority.
We hope to have two current housing authority directors to talk about Jackson's tenure and legacy. Joining us now is Ann Lott. She's the president and CEO Dallas Housing Authority, and she worked with Alphonso Jackson when he held that same position in Dallas. We hope to have with us Carl Greene, he's the director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and we hope that he'll be joining us by phone in a few minutes.
Welcome, Ann Lott, thanks for joining us.
Ms. ANN LOTT (President and CEO, Dallas Housing Authority): Good morning, and thank you for the invitation.
MARTIN: Now Ann, as I mentioned, that Mr. Jackson was the first head secretary to have actually done the job you're now doing. Did you have high hopes for him when he was first appointed? He was also deputy secretary for three years before he became secretary.
Ms. LOTT: Yes, as a matter of fact I did. Mr. Jackson is a good man, and I believe he is a solid leader. And I did have high hopes for his tenure with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
MARTIN: What's he good at?
Ms. LOTT: Well, I have a very unique perspective. I am able to separate the man from this administration. I had an opportunity to work for him when he was the executive director for the Dallas Housing Authority, and he exemplified sound leadership. He cared about the families that we serve, and he demonstrated that in his leadership at the Dallas Housing Authority.
MARTIN: How? Give me an example.
Ms. LOTT: Well, I realize I'm talking to you, and you're in D.C. and I am in Dallas, but if you ever the opportunity to come to Dallas and if you speak to the residents who participate in DHA's program, they'll tell you about the contribution he made in West Dallas. When I started with the housing authority in 1985, West Dallas was some of the worst public housing in the nation's inventory. And he created a master plan for the demolition of all of those units and the revitalization and development of housing in that area, but it was more than that.
Mr. Jackson had a very holistic approach for housing, and he often told us that we were more than bricks and mortar. And at a time when no one wanted to live in West Dallas, at a time when it was difficult to recruit any kind of retail into the area, he brokered a deal, established a non-profit, purchased a shopping center in the area, not so much because he wanted to own a shopping center, but he couldn't get banks or anyone else to come into the area and make the investment.
He met with Liz Minyard and convinced her that it was an area that was worth investment. And Minyard's did come into the community and built a shopping - a Minyard's food store. And basically what that symbolized is that he cared about the families, and he cared about the services to the area.
MARTIN: And also that he was proactive and creative.
Ms. LOTT: Oh, absolutely.
MARTIN: But you know the complaint about him in Washington, they are twofold, as I'm sure you know. One is that he - at least has bragged about using his authority to steer contracts to political allies and to friends, as in April 2006 in a speech in Dallas, he bragged about saying that he had denied a contract to somebody because he wasn't a supporter of President Bush. He later said he made it up.
But secondly, that he has not been proactive on one of the most pressing issues of the current era, which is the subprime crisis, which is kind of sucking the wealth of particularly minority communities and communities all over the country. What do you make of that? I mean first of all, were there complaints about him using the influence of his office when he was in Dallas to steer contracts to friends? Were those kinds of conversations had about him then?
Ms. LOTT: No, I can recall no such conversation, and I'm really not in a position to speak regarding those particular allegations because I had absolutely no personal knowledge of him ever steering such contracts. I do believe that he's a secretary at HUD in a very difficult environment. It's a very difficult funding environment, and it's been that way since the country went to war in 2001.
And I think that we often lose sight of that, and I understand that as the secretary of HUD he's going to take the heat for the subprime market. But I'm not sure if all of those criticisms are valid criticisms given this current economic environment.
MARTIN: Well, that's an important point. I understand that you certainly have no knowledge of any dealings that he might have had when he was in Washington, which I also mention are allegations and still being investigated. But what about the subprime issue? Is there more that he could have done? Could he have been more proactive in providing oversight?
Ms. LOTT: Well, again, I've heard those criticisms, and I think there are different schools of thought as to what proactive looks like. Even economists can disagree on what the solution here is. I think that as Americans, we're all concerned about the subprime market. I think I, as the executive director of the Dallas Housing Authority, is very concerned about the funding crisis in public housing. We've been funded at about 80 percent of what we need for well over five years, and I just find it remarkable that there's a lot of conversation around the subprime lending.
And there's been a funding shortfall in housing for quite a number of years, and not to mention, you know gas prices are high. So there's a lot, as Americans, that we're all concerned about. What do we do about it?
