Schewel, Cole-McFadden battle over DHA appointment
City Councilman Steve Schewel has blocked the attempt of a controversial housing advocate to gain a seat on the Durham Housing Authority’s board of directors.
Schewel, the council’s liaison to DHA, on Thursday persuaded colleagues to reopen applications for a DHA board vacancy instead of giving the seat to former Durham Affordable Housing Coalition staffer Lanea Foster.
He made it plain he didn’t think Foster was the right person for the job after Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden questioned the rationale for the delay. Foster is a Cole-McFadden protégé.
“Is it just because we only have one applicant now?” Cole-McFadden asked Schewel, alluding to the decision of the only other applicant for the post, real estate broker Cathy Gebhart, to withdraw from the appointment process.
But Schewel declined his colleague’s invitation to be diplomatic.
“I’m concerned about the experience level,” he told her. “The housing authority is a $30 [million] to $40 million a year business and I feel it would be good if we had some applicants with experience in being able to run that sort of thing.”
The council then voted 4-1 to reopen applications, with Cole-McFadden casting the lone dissent in the absence of Mayor Bill Bell and Councilman Howard Clement.
“I think we need to try to get some young blood,” she said. “I would not oppose [delay] if we were trying to get a larger pool. For the other piece, I have some difficulty.”
“I understand,” Schewel responded.
Thursday’s work-session vote followed some behind-the-scene lobbying by Schewel of council members. He told them via email that he wouldn’t favor giving the DHA board seat to either Foster or Gebhart.
The eventual appointee will be replacing Ike Robinson, a longtime DHA board member and N.C. Central University sociology professor who’s also a former city councilman.
In parallel with what he said Thursday, Schewel argued that Robinson’s successor needs to be “really capable in the fields of finance or development” because DHA has to renovate or replace some of its major public-housing complexes despite uncertain federal subsidies.
Foster’s prior job at the Durham Affordable Housing Coalition made her one of the group’s point persons in trying, under contract from the city and county governments, to coordinate the work of area nonprofits that serve the homeless.
The coalition lost that assignment after County Manager Mike Ruffin in 2010 recommended canceling its contract. He faulted it for disorganization, untimely reporting and a failure to quell infighting among the nonprofits.
Ruffin’s advice ultimately led officials to assign most of the work the coalition had been doing on the anti-homelessness front to the city’s Community Development Department.
Foster sought a job in Community Development, but turned down an initial city job offer she thought was for a junior position beneath her skills. She wanted a posting equivalent in stature to that of a city department director.
Cole-McFadden unsuccessfully pressured City Manager Tom Bonfield to bring her on board, in apparent contravention of state law that gives the manager full control over city staff hiring.
Other supporters of Foster advocated for taking the coordination role away from Community Development and giving it to a new, Foster-headed nonprofit.
But the council vetoed that proposal and in 2012 enforced its decision by removing a Foster ally from Durham’s Homeless Services Advisory Committee, over Cole-McFadden’s objections.
Foster has since dabbled in electoral politics.
She tried unsuccessfully last year to put together a petition candidacy for a County Commissioners seat. She also urged another supporter who ran in the Democratic Party primary for commissioner, Stephen Hopkins, to mount a late-campaign public attack on the People’s Alliance, one of Durham’s big-three political groups.
Schewel is a prominent member of the People’s Alliance.
The council controls appointments to the seven-member DHA board but otherwise has no role in its operations or finances. The authority answers mainly to its chief funder, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.