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From Fired to Really Hired: The Mayor Explains the DHA Mess

A week ago, Dallas Housing Authority CEO Ann Lott was fired. Today she's having her contract extended. Say what?

What a difference a week makes. On December 5 it was revealed that the Dallas Housing Authority board was getting rid of agency president and CEO Ann Lott, who's adored by the low-income families who she's been helping to shelter for years. Today comes word that not only is Lott not being fired, but, rather, she's being offered an extension, the terms of which have not yet been worked out. Whiplash much? So, what accounts for the sudden turnaround?

This afternoon, Mayor Laura Miller tells Unfair Park that she spent Wednesday through Friday at the Dallas Housing Authority headquarters brokering a deal that would keep Lott on. Though she told us last week the exact dates when Lott had been ousted by the board (on October 10) and when it had decided to find a new CEO (November 20) -- despite the fact there was no public record of meetings taking place on those dates -- Miller now says she was unaware of the details concerning the ouster. "And I just thought I needed to wade into the middle of it," the mayor says. She says at 7:15 p.m. Friday, "We had the final meeting on how to go forward, and it was decided the best thing was for Ann to stay on and for them [Lott and the board] to understand what the problems were and to understand to fix them."

When asked, "What problems?" the mayor said only, "I am not even going there." Still, she sort of did later in the conversation, and she also gave us the name of her appointee to fill the vacant resident's seat on the DHA board.

Miller suggests there were essentially two issues here: the proposed sale of Little Mexico, as we suggested earlier, and another concerning how DHA spends federal grant money to assist public-housing residents with home ownership.

Concerning Little Mexico, the mayor insists it didn't have anything to do with the board's decision not to renew Lott's contract in November, but she acknowledges that it "was an elephant in the room." She says because the federal government is eliminating its Hope VI grants, $100 million dollars that once went toward revitalizing distressed public housing units, the DHA board was trying to find a way to make up for the shortfall. Little Mexico seemed to the board as good an option as any -- to the point where a developer (Mike Coker, a former planning director for the city hired by the DHA to file a rezoning application for Little Mexico) had actually turned in to the city an application for development on the property that sits in the shadow of the W Hotel and Ross Perot Jr.'s multibillion-dollar Victory Park property.

"The board thought it's important, since our funding's getting cut from Washington, to analyze our assets and sell some of them off in order to make the agency whole financially," she says. "But Little Mexico was just not the right one to focus on, in my opinion, since it works well and people feel safe living there and it's nice-looking and not a lot of crime happens there and it has a nice basbeall field. It doesn't make sense to disrupt that, and for what? So as of today Mike Coker is withdrawing his application at City Hall, and that case is being closed and filed away."

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She also says there was an issue between the board and Lott concerning the use of Housing and Urban Development money for home ownership, which isn't how it's supposed to be used. "It's supposed to serve the people living in the [public housing] units," Miller says. "So we spent all day Friday saying, 'Hey, board, it's great you want to create a board for home ownershp, but you can't use HUD money.' That was a huge disconnect. Federal funds, according to the law written in the 1930s, are there to service residents and do not have anything to do with residents living outside the units." The mayor says the board will have to find private money to serve folks who want to buy homes.

"So those are two issues everyone didn't see eye to eye on, and now that it's been vetted, everyone's on the same page and will work on their communication." She chuckles. "And communication has been a big problem. So we'll see. They're going to negotiate an extension and figure out how long that should be and hopefully everyone's going to work in good faith to move forward."

As for her appointee to the board, Miller calls 36-year-old Marcella Atkinson, a mother of three young girls, "a pistol." She says Atkinson has no ties to the board or the staff, but instead she's a lifelong resident of Dallas' housing projects, from North Dallas to South Dallas. She was recommended by a Dallas police officer who works the projects, where Atkinson's mother has also lived for decades. Marcella had gotten out for a while, Miller says, but returned when she had the three children and could no longer afford $600 rent.

"When I asked her if she would take the position, she started crying," Miller says. "She said, 'I can't even get a meeting with the manager of these apartments.' I told her, 'You probably can get one now.' She wants out. I like the goal. But she's also the poster girl for DHA. She has a child-care business in her home and just bought a car last year, and now moms who live in the unit -- Munger Place -- work because she can watch their kids." --Robert Wilonsky

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