By Bruce Alpert
Washington bureau, The Times Picayune
WASHINGTON — HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, whose advocacy for a plan to demolish public housing units in New Orleans and replace them with mixed-income developments generated international controversy, announced Monday that he will leave the job April 18.
His resignation as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development comes after two influential senators said his ability to oversee a federal program to help homeowners facing foreclosure had been undermined by ongoing grand jury and housing inspector general investigations into alleged sweetheart deals.
One issue is Jackson’s role in granting contracts for friends at housing authorities in New Orleans and the Virgin Islands and accusations by Philadelphia housing officials that HUD moved to deny financing in retaliation for the city’s refusal to sell land to a friend of Jackson’s.
With only nine months left in the Bush administration, it’s unlikely that administration housing policy in post-Katrina New Orleans or elsewhere will change dramatically. One likely option is for Jackson’s deputy, former Syracuse Mayor Roy Bernardi, to be nominated to replace Jackson.
Reaction to his departure was mixed. Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., who had called for Jackson’s resignation March 21, urged President Bush to nominate someone who can work with Congress to develop new policies to deal with the continuing housing crisis.
HUD inspector general’s office and, according to media reports, a Washington grand jury are looking at Jackson’s role in giving a lucrative Housing Authority of New Orleans contract to a friend, William Hairston.
A HANO contract with Columbia Residential, which the National Journal says owed Jackson $250,000 to $500,000, also has generated questions by investigators for the HUD inspector general. The National Journal also reported that two companies with HANO contracts, Metroplex Core and Kennedy Associates, had ties to Jackson’s wife, Marcia.
In a March 19 response to questions from Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, a Jackson assistant denied that Jackson had tried to eliminate financing for a Philadelphia housing program because the city’s housing authority had refused to sell land to a friend of his. The official said he would respond to questions about Hairston and Columbia Residential connections to HANO and Jackson at a later date.
Those who opposed the federal policy of bulldozing New Orleans public housing developments spoke with relief about his departure. Some of those who supported the demolitions praised him.
Bill Quigley, the Loyola University law professor who represented New Orleans residents opposed to demolition, accused Jackson of using the city’s public housing as his “personal piñata — smashing it every time he wanted more money for a friend or contractor.”
But New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., praised him for working to turn around a public housing system that failed to serve residents, or the city’s best interests. Nagin said Jackson played a central role in a project “that will lead to a complete transformation of public housing in New Orleans.”
When Jackson became secretary, “everything at HANO was on hold,” Nagin said. “But he started $600 million to $700 million worth of development here. He’s gotten them all going except for one. That’s going to be his legacy.”
Nagin said the demolition, replacement and renovation of public housing in the city is far enough along that a change in HUD leadership won’t slow it. He said HUD has fully complied with the city’s request for documentation related to the demolition of the “Big 4” public housing complexes and the only one Nagin still wants revitalized is the Iberville development.
Vitter praised Jackson for “his firm commitment to redeveloping the failed New Orleans public housing system” with programs that “offer more mixed-income environments that promote personal growth and homeownership.”
But Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said that Jackson’s tenure had been a disappointment, falling short of his promises for unprecedented help to residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
‘Hope for the future’
D.J. Nordquist, Jackson’s spokesman, said that the secretary is proudest that he helped transform public housing in New Orleans and elsewhere. “When you see Guste, Desire and Fischer (public housing complexes), you see the blueprint for the future public housing in New Orleans, one that is socially and economically integrated and inspires hope for the future,” she said.
Nordquist said that Jackson’s biggest regret is that Louisiana’s Road Home program did not get people back to their homes faster and that he also wished the state was restoring rental housing faster “so that the nonhomeowners also felt welcome to return faster.”
In a brief statement to employees at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Jackson said he was given an “extraordinary opportunity” by President Bush to help people, regardless of income or background, to obtain affordable housing.
Bush, a friend of Jackson’s from their days together in Texas, praised him Monday as a “great American success story,” one of 12 children and the son of a foundry worker who rose to the top levels of American government.
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Staff writers David Hammer and Bill Walsh contributed to this report.
Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 383-7861.