Jannie Blackwell quits PHA board 'to be part of the solution'

City Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell has become the first Philadelphia Housing Authority board member to quit in response to demands from federal housing administrators intent on overhauling an agency that has gained national attention for out-of-control spending.

Blackwell, a mayoral appointee who resigned after nine years on the board, told reporters Wednesday that she was stepping aside because she wanted "to be part of the solution, not part of the problem or perceived to be part of the problem."

The remaining four commissioners did not follow her lead. But a source close to board member Debra L. Brady - wife of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) - said she and perhaps other board members planned to resign as early as Friday, when the board has scheduled a meeting.

Debra Brady did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which demanded the resignations Thursday, is supplying $371 million in funds to PHA this year. If all of the board members don't resign, HUD can force them out and take a variety of more drastic actions, including putting the agency in receivership.

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown had no comment on Blackwell's resignation.

Former Mayor John F. Street, the PHA chairman, said in an e-mail that he respected her decision and would withhold comments about his own status until Friday's meeting.

"She obviously cares a lot about our customers and wants only the best for them," Street said. "It should be noted," he added, that Blackwell "could have been removed at the will" of Mayor Nutter.

Nellie Reynolds, a tenant leader and longtime board member, declined to comment.

The fifth member, Patrick Eiding, president of the Philadelphia Council of the AFL-CIO, denounced what he called "disgusting" demands from HUD that the board step down.

"I did my work and I didn't do anything wrong," Eiding said. "I'm not going anywhere. If they want to take me down, let them take me down."

HUD said it wanted a new board to make it easier for interim Executive Director Michael P. Kelly to turn around the agency.

Blackwell was named to the board in 2002 by then-Mayor Street, filling a seat that had been held by former Mayor Ed Rendell. She missed two meetings in nine years.

Her term as a commissioner expired last year. Nutter, as mayor, has the authority to name her successor. The mayor controls two board seats, while the city controller appoints two other members. Those four commissioners nominate a resident leader as the fifth member of the board - the post held by Reynolds.

Nutter said he did not have a specific candidate in mind to replace Blackwell. "I commend her for making the decision," the mayor said.

Blackwell was a staunch supporter of former PHA Executive Director Carl R. Greene and was the lone holdout against ousting him last September after revelations that PHA secretly settled three sexual harassment complaints against Greene for $648,000.

"Carl Greene was a visionary," Blackwell said, citing PHA developments that have remade neighborhoods. "Visitors and residents alike are now unable to distinguish between private and public housing."

In 2005, PHA opened the first phase of the Lucien E. Blackwell Homes in West Philadelphia, named in honor of her late husband, a union leader, councilman, and member of Congress.

Asked whether she thought the board bore responsibility for failing to exercise proper oversight over Greene, she said, "I believe that we tried to do a good job."

"I'm proud of my record of service," she said. "I certainly regret the problems we had, and think that things will go better going forward."

Blackwell at first refused to resign, but came to the conclusion in recent days that she could not oppose HUD's wishes.

"HUD has the power, certainly not Jannie Blackwell," she said.

Following conversations with at least four different people in the affordable-housing arena, Blackwell said, she realized that she could not pursue her work as chair of Council's Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and Homelessness - which includes many programs dependent on HUD funding - while grappling with the federal agency as a member of the PHA board.

"I have to work with HUD to make sure the tenants' agenda moves forward," Blackwell said. "I can't fight HUD and then say I'm working with them on the other hand. Technically, it's possible. But practically, it doesn't work."

 


Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Marcia Gelbart contributed to this article.