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Wanted: A New Housing Director

Leila Gonzalez-Correa has resigned as executive director of the Los Angeles Housing Authority after accusations of cronyism, breaking promises and trying to impose gag orders not only on staff members but also on complaining tenants.

Mayor Tom Bradley and the city’s housing board have their second chance in four years to find a strong, skillful and sensitive leader who can make life at least bearable, and, in many cases better, for poor families who live in the city’s 21 housing projects and 22,000 federally subsidized leased apartments administered by the authority.

A lawyer with housing experience, Gonzalez-Correa came to her tough job with good credentials. She was hired 2 1/2 years ago to direct the troubled housing agency after another controversial executive director, Homer Smith, resigned under criticism of poor management practices, including a failure to follow the required competitive bidding process. When Gonzalez-Correa tackled glaring problems in the city’s 35,000 low-income housing units, she quickly got into similar trouble.

She awarded contracts exceeding $10,000 to acquaintances without seeking competitive bids. She refused to inform the housing board about major projects. Her proposal to sell the Jordan Downs project in Watts to private developers ultimately cost the housing agency $5 million in scarce federal improvement funds. She alienated tenants by making promises she couldn’t keep and by excluding them from decisions that directly affected their lives. Finally, she tried to forbid housing authority staff and tenants from speaking publicly without permission, prompting the mayor to issue a strong rebuke last week.

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The mayor and the housing board now will look again for an executive director with housing experience and strong management skills to run a large and complex public agency with 750 employees, a budget of $135 million and 96,000 tenants.

But the job involves more than taking care of the buildings, collecting the rent and trying, often in vain, to evict troublemakers. The new director must serve the tenants, typically the poorest of the city’s low-income families, many of them impoverished single mothers trying to raise families in a safe and decent environment

Until a new housing executive director is selected, Gary Squier, the mayor’s housing adviser, will serve in the job. Squier, pragmatic and accessible, knows low-income housing and he knows how City Hall works. He will start today to rebuild the tenants’ trust in the housing authority.

Mayor Bradley and a more demanding Los Angeles Housing Authority Board of Commissioners must find a first-rate housing director and strongly insist that the housing chief translate sound ideas into better lives for thousands of poor families.

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