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm speaking with Ann Lott. She directs the Public Housing Authority in Dallas, which is where HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson once worked before he came to Washington. He resigned his post yesterday.
Tell me about that. That is also another complaint about Secretary Jackson, that he wasn't as forceful an advocate for funding for public housing, as many people would have appreciated. Why are you experiencing a shortfall in funding over these last few years? What's the stated reason?
Ms. LOTT: Well again, the man I know cared deeply for the needs of the families living in public housing, and he would often tell us when he was in Dallas that all of us were two paychecks away from living in public housing. And those words always struck a chord with me because at the time he worked in Dallas, I was actually just one paycheck away from public housing.
But these are more complicated issues. If we look at the budget for all of the departments of the federal government, you will find HUD somewhere at the bottom of that list. And I do have concerns that he's being asked to make bricks with no straw, and how can any of us really thrive and operate in such a funding environment? I can tell you in working for him that he did care. And when he had the resources available that he was responsible for the demolition of dilapidated public housing and the revitalization of an entire community.
MARTIN: When you hear stories, though, about him making what many consider to be cavalier comments about the rebuilding of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, what do you say?
Ms. LOTT: Well again, there are many different approaches as to what needs to happen in New Orleans. I've spoken with many of the families that moved from New Orleans to Dallas. Unfortunately, they didn't necessarily choose to move to Dallas, but they're here nonetheless. And I didn't come across many families who particularly wanted to live in public housing. If you work any time in the industry, what you'll find...
MARTIN: I'm sorry, Ann, forgive me for interrupting. You've been most generous with your time. I'm going to let you go now. Ann Lott is the president and CEO of the Dallas Housing Authority. She was kind enough to join us from Dallas. She worked Alphonso Jackson.
We're joined now - thank you so much, Ann Lott, for joining us.
Ms. LOTT: Sure, thank you for having me.
MARTIN: I'm joined now by Kirk Dorn. He's the spokesperson for the Philadelphia Housing Authority. We had hoped to be joined by Carl Greene, who's the director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, but we have Kirk Dorn with us. Kirk, thank for joining us.
Mr. KIRK DORN (Spokesperson, Philadelphia Housing Authority): Thank you, Michel. I'm sorry that Mr. Greene couldn't be with you this morning.
MARTIN: I did want to ask that - we had been talking about Alphonso Jackson's legacy. And part of that legacy is a lawsuit by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, saying that he pressured the authority to transfer valuable public property to somebody of his choosing and then tried to retaliate when you - when this was refused. What's the basis for this? Were these personal communications? How did this happen?
Mr. DORN: Well, basically we have a site that we redeveloped - one of the traditional public housing projects that we tore down and build a new one. And when we began at the old, we had a partnership with a private developer. And part of the deal was once the public housing project was completed, we would give the private developer land as part of his compensation.
But as the project went along, the private developer had a falling out with us. We basically fired the developer. And so, they had no land coming to them. Subsequent to that, Secretary Jackson got involved in this case, asking us through intermediaries to still give the land over the private developer. Carl Greene refused to turn that land over, saying it would be unlawful and unethical.
And then, the pressure from HUD began after that, and they began sighting us for violations, which didn't exist, and penalizing us. That sort of how it played out.
MARTIN: And you feel that it was clearly retaliatory?
Mr. DORN: I mean, there was no question about it. The timing of the sequence of events - the secretary came to Philadelphia. He toured the site with the private developer, Kenny Gamble. A day later - in fact, it was the same day after the tour, we received a letter from HUD saying we were in default on that project. And then, as well as our - they cited us for not having enough wheelchair accessible housing when we were way above the federal threshold. So there was a - the sequence of the time is certainly...
MARTIN: Raises questions. Mr. Dorn, we only have about 30 second left. So very briefly, if you would, I'd like to ask what do you think Alphonso Jackson's legacy will be in that post?
Mr. DORN: You know, it's such a crime because he was a tremendous leader in public housing. But I think the legacy will be one of corruption and negativity, and it's just a very unfortunate thing. But he...
MARTIN: OK, I'm going to have to leave it there. I'm afraid we've run out of time for this segment. Kirk...
Mr. DORN: Thank you.
MARTIN: Dorn is spokesman for the Philadelphia Housing Authority. We were also joined by Ann Lott, president of the Dallas Housing Authority. Thank to you both.
I'm Michel Martin. The conversation continues on Tell Me More from NPR News.
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