Housing Project

There were many telling details in Matt Chaban’s piece on the New York Housing Authority in last week’s Observer. One quote, however, really leapt out. A housing expert at City Hall explained everything you need to know about the authority’s chairman, John Rhea: “He’s focused on the product, not the politics,” the expert said, “and that has its perils.”

No wonder Mr. Rhea found himself on the firing lines recently. The Daily News carried out a campaign that had readers believing Mr. Rhea was an incompetent hack who was sitting on a billion dollars in unspent money while tenants suffered in conditions worthy of a Dickens novel.

As Mr. Chaban’s excellent report noted, the real story of Mr. Rhea’s tenure at the Housing Authority is, well, a little more complicated than critics acknowledge.

The Housing Authority truly is a city of its own. Accommodating 420,000 tenants in 178,000 apartments in 334 housing projects is almost, by definition, an impossible job. There always will be a repair that needs to be made or a condition that requires immediate attention. None of this happens with a simple phone call.

Mr. Rhea was a banker before he agreed to take on the thankless job of heading a troubled agency—his critics seem to regard private-sector experience as a negative, but then again, they would, wouldn’t they?—and he has drawn on his expertise to find creative solutions to the Housing Authority’s perennial budget woes. The authority is dependent on federal funds, and it has been a long time since Washington was particularly interested in public housing.

What’s more, Mr. Rhea has tried to spend money wisely, even if that means not writing checks as soon as he has the money. For example, Mr. Rhea suspended the expenditure of $42 million on security cameras until he was satisfied that the cameras actually were useful in combating crime. That was a prudent decision, but bear in mind that it takes no small amount of courage to put a hold on spending in any public agency. One City Council member, Rosie Mendez, noted that she didn’t like Mr. Rhea’s decision at first. But, she acknowledged, “it was the right thing to do.”

Mr. Rhea also had to answer the Daily News’s charge that he had a billion dollars sitting around doing nothing while tenants lived in squalor. It turns out that nearly all of the money has been allocated, and while about half of it hasn’t been spent yet, it takes time before money actually changes hands between Washington and New York. And, by the way, sometimes it’s a good thing to actually think about how money is being used, rather than simply handing out checks.

John Rhea has been asked to turn around one of the city’s largest and most complicated agencies. He is doing so by paying more attention to problem solving than in cultivating political alliances. That’s not a bad thing at all.