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August 1, 2014

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merger plan:

Is one housing authority better than three?

Boards will meet to talk about merger plan that’s met lots of resistance

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A 4-year-old idea of merging the Las Vegas Valley’s three housing authorities will be revived this month with the first meeting between the boards of all the agencies.

The fact that such a meeting has never occurred is a commentary on the sputtering life of the proposal so far. There have been squabbles over consultants to study the idea, rifts between boards and staff and conspicuous absences at meetings. Turf battles appear to have gotten in the way of any thorough consideration of the merger’s merits.

Backers say low-income people in search of affordable housing would be better served by not having to travel all over town just to get on waiting lists for programs or to deal with other issues. Having one agency might even save money on administration, freeing up scarce federal funds for more housing.

Opponents say there’s no evidence of either claim. They also fear that a new, large authority would inherit the problems of the smallest authority, North Las Vegas’, and that jobs may be lost.

One outcome that opponents can’t refute is that rolling the three housing authorities into one would create an agency with a potential budget of more than $100 million that helps as many as 40,000 people, making it one of the nation’s larger housing authorities. This could lend the agency more clout locally and in Washington.

Bigger housing authorities get more attention from congressional delegations and have a greater role in local housing markets, according to Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Large Public Housing Authorities.

Reaching some sort of decision soon is more urgent than at any time since early 2005, when Michael Liu, then-assistant secretary of the federal Housing and Urban Development Department, first suggested merging programs of the three agencies. With the Las Vegas Valley’s December unemployment rate at 7.9 percent, the number of people needing affordable housing will only increase.

The public meeting is scheduled for noon next Tuesday in the Clark County Commission chambers in the Government Center on Grand Central Parkway.

Now is the time to confront the issue, said Carl Rowe, executive director of the Las Vegas Housing Authority. Rowe’s agency is largest of the three, with a budget of $66.5 million and more than 6,000 units between public housing and Section 8 vouchers.

Clark County oversees $37 million and more than 4,400 units; North Las Vegas, $14.5 million and nearly 1,600 units.

Rowe has witnessed the ups and downs of the proposal from a unique vantage point, having directed the Clark County Housing Authority for a year before taking over the Las Vegas agency in April 2006.

Those ups and downs included the boards of the three agencies balking when they were left out of talks between authority directors and the federal government. Then, shortly after suggesting merging services, Liu left the federal government, only to resurface as a consultant competing for a grant to study the idea. The price tag: $110,000. After a Las Vegas Sun story revealed the proposal, the grant was shelved. Then a series of meetings between directors and board chairmen ensued — but those meetings petered out in less than a year, Rowe said.

Rowe thinks “it’s very clear that you don’t need three administrative infrastructures” to offer federally-funded affordable housing to valley residents. “Would having one agency be more customer-friendly? Sure it would,” he adds. “You don’t need a study (to prove this).”

Tim O’Callaghan, a Clark County Housing Authority board member, said the idea “needs to be explored.” But he’s uncertain about its effects. “Nobody knows what it would look like,” he said.

The merger has an unlikely champion this time around: Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani. Though the three agencies receive no county money, she thinks it is “part of the commission’s responsibility to make sure that constituents have efficient services.”

She’s not sure whether it will save any money but she’s certain one agency rather than three would be easier for the valley’s low-income residents to deal with. She notes that any change would have to be encoded in state law and hopes to have a bill prepared for the legislative session that begins Feb. 2.

Robinson, chairman of the North Las Vegas agency, said the current economic crisis has made him consider the idea of merging. At the same time, he is not sure of the details, having not attended last year’s meetings.

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