Las Vegas Sun

September 1, 2014

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Q+A: Carl Rowe:

His dream: A Las Vegas without public housing

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Leila Navidi

Carl Rowe, executive director of the Las Vegas Housing Authority, has a vision for ending urban blight — he wants to tear down public housing and integrate its dependents into mixed-income communities, with the goal of breaking the cycle of social dysfunction that feeds on itself in economically depressed areas.

Carl Rowe worked in the system, then cursed it and said goodbye. More than a decade later, he’s back.

Equipped with a frankness not common in public agency directors, not to mention a seaman’s tongue and a ready laugh, Rowe led the Las Vegas Housing Authority from 1990 to 1994 and the Clark County Housing Authority from 2005 through March 2006. He has led the Las Vegas agency again since April 2006.

Each time he was asked to be a fix-it guy after the Housing and Urban Development Department had identified problems with the authorities or tenants had complained about housing. Each time the job was complicated by a shrinking stock of affordable housing.

Between the first and second assignments, Rowe reprised Pogo, saying he had “seen the enemy and he is us” — referring to the housing authority and government in general.

But times change. Nearly 20 years after first stepping into the executive director’s office at the Las Vegas agency, Rowe has returned with a vision. It starts with tearing down public housing. The Sun talked to Rowe about one of the valley’s most pressing needs — affordable housing — as well as the poor and how he hopes, at 64, to see the Las Vegas Valley’s largest public housing agency change its ways.

Describe the functions of the Las Vegas Housing Authority.

What we really are is a social services agency, because you can’t provide people a place to live but not help them with other things. They have inordinate social problems. So we try to help them with their credit, homeowner programs, English-language classes and after-school programs, through nonprofit groups that we’ve set up or partnerships. In addition we have this huge public housing program with a $60 million budget financed by HUD under the Public Housing Act of 1937. That’s the majority of our program. We have around 2,000 public housing units and a little more than 4,000 Section 8 vouchers, which subsidize up to 100 percent of rent wherever a landlord accepts them. We also have our affordable housing program for seniors who otherwise wouldn’t qualify for public housing. We run it all with 140 employees. When I took over we had about 170.

That was one of your first moves.

We were way overstaffed. Steve Ross (a Las Vegas councilman and housing authority board member) said at a recent meeting, “We didn’t hire him because he’s a good guy.” They pay me well, and in turn they expect that I’ll make those hard decisions. We ended up not laying off a lot of people. We got rid of a lot of vacant positions, including six top management positions.

Why do you think we keep seeing controversy about housing authorities?

There’s a lot of money, and whenever there’s a lot of money it’s going to draw some fraud. And there is discretionary money and usually the boards of commissioners are appointed. Sometimes the (commissioners) are fine, upstanding people, and sometimes they’re cronies. At this agency it’s never been alleged that there is out-and-out corruption. The feds have said we weren’t following the rules, we weren’t making sure there was adequate competition for our contracts, we extended the contracts beyond what we should’ve. There’s always the suspicion that wrongdoing is occurring when that happens. There’s always allegations of corruption. Then there’s just bureaucratic inefficiency. Everybody has a lackadaisical attitude — there’s no sense of urgency. That’s my biggest problem with bureaucracy — there’s never any sense of urgency that things have to get done and we need to move right along. That’s what drove me out the first time. It’s the lack of attentiveness and seriousness and lack of application to the job that’s the worst. Eventually fraud is going to get found out. It’s the slow, leaden-handed regulatory environment of the bureaucracy that you’re never going to get away from.

So what’s the solution?

When I came in it was, “Let’s fix this thing financially because HUD’s cut our subsidies, we’re way overstaffed and we need to get on with it.” Then we need to look at what’s happening in our communities with public housing and we need to address that. It was thought back in the early ’60s that if you provide people with a place to live, they’re miraculously going to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and eventually thrive. But with people who are uneducated, not prepared for the workforce and barely have life skills, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference if you put them in housing. That’s what has happened in public housing — we aggregate all that misery and it feeds on itself. All we have is poor folks who have the housing but nothing else. So what’s going to happen? You’re going to see a lot of crime and a hell of a lot of social dysfunction and it’s going to get worse and worse. It’s almost like a caldron. We have ever more generations who have come up in the same dysfunction: lack of education, kids having kids, usually female heads of household who have no power, no control, and to make it they frequently turn to activities that are frowned on by society. I’m not forgiving criminal behavior, but it’s a fact of life: If your back’s against the wall you do whatever you can to make it.

What can be done?

Work to get rid of public housing, that’s the key. We have seen that other public housing authorities can parlay their assets and work to serve people better through the Section 8 voucher program. When I look at our housing authority and where our developments are, much of the blight in those neighborhoods emanates from our public housing. If our public housing wasn’t there the neighborhoods would be better. All you have to do is look at the Metro reports over the years — shootings, lots of drug activity. It’s concentrated blight, that helplessness that seems to pervade public housing, people who have no hope, nothing to do, with no economic development or economic incentives. The best thing those people could do is to be out in the larger society, where there are role models. That’s the great thing about the Section 8 program. I have a vision — to do away with public housing as it exists today and to go to HUD, request that they allow us to demolish the housing and voucher out the folks into the larger community. Once we get rid of the housing we can get permission to take that land and build some partnerships and say, “Look, what if we were to put something on the table, accept a little less profit and build some rental housing that would attract folks with discretionary income, with jobs and paychecks?” What would that do to the community? I think it can transform the community.

How does that dovetail with the crisis of affordable housing?

I think our mission goes beyond just serving the low-income people who need housing. I think we need to help the larger community. Rather than build more low-income housing and simply exacerbate the problem that already exists, why not make a contribution that would help the economic base? So it’s not affordable housing in the low-income sense of the word, though we will certainly accommodate our present public housing tenants because we will voucher them out. It’s building the community. Low-income housing will never make it economically. It will never end. We’ve done nothing but create a worse underclass. Look at all the public housing in Chicago, for example. All they did was warehouse poor people and finally they had to tear those down.

Even if you tear down public housing, won’t you have the same social problems?

You expose people to a better quality of life, though I’m not sure a lot of our public housing people are ready to transition into the larger society. So we need to expand our current programs to help those people, through partnerships in the community. I’m not saying we’re going to change the world, but we will make it a little better in our corner of it. People who have not been productive for a long time have gotten used to that kind of lifestyle, so there’s got to be a way to help them understand they can become self-sufficient ... we’re going to have to have a good marketing campaign. We won’t succeed with everyone.

Won’t some people accuse you of pushing for urban renewal or gentrification?

It is gentrification — with a purpose. People will accuse us of breaking up the community, but it’s a dysfunctional community. We don’t want to see a net decrease in housing. We’ll fight for a one-to-one replacement of housing for vouchers. But affordable housing is never going to be taken care of by the government. There’s not enough money. I don’t want to build any more public housing. I want to build something that will be an economic enhancement to neighborhoods. I also believe in mixed-income neighborhoods and that the people we serve now can be in those neighborhoods. I have no idea if it will be possible. But I try not to think about that. I try to imagine what it will be like and work backward. I’m going to believe this idea will work until I’m proven wrong.

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