Atlanta Housing Authority salaries stand out

For two years, Atlanta Housing Authority CEO Renee Glover’s $325,000 salary has fueled a running controversy at City Hall. Recognized and widely lauded for tearing down Atlanta’s projects, Glover has been more recently known for a five-year, relatively iron-clad contract that makes her one of the nation’s best paid public housing officials.

But Glover is not alone at AHA. Records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show she has surrounded herself with well paid underlings, creating an agency where 10 percent of employees earn more than $150,000 a year and almost 20 percent earn more than $100,000.

The salaries in Atlanta are head and shoulders above most of the nation’s other public housing authorities. Nationwide, only 3 percent of public housing executives collected more than $155,500, in 2010 according to data compiled by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

According to data compiled by the AJC, in Miami — with a public housing budget comparable to Atlanta’s — only the top executive makes more than $150,000. The CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority makes $216,000, which would make him the eighth highest paid official in Atlanta, despite the fact that AHA’s $265 million budget is a quarter of Chicago’s.

Glover, who has spent two decades leading the AHA, vigorously defended the salaries, saying it would be a mistake to compare Atlanta’s pay scale to those of other public housing authorities because her agency’s work is unique. She said the public-private partnerships AHA set up to create new housing have changed the landscape of public housing both here and nationally.

“We can’t attract and retain the talent that we need if we pay below the market, it’s just that simple,” said Glover. A salary study commissioned by AHA, she said, shows that salaries are mid-range compared to other public and private agencies and corporations.

“We are not overpaying people; we are paying people what the market demands,” she said. “The talent is found primarily in the private marketplace.”

That didn’t satisfy former Atlanta city councilman Derrick Boazman, a longtime AHA critic, who called the salaries “exorbitant.”

“That’s unbelievable, to think executives in a public organization set up to house the poor are making salaries like that,” Boazman said Wednesday. “This has become a very elite organization being run like a for-profit organization.”

One way to put the salaries in perspective: Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal makes about $139,000; Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed $147,500.

And salaries aren’t the entire story. Last year several top AHA execs got performance bonuses of tens of thousands of dollars.

Executive pay at public housing authorities became a national issue last year, when HUD announced a $155,500 cap on what the federal government would pay. Outrage ensued when it emerged that Glover had received $644,000 in 2010, making her the nation’s highest-paid public housing official.

She said that number should have been more like $588,000, and even that amount was an aberration, inflated by unused vacation and sick days, deferred compensation and performance bonuses.

Reed, a new mayor at the time, got mad when the AHA board gave Glover a five-year contract extension in 2010. Through his new appointments on that board, he has negotiated with Glover in an attempt to have her leave.

Reed, through spokeswoman Sonji Jacobs Dade, said Wednesday that he has “long expressed concerns about the pay structure” at the agency.

“Mayor Reed looks forward to hearing recommendations from the current board of directors on how to address what in many instances is clearly out-sized compensation,” Jacobs Dade added.

AHA board chairman Daniel Halpern, a Reed appointee, said the board has “noticed that we’re at the high end of the salary structure, not only at the top (positions) but in middle management as well.”

He said the board late last year requested a salary analysis of the agency from top to bottom. “Certainly, people need to be paid competitive salaries but you still have to recognize that this is still public money.”

The salary data obtained by the AJC shows Glover and a top deputy each brought in more than $300,000 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012. Eight more AHA employees earned more than $200,000. The compensation included performance-based bonuses of up to $53,500.

The agency has four lawyers making at least $192,000 a year, and another four making more than $100,000, yet Glover said some legal work is still performed by outside lawyers.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, whose district has thousands of AHA clients, thinks Glover has done a good job. “But,” he added, “the AHA should take into account the perception … how it looks to the public, particularly in a recession economy.”

Glover’s tenure at AHA has meant dramatic changes at the agency. She was the AHA board chairman in 1994 when the long-troubled agency was having a difficult time securing a CEO. She took on the job and changed the model of public housing in Atlanta.

When she took the job, more than 14,000 families lived in public housing, mostly projects known for crime, poverty and hopelessness. Another 3,500 families got housing vouchers.

Glover pushed to “mainstream” the residents rather than keep them isolated in city-run ghettos. She set up deals with private developers to build apartments that mixed market-rate apartments with publicly subsidized ones.

To do that, she said, she needed staff able to stand toe-to-toe with real estate professionals from private firms with whom the agency cuts deals. “We’ve moved from a public housing authority to a diversified real estate company with a public mission and purpose,” she said.

Now, about 9,000 families on public housing assistance live in mixed-income communities. Another 9,300 live in rental housing and receive vouchers. The agency still runs 13 facilities, mostly for the elderly and disabled.

One side benefit for the city: the AHA’s mixed-income developments generate property taxes. Last year, six of its properties paid a total of about $2.2 million, according to the agency.

Glover also turned over large chunks of the agency’s work to private firms. When she took over the AHA in 1994, she said it had more than 1,400 employees, mostly blue collar workers who kept the city’s projects running.

Soon after coming in, she contracted out some of the maintenance and has continued to shrink the agency’s workforce ever since. It now has just 221 employees, mostly in managerial positions.

“We had a lot of well-meaning people, but they didn’t have the core competencies to get the job done,” said Glover. “We had to go out and find professionals who knew how to do the things we were charged to do.”

Even if Reed succeeds in ousting Glover, he may have a hard time paying her replacement less than Glover makes, said Joel Koblentz, an executive search consultant. Otherwise, he said, the new leader might be paid less than several subordinates.

“Once these pay standards are established and ingrained, they are very difficult to change in a major way,” he said. “Once the ball starts rolling on pay, gravity wins out and it’s extremely hard to roll it back.”

Boazman chuckled at the idea that Glover would be replaced. “She has more than nine lives,” he said. “I give her credit. Renee Glover is the best political player I’ve seen. I bet she finds a way for the next mayor to keep her.”

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