Fixer-uppers nothing new for no-nonsense housing boss
January 11, 2010
When Sean Rogan took the top job at the county’s Community Development Commission and Housing Authority in May, its long troubled Section 8 rental housing program was on the comeback trail.
But the new executive director quickly let staffers know that just bringing the rental subsidy program back to par wasn’t good enough.
With a mandate by the Board of Supervisors he quickly set about transforming the county’s Section 8 program so that it would be deemed a “high performer” by the federal government, entitling the county program to save money and earn greater autonomy in meeting federal requirements.
High goals and impatient determination are hallmarks for Rogan, 47, who cheerfully calls himself a “Type A personality.”
“I find the challenge of taking a troubled program and turning it around extremely satisfying,” says Rogan, who shows up for work most mornings at 6:30. “While we’ve made great strides in the six months I’ve been here, I’m not going to be satisfied until we are a high-performing agency.”
To better understand the Section 8 program, click here for a primer.
Rogan took the L.A. job after serving as deputy director of Oakland’s Housing & Community Development department, where he worked to repair home ownership and rehabilitation loan programs. His former boss called Rogan a stable influence at the once-troubled agency. Rogan worked under six directors in four and a half years.
“He’s very smart,” says Walter Cohen, Rogan’s last supervisor in Oakland. “He expects performance, and sometimes you don’t make yourself popular by setting the bar high.”
At the CDC, Rogan leads 650 employees and manages an annual budget of half a billion dollars. The CDC is a wide-ranging organization that runs the county’s Housing Authority as well as its economic redevelopment programs.
But it was the $230 million Section 8 program that, before Rogan’s arrival, had gotten all the negative attention.
The Section 8 program subsidizes rent payments to over 20,000 low income families and individuals in unincorporated L.A. County and 62 cities, funneling federal money from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to private landlords through a voucher system.
The county’s major administrative job is to find qualified renters. Staffers must inspect each unit annually for safety and other factors and calculate the proper rent subsidies. And they must keep as close to 100 percent of the vouchers in use as possible.
That’s exactly what the county wasn’t doing well. In 2006, HUD officials declared the program “troubled” after reviews and audits discovered that the staffers were failing to accurately inspect each rental unit and verify each client’s financial qualifications on a timely basis, as required.
Worse, more than 15 percent of the vouchers allotted to the county weren’t being handed out.
As a result of the mismanagement, HUD levied a $1 million penalty against the county program and demanded fixes. The previous executive director replaced the Section 8 director and began making strides to correct the problems by, among other things, speeding up inspections and making sure more vouchers were distributed to renters. The Board of Supervisors, demanding that the shortcomings be fixed, allocated extra resources and met with HUD officials to negotiate a corrective action program.
Last July, just weeks after the program earned its highest score ever from regulators, the program’s “troubled” rating was lifted for the first time since 2006.
“The lion’s share of the credit” for the turnaround, Rogan says, should go to CDC staffers and executives who oversaw the improvements. They include: Dorian Jenkins, now assistant executive director for CDC’s Housing Authority; Maria Badrakhan, director of the Housing Management Division, and Margarita Laras, director of the Assisted Housing Division.
Rogan now wants the program to win HUD’s “high-performer” rating by 2011. To do that, he believes he needs to institute cultural and practical changes.
In hiring, he’s ending a perception of “social promotions” in which agency managers were seen as elevating favored employees without interviewing potential competition. Now, he says, all vacancies are posted in an effort “to increase transparency and competition.”
He’s also pushing managers to road test new ideas or policies with their staffs before implementation. “A good idea is a good idea,” he says. “It doesn’t have to come from the top.”
Then there are the culture changes. Traditionally, Section 8 tenants weren’t penalized when they missed appointments for home inspections or did not submit timely “re-exams” of their finances to show they remained eligible.
Such delays wasted time and money. So this fall, Rogan and his staff imposed a requirement that tenants who don’t fulfill their obligations must attend a counseling class. Those who miss a second inspection appointment or a “re-exam” deadline may lose their vouchers.
“If you aren’t going to follow the rules, then—guess what?—there’s a person right behind you who will,” he explains. Rogan says “hundreds” of clients have been attending the classes.
Outside the office, Rogan has had his challenges, too.
Married with two children, he moved to a house in La Canada in August. No sooner was his family settling in than the giant Station Fire swept through the mountains above town. His neighborhood wasn’t immediately threatened, but the smoke and ash billowed so thickly that it proved to be a health risk for his asthmatic daughter.
Rogan moved the family to a friend’s home for four days. Still, months later, Rogan says reminders of the fire persist. Gusty winds still kick up ash and dust that just won’t go away.
But when it comes to the Housing Authority, his home-away-from-home, Rogan is confident the dust is finally settling.