Maybe things just move slowly around here. Or perhaps people just don’t have the guts to do anything about obviously messed up issues until they become too dire to be ignored. Either way, I’m thankful the layers of crud at the Mobile Housing Board are finally starting to be power-washed away for a long-needed examination.
For as long as this newspaper has been publishing — 14 years now — I’ve been getting calls pointing to MHB as this city’s center of corruption and government waste. And while most of the harshest allegations have been tough to prove, we’ve dug around enough over the years to get a pretty good idea that something’s rotten in the state of the Hank Aaron Loop. This has seemed particularly true of the Housing Board’s nonprofit entity, Mobile Development Enterprises.
Just about four years ago Lagniappe started digging into MDE and reported on what an unusual entity it appeared to be. We first took notice of MDE primarily because of complaints that Adline Clarke, who was running for state representative at the time, might be using the nonprofit as a way to circumvent the Hatch Act so she could “double dip” from the public trough. Well, Rep. Clarke was given the Hatch Act all-clear before the election, but it was still hard not to notice that this supposedly separate entity for all intents and purposes existed as a way to shield MHB from having to use the Mobile Personnel Board to make hires.
While I’ll admit a Housing Board nonprofit doesn’t have nearly the water cooler cache of video of a guy punching a kangaroo or stories about mini horses being sexually assaulted, it’s been surprisingly lonely on the MHB/MDE beat over the past four years. Maybe that’s one reason Mobile’s Housing Board has enjoyed one failure after another with little scrutiny. Even the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal entity charged with keeping an eye on public housing boards, has been remarkably uninterested in MHB — until recently.
A scathing HUD Office of Inspector General report earlier this year blasted MHB and threw an oak tree’s worth of shade on their already shady nonprofit, MDE. Fortunately for the citizens of Mobile — particularly those who depend upon MHB for their shelter — someone in authority is finally looking at our public housing board.
Just knowing the report was coming probably had the positive effect of getting some longtime Housing Board members to run for cover and leave the board. This enabled Mayor Sandy Stimpson to finally get a majority of “his” people on MHB after Sam Jones reappointed as many of his old cronies as possible before leaving office.
The new board members are starting to ask some of the questions we’ve had for years concerning MDE. At a recent MHB meeting, commission chair Kim Pettway and fellow commissioner Reid Cummings were particularly vocal in questioning how MDE operates and why it appears organizationally to be nothing more than the housing board’s Siamese twin. (Sorry, conjoined twin might be the more politically correct phrase.)
The board’s attorney even finally admitted at the last meeting what has seemed apparent for years — MDE is being used to circumvent the Personnel Board when hiring for the Housing Board.
When we first began reporting on MDE, getting information wasn’t particularly easy. MHB/MDE Director Dwayne Vaughn hadn’t filed much of the paperwork that was required to be submitted by nonprofits and MDE actually lost its nonprofit status for a while. Vaughn was able to get MDE reinstated and also designated as an entity that didn’t have to submit an annual public accounting of its finances, so he’s been quite successful in keeping a lot of the nonprofit’s finances away from prying eyes.
MDE’s board was made up of just Vaughn, longtime MHB President Clarence Ball and fellow board quasi-lifer Donald Langham, and they allegedly met only once a year concerning the nonprofit. When I first called Langham way back then to talk about it, he didn’t even recognize MDE’s name. I essentially had to remind him about this supposedly vital nonprofit arm of the Housing Board.
Fortunately both Ball and Langham have left the building. Hopefully now there’s an opportunity to really examine what’s been going on behind the scenes at the Housing Board. Maybe some simple questions will finally be answered, like how Adline Clarke is actually paid so it can be determined whether the good state rep. is double dipping or not.
Some tougher questions need to be answered as well. It would be interesting to see if current or former elected city officials have Section 8 properties that are overseen by MHB. What about current or former MHB officials as well?
The HUD report outlined what appear to be conflicts of interests with Clarke and the hiring of her brother for lucrative contracts. There’s also former MHB Chairman Ball’s connection to apartment complexes built using low-income tax credits. Neither Ball nor his now-employee Sam Jones have had much to say about any of this when we’d tried to call. And nobody else seems particularly interested in asking them about it.
I doubt there are many with any knowledge of the situation who would argue the Mobile Housing Board isn’t a big, stinking mess right now. I’m sure some of the new board members are trying to change that, but part of what needs to happen is an opening of the books.
Right now there are thousands and thousands of families waiting for help from MHB, but under Vaughn, Ball, Langham and the other members of the previous board, the system has essentially been left to rot. While I’m sure HUD will push for some answers, the department has long overlooked obvious issues at MHB and I personally doubt they’re going to do one bit more than is necessary just to get things back into compliance.
But the people of Mobile deserve some answers about what’s been going on all these years. Why have supposedly astute businessmen like Ball, Langham and Vaughn run the housing board into the ground and left many of its properties in a condition that seems befitting a Third World nation?
I’m glad we’ve been around long enough to see some of these issues brought further into the light. Now maybe we can get some real answers.