Raleigh City Council approves housing authority plan, despite concerns about loss of public housing

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJanuary 21, 2014 

  • No questions on Beam’s salary, comp time

    While Raleigh City Council members peppered Steve Beam, the housing authority director, with questions on Tuesday, they didn’t ask about his salary or use of comp time.

    Council members had said earlier that they wanted to know why Beam has been taking up to 11 weeks off each year, using a combination of vacation, sick days and comp days. Some of the comp time was accrued by working beyond the standard 7.5-hour work day. Comp time is unusual for a manager at his level.

    Concerns were also raised about Beam’s pay, which has reached as high as $280,000 with bonuses and other incentives. He is one of the highest-paid housing directors in the country.

    Neither of those topics emerged at Tuesday’s council meeting. Councilman Russ Stephenson said later that the issues are “out of our purview.”

— Despite voicing concerns about the city losing public housing, Raleigh leaders on Tuesday approved a plan to reduce subsidized units at the federally funded Capitol Park development.

Raleigh City Council members questioned Raleigh Housing Authority Director Steve Beam for about 30 minutes about the plan before approving it 7-1. Only Councilman Eugene Weeks voted against Beam’s proposal, which would turn 60 units of subsidized housing for low-income residents at Capitol Park into market-rate homes with rents of up to $1,100 a month. The homes would be sold to the housing authority’s affiliated nonprofit for $300,000, or about $5,000 per unit.

“With this plan here, you’re almost promoting people to being homeless,” Weeks said.

The council also noted that Capitol Park – just north of downtown Raleigh – was built in 2003 with a $29 million federal grant to create a community where public housing residents live side-by-side with moderate-income neighbors paying full rent.

“The promise that was made to us when Capitol Park was funded was that it was going to be a mixed-income neighborhood,” Councilman Russ Stephenson said.

But City Manager Ruffin Hall said that Tuesday’s vote wasn’t a referendum on Capitol Park. Instead, he said it was simply to certify whether Beam’s plan is “consistent” with the city’s 2010-2015 Consolidated Plan for affordable housing. After Hall said the two plans were in sync, the council ended its discussion and voted in favor of the housing authority plan.

Several council members said they haven’t reviewed the five-year city plan recently and relied on the interpretation of Hall and other city staffers.

“The time I really studied it was when it first came out,” Stephenson said.

Mayor Nancy McFarlane said that Beam’s proposal for Capitol Park and other initiatives have been thoroughly vetted at city hall. “There are multiple, multiple eyes looking at that,” she said.

‘What is the plan?’

The five-year city plan does not address the number of public housing units Raleigh should offer. But it does rank housing needs, putting renters classified as “very low income” as the city’s first priority. That category would include a family of four earning less than $22,750 a year – the demographic served by public housing.

By contrast, the 60 converted units at Capitol Park would target renters making 80 percent of the area median income, or $60,800 for a family of four.

That shift troubles Bill Rowe, the director of advocacy at the N.C. Justice Center. He said that Tuesday’s council discussion left him with more questions than answers.

“What is the plan for those folks who are making $10 an hour?” he said. “It would be nice to have some of that data, and it’s important for the City Council to understand how the policies of the housing authority will impact the provision of housing for these low-income people.”

Rowe said he was surprised the council didn’t follow McFarlane’s initial suggestion to delay the vote for two weeks. “I thought that required a little more deliberation than it got,” he said.

McFarlane said after the meeting that the favorable vote was appropriate given the Raleigh Housing Authority’s high marks and clean audits. She added that she still hopes to speak with local congressional and federal officials about the funding shortages.

“This is one of the top-rated housing authorities in the country,” she said. “Could we have more affordable housing? They’re certainly trying within the parameters of the federal government.”

‘Not sufficient money’

In his presentation Tuesday, Beam cited funding cuts from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as one reason for taking public housing out of Capitol Park. “We don’t want to continue to allow Capitol Park to become the Halifax Court that it replaced,” he said, referring to the barracks-style, crime-ridden housing project that previously occupied the site. “There’s not sufficient money to operate all the public housing units we have.”

But a former HUD deputy secretary has said Beam’s plan to convert a federally funded development is highly unusual, and most housing authorities are taking a different approach to funding constraints. Durham, for example, is converting some of its public housing units to a private, voucher-based model under a federal pilot program. The Bull City will maintain the same number of subsidized units for its poorest residents.

Beam said the pilot program won’t work for Raleigh. “What they’re doing is replacing one program with another one with a completely different set of rules,” he said.

Council members said they trust Beam to minimize the pain of federal cuts. “I understand they’re operating under the gun in terms of HUD saying they want to get out of that (public housing) business,” Stephenson said.

‘This was wrong’

The council’s support for Beam didn’t sit well with neighborhood leader Octavia Rainey, who spoke to the council after the vote. She says the Capitol Park plan will hurt black residents, who make up an overwhelming majority of public housing tenants.

“You tell me you support civil rights, and you went along with that mess?” she told the council. “This was wrong. Don’t ask me for my black vote anymore.”

Rainey also called on McFarlane to appoint additional members to the housing authority board, which has only one black member and no representation from Southeast Raleigh. The mayor says she’ll consider the request.

With the Capitol Park plan now headed to HUD for final approval, the City Council is still seeking answers about another controversial move by the housing authority. The council asked city staffers Tuesday for a report on why streets at the Walnut Terrace public housing development have been renamed after obscure magicians such as Jerry Andrus and Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin.

Beam – who named the streets without input from the agency board – is a noted card-trick magician who often takes compensatory and vacation time to attend magic conventions.

That report is due back to the council within two weeks.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service