Mayor Don Jensen and two councilmen have threatened to fire the entire Longview Housing Authority board, saying the agency hasn’t done enough to address Longview’s housing crisis and spends too much on projects in other cities.
A Nov. 17 email from Councilman Mike Wallin to the council and city administrative staff indicated that the mayor intended to ask for resignations from all six Housing Authority board members. It went on to say that the board members who did not resign might be charged with “inefficiency” at either Thursday’s council meeting or the following meeting on Dec. 21.
Jensen has the authority to appoint and remove the board members. But in an interview this week, Jensen backed off and said he doesn’t expect to take any action until after the New Year.
“We’re talking to the people who are on the board, and we may come to some sort of an agreement. But at this point we haven’t put anything on the (City Council) agenda, nor do we have a date that we intend to put anything on the agenda,” Jensen said Monday.
The force of the complaints stunned Housing Authority Executive Director Chris Pegg and board member Bruce Fischer, who said a sudden shake-up would jeopardize funding for projects that are already in progress.
“If we want to talk about some kind of plan that would protect the assets of the organization, I’m open to that, but to have the entire board resign is irresponsible,” Fischer said. “I was appointed to be responsible, and to resign would be irresponsible for the community.”
The Housing Authority provides subsidized housing for about 1,500 low-income families in Cowlitz, Wahkiakum, Lewis and Pacific Counties. About 1,100 of those families are in Cowlitz County, and 863 live in Longview.
Mayor Pro-tem Mike Wallin said he sent the email as part of the council’s “no surprise” rule requiring members to give each other a heads-up before taking action. Wallin was dismayed that someone leaked the email before any formal action took place.
The email states, “The Mayor and I (Wallin) are meeting with the appointed board members of the Longview Housing Authority and we will be asking each for their resignations of their Mayor-Appointed positions effective immediately.”
The mayor said he will replace Housing Authority Vice Chair Linda Brigham Thursday, whose term ends on Dec. 31, with Allan Rudberg. None of the five other positions are up for reappointment this year.
However, Fischer said he confronted Wallin with the email during a coffee meeting on Nov. 21 and was told that he would be expected to resign.
“(Wallin) hasn’t explained it other than he wants a change on the board,” Fischer said. “I haven’t heard anything official yet about any actual charges. … He said ‘inefficiencies’ is the charge that has been discussed. Whatever that means.”
Pegg said she was surprised to hear about Jensen’s meetings with board members.
“The Housing Authority was created in 1975 and we’ve operated well with the city since that time, so this is a new and troubling aspect to our relationship, and something that’s catching us totally off guard,” Pegg said.
Councilwoman Mary Jane Melink, who leaves office at the end of the month, said she was taken aback to receive the email from Wallin and wrote an editorial in TDN last week praising the Housing Authority.
“It seemed heavy-handed,” Melink said. “I felt compelled to try to bring to light all the great things that the Housing Authority does around Longview and Southwest Washington.”
Councilman Ken Botero agreed with Melink, but Councilman Scott Vydra said he saw the authority’s work in other cities as “mission creep” and was frustrated that the organization recently changed its official name to Housing Opportunities of Southwest Washington.
Mayor Jensen seemed to agree.
“(The authority’s) duty is to do whatever they feel is best for the city. That’s the problem. I don’t think Longview is getting preferential treatment, and I think it should,” he said.
Wallin said he did not want to go into detail about each board member’s “inefficiencies” until a public process begins. But he did say addressing Longview’s lack of housing was one of the council’s priorities.
“We have severe scarcity of rental property for low- and moderate-income people,” Wallin said. “We have many at risk of homelessness ... and we need to be providing more housing opportunities in Longview. And that’s a concern shared by everyone.”
Both Jensen and Vydra said they were concerned that some revenue from the sale of Blackstone Apartments on 20th Avenue and Louisiana Street in Longview went towards building the Lilac Place low-income housing project in Woodland.
Pegg acknowledged that a small portion of the $7 million project came from the Blackstone sale, but she said that Blackstone was originally purchased with tax-exempt housing revenue bonds, not City of Longview money. (Pegg said many of the applicants at Lilac Place — there is a waiting list of more than 400 people — are from Longview.)
She added that the Housing Authority can only build or buy housing where grants specify. The authority is primarily funded with the housing trust fund and low-income housing tax credits.
“As the funding has become more competitive, certain areas sometimes get preference depending on how many low-income people are in the area,” Pegg said. “All funding sources have priorities for funding, (so) when we decide what project to build, we have to make sure the project meets those priorities if we have any hope of getting funded at all.”
The City Council held a workshop this summer with Pegg and many of the board members to discuss the authority’s role and projects. It seems to have resulted in confusion and frustration on both sides.
Pegg said she reached out to the Council following the workshop but did not get a response. Jensen said the Council is not allowed to tell the authority how to operate.
“We can create it and we can end it, but nothing in between,” Jensen said. “That’s a problem with having two groups who aren’t talking to each other. They don’t know what we’re thinking and we don’t know what they’re thinking, so it causes a problem.”
Pegg and Fischer warned that a wholesale turnover of Housing Authority leadership would threaten money for Longview projects currently in the works, including an 85-unit development. The authority already purchased 4.3 acres for the project.
“As a businessman, I would never put any money towards an organization that lost an entire board at one time,” Fischer said.
Jensen agreed that a complete changeover could create turmoil, but it might be worth it in the long run.
“There would be a time of those new members learning how (the authority) works,” he said. “I’m sure it would not be good, but what would the end result be? Would it be that we would have those people looking more at the city and not expanding so much at our cost?”
Vydra said many of the Housing Authority commissioners have served a long time and new blood might be useful.
Fischer, a commissioner for 10 years, said it has taken him much of that time to understand the authority’s complicated processes. He said he does not plan to resign.
Jensen said he plans to continue discussions with the board members to find a solution.
“If this thing can get solved, I would much rather keep the board members that are there than start all over again. ... I don’t take this lightly at all.”