Recent days have brought encouraging news about the public housing situation in the Omaha area.
The good news came in threes: A worthy proposal for merger. Proposed certification requirements for board members. And welcome news from federal authorities about operations at the Omaha Housing Authority (OHA).
>> Merger. Nebraska lawmakers are considering a sensible, needed proposal to combine OHA and the Douglas County Housing Authority (DCHA).
Under the amended proposal, the two housing authorities would create a joint committee that would submit a merger plan to the Legislature by the start of 2014. First-round debate on the proposal is scheduled today in the full Legislature.
At a legislative hearing last week, the call for merger received strong support from Clifford Scott, OHA's executive director, and from Philip Wayne, chairman of the board for the Douglas County Housing Authority.
Combining the Omaha and Douglas County agencies would be an important step toward more efficient and cost-effective management of public housing here.
Currently, OHA has a budget of around $60 million. It serves around 16,000 people and provides more than 4,300 federal Section 8 housing vouchers. DCHA has a budget of more than $10 million. It serves more than 1,300 people and provides nearly 1,100 Section 8 housing vouchers.
During the hearing on the merger topic, the members of the Legislature's Urban Affairs Committee received the clear message from witnesses that for agreement to be reached by the end of the year, careful negotiations are needed to ensure that the interests of all parties are understood and properly addressed.
Such a balanced approach is imperative, said Wayne, who also is a past chairman of the OHA board. Otherwise, he told lawmakers, “I'm afraid we're going to dissolve into unnecessary conflict.”
Even as the delicacy of the issue is acknowledged by all sides, merger is the right step. It would best serve the housing residents as well as the general public in terms of improved, more cost-effective operations. Nebraska lawmakers would do well to keep promoting this merger.
>> Certification. Another proposal at the Nebraska Legislature would require that members of the OHA board receive certification from the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, or an equivalent professional certificate. Such requirements promote strong, well-informed service.
It's also proposed that future appointees to the OHA board be from specific professions, such as accounting, bank or real estate brokerages. This is another worthy idea to enhance board capability.
Wayne called these requirements “very much needed and very much desired.” Scott said they would help, given the nature of public housing operations. “I try to run our operation like a private-sector business,” he told lawmakers.
The merger and certification proposals were introduced by Sen. Brad Ashford, a former OHA executive director.
>> OHA progress. A Jan. 9 letter from federal authorities describes considerable progress at OHA, which has been taken off the list of public housing agencies classified as “financially troubled.”
In the letter, Andrew L. Boeddeker, HUD's regional public housing director in Kansas City, stated: “Your housing authority has made progress in financial management. During the past several months, your housing authority has provided documentation showing increased financial efficiencies, increased control over expenditures and up-to-date bank reconciliation.”
He also wrote that vacancies in OHA's public housing units “have been significantly reduced” through improved management.
The progress on these scores is the result of hard work by OHA Executive Director Scott and staff members, supported by the OHA board.
At the same time, Boeddeker outlined additional steps OHA needs to take for further improvement of its finances. At the legislative hearing, Scott acknowledged the task ahead: “We still have a long way to go, but with the help of our current board of commissioners, the Omaha City Council, social services organizations and community groups, we think we are on the right path.”
The progress made by OHA is to be applauded, and the call for merger deserves support in the Legislature. A new, more efficient combined agency can best serve housing residents and give the greatest value for the tax dollars provided.